Saturday, January 31, 2009

Anatomy of a Healer: the UI

The User Interface of a computer game is one of it's most important hooks. No matter how pretty a game is, if you can't figure out how to perform basic functions easily, you probably won't play for long. World of Warcraft's UI can be customized to fit your play style, and tweaking your UI can make your reaction time faster and the survivability of both you and your group or raid go up.

So how can you take your screen from out of control to controlled chaos?

Although I'm embarassed to show the screenshot to the right, that really is my Priest healing in Molten Core. It's a miracle that I didn't fall into the lava and burn to death every week (I'm not saying I never did, just that it's amazing I didn't do it more often). Not only is it ugly (/shudder), it is hideous. Ok, so yeah, the ugly factor is what is most apparent. But it's also not good to have a 3 inch square of actual visibility. With all the information overload on the screen (most in bulky frames that overpower the environment) it's hard to tell where exactly I was standing, much less see what scary thing might have been heading my way. Luckily, mod makers have come a long way and I've found ways to condense the information while still having access to it. (A larger monitor helps too. At the time of this screenshot my monitor was a 15". So the picture is pretty close to actual size.)

The important information displayed on the screen includes:
  • Raid Frames (they're huge!)
  • Buff Durations
  • Target and Target's Target Frames
  • Incoming Heals/Heals Cast on the Target (the huge box in the bottom right is tracking who the healers are targeting)
  • Resurrection Monitor
  • Damage/Healing Meter (I'm winning, otherwise it wouldn't be that important)
  • Chat Box (where we're discussing a drama magnet in Officer chat...some things never change)
  • MiniMap (so I can get lost)

A little over two years later, my UI looks more like this. Most of the information is still available to me, but the overall feel of the screen is more open. I now actually get to see the fights, which is incredibly important with nearly every encounter requiring heightened awareness of what is going on around you. I now also have room to see who has used a cooldown, countdowns on boss abilities, and a truncated combat log.

In my current UI, there are five main areas that I focus on.
  1. The Boss Mod (I use BigWigs) announces important phases of the fight at the top center of my screen. This place of prominence is out of my way, but still noticeable enough to be ready for Deep Breaths or Lava Waves (most of the time).
  2. The center area is reserved for my cast timer and situational awareness. The scrolling combat text that floats at the edge of this area also makes it easy to notice the big heals that land and, conversely, the ones that are all overheal so I can judge whether or not my healing rhythm is in sync or not.
  3. The player bar has a lot of crucial information. My totems and their duration are prominantly displayed above the health bar, as is the timer on Water Shield. All buffs are arranged beneath the mana bar. And debuffs appear to the left of my name.
  4. My raid frames are also packed with information. Player health bars are colored by class, and players with aggro turn a bright red. Players in range of my totems have the buffs below their bars, so I can tell if we've moved too far out of range and I need to drop them again. I accidentally deleted the names from my raid frames a while back, and, for the most part, I like it this way. If I hover over a player, the name will appear on the screen, but, in the heat of battle, who I am healing doesn't matter. I've always joked about having a "No Heal" list, but I clearly don't. I don't usually even know which dps I'm healing at any given time. The green oval shows my group, which generally has other healers in it. I try to watch their mana to judge when to drop my Mana Tide Totem.
  5. My Shaman mod, TotemTimers allows me to see what totems I am using as well as quickly change them in mid-fight. A pop up menu appears when I hover my mouse over the bar, so I can switch from Mana Spring to Poison Cleansing or from Strength of Earth to Tremor when needed. Over to the right, it tracks my Reincarnate, Shields, and Weapon Buffs.

How Did it Evolve?
I am constantly tweaking my UI, and I'm proud of how much better it looks now than in Molten Core. But it is also more informative without being overwhelming now. But how did I get it to this point? I started by researching compilations of mods on Curse and WoWInterface. Once I found one with a screenshot that appealed to me, I downloaded it and began tweaking. Over time, many of the individual mods have needed to be replaced, and I've learned how to configure their replacements to do what I need them to do. It has taken a lot of time, patience, and trial and error to create a UI that works well for my play style. I do not recommend downloading a new compilation or any mod that significantly changes your UI unless you have the time to customize it and try it out in a low-pressure setting. You do not want to try to heal with it right out of the box. But if you take your time and work at it, you just may find that it increases your healing effectiveness to have a UI that is aesthetically pleasing and functional.

I also recommend looking at other people's screenshots. I recruited these two from fellow healers in xeno. Mase's Priest and Moxy's Druid both have effective and appealing UIs. I'm tempted to give Moxy's target set up a try. PlusHeal also has a thread going with a collection of UI screenshots. You never know what great idea you'll be able to steal until you've looked around. There may be an awesome new mod that does exactly what you need just waiting to be discovered on someone else's screen. So keep looking and keep tweaking. Your UI is never done.

For a partial list of mods I use, check out this post.

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