Sunday, January 27, 2008

The LCARS Visual Interface in a Star Trek MMORPG

A number of people have suggested using the highly detailed GUI created by "Commander Atwell" as the basis for the game interface in a Star Trek MMORPG. Others liked the very sparse GUI that was offered by Perpetual as an early study in the interface for the game.

Are the functional aspects of interfaces important? Sure. But so is style.

Many "human factors engineers" (the fancy name for interface designers) can cite a long list of objective qualities that a functionally effective interface should have. And they're generally right.

But a game interface isn't only about function. It's also about form; it's also about feel, about style. An interface can be perfectly functional and still be as ugly as sin, or be boring (if it's a game), or fail to express necessary literary features (if it's a game based on some IP). That last item in particular is what I'm concerned with here. Star Trek Online is a game that -- if it ever gets made -- will implement much of the Star Trek universe as a persistent world, which means that in addition to needing to be attractive generally, the ST:O interface also needs to "feel" like Star Trek... and that means LCARS. Whether anyone likes it or not, LCARS is the recognized standard within the Star Trek universe for how Starfleet personnel operate complex systems. Not to use some form of that visual metaphor as the game interface in a persistent-world game based on Star Trek is to fail to exploit an obvious opportunity to extract value from this license.

That doesn't mean it's wrong to consider functionality. But "character," especially "Star Trek character," is also important for this game, and it deserves more than the brief mention you gave it. I'm pretty sure it's what started this thread in the first place -- Atwell's interface design is rich with Star Trek character, and that's very appealing to fans of Star Trek who'd like to see that universe brought to life as an online game.

I believe it's possible to have an interface for a Star Trek MMORPG that is unobtrusive, and is characterful, and (importantly for this particular game) subtly communicates to players that this is a game set squarely in the Star Trek universe. The Perpetual design was unobtrusive, which isn't a bad thing. Unobtrusiveness doesn't automatically imply a lack of style. OTOH, I also thought the Perpetual interface design we were shown failed utterly to reference the LCARS metaphor. And for this game, that was a bad thing. It was a failure to exploit one of the most obvious resources of the license.

Let's be clear: I see LCARS not as some hard-and-fast set of behavioral rules, but as a general visual metaphor that can be realized in any number of ways, either strongly as in Atwell's interface, or loosely as in the static loading screens of Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force. In other words, I've never said anything even remotely like, "I think Star Trek Online should just copy the LCARS interface from [insert show here] without deviation." My opinion is that ST:O should offer an interface that captures the spirit of the LCARS interface while making changes necessary to offer appropriate functional behaviors. It needs to be not just a good software interface, but a good interface to a Star Trek MMORPG specifically.

So I like the look of Atwell's interface. I think it does a much better job of capturing the spirit of LCARS than what we saw of Perpetual's interface, which seemed generic. At the same time, I also think Atwell's interface is probably a little too much LCARS for a MMORPG. Something a bit simpler and that stands out a little less would, I think, work well as the interface for a game with significant action elements as a typical MMORPG. (A single-player game, though, and in particular one that's designed to be about thinking as well as doing, might be exactly right for the detailed Atwell-style LCARS interface.)

So to sum up, if Star Trek Online ever gets made I'd like for it to have an interface that's somewhere in between the blandness of the Perpetual interface and the gorgeous LCARS+ of the Atwell interface. I think it's possible to have an interface that provides the functionality an MMORPG needs in a way that indisputably evokes the spirit of LCARS.

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