Overview and UI Goals
Starcraft 2 (SC2) is a real-time strategy game, set in outer-space, where players control one of three races in battle. Players have the option of playing against both the computer and other human players in many different ways. The main goal of the main UI is to allow people to quickly and correctly select the play style that they are interested in. Here is a list of the play options currently available and whether they count towards a player’s public rank:
- Campaign single player – unranked
- Multiplayer with computer and/or human allies vs computer and/or human opponents – unranked
- Mulitplayer with two, three, or four human allies vs the same number of human opponents (1v1, 2v2, 3v3, 4v4)- ranked or unranked
- Multiplayer with multiple human opponents every person for themselves (FFA) – ranked
- Arcade multiplayer with multiple human opponents in a campaign style of play – unranked
Heart of the Swarm (HoTS) Beta Interface
Heart of the Swarm landing page
As you can see from the list above, the the player is basically split between single, multiplayer, and arcade play options. Therefore, it is a reasonable approach to make the initial action of the player to select what type of play option they want so they know all future decisions will be in that context. In the beta, these choices are presented immediately to the player on the landing page along with important news, and chat rooms (which helps facilitate group play and community building).
Wings of Liberty landing page
Although this may seem intuitive that is not the case with the current incarnation of the UI. In Wings of Liberty (WoL, the current expansion) the player has only quick access to “Starcraft” (a terribly in-descriptive button) or “Arcade” from every page. The majority of the landing page is taking up by the player’s current campaign mission and a little bit by news. In order to get to the other play styles, players go to the “Starcraft” screen, which lists all the single player and multiplayer play options. There is also a quick menu, which has a list of play styles and their hotkeys listed. I personally don’t use this menu as often as I should, and find myself going through three pages to get to the menu I want rather than two as I do in HoTS.
Wings of Liberty Quick Menu
Although HoTS doesn’t have single player mode available, since it is still in beta, I hope they don’t automatically place campaign information on the landing page. There are lots of players who don’t even play the campaign and simply play online. The multiplayer community is strong and competitive enough, that I would hope that the landing page would serve as quick launch for a player’s most recently played mode. For example, if the last play option I played was 2v2 multiplayer, I would want to see that on my landing page with my default settings (race, map preferences, etc). That way, the game would feel more tailored to my play style and would require less clicking around to get to the features I am interested in.
The revamped multiplayer menu system
Since HoTS doesn’t have single player, I am going to look at the multiplayer menu system only. The first important thing to note is that HoTS makes a big terminology differentiation in terms of multiplayer that was once obfuscated from the player. They have divided the multiplayer option into “Matchmaking” and “Custom Game”. This simple terminology change is brilliant, and increases the usability for new players. First, I will discuss the “Matchmaking” menu then go into why this change is helpful.
Heart of the Swarm “Matchmaking” menu
The “Matchmaking” menu brings some much needed changes to SC2. In particular, it lists all play styles in a way that doesn’t require players to changed pages, much like a Javascipt navigation menu in modern web design. With the new page layout, players can see all play option at the top and see the details of a selected option at the bottom.
Wings of Liberty “Starcraft” menu
In WoL players first have to go the “Starcraft” page from which they can choose which play option they would like, which loads on a new page. This means that if players wanted to play quick match, yet they accidentally clicked cooperative game, they would have to select “Starcraft”, wait for the page to load, and then choose the right option. This new way has three great advantages. The first is for novices who may not know what all the play options mean. They can quickly check out each option without have to go back to the entire listing. The second advantage is that current players won’t have their workflow completely changed – they select multiplayer then they choose their play option. (The menu time to get into the game hasn’t changed for established players.) The last advantage, is that players have all play options constantly visible to them, which may encourage players to try different play modes. In WoL, if a players breezes through the “Starcraft” screen, they may never really take the time to check out the other play options. Where as in HoTS they are hanging out up top saying “try me”. One thing I do like about the quick match screen in WoL is the very graphic representation of all the races. It seems a bit more polished than the HoTS button interface (I assume HoTS will have something similar once the beta phase if finished).
Another great change to the play option listing, as you may have noticed, is the names. Finally, we have more descriptive names which makes it easier for novices to know what exactly they are signing up for. In WoL multiplayer, there is cooperative, quick match, and custom game play options. Cooperative, has now been changed to versus A.I., which is more descriptive in many ways. For one, quick match can be cooperative, so the name cooperative is misleading. The main difference in cooperative mode is that players are playing against the A.I., so why not call it that. Quick match, which is a ranked style of play, has now become ranked and unranked. Now you may think, why has it been changed to both, wasn’t it only ranked in WoL? The explanation for this goes back to the “Matchmaking” vs “Custom game” terminology. Quick match got its name from the fact that a player doesn’t have to choose a map, game setting, or find players manually to play. In WoL this ment ranked ladder play, where players are placed into leagues and compete against similarly skilled players. In HoTS, since the initial choice of “Matchmaking” has made it clear, a more descriptive name of ranked or unranked can be used. This simple change in the parent level has made for a new feature (unranked quick matches) as well as cleared up a very vague terminology from WoL. This leaves custom game, which has been kept the same as before but one level up, which I think works better than having it with the rest of the multiplayer games. The reason being that the majority of players probably play games where SC2 matches the opponents automatically. Custom games are usually used by professional gamers in tournaments or in practice, since it is the only way to ensure their opponent.
Next Match PLease!
Heart of the Swarm post game review interface
Another great feature of the HoTS multiplayer UI is the post game screen. In SC2 players have to master 4 areas to be successful: economy, production, army control, and overall strategy. Therefore, for players to get better there has to be some type of post game analysis that helps them identify their weak points. Economy and production post analysis reviews are usually displayed in graphs or stats about how much money was in the bank, how much was collected, and how many units were produced. This is pretty straight forward in terms of seeing where a player was lacking. Army control and overall strategy however are much more difficult. The only way to do this is through watching replays of previously played matches and determining the point of failure.
Wings of Liberty post game review interface
HoTS post game review provides players with not only the graphs and stats from WoL, it also provides a direct access to the replay – a much needed feature for almost all players. Even more excitingly is that the “watch replay solo” buttons turns into a “watch replay as a team” button if it was a cooperative game. That way players can control the same instance of the replay so they can better discuss their results. This team replay feature doesn’t exist in WoL so it is unfair to compare the two in terms of functionality, however, providing this common ground among teammates is brilliant. Another great feature that was added in HoTS was a subtle way of alerting players when they had beaten their previous average. This is a great way of showing players when they are progressing, so they can adapt strategies for future success. Another tool to assist in understanding strategy is the “map info” button, which provides the player with details about the map the match was played on. There is community feedback, and chat rooms associated with each entry to discuss strategy and exploitable aspects of the map. Last but not least, I love the “Play again” button. As many avid SC2 players will attest, it is very difficult to only play one game (especially if you lose). The “Play again” feature assumes players are playing the same type of game and simply re-enters them into the matchmaking queue immediately.
In WoL, the post game review UI is very minimal. There is all the stats information, minus the better than average alert, but the only way to get to the reply is to go to the replay screen (the camera button under “Arcade”) which list all the replays, then select the last game. This is a very clunky interaction that hinders people from looking at their replays, rather than encourage them. The other annoying thing is when players want to play again, they have to go back to the quick match screen, and select find match again, even if they want to play with the same options as before.
Bringing people together
As I mentioned earlier the main HoTS landing page has a section dedicated to group chats. Although the chat system is similar to other main stream chat clients there are two ways people can find one another. The first is by knowing their username, whether through asking another player in real life of having played with them in game. The second is through group chats, which are basically chat rooms with a common interest. Since directly connecting with real life players, or previously played teammates is much easier, I believe the HoTS interface is looking to attract more people to the group chat functionality. The SC2 community is quite vibrant, so by adding emphasis on group chat through the landing page, I believe more people might participate in deeper conversations in game rather than through message boards alone (this is also supported though new features where groups can post news and show rosters of all members).
WoL obfuscates group chat by not only having it is a separate button next to the buddy list, it also requires players to know the the group name to join. By having highlighted groups and richer group pages, I hope HoTS will begin to foster the community in-game as much as it has out-of-game.
The HoTS interface brings some great and needed changes to SC2. I am glad to see Blizzard (makers of the SC2), working as hard on the interface as they have on all the new units and levels for this expansions. I hope to see the interface become more polished with added bells and whistles once the game is officially released and I look forward to the third expansion in the coming years!