ANAHEIM, Calif.--BlizzCon is under way, and now that the opening ceremony is over and the line for the official merchandise store is long enough to wrap around either of Azeroth's continents, twice, it's time for the panels and presentations to get started. Kicking off the packed schedule this morning were a Diablo III Classes presentation in the main hall and a panel discussion on World of Warcraft's user interface. GameSpot was present at both, of course, but to paraphrase a public service announcement that was repeated several times at the top of the WOW UI panel, this story is not where you want to be if you're interested in learning more about Diablo III's character classes.
Other members of the Blizzard team joined the panel later, but only two were present at the start: UI team lead Tom Thompson and designer Derek Sakamoto. They kicked off the session by outlining some of their design philosophies. "Gameplay first" and "minutes to learn, lifetime to master" were among the bullet points, and Thompson even went as far as to say that a game's UI should be "easy enough for your grandmother to use." That might be true of WOW for the first 10 levels or so, but if you've ever had an elderly relative look over your shoulder as you raid with your level-70 character, you know that the number of buttons arranged in rows all over your screen can be intimidating to say the least.
To illustrate the amount of time and care that go into designing every element of a Blizzard UI, the guys showed numerous mock-ups for WOW's upcoming achievement system. These included wireframe sketches, garish full-color mock-ups, and versions that supported different functionalities, such as an option to compare your own achievements to those of another player in your vicinity. That particular feature looks to function almost identically to Xbox Live, although the nature of some of the achievements in WOW means that some of them incorporate progress bars to let you know how close you are to unlocking them.
Next up was a look at the UI for the new death knight hero class--specifically at the character portrait area that incorporates the health meter, rune timers, and such. At some point, it seems, the UI team was eager to distance the death knight from other classes in the game by giving its UI a unique look and feel. A number of different mock-ups were shown, most of which were based on a sword motif. There was plenty of laughter from the audience when the final design was shown, though, because it was almost indistinguishable from the very first image shown--the same character UI that has been in the game since day one.
The main menu bar that runs along the bottom of the screen hasn't changed much since day one either. There have been tweaks to incorporate the keyring and other new features, and when the achievement system is introduced, you'll notice an additional button on the row that opens it. Making room for this extra button was no mean feat, apparently; the lag meter has been moved so that it's visible only via one of the other menus, and the bag icons are each two pixels thinner. That's hardly big news, of course, but it's interesting to see how much work goes into something as simple as adding a single button.
While bag icons are going to be smaller, bags thankfully won't be. In fact, freeing up bag space for players seems to be something that's being addressed in the upcoming Wrath of the Lich King expansion in a big way. For example, pets and mounts will now be stored and accessed via a tab on the character menu, and tokens will now be treated as currencies alongside gold rather than as items that take up valuable bag space. Changes like this might sound insignificant if you're not a World of Warcraft player, but almost all of them drew cheers from the standing-room-only auditorium.
There were plenty of questions from the audience during the Q&A session at the end of the presentation, as well. Much of that time saw the assembled Blizzard designers responding to queries about add-ons and feature suggestions. Among the more interesting topics raised were requests for more action bars (the designers stated that this will not happen, since if this becomes necessary then there's something wrong with the game design), requests for an in-game character spec calculator like those available on various Web sites, and the fine line that designers tread when making information available to the modding community while making it obtuse enough to be confusing for the bots used by gold farmers.
Perhaps the biggest cheer of the session came when Sakamoto, seemingly unsure as to whether or not he should be talking about it, mentioned that a "dual spec" system is in the works that would allow you to design two very different specs for your character and switch between them if, for example, you were finishing a PVE dungeon and heading into a PVP battleground that called for a very different skill set. Whether or not that will ever be implemented remains to be seen, but what's clear is that Blizzard takes its community's wishlist very seriously, which is perhaps why World of Warcraft is barely recognizable as the same game that shipped almost four years ago.