A Brand New UI: Alpha Centauri Redux

Alpha Centauri is one of the best strategy games ever made. It casts a long shadow, such that a game like Civilization: Beyond Earth [official site] cannot escape comparison, even though it wasn’t intended to be the direct spiritual successor many saw it as. But how would you improve on Meier and Reynold’s sci-fi masterpiece? Keegan Chua has some ideas. His Alpha Centauri Redux project is a fully documented attempt “to completely redesign the look and feel of the user interface in the Sid Meier classic”.

Strategy game UI design has made some remarkable progress in recent years. Civilization V and Endless Legend are delightful, and as important to their respective games as a tight control scheme can be to an action game. Good UI design guides the player through the flow of information, allowing access to data should someone choose to dig for it, but concentrating on what is necessary at any given time. I tend to think of a solid strategic UI like a set of advisors (and maybe that comes from those early years with Civ), who step forward when summoned but never raise their voices and talk across one another.

The beauty of the Alpha Centauri Redux project is in the documentation as much as the possible end result. Keegan shares his thoughts and his failures, as well as his goals and changing approaches. He’s working with Dave Inscore, the artist responsible for the “look and feel” of the game’s original UI. Here’s a recent video:

Reading through the process of revamping the UI has given me an even greater respect for the work involved. The conflict between an attractive appearance and a functional design is apparent at every stage. Here’s one of the early blog posts:

“So, this project has been picking up the pace, slowly but gradually. The first thing I’m going about doing is redesigning the Governor/City Management screen. My thought process was that I want to give the game some screen space to breathe. The original Governor HUD took over the entire screen. I’m taking some inspiration from other 4x Strategy Games like Civilization and Endless Legend here and allowing the player to still see what’s going on behind all of the dialogue boxes that make up this HUD.

“The first big pass I did got pretty close to what I had in mind in terms of shape language — angular and boxy, with a little bit of dimensionality from being transparent. Originally I went with a little bit of color, but felt like to really get the slick Sci-Fi feel that I’m going for I needed to make the overall palette more subdued with the main boxes being a transparent gradient of grey to black.”

UI design isn’t something we write about a lot, in isolation at any rate. We discuss it almost every time we discuss games though, even if we don’t make that explicit. Next time I visit a studio working on a strategy game, maybe I’ll ask them to show me where they keep the interface designers and see what they have to say for themselves. Until then, take a look at this article from Jon Shafer, one of the best minds in the strategy gaming field. Lovely.

Thanks to Andrew Smith at Spilt Milk for bringing this to my attention.

30 Comments

  1. peterako1989 says:

    Foh real!?

  2. Tyrmot says:

    Awesome…. hope this come to release somewhere

  3. Cinek says:

    UI and controls is what needs most work in AC. Last time I tried it it was borderline unplayable, I have no idea how I managed to spend dozens if now hundreds of hours playing AC back in a day. This game really shows you how far we’ve advanced and improved in terms of UI usability since late ’90s.

    • BlueTemplar says:

      Huh, when I saw the title I first thought about PRACX, that aims to polish some of the UI issues : link to alphacentauri2.info

      Windowed/Full Screen
      ——————–
      *Toggles between Full Screen and Windowed mode;
      *Window is resizable;
      *Configurable Full Screen resolution (any resolution can be used);
      *Automatically switches system back to native resolution when windowed;
      * key toggles for systems that don’t like (like mine for some reason);
      *DirectDraw .ini setting obsolete–DirectDraw is used only for movies;
      *Opening and in game movies are fully compatible and no longer block .

      Scrolling
      ———
      *Pixel-level scrolling (previously had to scroll at least a tile at a time);
      *Right-Click and drag scrolling added;
      *Edge scroll zones scroll faster the closer to the edge the mouse is;
      *Configurable zone sizes and scroll speed. “Min Scroll Speed” setting is the speed of scrolling when the mouse just enters the zone, and “Max” is the speed with the mouse fully against the edge of the screen/window.

      Zooming
      ——-
      *Pixel-level re-centering–no more screen zigzag when scrolling in and out;
      *Automatically sets reasonable min, max, and increment values for the current resolution;
      *Mouse wheel zooms in and out;
      *Configurable # of increments between min and max zoom;
      *Resolves black areas after zooming defect;
      *Details (units, cities, improvements, etc.) are now shown even when fully zoomed out–can be turned off in Prefs if that causes anyone performance issues.

      Resource Modes
      ————–
      * cycles between displaying:
      –Normal Mode;
      –Current Yield: Displays what each tile would produce with its current improvements (if any);
      –Potential Yield: Displays each tile’s food as if it had a farm, production as if it had a mine, and energy as if it had solar panels;
      *Yields are displayed as though for a faction with no current max resource per tile limits–its main purpose is to make it easier to see where to place a city.

      Terrain Modes
      ————-
      * cycles between displaying:
      –Normal Mode;
      –Faction Ownership Mode: Displays tiles colored by who owns them, if anyone;
      –Elevation Mode: Displays highest elevations as dark red and lowest as white;
      –Rainfall Mode: Displays wettest areas as dark green and driest as while;
      –Rockiness Mode: Displays rockiest areas as dark gray and flattest as white;

      Miscellaneous
      ————-
      *In view mode (key ), mouse over for unit and terrain info (don’t have to Shift-Right Click);
      *In city mode, unworked tiles show their potential yields in grey. Can be turned off temporarily by holding , or permanently in Prefs–in which case hold will display the yields rather than hiding them;
      *New in-game menu and prefs window to manage the new features.
      *1st mode of existing cycle now hides forests and fungus so you can see what’s under them.
      *Mouse wheel controls zooming when the map is shown, but controls list scrolling when a list window is shown.

      PRACX Hotkey Reference
      ======================
      Toggle fullscreen/windowed
      Cycle resource display mode
      Cycle terrain display mode
      On city screen, show or hide unworked resources depending on the default setting

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        AceJohnny says:

        I didn’t know about that! Thanks for pointing it out. I know where my weekend is disappearing to…

  4. cauldron says:

    I bought a Microsoft Surface just to play that game in the train, and a few others like Endless Legends. It’s true that its UI, while still functional, looks very weak now.
    Particularly in the late game when you have dozens of cities to manage.

  5. guygodbois00 says:

    “Jon Shafer, one of the best minds in the strategy gaming field” Hahahahahahahah, aaaaaaaaaah.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      But he writes words, see? That surely proves more than his…one game, which was (eventually, after expansions) pretty good.

      Yeah if you’re going to use superlatives, I want a list, and that list had better be pretty heavy on board game designers.

    • Senethro says:

      A worthy comment and convincing refutation of the linked article by Shafer.

      • Baines says:

        To be fair, he wasn’t refuting the article. He was refuting Adam Smith’s claim that Shafer was “one of the best minds in the strategy gaming field.”

        If you want to refute the article specifically, you can just read the article. I was already questioning Shafer when he said that OOTP13’s Current vs Potential display was worse than OOTP12’s. I’m not sure how putting two related values in two completely separate graphs makes them easier to judge differences between them “at a glance” than combining them into the same lines. Nor do I necessarily accept his claim that OOTP13 having the text and the bars be the same height makes the display feel “cluttered”. (Side note: OOTP12 also used the same height for text and bars, but did have more black space between the different elements.)

        • gealach says:

          Hm, interesting perspective.
          Seeing the two example menus out of context, I have to agree with Shafer. But as you said, it comes down to the usage of black space:
          – OOTP12 gives me about 3 distinct shapes to recognize before going into details (1 column of text, 1 column of bars, 1 column of numbers). This goes to 6 shapes when noticing the central divide.
          – Looking at OOTP13 gives me what? 5 lines or 10 lines, no discernible columns. I feel that it immediately forces me into going to detail level e.g. reading the text to figure out what is going on here. Having to do that every time I just want info on a glance can be a headache.

    • dontnormally says:

      Civ V was excellently designed.

  6. Seraphithan says:

    …who step forward when summoned but never raise their voices and talk across one another.

    Unless there is anarchy, then all bets are off.

  7. Cropduster says:

    Wow this nice to see.

    I don’t see it benefiting me much as over a decade later all the ui clicks and hotkey combos are burnt forever into my muscle memory alongside all the audio logs and the squelch of exploding mindworms.

    But if it gives this monster of a game a new lease of life then aside from the dip in productivity and lost man hours it can only be a good thing.

  8. mukuste says:

    I don’t understand — does he have access to the source code? Or is this just a series of concept mockups?

  9. Chiron says:

    Build window and prototypes window looks good, not so sure about the rest of it. I never had an issue with AC’s UI though.

    Looking forward to seeing how he gets on

    • Blastaz says:

      It’s too colourful. He says he’s going for a slick sci fi look, but AC shouldn’t be slick. You’ve crashed and are trying to survive, it should look slightly battered and dinghy.

      • Chiron says:

        Those icons for resources are fairly bad, childish in fact.

        You can’t see any numbers either, compare the nutrients block in the original and the revamp. The original shows clearly how much your getting in, how much shortfall you have. You also have clear numbers of what resources you have in the main box.

        There are some nice little tweaks but it does the usual modern design habit of hiding the details in order to make it look slick. Sometimes you need the screen to tell you things without digging.

  10. melancholicthug says:

    Sounds nice! Though I never really had much of a problem with the UI, to be honest. I’ve been playing it a bit this year and found it as absorbing and manageable as it did back in my teens. Civ IV-V interface I found a bit obnouxious, to be honest.

  11. Ugubriat says:

    YAY. That is all.

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    teije says:

    Been playing Endless Space recently, and that is a very well-designed UI – not perfect, but best I’ve ever seen for a 4x (or any TBS) game. A good model for any game designer.

  13. Telkir says:

    PCG seem to have taken up this story and are painting it in the light that this is a mod for AC. But as I just asked there in their comments… IS this confirmed to be that, now or in the future? It would be excellent if so, but the fellow’s blog gives absolutely no indication that’s the case from what I could see.

    The way the mouse moves in the video gives it every indication that none of that footage is in-game; there’s only a single still screenshot over which all the new UI elements are layered.

    So far it’s screaming “visual design project”, not mod, sadly. Clarification in big letters for dimwits like myself would be appreciated.

  14. shagen454 says:

    I’ve played this game more than any other game in my life so this would definitely make me happy. One of my favorite games ever; it’d be nice to see it get the same sort of love & attention Homeworld: Remastered received – update the menus, higher resolution textures, modern options etc.

  15. DevilishEggs says:

    I love UI mods, love love love. And they’re surprisingly rare. Half the games I play I end up searching for one and find butkus.

  16. Ufofighter says:

    About time, I’ve been waiting for this for a while.

  17. Grey_Ghost says:

    I’ve never played this game.

  18. Press X to Gary Busey says:

    About the Project

    Disclaimer: This is a visual design project, not a modification to the base game.