Before we kick into gear I’d encourage folks who haven’t read my review of Master of Orion to do so. I’m going to be referring to it plenty in this article, and I think you’d benefit from getting a bit of background on how the game plays. But I might be preaching to the crowd – you may already have it sitting in your Steam library, and like me, you’ve likely lost a hundred hours to it already…
I have to admit something. When I started my first game, I sucked. When I started the second, I sucked less but still sucked. It was only a few games in that I really got the hang of it. Getting used to the game mechanics was part of it – but what really opened my eyes and made managing my sprawling galactic empire manageable was ta dahhhh the UI. After mastering the UI, I found myself thinking about the incredibly important role it plays in strategy titles. Without a solid UI, the whole game can fall apart. It becomes unplayable.
The Civ effect.
In my review I noted the similarities between the Civ V interface and that of MOO (Master of Orion), and how this similarity is a favourable one. The Civ way of doing things has had a clear effect on strategy titles since the first title in the early 1990’s, but MOO came out only a couple of years after. These early titles featured interfaces that were far from approachable, but that laid the framework for modern strategy titles. This is how we ended up with order controls and a build bar at the bottom of the screen in the likes of Command and Conquer and Age of Empires.
But turn based strategy is something different, and after MOO I wonder if we’ve now reached peak UI. I say MOO and not Civ V because the former improves on the cluttered UI present in the much loved latter. Just think about the advisor panel in Civ V and how out of sync it seems with the other panels. Gameplay videos of the upcoming Civ VI don’t show much progress in this regard; though there have been minor alterations to some tabs – diplomacy especially.
It’s all in the lists.
So what does MOO do that Civ V doesn’t? For me, it’s all about the lists. It’s the simplest way of displaying and organising information and we’ve been using it for centuries. Crusader Kings II knows this and uses lists to great effect, the Total War franchise knows this and uses lists to good effect. MOO approaches lists like Total War, as a way of navigating, filtering and accessing intricate information whilst the simpler stuff is up front and always visible.
So it’s 2016, and the best way of displaying this kind of information is in a form that’s been used for thousands of years? It’s one of those unusual mechanisms that kicks around even though technology has zoomed ahead – like paper books, or taking notes with a pen, or QWERTY keyboards. There’s something easy and approachable about a solidly built list, and anyone with any computer experience will know that a list on a screen can usually be sorted, filtered and searched.
Civ vs MOO.
Civ V makes use of a mix of tooltips and lists which results in an unfortunately confusing array of information bars and panels. The information you need can be found but the act of accessing that information varies; I always felt that this was rather incoherent, though manageable. MOO tackles this problem with a simple display in the top right that gives you access to all information panes regarding your empire. It takes a little flirting to understand quite where the symbols take you, but once you know what you’re looking at then all the information is one click away. It’s all centred in that one corner, and it’s not muddled in with other features.
This uncluttered style makes it simpler to focus on the game at hand, and you can’t get lost in the depths of the information panes. In a weird way this can make the game seem simpler than it actually is. Now MOO is definitely not as complex as Civ V, but it is by no means a simple game. The later stages become intricately complex, and this is where the list system shines brightest. You feel on top of things without feeling confused, and a quick glance at the information panels is enough to know that it’s all good.
What about… 3D lists?
I can’t help but wonder if we will ever get passed the list solution for turn based strategy titles, however. Surely there’s a better and tidier way of accessing and displaying information – or perhaps we are limited due to the 2 dimensional nature of the screen in front of us. If that’s so, then I wonder what VR strategy could look like. Tom Clancy’s Endwar made interesting moves into using voice to command units, could this same mechanic be used to bring up information panels – like we see in Elite Dangerous?
Because at present there seems to be no progression in this area. We’ve entered and are now arguably passing the world of flat screens. There are now devices using common surfaces as interactable space, we have VR space – digital is escaping 2D and is moving, slowly, into a 3D plane. But I’m running away with myself here. 3D strategy wont be a thing for some time, but I’m sure there’s something that can be done with 2D that hasn’t been trialed before.
The future is more lists.
A strong command of information in turn based strategy titles is tantamount to victory, and MOO hits the nail on the head as far as 2D monitors and current UIs are concerned. I hope the upcoming Civ VI learns that less can often be more, and unifies information screens so as to make them easy to find and navigate.
But without the guidence of the ‘Next Turn’ button we’ve all got used to from the Civ titles, we probably wouldnt get very far. This is present in MOO, and it’s inclusion is a lifesaver. It’s this merging of player-friendly aspects from Civ and dense list mechanics from Total War that keep me hitting that next turn button. Again, and again, and again.
I only wish work had this kind of interface. Then I’d be productive as fudge.