Revisiting the Command UI

The command UI – the interface you use to give orders to your fleet, while also piloting your flagship – has always been tricky to get right, and has gone through a few incarnations since the first release. The combat gameplay merges a top-down shooter with some RTS elements, and both place high demands on your attention. You have to be able to control your fleet, while still participating directly in the combat  – this is the goal the UI has to achieve.

The very first version of the UI used the standard RTS model – control groups, right-click to order ships around, etc. It didn’t work very well – there’s a strong incentive  to keep checking on how your ships are doing, so that you can adjust if they’re doing something you don’t like. Optimal gameplay was, then, constantly interrupting the flow of combat to open up the map, check on your fleet, and tweak their orders.

The next version – the one that’s in the current release – solved that problem by limiting how many orders can be given to ships (via “command points”) and adding the concept of “assignments”. Instead of ordering ships about, you’d create tasks – capture this, defend that, rally a carrier here. The ships would then work out the details on their own. You could also give a few direct orders if you saw the ships doing something undesirable.

This worked much better – you could create an initial set of assignments at the start of the battle, and then just focus on the combat, only occasionally adjusting them. Because you couldn’t give unlimited orders, you were freed from the burden of having to constantly give orders to feel like you’re playing optimally.

The new approach had some issues, though. When it worked (the AI doing the right thing in “working out the details”), it worked well. When it didn’t, it could be frustrating trying to fix it using the limited direct orders.

The bigger problem was (and, I suppose, still is) accessibility. RTS-like controls are the go-to assumption when one sees a map with units on it – but they didn’t work. If you clicked on a ship, hoping to tell it to do something – you couldn’t!  You’d be presented with a context menu that let you create assignments that target that ship – i.e., you could tell your fleet to escort the ship you just clicked. You couldn’t tell that ship to escort something else, not without creating that assignment first (and then using a direct order from the context menu to assign the selected ship to it – a somewhat clunky process).

Telling the game what you want done – i.e. creating an assignment – is reasonable, in the context of commanding a fleet. An admiral wouldn’t tell every frigate in the fleet exactly what to do – that’s the job of his subordinates. But being reasonable, as it turns out, doesn’t get you far when going against UI convention. Games don’t typically ask “what do you want done”, they ask “how do you want to do… eh, whatever it is, I don’t actually know/care.”

The new version – that’ll be in the next release – aims to combine the best aspects of the two approaches.
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