Tales from the UI Skunkworks: Military Management, Episode One of A Gazillion

User interface design is, honestly, one of the most difficult parts of creating a game.  Every button has a profound impact on how people will be motivated to play (or not play) a game.  I suspect this is why so many games seem to almost consciously decide not to experiment too radically with UI.  It’s so much easier to just build it the way people are used to rather than building it the way that perhaps it should be.  We’re no different; Dredmor’s UI has a lot of flaws that we didn’t see at the time of development. For instance, it turns out that Inventory Management isn’t actually a super fun mini-game. Even then, we completely overhauled the Dredmor gameplay UI some 4 or 5 times before we settled on a system which is still flawed, and to this day leads people to play the game in a way that detracts from the experience. Such is game development.

Not like this. Never like this.

We are doing our best to apply the lessons learned from Dredmor to Clockwork Empires. Not all of these lessons are applicable, of course, as CE isn’t a Roguelike — and there are a lot more moving parts to control. Granted, there are also a lot more strategy/management style games with real-time mouse-based UIs to draw from, and we have played a ton of them; however, by virtue of making a game that crosses the genre-streams a bit, none of these systems perfectly fit the needs of CE. For instance, dropping a Starcraft control scheme on the game would be inappropriate because Starcraft is (arguably) about competitive micro-managing, optimized build orders, and a bit of gambling on the current “meta”. In contrast, CE is ideally about creating stories within its simulation.

The messy beginnings of a UI design for placing buildings & associated machine modules. (Then someone said, “Why not just rip off The Sims?”)

To do that, we try to draw almost all of the systems somehow into the personalities of the people.  You don’t order a person to go make a house as in Starcraft; Rather, you let them know that you’d like one and if they’re not drunk, or busy fighting capybaras in the swamp, maybe they’ll do it.  We decided early on that we were going to try to make all interaction with the characters a step removed from the characters themselves to allow their personalities to be demonstrated through their actions. So rather than directly controlling units, CE will have players create orders as distinct objects which will be carried out to the best of the simulated population’s ability. These orders are generally tied to the world itself in the form of buildings and points on the landscape (“Chop down that forest”, “Build a Brick Factory with three chimneys here”).

Tying orders to geography has its limits though. If you need to select a barracks to tell a military unit where they need to be, but the barracks is on one end of the map and the soldiers tied to that barracks are on the other end, you’re going to have a bad time.  So there are situations when it is necessary to break the purely map-based scheme by introducing abstract UI constructs – in this case, a globally accessible control frame that allows you to select different squads, load them out with available gear (more on that later), and give them orders regardless of where they are on the map.

A totally fake mockup for an order-creation dialog.

The decision to split UI metaphors can be a dangerous one and requires careful consideration. If we’ve got a building-tied interface and a global floating interface, people now have to guess which of the two places they are likely to find the controls to do what they need to do unless we find a very clear line to differentiate what kinds of orders go where. Power users can learn to use any system we design, but I want my mom to be able to play Clockwork Empires.

So let’s talk a bit about this global control frame: think of it as your settlement’s RPG character sheet, but instead of skills, stats, and equipment you’ve got different people with their individual qualities who, when organized differently, affect how your settlement works in different ways.

Within the scope of the military side of the system, people who enlist or are enlisted in the military will form themselves into groups. Lower class military will just form squads of soldiers, middle-class characters will act as NCOs who supervise a squad, and if you eventually assign an upper-class individual to a military position, they will become an officer in charge of organizing platoon-sized groups. What’s more, the personality traits of the officers in the chain of command will impact how your squads undertake various tasks (and if you have really poorly trained units, their own whims will have a stronger priority).

We also need to consider things like vehicles and special equipment. Specifically steam-armor, artillery pieces, perhaps some sort of mechanized steam transport, et cetera. Having to equip these to individual soldiers would muddy the interface like crazy.  Every character will have equipment, but if you could actually optimize loadout for a military of 25 or so guys – that might just throw their musket in a ravine anyway because they’re mostly autonomous and/or mad – would be an infuriating optimization problem.

So, you ask, how do we give out that lovely steam-armor?

Our current solution is to give every squad it’s own “inventory”, of sorts, which consists of just one slot.  You can choose one special piece of equipment they can use, be it a Gatling gun or a steam-armor suit, and they figure out how the squad is going to use it best. This collapses a problem of potentially hundreds of inventory slots to maybe 10 at most, while giving your military the ability to specialize squad roles.

Squad Organization

More poorly-crafted UI scheme sketching: Unassigned unit pool on the left, Civilian crews on the right, and the poor, poor military units in the middle.

Civilians use the same system, but instead of combat squads, they form work crews for the various job assignments (making beer, building walls, chopping wood).  Their equipment slot items will be a bit different: things like an auroch-drawn cart or a steam powerloader.

So now we have one UI scheme to in-the-darkness-bind-them and allow players some control over which units are assigned which tasks that’s mostly opt-in, has a few choices for customization, and can be accessed from anywhere. Buildings are now the place where you go to designate which commodities you wish to turn into which other commodities (and other behaviors for things like fixed artillery turrets), and jobs that have no specific building for their functions, such as an order to collect lumber from a forest, will be tied to “flags” on the map which will have all of their direct functions attached to a menu specific to each flag.  The buildings menu and the flag menu will both have some version of a hyperlink to the global unit control frame that shows the characters actively working on that task.

We’re running with this until we hate it, as always, this is very subject to testing and ruthless iteration.  If it’s something we’re happy with it, we’ll make some prettier pictures for you guys.

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40 Responses to “Tales from the UI Skunkworks: Military Management, Episode One of A Gazillion”

  1. slugnugget says:

    i love these! the more i read about it, the more awesome the game sounds, and as a wannabe game-maker type, i find your updates to be very thought-provoking. also hilarious. thank you!

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  2. Fade Manley says:

    I would totally turn on Coggy and listen to her advice on managing steam. Just saying.

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  3. EleSigma says:

    Wouldn’t hugging trees be something only a poet would do? Is that overseer possibly a secret poet?

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  4. ShadowTani says:

    Sounds promising as usual. And I have to agree about the importance of the UI. In my opinion a compact and highly functional UI is essential for how comfortable a game is to play. :3

    Though I’m left wondering what the current plan is about the basic equipment of the soldiers outside that special one slot squad equipment (which I have to say is a very good idea!) – will they equip these themselves from the local armory (assuming there will be one) or will the player have some form of control over what gear they equip? I’m guessing more of the former than the later due to the apparent preference for macro management over micro, but I’m curious.

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    • The other equipment for the characters will be handled by the characters themselves, given their particular likes and dislikes for different weaponry and hats (and other things). The player should have no means of micro-managing this, otherwise we’re just motivating people to do something really, truly horrible.

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      • Fade Manley says:

        I am honestly excited about a game that takes hat preference into account for characters.

        (And cravats. My god, I am hoping SO HARD for a cravat slot on characters somewhere.)

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      • Teleros says:

        A suggestion (in case you haven’t done it already): have the NCOs in the army choose their squad’s default equipment.

        Officers could possibly do the same, but personally I’d have them responsible for more higher-level organisation: they try to form ranks 2-3 men deep say, or tell squads to sweep an area more effectively, etc.

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  5. Ruigi says:

    Okay so lets say that Corporal Rolfe Bergstrom is in a squad and I want to make sure he is the one who gets to wear the pilots the artillery, Will I be able to designate Bergstrom as the artillery guy specifically, or will I have to jiggle the handle on the interface until I get the outcome that I want?

    If I’m the sort of person that actually wants to micromanage the number of left boots that get assigned to each platoon, will have the power to choose which soldiers get a left boot or will I only be able to assign a squad of seven my six left boots without any ability to designate who gets what?

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    • Lorrelian says:

      On top of keeping the game simpler, I think removing the option of micromanaging actually fits the game better than leaving it in. After all, a major theme of CE seems to be coping with the quirks of your colonists, and handing a unit a piece of equipment and expecting them to use it in whatever way they find optimal is actually very realistic…

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    • AdminDavid Baumgart says:

      The problem with introducing any of this level of control is that if it allows a player to optimize, then the player *must* optimize and will then destroy their gameplay experience because they will be compelled to do a bunch of tedious equipment shuffling. So we’re super wary of anything like this. See: http://www.designer-notes.com/?p=369.

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  6. kikito says:

    Please don’t copy Starcraft’s interface. Most of that game’s difficulty relies on using it.

    You have been careful to talk about military inventorial issues, but not about “proper” military commands – attack this enemy, retreat, etc.

    No rush though. It’s going to be hairy, especially if you want to keep the “don’t assign orders to a specific unit/group” trait on military actions.

    You should probably tape those conversations. Maybe you will want to put them online sometime in the future (maybe after release or something).

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    • AdminDavid Baumgart says:

      Ah, just to be clear: a strong theme in the post was that we are explicitly *not* reproducing Starcraft’s interface.

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  7. Headjack says:

    I just wanna build SO much steam armor.

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  8. Coaldust says:

    I await stories about the Undead Secret Poet’s Society.

    I am really glad you’re giving a lot of thought to creating a tolerable user interface. That’s something lacking in the alternatives.

    It’s also nice to hear that you’re trying to go the high road and provide a reasonable UI to a complex engine, rather than just stripping the engine of anything interesting to make creating a UI easy.

    If I can only make one request about the user interface, it would be to *not* duplicate my least-favorite flaw…

    If you’re going to have staircases or scaffolding, and you’re going to have different types, and you’re going to make me use the right command to take down that kind of staircase/scaffolding lest it collapse and kill my units (rather than say “just take down the effin’ staircase/scaffolding”), *PLEASE* make it possible to tell which kind of staircase/scaffolding it is after it’s been built, rather than guessing and hoping for the best, or taking notes, or religiously only using one kind of scaffolding/staircase. Certain game I love, with a menu system I hate, I’m looking at you…

    Also, thanks for sticking to your guns about the game being about generating good stories. I’m so looking forward to this.

    I know there can always be surprises in the development, but is there a current guess as to when you might release it?

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  9. Charles says:

    This looks absolutely horrible. I mean the job of having to design a UI for such a complex game, that is. I am so glad I don’t have to do that. Best of luck to you guys.

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  10. Henrik says:

    Given that “You don’t order a person to go make a house as in Starcraft; Rather, you let them know that you’d like one and if they’re not drunk, or busy fighting capybaras in the swamp, maybe they’ll do it,” would it possible for your colonists to attempt building something and fail? Normally I’d say no to letting simulation get in the way of core gameplay, but for this game it seems like it would kind of fit.

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  11. Leo says:

    That looks like a pretty good system.

    Will squads have overall traits, like discipline, steadfastness, squeamish etc. or will that only be on the individual level.

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  12. MichaelZ says:

    I have one thought that I’d like to throw out there. The whole create a work order works for civilian jobs like gear-manufacturing and leaf-collecting. However, this approach really breaks down when it comes to military controls. If a wild band of natives are attacking and your troops are not directly at your control, you will probably get wasted while they do more important things like nap and eat sammiches. Is there a way to make it so that we have direct control over where platoons move? This way if we see a group of rampaging rhinos we can move our troops safely between them and our woodcutters rather than creating an “order” for them to go there and they never show up. (this was the main reason I quit playing Dwarf Fortress: an inability to actually control my army)

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    • There will be some coarse controls over how you determine where your military patrols. You will have the ability to optimize it somewhat, but the scope of that is going to be very coarse. The general idea being that you will be forced, to some degree, to rely on having the right people for the job to sort out the problem as they see fit.

      We do have some thoughts on how this will work; I’m sure we’ll talk about them soon.

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      • William says:

        Would it be possible to have a function that allows you to post squads to specific locations or give them a specific ‘kill order’ (ex. Fishmen attacking docks, specify that squad 3 will move in and kill them). Would make it easier with the squad specialization focus. Hilarious as it would be, sending my squad equipped with a flamethrower to defend the brewery might not be a fun time (well, a Fun time, but you know)

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  13. JumbocactuarX27 says:

    “You don’t order a person to go make a house as in Starcraft; Rather, you let them know that you’d like one and if they’re not drunk, or busy fighting capybaras in the swamp, maybe they’ll do it. ”

    So this sounds great and I’d hate to point out the obvious, but this doesn’t mean that I’m going to be ordering everyone to build a house and they all stubbornly decide to do everything but, will it? Because that sounds like the opposite of fun.

    I mean, it’s one thing if they aren’t listening to me because they’re all entranced by the Strangely Compelling Green Obelisk, but it’s quite another if they’re all dicking around and being drunk. That goes double if I can’t tell the reason for them not listening.

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    • It’s a balancing act, both from our perspective as developers but also from the player’s perspective. We want to make sure that we’re constantly giving you different problems to deal with, and that you’re not constantly just trying to impose scarcity on the booze just to keep people out of the bar.

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      • Coaldust says:

        Perhaps a good way to deal with this would be making booze, and other such things, necessary for happiness, so cutting off the booze supply would be a bad idea, though adjusting it at times would pay off.

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  14. Azure says:

    I’m interested in how this organisation of squads of workers directed by overseers affects Anti-Paranmal Investigators. Will they follow the same pattern? Will those actions be dependent on the traits of the lead Investigator, or will they do pretty much the same thing every time they show up?

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  15. Poppenschlaffen says:

    I’m aware that my control over ccolonists and soldiers will be fairly coarse but will my controls be tight enough for me to crisis manage effectively?

    I’m worried that all manner of catastrophes will befall my colony and I’ll be powerless to stop it.

    Will my troops be able to keep people under house arrest, guard artifacts or impose martial law if neccesary?

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    • This is just going to be a balancing act. As we’ve stated, if we give players too much control, they’re going to be too busy micro-managing to be able to appreciate the events going on around them. Too little control and you won’t feel like you have an impact.

      We will, in some instances, be forcing you to make hard decisions about which characters to put in charge of what, and you will need to trust them to deal with random calamities. If that person messes things up royally, I’m sure you can find some horrible way to punish them by sending them to their death or whatnot: the possibility space for how to punish characters isn’t something that we’ve spent much time on.

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  16. Rory says:

    How self organizing do you imagine this game?

    If I have some colonists milling about and I have yet to really do much of player interference, will i find a set who want most to be soldiers off to the side, training; those who love nature, digging up a field to plant a farm; and people who dream of bureaucratic paperwork organizing available food rations?

    Or will people stare at the ground and starve if I dont tell them to pick food?

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  17. Chainlinc3 says:

    I’m a little curious as to why, for example, you couldn’t have your steam-armor squad running about in their very own Rail-less Transport Vehicle. I mean, the way it was phrased made it sound, to me at least, like you couldn’t even assign more than one suit of power-armor to a squad, which would make me rather sad. I support the idea of heavy weapons being a squad inventory, but it just seems like, if a Gatling gun takes a three man team, and your squad has six men in it… why can’t you give them two Gatling guns? Is it really necessary to find another NCO fellow and move half the group into HIS squad, only to have them follow the first squad around for the rest of their (undoubtedly short) service?

    …I also really, really want to assign a team of laborers to go hug trees. Especially if their overseer is a massive industrialist. I’m going to spend far too much time poking my colonist’s buttons just to see what happens…

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    • AdminDavid Baumgart says:

      Regarding squad size for Steam Knights: Nothing is set in stone here; it could, say, imply multiple steam armour suits are assigned to a squad. It’s about what sort of equipment the squad uses more than assigning a particular piece of equipment.

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  18. Bushranger says:

    Found this on Imgur (link in “Website” field) and instantly thought of Clockwork Empires.

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  19. Pearce says:

    I’ve been following the development of clockwork empires since it was first announced, and it’s starting to sound a bit like .

    If you haven’t already heard of it, it might be worth checking out to get some inspiration on world interaction, UI, things to not do, etc.


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    • DoofusMagnus says:

      They seem similar because they’re both inspired by Dwarf Fortress. Though from what I’ve seen of Gnomoria, “inspired” may be far too soft a word. CE has taken the general spirit of DF and then gone on to create its own unique world and personality, and that’s while I’ll be playing it while forgoing all the less original DF-alikes.

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  20. Tyler says:

    So about actually being able to assign task so specific units/groups. The question I have is if you are able to do it, why not do it all the time? I feel any opt-in system is a poor way to go. It generally seems to me that it is either you opt-in and the game is to easy (cause of the increased optimization), or you don’t opt-in and the game is far too hard (because your not optimizing).

    I personally like the separated controls and the game doing the optimizing for you. It wouldn’t make sense for the NCO to give the pyromaniac the flamethrower for instance (that is, unless the number 3 pipes are telling him too). Also, perhaps a system to help change around unit compositions, for instance in order to give an overseer more people to command.

    On the other side, I would want a way to increase the “sense of duty” citizens have, and thus increase the response time and effectiveness of my units (until they all die fighting rampaging hoards of howler monkeys)

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  21. fishy says:

    awesome post thanks for sharing!! still have questions about unit management though.. can we set punishments within the military structure to prevent the boneheads from… being boneheads? i mean like, i setup my army and assign 2 patrols, one in the morning one at night (for example) say one of the members of the day patrol sleeps in and shows up late (a big no-no in the military) can we punish the soldier accordingly? or define the parameters of punishment and allow the nco’s to determine? ufff thats just one question, ill leave it at that. this is looking amazing i really cant wait to start playing!! whens beta?

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    • Currently, you would assign someone to settle domestic disputes, and they would handle any loafing individuals as their personalities would dictate, so that choice is broadly up to you.

      Can’t really talk timelines, but we’re interested in giving people as long to help us poke the game as possible so we have a really polished product. We’ll let you know, believe me 🙂

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  22. SteampunkLover73 says:

    I am quite confused on the “customization” of the actual buildings themselves….I mean how much freedom will there be there. Will the player just have to figure out what pieces can be attached to what types of buildings? And you could, let’s say, have a gigantic looking steam powered factory thing that you assign to do whatever, like take in whatever resources gathered from surrounding areas in order to make..um..let’s say…steampunk oriented clothing or something?

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