Angel Wings

Blaugust 2015, Day 29 – Parsing Visual Complexity

Today’s entirely unintentional writing prompt comes from Jeromai whose comment has had the wheels in my head spinning ‘round and ‘round without coming to a stop ‘cause I’m mostly too tired from working overtime every week and watching kids to give anything more than a head-nod in response to the wonderful people who leave comments on this here blog. Anon, the comment and my rough-around-the-edges response:

I like how some people manage to play MMOs with a million add-ons and tweak their UIs to super-complexity, and then still manage to complain that GW2 has too many things going on to keep track of and is too complex for them.

(Not referring to you in specific, btw, just in general. The thought just idly occurred to me looking at your screenshot of Wildstar’s UI. In one case, people use a UI icon to identify their focus, or look at a cast bar, in another, people just learn to recognize the specific armor, or silhouette, or animation or whatever. One puts the focus on the UI, the other puts the focus on what’s happening in the world.

Aren’t both -equally- complex? It’s just about knowing where to look and what it means.)

Objectively, yes. The rules of play in both situations are of sufficient breadth that they can be accurately characterized as complex.

Subjectively – if we care about humans, that is – there are various factors we must take into account. I will list some non-exclusive, non-exhaustive examples. Psychological: what types of visual stimuli do players prefer and/or react to most effectively? Behavioral: how have players been conditioned to respond to events in games that they play? Cultural: how do a game’s style and aesthetics shape its visual markers? Structural: what is the systemic relationship between UI elements and the game world (built-in, addons, overlays)?

Jeromai isn’t picking on me, but because I can’t speak for players in general, I’ll have to talk about myself. I’ve been conditioned to respond to elements that are visually distinct (psychological) from the environment of the game world via World of Warcraft (behavioral). I experience tunnel vision in intense situations which exacerbates this need. Coming into a game like Guild Wars 2 in which the “painterly” UI elements (cultural) are built in (structural), blend in to the game’s visual presentation, and generally do not function to tell one what an enemy is doing as it is doing it, I found the initial goings to be fairly rough.

Guild Wars 2 is designed in much the same way that I prefer to write my fiction: it’s done from the perspective of the protagonist and requires the reader/player to interpret events to figure out what’s going on. In my Mesmer’s origin story, for example, I tell you that I hear wood on wood, then turn my head to see an indent in the snow from which Aunt Margaret picks up her cane. I don’t tell you directly – you, the reader, surmise from the evidence and previous knowledge of her temperament and personality that Auntie M got pissed off and threw her cane at the door. Contrast this with what you would call an omniscient third-person narrator who knows everything and tells us about it as it happens. They would have described the way in which Aunt Margaret threw her cane at the door. Compartmentalized UI elements and addons are that third-person omniscient narrator. Guild Wars 2 uses a first-person non-omniscient narrator.

So, it’s “boring” for me to write that way, but “difficult” when I’m expected to play that way? Um, WTF mate?

I enjoy reading both styles of writing and playing both styles of game (one less grudgingly than the other, though). Although I prefer to write in the first person, learning to “play in the first person” was difficult for me because I had been trained to look for things like cast bars to tell me when something was happening. Mordrem wolves, for example, do not have a cast bar for their might self-buff followed by a lunge-and-flank attack. One must observe these animations as they are happening and then remember the sequence of attack events. Reading the wolf’s tooltip tells one that flanking attacks do massive damage, so one must also position oneself so as not to have one’s ass chewed to pieces.

Having been trained as such, coupled with my propensity for tunnel vision in dynamic situations, having something like cast bars and telegraphs in a chaotic situation with three wolves and a thrasher and two leechers in a virgin encounter would have made things easier for me. I personally complained that it was difficult because I hadn’t yet learned to visually “parse” animations in the midst of an unfamiliar, chaotic situation in which I was already having a heck of a time trying to keep track of my own abilities and movement. Not only that, but I was not internally motivated to learn to do so because it didn’t tap into familiar fun veins. Hence, “it’s too hard to keep track of these things.”

Anyone who plans on raiding in Guild Wars 2 had better learn to love this approach. ArenaNet specifically addresses some of these things in its description of raiding expectations, a sort of anti-Healslinger manifesto, if you will (emphasis mine in both cases):

Expecting to be able to just watch the UI to beat a boss? Guess again! Raiding in Guild Wars 2 is an action-oriented, engaging experience. You’ll have to actively manage your position, dodge, coordinate on objectives, and much more. You’ll have moments of anticipation where your next action could spell victory or death. And with a diverse range of difficult challenges, being able to customize your build will really pay off. You’ll be dependent on keeping yourself alive and helping support your team while playing your profession. Everyone will be expected to pitch in and execute at a high level to ensure success.

Raids in Guild Wars 2 are not about waiting to have fun. You don’t need to wait for your healer to get online. Our build-customization and weapon-swapping systems allow anyone to change their build to meet a particular challenge. And while a warrior might support a group differently than an elementalist would in terms of playstyle, our systems allow you to adjust your team’s composition and strategy to overcome any challenge.

That third sentence in the second paragraph got me wondering: perhaps having build templates would run counter to the game’s philosophy of having to knowledgeably and skillfully reassign your gear, weapons, traits, and abilities? ‘Twould be interesting…

Blaugust 2015 Initiative Page


13 thoughts on “Blaugust 2015, Day 29 – Parsing Visual Complexity

  1. On GW2 and the UI, i actually find the way it transports information to be severely lacking. I do play the game, but i for good reason stay out of top tier content. Too much of the game relies on death-learning. You die to one kind of boss? Yes, that is because you used your first dogde to the telegraph on the ground, although the gory ground effect in this case is inconsequential (unlike at some other boss, where the same graphical effect on the ground means insta-death when not dodging), then you used your dodge again when he did his huge cleave, which actually is inconsequential, so you had no dodge left when he blinked his left eye, which is the clear sign that he’ll insta-kill everybody not dodging right away…

    I don’t want or need a huge UI with massive information overload. I also use an addon in TSW which allows me to reduce the interface depending on what i am doing, so i can limit the information to what i actually want and need to see. But i want the information the game delivers to me, especially when the UI of the game is intentionally already reduced, to be coherent and not to be different again for each new boss.

    The other amusing thins is the “You don’t need to wait for your healer to get online.” This is actually true for GW, just as in most other MMOs. In other MMOs you usually don’t lack the healer, you lack the tank. I do both and luckily in TSW even on the same character, mostly since the community in TSW is of better quality than in many other MMOs i experienced, where not the act of tanking is the challenge but to survive in the toxic environment you immediately get exposed to when you tank or even worse, learn to tank. That being said, finally we’ll be able to have the same kind of fun in GW2, as some classes (from what i gathered, the Revenant and the Warrior) will get a taunt. So here we go, two of the nine classes will be tanks. Have fun waiting for them…


    1. TSW is awesome because you can press a button to load a template and suddenly you are a healer. FF14 allows you to switch up classes but you have to have leveled up WHM/SCH/AST in order to heal.

      I wouldn’t mind having a beginner’s mode in GW2 in which tank/heal/dps buffs were applied to professions who chose those so that this familiar model could be used to transition into non-trinity “Expert Modes.”

      Only problem is that this would result in Expert Mode elitism. Trying to think of a good way to bridge the gap between being new and being an expert in instanced group content. Learning by dying only happens for a select group of self-motivated individuals. Final Fantasy 14 is boring as all get out but does a fantastic job of taking players from novice to expert via explicit, extensive teaching at every step.

      GW2, on the other hand, relies on its players to hold hands. Poor design.


      1. To be fair, in TSW you also need to have learned the skills for the job you want to do. (Which indeed you do automatically in the long run, as all weapons offer something for every task, but you don’t have it all at the start. ) You also need to have appropriate weapons and talismans in your inventory. Indeed green loot which you get around every corner works for most of the content, with the exception of nightmare dungeons, but i am aware of enough players by now, who don’t even keep talismans which are not perfect for their chosen route.

        So yes, TSW has a number of players who can’t tank or heal (and thus also can’t adjust to some specific challenges) by refusing to have any other gear than DPS.

        On GW2, maybe handholding works, but i doubt it. There’s too much information hidden behind similar animations and effects which have different meaning at different fights that i don’t really see even how player guidance should be that helpful, unless you refer to cheering up and “we can do it”. My personal experience rather is, either you watch guides on youtube for several times over to learn the effects, or to learn them by dying all over. And people blame TSW for requiring the player to learn too much, quite ironic when it in return gives you consistent information throughout the game once you learned the basics…


        1. I would imagine something like a set of increasingly more demanding tutorials throughout the game would work. Solo instances or some such rather than jumping into Caudecus’s Manor and getting wrecked by the first golem boss.

          I’ll have to play more TSW to see what you mean. I’ve been ignoring that lovely game far too much lately.


      2. What i mean is:

        1. Ground targeted effects
        1a. In GW2 the spots suddenly appear on the ground, in all different colors. Some of them require you to instantly dodge out or die, for others (same graphics, just other boss) you are well advised to ignore them and save your dodge for important stuff. In either case, they come without warning.
        1b. In TSW (and other games, e.g. Wildstar) the effects have an animation which works as a timer. It might be less flashy (or way too flashy in WS), but it gives you additional information on which you can act. Also note that in TSW in the later game each and every ground effect is worth to evade or interrupt.

        2. Ability casts
        2a. In GW2 (unlike GW1, btw) all information about a monster casting a big ability is an animation. At least for many bosses the timing can be recognized from that, but the huge sword cleave of one boss is utter AoE devastation right around it, a similar animation on the next boss is a long range frontal attack and on the third boss it’s a slight tickle and you better take it and save your dodge for when he does actual damage.
        2b. In many other games those abilities are also shown with animations, but additionally you get a castbar, indicating not only the time the ability takes, but also which one it is (in TSW you get the name, in GW2 you had an icon and the name, if i remember correctly), so you can make a better decission on what to do. In some MMOs there’s even an indication if the current cast is interruptable by appropriate abilities (mind you, the Mesmer and Ranger in GW1 were built around interrupting and relied on perfect information), providing essential information to the player without having to die several times or to resort to youtube.

        So the “done much better than GW2” is not limited to TSW, it’s just currently my main MMO and thus my prefered example.


        1. Very true. It seems there is less margin for error when it comes to learning how to dodge certain deadly attack or even how to deal with them. The game needs an explicit, well-designed tutorial rather than a large cursor that points to your healing skill when you’re low on health.


      3. Yikes. Terrible messup. I wrote “in GW2 you had an icon and the name, if i remember correctly”, this should be GW1, where you had name and icon available.


  2. I love the third-person vs. first-person analogy!

    Most of my experience is with GW2 and FFXIV. Despite having cast bars in FFXIV, I think I pay more attention to what’s going on in the game. This is true of GW2 as well. I play pretty glassy, so I actually have to time skills and move when I fight big groups of mobs.

    Having not really played anything too cast bar or ui dependent, GW2 feels more like other video games. I just like that, personally.


  3. I’m now worried that it’s going to become, “Now you’ll have to wait for nine other people who can cope with our unique raiding approach, with the same schedules as you, to get online.” (As if forming for dungeons and fractals aren’t already hard enough in my timezone.)

    I like the concept of describing the UI-dependent style as third-person and the in-the-moment-situation-parsing as first-person. I come from a City of Heroes background, so it is true that one has a leg up in terms of visual parsing, as the whole gameplay loop in CoH was to figure out what an 8 person team was doing at any point in time and throw powers accordingly to synergize.


    1. I don’t see raids doing well in GW2. Fortunately for ArenaNet suboptimal game modes don’t seem to be an issue for them.

      Those descriptors were the first thing that came to mind when I had free, dedicated time to think about it. Peoples’ perspectives make the world an interesting place. I’m glad there’s room for a whole bunch of different ones.


  4. I much prefer to watch the UI. In games where that’s insufficient…I play other games.

    GW2 is an interesting case. I do watch the UI in GW2. The content is generally so easy that it’s safe to ignore all those visual tells and just blast away. If you die there are no consequences beyond a slight waste of your time getting back to try again, assuming you’re still interested enough to do so.

    In Dungeons and presumably in the upcoming raids that’s not the case, which is why I don’t do dungeons and most likely won’t do raids. In the open world, though, even on the annoying mordrem-type mobs, I still find it perfectly fine to ignore whatever the mobs think they are doing and just nuke the crap out of them. It might take a little longer but they still lose, which is all that really matters.


    1. I strongly prefer to watch for things that are readily apparent. Usually UI-based, often telegraphs. GW2 requires a level of visual focus in my case that is at odds with my situational tension. It’s different for areas that I’m familiar with, such as the Silverwastes. Unfamiliar fights, however, are a nightmare.


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