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The Rule of Seven: Avoiding Turn-Based Click Fests

August 24th, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · 1 Comment · Design

Over at Gamasutra, Philip Goetz has written an interesting (and a little infuriating) article about interface design in strategy games. After counting about 1000 clicks in a single turn of Civilization III, Goetz came to the conclusion that the UI needed a major overhaul. It took him too long to do any particular task. Trying to build a transcontinental railroad got the best of him:

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.

Why not just say “build railroad” and have the computer assign workers to do it? Civ III does allow automated workers, but Goetz is worried that the computer won’t do a good enough job, or build the railroad where he wants it.

But let’s get back to that quote. 100 workers? A man so diligent as to count the number of clicks he makes in a turn shouldn’t exaggerate. If that 100 workers number is, in fact, accurate, then one problem is that he is playing on a very large map. Assuming the screenshot in the article is from the game he describes, all of those Iroquois cities are on one of the larger maps available in Civ III. Jammed so tightly together, he’ll be running into specialist overflow pretty quickly as the cities run out of tiles to work.

(Goetz may not play a lot of Civ III though. His complaints about individually moving troops to a destination is solved by using rally points, which can be set on a city or global level.)

Goetz’s critique is derived from the “rule of seven”, a military stricture holding that the most efficient way to handle orders is through a series of subgroubs (platoons, battalions, divisions) with no more than seven of any group. Orders are filtered down to identical groups, each of which carries out the task assigned it. For Goetz, UIs make too many demands on players because they are asked to click too much.

Allowing computer automation of some of these tasks is a losing proposition, he says, because the most successful players will always be those who can do it all manually. He refers to it as “bad money chasing out good”, which I don’t understand since it’s the good players chasing out the bad. Plus, it is hardly relevant in a game like Civ III, which is almost entirely non-competitive and single player.

His solution isn’t one at all, or at least not one that I can wrap my feeble brain around. He advocates having people test the UI and measuring the number of mouseclicks, assigning values to certain types. Having spent four pages talking about how Civilization stresses his patience, he then goes on to describe a theoretical UI for a clay modelling game. Since the early stages of modelling would require less precise object clicking, it is more of a poke/stretch/flatten interface but it in no ways is it applicable to Civilization. It’s an interesting though experiment, I guess, but I fail to see what it has to do with the price of cheese. Different types of games have different interfaces.

Goetz has never even played Civ IV, a game with much better worker automation, less need for workers since the maps are smaller and two types of terrain resistant to improvement (peaks and deserts). There are also more choices for workers (waterwheels, windmills, plantations) not all of which have an easy answer like the farm/mine dichotomy of the earlier games.

I’m not going to disagree too strongly with Goetz on the worker and army management situation of Civ III. On larger maps, especially, worker wrangling could be a major chore. And there was an alternative model. The Activision Civ-clone Civilization: Call to Power used a public works system that would let the player buy improvements across the empire. This was one of the better design choices of the much maligned Call to Power games and had a low interface cost. The ability to join and rally groups of units in Civ III mitigated a lot of the problems Goetz describes, and they are carried over in Civ IV with a much superior visual display.

UIs are hard. At the Apolycon a couple of months ago, Brian Reynolds told a story about how some new Rise of Nations UI testers didn’t get that you had to build scholars in order to advance quickly. The display wasn’t clear, the “make scholar” button was in the same menu as the “make general” button (and you know who gets made first) so all kinds of small interface issues interfered with the accumulation of research. What seemed obvious to the designers was missing completely as far as the testers were concerned. So they fixed it.

Given this story and the fact that Civ IV‘s beta interfaces were not very good, I think I can guarantee that UIs are tested and measured and adapted, not the afterthoughts that Goetz seems to think they are. The unit based nature of the Civ design is part of what makes it Civ, so replacing it with something else could cause more troubles than it solves. (Do you still build individual workers and soldiers? If you can’t move them individually, why would you? And, if you can move them individually, why wouldn’t you?)

I think Goetz should stay off the huge maps though. The cities start to get very useless very quickly.


One Comment so far ↓

  • Bruce

    This guy has some kind of software mouseclick and keypress counter, right? Because otherwise, oh man …