[personal profile] orionsoftworks
One thing I definitely am not is a graphic designer. I've known (dated, even) graphic designers and people who do graphic design as a hobby. While I've learned a trick or two from them, that is about the extent of it. Tricks don't produce good design. My college art classes were a disaster, mind you.

So, here's the conundrum: I have a UI that I have to design with a somewhat limiting medium (ASCII). While some would say, "Dude, use something else, for chrissakes!!", I say, "Dude, development is a exercise in minding the quicksand". Said differently, I only have so much time I want to devote to certain aspects of design and implementation and I know that I CAN devote my time to learn curses. That's relatively simple for me to do. Also, non-ASCII graphics are a turn-off for some roguelike players. So, nyah!

Given this design decision, I've been reading some articles on roguelike UI's, coupled with my own experience of having to deal with user interfaces and those tricks I learned (yay, tricks!).

One article was rather interesting. Although, the article is somewhat crude, the ideas presented are worthwhile. Essentially, the article dovetails with many of my own thoughts on roguelike UI, regarding the steep learning curve. Many roguelikes have massive amounts of commands to memorize and it is rather frustration having to look at the manual every 5 seconds. I've never been good at memorization by rote, so having to memorize a billion key-bindings is no good for me. It makes me feel for the newbies.


Fewer, more useful key-bindings
This is one idea that article struck on that's not bad. Generic commands could be used to interact with the environment, another generic command could be used to wear/equip items, etc. I've seen this type of thing implemented in other non-roguelike games in my life as a gamer, and I've generally liked this approach. If a person can use a 'w' command to wear a piece of clothing, equip a sword, and slip on a ring then that makes it easier, instead of having a 'w', 'e', or 's' command for the same actions.

The problem with this approach is that you might run into the problem of being too generic. You might use a 'f' command to fight, cast a spell at an enemy, use a special ability on an enemy, etc. So what do you want to do when you just want to cast a spell (not at an enemy)... use a 'c' command? But then, you just created a new (somewhat useless) command, and we are back to the original problem -- too many commands to remember.

A good idea, it is something to keep in mind but remember to use judiciously.

Menus
This somewhat dovetails with the 'fewer, but more useful key-bindings' approach. It centralizes many of the items, powers, and stuff used in the game. It gives a straight-forward way to access many different things. Coupled with the aforementioned approach, not only could we reduce the number of keys we have to remember, but menus also give us the ability to prompt the user.

Wanna equip that breastplate? Pull up the menu, choose the item, and use that equip command. Wonderful. The equip command wouldn't have to be memorized because we are in a menu and could have it prompted to us. And if you use that equip command judiciously and build it in a way that the command is uniform across all menus, then your interface becomes more intuitive.

Is there a downside? I wish there wasn't because I like simple solutions (who doesn't?), but this is where my 'tricks' and experience come in. One of my huge gripes about operating systems and webpages is what I call 'Menu Hell'. Menu Hell is the phenomenon of having to drill down multiple levels just to get to one piece of information or to do one action. Eventually, those menus get so nested that you forget where things are.

Ever done tech support and have the person on the phone wonder where their 'control panels' are? And you say, "Click on Start, click on Control Panels, click on Display, click on Screen Saver, click on Power..." just to change their monitor power settings? That's Menu Hell and it's not kind to newbies or people like me who can't memorize things worth a damn. It's a different issue but just as bad as a billion commands, maybe even more so.

An ideal solution
I've refrained from offering 'The Solution' because I don't think there is any. Or, the solution is a hybrid of everything (my current approach in Middlecrest). Things that I use as guidelines are: keep the number of keys small, but useful, and menus should never exceed 2 or 3 levels deep.

There were other things mentioned in the aforementioned article that were good ideas, like having some map notifications, reduction of on-screen information (which is another tick of mine in roguelikes... I wanna see all that's happening to my character without having to cycle through menus or memorize commands!). Interesting stuff, nonetheless, even if I don't like all of the suggestions. And I've taken some hints from roguelikes I've played and experimented with their approaches.


So, any other interesting ideas/approaches to ASCII-based user interfaces?
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May 2012

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