Monday, March 19, 2012

War Room Initial Thoughts

Forward: I am professional software developer and have been developing software for about 12 years, almost half my life. In the last 4 months I have developed iPhone apps related to Warmachine/Hordes.

I have designed and released an app that provides a small subset of what War Room is looking to offer. Battle Track offers iPhone users the ability to track in game damage. I released it before War Room was announced, and have since stopped pursuing development of it. It has yet to be seen if I will take up further development of Battle Track.

We have had a first look at War Room, and I wanted to share my initial thoughts on War Room coming from a software developer perspective.

Gaming Utility Apps
Creating a utility for assistance in table top wargaming is no easy feat. The game platform was not designed for such heavy integration with technology in mind. Most players appreciate the detachment from technology that tabletop wargaming offers, or they simply find it unnecessary to enjoy or excel at the game. Players, however, do appreciate a powerful and flexible army building app to set them up. Once that is done, they shed their technological desires and roll some real world dice. With that, it is easy to see that their are mixed feelings revolving around any tabletop wargaming utility app.

War Room
War Room is Privateer Press' response to the communities desire to have a powerful and flexible army building utility. The present iBodger does the job, but as it is not integrated at a company level, it takes time for new releases to be integrated and pushed out to the community. Privateer Press' is making a good industry move by listening to their customer base, and responding by offering a company backed technological platform. There is a lot of business sense to it, but I will leave that commentary to others. (maybe Aaron can chime in with a economist's point of view). I will instead try to focus on the software development aspects of War Room.

Native User Controls
From my present knowledge of War Rooms user interface it is very obvious that there will be no native user interface for iOS or Android. Instead a third-party interface is used to accommodate the many different target platforms. Something like the Unity engine comes to mind.

Using a third-party interface does offer a consistent user experience to all targeted devices. This can limit developmental errors, and keep the development team integrated instead of fragmented on two different operating systems. It also keeps developmental time and costs down.

I personally disagree with the use of a third-party interface approach. The two operating systems targeted by War Room have two different user bases, and those user bases are trained for specific interface paradigms.

These paradigms are usually heavily leveraged to provide a powerful user interface unique to the device.
Without such leverage, the user is shifted away from what he is accustomed to. Leveraging user control intuition is a very powerful way of keeping your interface clean and concise. Without it, users are forced to learn a new user experience, akin to learning another language.

The time spent developing and learning a new user interface could have been time developing the feature set of the app.Whether the time spent developing a third-party interface is worth it depends highly on the amount of features.

List Building
List management is a big field of user interface development. "Swipe to delete" is almost a no brainer. War Room offers an integrated army building mechanism. From a design perspective it's hard to gripe about list management without first handling the app. List management can be very elegant, but it is very easy to get it horribly wrong.

Roster Display, Rules, Cards
This is the "meat" of the app. You setup your list, pair your game up with your partner, and most of your interaction will revolve around these three aspects. 

Roster display, from it seems, will be a list, where your battlegroup, and attachments, are indented. The Roster needs to be easily manipulated and reordered. Being able to find the model you want quickly should be of top priority. Even a quick textual search should be available for use in larger games.

Being able to see your opponents roster is very powerful, although I have a sense that it will be situational. It can come off as a bit "counter-intel", but when it comes to double checking certain rules, it can be helpful. Even more so, having a 3rd party rules judge could be awesome to make sure players are following the written rules.

Having quick access to the rules does seem nice, but from the view, the access to the rules seem very modal. This forces you to only have one thing up, limiting your ability to cross check across multiple rules. I'd have to have the app to see if this is more powerful than I speculate it will be. It's good to have it available to new players, but can be very powerful for veteran players to make sure they are consistent. It will be nice to have a digital "trusted" rule source.

Another biggie, and what Privateer Press is banking on to make money from the app. One gripe that first came to mind is the ability to only see one card at a time. This is very limiting, although I could see it being the only way to handle smaller phone screens.

With tablets becoming very popular, just having one card available is just not enough. I want a virtual 3x3 where I can zoom in, pan, and "flip" cards over to see the reverse side. This would be very powerful, and leverage the large tablet screens. Without this, I just see all the screen real estate being wasted on viewing one single card. Tablets screen have the capacity to display a large amount of information very clearly, and without such optimization for larger screens, I can just see the card view fizzling. You have to compete against having all the physical cards available.

Marking damage looks interesting. I am biased in this regard. I strived to provide a native user experience for marking damage in Battle Track. PP is locked in with there "on the card approach". It could be useful, but providing % of model damaged, and really good crippled system feedback is really important. Technology should really be leveraged in that regard. Simply have a "virtual pen" mark damage is just not enough. Marking other states, i.e. stationary, continuous effects of the model I see as superfluous. These game states will always be marked with tokens on the game board, or users will end up overlooking them when they shouldn't. I shouldn't have to babysit my opponent by looking at his roster the whole game.

More to be Seen
This is just the first look at War Room, and I have a big suspicion that PP will not rest until the development of War Room is top notch. It will take time for features to become very bold and mature, but with that we will have a very powerful technological utility to help us in our wargaming. More to be seen on the War Room front.

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