Albion Online presents several unique challenges for User Interface Design. As a hardcore Sandbox MMO with numerous ingame systems, the UI design needs to stay out of the way during combat while providing sufficient info when needed. Albion Online's ambitious update cycle means new systems are introduced frequently while older systems are rehauled, both of which require additions and changes to UI.
At the heart of this design process is Moritz Bokelmann, who joined the Albion Online Dev Team as UI Designer and UI Team Leader in Fall 2018. We spoke to him about the unique UI challenges presented by Albion Online, as well as the further changes coming to the game with forthcoming updates.
Albion Online has a huge number of game systems that players need to access, but it's also a hardcore, action-heavy PvP game. How do you balance delivery of the necessary information with keeping the UI streamlined and unobtrusive?
Short answer: Keeping things as consistent and clean as possible.
Long answer: Honestly, that is probably my biggest challenge as a UI Designer. Fortunately I don't face this challenge alone. I have a great team of talented artists and programmers around me, whose ideas contribute greatly to the creation of UIs.
Albion Online is a complex game with tons of systems designed for very different types of players, all of which call for different information. Specifically, the sandbox nature of the game requires a lot of balance in the way we present features to the player. On one hand, we want to give all of the necessary information, so players can make educated decisions. On the other hand, we want to avoid giving too much informational text as players then tend to just skip it altogether.
Figuring out which are the most relevant aspects of a specific feature is always the first part of creating a new UI. Under perfect circumstances I'm approached by one of our game designers when they have a rough idea of the new feature they're working on and get briefed on the concept. That way I can get some early insight into the way a feature is "supposed" to be played, but also get to share my thoughts and concerns about user interaction. Unfortunately we don't have that luxury in many cases, whether due to time limitations or simply too many features being in production at once, and we can't always discuss features in advance.
Once I have a general understanding of what we want to achieve with a feature and who it is targeting, I take a look at our existing UIs and try to decide on the type of interface from there. Generally, consistency is key when it comes to the creation of new UIs. A big part of keeping it streamlined and unobtrusive is simply not forcing the players to have to get used to a new form of interaction every time. That's why I generally try to stick as closely as possible to what players already know.
That being said, Albion has grown very dynamically over the course of its lifetime, and with it the way we approach UIs. Sometimes you simply can't stick to the current formula and have to come up with new solutions.
Last summer's Percival update introduced a huge new vanity and customization system to the game, which was further extended with Queen. What were some of the challenges you faced in updating this system, and what further vanity/customization changes are coming?
The vanity and customization system is actually a perfect example of a feature that is really hard to balance around our player base. With Percival we launched the option to customize your character and apply skins to your mounts. Overall, this was quite well received so we naturally wanted to further expand the system. With Queen, we extended the functionality by adding the option to change the visual appearance of your equipped gear. This came with a number of challenges.
First of all, because of Albion's "you are what you wear" nature, being able to determine what your opponent has equipped is vital to success in PvP situations. On the other hand, that same nature creates some very effective builds that are far from being aesthetically pleasing. One of my personal favorite builds in Albion is a Morning Star paired with Knight/Soldier Helmet, Knight Armor and Mage Sandals. This set of equipment plays well, but I just never liked how my character looked with the combination of the cloth boots and the heavy plate armor. To allow both aspects to work together we had to come up with ways that players can switch vanity off when going into battle, but switch it on when going about their daily business.
Additionally, we always liked the old vanity costumes that had been introduced by past Adventurer's Challenges, Referral Seasons, or events. Unfortunately you would never actually see anyone wearing them, because the spells and stats they gave just wouldn't let you compete with them equipped. Turning them into skins was the logical thing for us to do in that regard. While most of those older costumes could easily be transformed, some came with attached spells that we didn't want to lose. In order for that to work out, we had to come up with a way to switch to vanity spells while having constant access to your "real" spells.
Overall I would say the system is probably not perfect for everyone, but we have put lots of time and effort into creating a system that we feel is a good compromise between the needs of the hardcore and casual players. Overall, judging by the amount of players we see using the skins, we can tell that the desire for customization is there. There are still quite a lot of things that we want to do, and of course we will be adding more variety to the selection of skins over time.
What are your plans for the future of Albion's UI? What would you like to improve on?
There are probably thousands of things that the team and I want to do, ranging from small quality-of-life things to full on features/reworks. We are currently in the process of unifying all of the UIs into one visual style, a process we have dubbed the GUI Rework. We're getting pretty close to finishing that up, so I'm trying to focus on that as much as I can.
Otherwise, I would really love to improve on some of the older features of the game. One prime example is our world-, cluster-, and minimap. There is still so much more that we could (and probably should) display on our maps. A world map legend that allows me to filter objectives and activities would be a great first addition, for example. Another thing I really want to do as soon as possible is extend the functionality of the political map overlays to display prime times and territory season point value. And those are just a few of the ideas we have.
When it comes to quality-of-life requests, there are a few we hear all the time. On the PvP side, players have been asking for an extension of the selectable party roles for a while now. That's currently pretty high on my priority list. Also we are currently looking into making parts of the HUD movable, so players can customize it for themselves.
Overall, anything that gets enough traction within the community lands very high on my list. Sometimes it takes longer than we would want to get stuff done, but we will get to it eventually.
What are some of your favorite games? Which games have you learned the most from?
I play a wide variety of games. I like to try things out and keep it fresh so I typically don't stick to one genre for too long. However, there are a couple of games that I have sunk tons of hours into, most notably Dota 2 and XCOM 2. I am also a huge sucker for RPGs, especially if they have a good story and character development.
In many cases, whenever I get fed up with the games I'm currently playing, I check online to see which games have big modding communities. I LOVE modding games!
Modding is actually how I started my game development career, although you could hardly call it a career back then. One of the big things I learned from modding is that no matter how simple something appears, there is usually a bunch of complicated stuff happening under the surface. This often causes things to be way more complicated than you first imagined.
Anything else to add?
We as developers love working on Albion Online. Unfortunately, we don't have the time to play the game nearly as much as we would like to. That means your feedback is super important to the development process, so if you have ideas or wishes for the game, please feel free to reach out and share your thoughts with us. Let's make Albion Online better together!