UI Add-ons are bad?

Vacation was nice, thank you for asking. Coming home from vacation is always a bad experience. The plane feels a bit more cramped and the voicemail and email inboxes are a lot more full. I actually tried working through my vacation, dilligently keeping up on my inbox every morning. IHASLAW #1 – for every email you send you get five back. Lesson learned.

Blizzard recently announced a big change to their UI/Addon policy, banning people from making money off off of their hard work created upon Blizzard’s hard work. While hardly a surprise, WoW has a gigantic Mod community. That community, for all intensive purposes, has made and shaped the game – usually for the better. “Must have” community mods become part of the vanilla UI over time. I have long been of the thought that mods shouldn’t exist in an MMO space – players shouldn’t have the ability or the right to change the basic UI (apart from cosmetic). It creates extra work for the typical player who “needs” those mods to be competitive (hello, Arena mods) or even beat unbalanced and rediculous encounters (hello, Decursive pre-Burning Crusade). Simply put – if your game requires players to provide changes to your code to make the game playable – or more enjoyable – then it is a failure of code. More after the break.

I am not blaming the modders themselves – they do incredible work. So incredible, that if they put together something great they *should* get paid for their efforts. Or at bare minimum, hired. Of course, I will blame blizzard here. (emphasis on “of course”, as it surely comes as no suprise!). Instead of building a great UI, they built a great UI framework for players to work with. Players make the UI great, and often create mods that the developers deem “unintended” for use, so the devs break the mod. The circle of life (death?). You literally have 1000’s of people redesigning the UI to make the game better – and it worked. So why take away that programmers ability to profit from 100’s of hours work?

I am going to guess the lawyers, even with their ultra powerful TOS and EULA, are starting to get nervous. Even though players click through in full agreement, reading each paragraph and line oh so carefully, at the end of the day the argument would look like this.

  • Player A makes a mod. All players “need” this mod to play the game
  • Player A spends hundreds of hours perfecting mod
  • Player A starts charging for the mod. Other players gladly pay as it makes their experience so much better in game
  • Developer sees the need for the mod, and integrates it into the UI in a patch, with their own version
  • Player A stops making mod, and loses thousands of dollars, as Developer took their idea and made it their own

The EULA/TOS would clearly show that the developer owns it anyway, so why the worry? Is Player A going to even bother to take on the legal behemoth and sue for lost income? How does intellectual property play into all of this – a form and function created by a player, and later obviously ripped off by a developer, when made in the context of a game under an all encompassing EULA/TOS – is there a leg to stand on? What if that developer takes that idea and puts it into one of their new releases – with the form, history, and update list of the individual programmer clearly showing who came up with the idea, and when – is there a danger to a company there?

Doubtful. The mods are created with tools and instructions from the developer under a big umbrella. I don’t see the worry.

I have two competing thoughts here on how I feel about the matter.

  1. UI’s should be locked down, besides cosmetics, so everyone gets the same experience
  2. UI’s should be open, and encouraged and supported by developers so the game can evolve – and the developer will pay (and thereby encourage even more) for any mod that gets enveloped into the vanilla mold as a standard feature.

While those thoughts are on exact opposite sides of the fence, I see merits in both. Which side of the fence are you on?

12 Comments

  1. Tesh

    “Simply put – if your game requires players to provide changes to your code to make the game playable – or more enjoyable – then it is a failure of code.”

    This. So, taking that as a base, does the game stick with failed code (broken UI), or allow players to contribute?

    Reflexively, I think that channeling that player passion, rather than blocking it completely, is the best way to go. If people are so excited about your game they are doing your work for you, that’s something to encourage, even if it means sucking up your pride and regulating it via paying for their work.

    That said, I’d take a step back and look at MMO development in the first place. I work on xBox and Wii games, and we can’t ship with broken UI. Yes, xBox Live games can have title updates, but those are expensive and laborious, requiring another round of testing and verification. Broken UI is expensive, so we must get it right the first time.

    Why do MMO devs think they can get away with a half-baked product? That touches all aspects of MMO design, so UI isn’t an outlier. Still, some of the things that addons address are core functions of a UI, but the game was shipped without them. That’s bad practice.

    So, if we’re going to assume that MMO devs can’t or won’t do the hard work required to make the UI better, and open the gates to let players do the refining, they have already offered a good faith “contract” that such refining is welcome and desirable. They are also admitting that they couldn’t be bothered to do the work, and are hoping the players do it. (Ditto for beta testing, to a degree.) To be fair, some things need to be tested with live hordes, but UI really isn’t one of them.

    As you’ve noted, WoW in particular can be played with a max of 40 people. If the game only ever contained those 40 people, it would function just fine. Any company trying to push out a AAA MMO should have the ability to test with 40 people, and hit the entire range of UI concerns. Larger numbers of players are necessary for stress testing, but UI can and should be tested in-house.

    Anyway, even if a company does test the UI, but allows for players to do the work of refining it, the company should keep tabs on that, and reward the efforts of players *who do their work for them*.

    I can understand the concern about third parties profiting from the game, as it’s at the heart of gold selling complaints… but I think the solution is the same in *both* cases. The company needs to control the revenue stream by taking those functions and folding them into the company’s pipeline. In the case of gold selling, that’s going with a dual currency model and selling the gold straight from the database. In the case of UI addons, it’s a vetting process that absorbs the best addons, and pays their devs for their work.

    Also like gold selling, you can fight it with hamfisted code blocks or draconian terms (which people always get around), or sucker people in (with weak spots in your wall) and ban them later , or you can pull a digital Aikido, and turn that energy to the benefit of your game, and build the community at the same time.

    Seriously, a company like Blizzard, making money hand over fist with a sub model *that is ostensibly paid to continually improve the game* has the spare change to toss to these guys who work their fingers off fixing Blizzard’s UI and improving the game.

    If the concern is about advertising in-game by these addons, as has been voiced, again, set up a vetting process and kickbacks that reward addon authors so they don’t feel the need to advertise. As with the XNA process, there will be a Godwin’s Law concern, but the most used addons (easy to track, apparently) can and should be rewarded. (And if they pinpoint design flaws to fix, all the better.)

    Reply
  2. Tesh

    Oh, and welcome back! 😀

    Reply
  3. Rog

    I was about to bring up this whole topic myself, since it’s been creating debates in-game in various channels (and various games even).

    I used to author Addons for WoW myself, mostly back in the early days when addons were typically more simple, although I continued a bit after code libraries had been built up too. Blizzard has locked some things down over time, but I’m still astonished with what they allow via their LUA interface.

    It’s a love / hate relationship. On one hand I love some of the things addons enable, but on the other they do impact the game, often badly.

    I’ve heard the argument “Don’t use them if you don’t like them”, but everyone is affected regardless of what they use.

    There’s been a bit of an arms race between Blizzard and addon authors. Sometimes that’s positive (who really wanted to spend a raid de-cursing anyway?) and sometimes that’s negative (WoW’s great threat complexity reduced to a meter, ugh!!). Regardless, Blizzard definitely accounts for addons during encounter design, otherwise they risk addons trivializing their content.

    Also, I want to play the game, not the UI. If I want to interact with meters, graphs and charts I can load up Excel & Powerpoint. I know geeks are supposed to love that stuff, but I get bored of it easily and I resent the theorycrafters that make these things nearly required.

    I’ve been very happy with Turbine’s XML-mods-only approach with LOTRO. I sincerely hope they don’t add a full scripting system.

    Reply
  4. ixobelle

    meh. I would enjoy raiding more without omen, but i simply WOULD. NOT. HEAL. without clique. Grid is iffy, nice but not needed.

    Xperl is how the unit frames SHOULD look in the first place.

    I don’t buy the “blizz is just lazy, and developed half a front end” line. I think it goes more along the lines of looking at everyone desktop (outside of the game). Maybe you align your icons to grid alphabetically on your desktop. That makes me fucking crazy, and is one of the first things I diable on a new install. Maybe you prefer clicking “My COmputer” in the star menu, but I’ve used windows since pre-XP, and prefer to have it on my desktop. I arrange my folder icons by List usually, with a few set to “Details”. My wife prefers the thumbnail view, which I can’t stand.

    THIS.

    is the issue at hand. We are all different, and the PC itself empowers us to move our UI around. In mario galaxy, I don’t expect to be able to move my health bar, but in a PC game I usually feel like I can. Blizzard can’t satisfy everyone, and they respect those that can code enough to move things around.

    At the end of the day, nobody owns ANYTHING in wow but blizzard, though, so nobody should act surprised at this. It’s totally non-news, but everyone is up in arms. I’m confused.

    Reply
  5. Chris F (Post author)

    @Tesh: That’s the rub. I wouldn’t have a problem with it if they in some shape, way, or form gave “kudos” to the mod makers for making the game better/playable – either monetary, free subscription months, or an in game honor (title? NPC?) – I know that would open up the slippery slope of “entitlement” – but really, modders deserve a lot of credit for how good WoW is.

    @Rog: That in a nutshell was my argument for no mods at all. Play the game the way the developers want it to be played. Tune encounters based off a UI everyone plays, etc. As a 40-man raid healer that monitor gets awful ugly.

    @Ixobelle: I agree with you on Clique – but I couldn’t live without Grid. It isn’t so bad now that raids are 25’s, but when they were 40’s it was the only way to really manage healing. Strike that – it was manageable without the mods – but it just wasn’t FUN at all, as you spent more time target focus instead of playing the game. I know WAR has mods too, but they have built in a great system where you can move and resize any UI element – I am a fan of that idea, cosmetic should be doable. Making a mod that tells you the name, class, level, and gear of your oppponent in arena before he is in range is not something that you can ignore. It is the “forced” element of mods (go to any raiding guild website that lists required mods to join them) that ruins it. If a mod is so important that you must have it in order to raid, then the dev better provide that in the vanilla package.

    I agree with you on the ownership – but it is in the context of US Law which we have all seen and read crazy things about.

    Reply
  6. Rog

    @Ixobelle: Upon release, Blizzard had no raiding unitframes, hell they had no raiding interface whatsoever. I don’t know if ‘lazy’ sums it up, but they’ve definitely used addons to leverage a UI for themselves, because much of what they do have has been ‘inspired’ by 3rd party addons.

    I’m of the mind you should make a complete interface first, then decide whether or not you should have players modifying it. Any addon author can tell you that WoW’s addon system has been a messy transition for the past 4 years.

    This whole new lockdown on the addons doesn’t surprise, because they’ve slowly disabled much of the UI’s functionality over time while the default UI gains more of what it needs. In the long run, they’ll end up with the same XML-modding-only interface that other games have.

    This strongly fits in with Blizzard’s reiterative design approach. The only difference is that they’ve opened it up to 3rd parties, but as it approaches what they want / need they need those 3rd parties less and less.

    Reply
  7. JediOfTheShire

    “Simply put – if your game requires players to provide changes to your code to make the game playable – or more enjoyable – then it is a failure of code.”

    WoW doesn’t require users to use addons to make the game playable. I went from 1-70 in BC and ran instances without mods. When I went to raids my guild made me get Omen.

    Other users require users to use addons. Addons change the game you play, and when everyone else is playing a game where they have information about you that you are unable to get about them then the integrity of the games balancing breaks down.

    ————————————————

    “If a mod is so important that you must have it in order to raid, then the dev better provide that in the vanilla package.”

    EverQuest didn’t use threat-meters, so I don’t understand why now they’re suddenly a requirement. It seems to me that we’re substituting knowhow for technology, which I find disturbing.

    ————————————————-

    “Also, I want to play the game, not the UI. If I want to interact with meters, graphs and charts I can load up Excel & Powerpoint. I know geeks are supposed to love that stuff, but I get bored of it easily and I resent the theorycrafters that make these things nearly required.”

    You should all just pretend like I said this too.

    —————————————————-

    Just because everyone else uses mods does NOT mean that everyone has to, but it means that you have to if you want to have the same advantages as those other people. Unfortunately this often means changing the game in a way that makes it almost unrecognizeable (see Omen: playing a frost mage in a raid pre-wrath was clicking the 2 button repeatedly until my bar got too high, then I laid off. I didn’t even look at bosses except to target them initially)

    Addon authors who are “fixing Blizzard’s UI and improving the game” are really just making the UI more suited to their (and their users’) desires. I don’t think WoW has any inherent UI problems (and I HATE Xperl unit frames, they’re so ugly to me and you don’t get the cool silver/gold dragons(They make me happy :))) It’s all really just a matter of personal preference, until you get into things that change the way the user interacts with the game. The developers did not make raids so that you have to use Omen to be successful, the raiders who want to min/max their way to victory did.

    Reply
  8. Chris F (Post author)

    @jedi: I feel you. Not in an inappropriate way. Depending on the raiding guild – you do HAVE to have mods to even play with people (as a guilded requirement) – you can’t even fake it anymore as there are raid tools to tell raidmasters what mods your raiders are using at that moment, and what version they are using. So yes, while you can certainly get away with it (especially now that the content isn’t as challenging) most raiding guilds have it “built in” to their admission structure. And I’m not even talking about hardcore raiding guilds, even the casual ones (who feel like they need those mods to have a chance).

    It definitely is a pickle.

    Thanks for the comment and stopping by.

    Reply
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  10. Katherine

    The main problem I had with mods was that I would just get used to a nice new layout and all that extra information (nice to have information, not needed) and then a patch would break all my mods. Before you had all those extra bars *shudder*.

    They should have made a decision to either:
    A) Have no mods or modding capability,
    OR
    B) Not change the UI/LUA whatever so mods would not break every patch.

    Does this still happen?

    Reply
  11. Chris F (Post author)

    @Kat: Yup, still happens. The issue is that they released too much of the code to begin with – meaning “here is the kitchen sink, go have fun kids!” and once clever mod makers came up with ways to use the available code in ways “not intended”, they have to shut down those commands.

    A smarter way would have been to release little chunks at a time to see what is made from it. Programmers out there are so smart they will always think of things that devs didn’t intend.

    Reply
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