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Too Many Clicks! Unit-Based Interfaces Considered Harmful
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Too Many Clicks! Unit-Based Interfaces Considered Harmful

August 23, 2006 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

A game designer might think she can have the best of both worlds by making a game in which the player can control every unit, but doesn’t have to. This, unfortunately, is not so. There’s a rule in economics called Gresham’s Law of Money: Bad money drives out good money. Gresham explained why, when a country tries to use both metal coins that have real inherent value, and paper bills that don’t, the paper money drives the coins out of the marketplace, until everyone is using only paper money.

In gaming, bad players drive out good players. In roleplaying games, the bad roleplayers, who emphasize accumulating wealth and power over playing a role well, advance faster and eventually drive out the good roleplayers. In a game which allows control of individual units, adrenaline-filled 14-year-olds who can make three clicks a second will beat more thoughtful players who rely on the computer to implement their plans, because we’re still a long way from the day when a computer can control units better than a player.

There is a player demographic that enjoys click-fests and micromanagement, and it may be the same 14-year-old males that the game industry’s magazines, advertisements, and distribution channels are aimed at. Trying to step outside that familiar demographic is always hazardous. (I believe games won’t be mainstream until they’re sold at Borders; however, that’s a separate rant.) No producer would want to lose this market share, so it might be good to have individual unit control available as an option.

However, the market of players who do not enjoy carpal tunnel, which I suspect is much larger than the market of 14-year-old males, is not just underserved by today’s games; it is completely unserved. If the game is to also allow control of individual units, it must be a separate game option, and players should be able to set up multi-player games that disallow individual unit control.

By now, you’re probably questioning my sanity and the wisdom of the Gamasutra editors. Am I saying that strategy games should only allow a player to build seven units? Not at all. I am saying that the player shouldn’t control them all directly. We need to conceptualize an intervening level of control. It isn’t hard to do, but is hindered by a common misconception about object-oriented programming.

Objects Don’t Have To Be Objects

Smalltalk users called objects “objects”, and, what’s worse, they called methods “verbs”. Ever since, many object-oriented programmers have interpreted the word “object” as something like “noun”. I had arguments with other adventure programmers in the 1980s who insisted that a game wasn’t object-oriented unless the physical objects in the game were OO objects in the code. When I suggested organizing the code so that verbs in the game were objects in the code, thus enforcing a consistent physics on the game, they said, “Objects are objects; verbs are verbs.” To this day, we organize our game code, and the user interface, around the physical objects in the game.

There’s no need to do so. Objects, in the OO sense, can be any abstraction you choose. In the case of Civ III, an object could be a military action or an engineering project. Consider Figure 1. In this figure, my civilization had recently developed the technology for railroads. I was attempting to construct a railway line connecting the north end to the south end of my civilization.

Figure 1

With the unit-centered interface of Civ III, this requires clicking on individual worker units and assigning them to individual sections of the railway line. Each worker must be assigned to a short section of the line, because if you start one unit from up north toward the south, and another unit from the south toward the north, they compute the path they will follow at the beginning of their assignment, and don’t adjust it to account for the work done in the meantime by other units – leading to a multitude of non-overlapping parallel railway lines, and armies that can’t get to your borders before you’re overrun by Roman legions.

I needed to assign about a hundred workers to building the railway line in order to get it built before being overrun. For each worker, I had to click on it once to bring it into focus; then type ‘g’ to begin a movement, scroll to its starting point on the railway line, and click again. Later, when it reached that point, I would have to type “ctrl-r” to build a railroad, scroll to the end of that unit’s portion of the railway, and click again. That’s three mouse movements, three keystrokes, and three mouse clicks per unit. I tried to keep the workers in groups of three, although this was possible only about half the time. So it probably took me 600 clicks, keystrokes, and scrolls to build that railway.

Imagine if I’d been able to say that I wanted to build a railroad, click on its start, and click on its end. The computer would then have directed workers, as they became available, to work on sections of the railway. The entire railroad could have been constructed with the same amount of supervision that it took me to direct one worker.

The railway was needed to move troops to my borders to defend against the Romans. Again, each new unit built had to be individually routed to some point along the border to defend. Imagine how much less pain my wrists would be in if I could simply define the border, cities, or points to defend, to which the computer would direct surplus troops as they were built. But to implement this cleanly, the programmers would have to have conceived of railroads and borders as first-class objects.

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