Most disabled gamers would jump at the opportunity to sit down and pick the brain of the people responsible for developing the user interface for their favorite game - a good UI can mean the difference between playable and unplayable. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to pick the brain of CCP Surge, part of the development team Psycho Sisters, who do most of Eve Online's user interface programming. It took a bit of time for everybody to get together, for me to write what I hope are interesting and thought-provoking questions, not to mention the recent Citadel release which kept Team Psycho Sisters extremely busy, which is why I haven't had much opportunity to write installments of Access: Granted. I hope that this article helps to make up for that.
AccessibleGamer: Before this interview, I asked you to try playing Eve Online without a keyboard; using only a mouse with its left/right buttons. What was the experience like for you? Would you say that it has changed the way you view Eve's user interface? If so, how?
CCP Surge: It was certainly an interesting experience. I’m not a huge EVE PVPer, so I just did some simple ratting and then upgraded my ship. Not being able to use the keyboard to chat was obviously huge from a social perspective, but I didn’t really encounter any major stumbling blocks impeding my gameplay, though it was arguably in a much lower stakes, and lower reaction time environment.
AG: Eve Online has primarily been a mousebased game as long as I can remember. When nearly every other game both then and now utilize keyboard commands more heavily than mouse clicks, Eve can be played without the keyboard entirely. What is the reasoning behind this development philosophy, and to what extent was accessibility a factor?
Surge: Hey this is a great question, and goes back to how EVE was envisioned and designed from the beginning. And I’m a relatively new member of the team, but luckily some of the original devs are still lurking around here! I was able to ask our CEO Hilmar for his insight and can confirm that yes, primarily mouse-based interaction was on their mind from the start. Although there’s wasn’t any kind of explicit design principle governing it; it just came out of the mindset of making the core interactions in EVE very simple and approachable for everyone (You can argue whether we have achieved that heh); but not something natively driven by accessibility concerns.
AG: Every action in Eve can be performed using a mouse, but there are some that require several clicks: making what should be a simple action far more complex than it should be. An example of this is drone control. One only has to look at the drone-related keybinds to see that some actions simply cannot be bound to a keystroke at all. "Launch Drones" is an example of such an action that has no possible keybind, even though it is used by many pilots in both PvP and PvE scenarios.
Surge: Thanks for bringing up these keybinding issues with drones, I’ll add it to our list of accessibility blockers. Drone control in general has been an area we’ve been wanting to address for some time, and I’ll just hint that a completely new interaction paradigm and UI for drone control might be just around the corner☺. Keybinding is another area which can sometimes be clunky in EVE compared to other games. While there’s no near-term plans to overhaul it, by all means if you have any further keybinding issues let us know about them; these reports actually do help build the internal momentum to tackle these little accessibility slip-ups on our end!
AG: Is there any conceivable way to make combat scanning easier for people who only have access to left and right mouse click and are unable to click both at once, nor use the middle click button? I don't really have a question here but many disabled eve players I've spoken to wish they could scan better. Any thoughts on how this could be accomplished?
Surge: Combat scanning can be one of the most time-sensitive and twitch-like tasks in EVE, and so will be inaccessible to certain types of players, for better or worse. There are definitely instances of combat scanning where I could see being slower than average wouldn’t confer a colossal disadvantage, e.g. on-grid scanning, but even for the able-bodied, combat scanning is going to get done by the person who is best at it which usually means fastest. Fully scanning signatures to 100% is entirely possible with one hand, one finger however.
AG: The current HUD allows for a maximum of eight slots on the high/middle/low racks. Ever since the user interface allowed us to group weapons, and since very few ships have a full 8/8/8 loadout, How feasible would it be to allow players to put extra buttons on the HUD? For example, if a button could be placed somewhere on the HUD where, if clicked, it would automatically target anything clicked on the overlay. I bring this up because such a thing would allow disabled players to keep up with the able-bodied players who are most certainly, holding down the control key when clicking the overview anyway. Of course, if you could please a toggle button in your HUD, what other buttons could be added to it to make the mouse-based Eve experience easier?
Surge: While adding custom buttons to your HUD isn’t something that’s technically feasible for EVE at the moment, I certainly sympathize with the specific challenge of being able to quickly lock multiple targets without a key modifier. Say we did add an option to turn the targeting modifier (CTRL) into a toggle, which appended there command to any overview items clicked afterwards. Are there any other commands that would be useful to expand this toggle system to? Warping to, approaching, scanning? [author's note: follow-up to this question will be addressed in next part]
AG: The whole "control-drag in space to target multiple items" is a fantastic addition to the user interface. Especially for those who need to target a bunch of drones really fast. There's no question here, I just wanted to thank you on behalf of the disabled gamers in Eve on a well thought out game mechanic that, in my opinion, doesn't get nearly enough praise. Thank you.
Surge: Thanks for mentioning it! This makes me feel warm since I directly was involved with developing this first iteration of the rectangle “marquee” selection for interacting with multiple objects in space at once. The idea was that this feature would give players an easier way to bypass the overview and engage more with the 3D scene; a small step towards making the game less of a “spreadsheet” experience.
I'd like to give a big thank you to CCP Surge for taking as much time to answer my questions as I took in writing them, and also a big thank you to CCP Turtlepower for getting the two of us in touch. Please check back for the next part of this interview on Access: Granted. keep your eyes peeled for the part two, where we discuss legacy code, font scalability, and CCP's general attitude toward making games accessible.