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.