Final Fantasy User Interface

Over the past few weeks I’ve been playing a game for the PS2 called Final Fantasy XII (sounds dirty, but it’s not). I haven’t been a big fan of the series, but this one is really very good. I’m finding it especially interesting from the perspective of user interface design.

FFXII is a role-playing game, in the vein of Dungeons & Dragons. Generally speaking, these can be fairly complex endeavors. You control multiple characters, each of whom has its own attributes that evolve over the course of the game, and you need to attend to their complement of weapons, armor, and accessories, as well as micromanaging their individual actions in battle (I know, fun times). Creating a UI that allows players to sort through all of this complexity is a real challenge, but the design in this game is just fantastic. I expand on a few examples below.

Equip (click to enlarge)

Screenshot 1: Equip

Equip screen

This first screen shows the interface for equipping a character with body armor (click the screenshot to enlarge it). The list of available armor is on the right side, and colored dots show what each of the 6 characters is currently wearing. So character 4 is currently wearing bronze armor, and we’re considering upgrading him to diamond armor (the current position of the cursor). The list of attributes on the left shows what the exact effect of that upgrade will be, with the blue numbers indicating the new values. The character’s defense will go up fivefold, while his strength will increase by a more modest amount. Players can compare different armors just by moving the cursor up and down and noting the attribute changes each one affords.

Another little nuance is that certain characters are only allowed to wear certain types of armor. This is indicated by a circle under that character’s face. If the character can’t wear the armor, we see a dot instead of a circle. So we can tell at a glance that Basch is the only person who can wear diamond armor, while anyone is welcome to leather clothes. I like too that faces are used as column headings here: it’s both space-efficient and takes advantage of the fact that people are innately good at recognizing faces.

Gambits (click to enlarge)

Screenshot 2: Gambits

Gambits

Final Fantasy XII includes a novel gameplay element called the gambit system, which is a sort of very simple programming language. Rather than laboriously commanding each character action by action in battle, you can set up a list of things they should do automatically whenever a certain condition is true. This is the gambit screen for a character named Penelo, who is currently assigned five active commands. The fifth one says that if any foe is nearby, she should attack it. But it’s superceded by all of the commands listed above it, which include healing poisoned allies or curing them if their health drops below 70%. It’s kind of funny that the condition statements are purchased or won over the course of the game, with the most helpful ones being more difficult to attain.

The system is flexible and very easy to use. You just pair a condition statement with an action, turn the gambit on and you’re ready to roll. Each gambit can be picked up and repositioned in the list to ensure the actions are executed in the proper order. The interplay of different characters in different battles against different enemies makes the gambits rather involved. It’s a great use of programming logic, allowing the player to assemble a sequence of if-then statements and then test out their effectiveness in different scenarios.

Battle (click to enlarge)

Screen 3: Battle

Battle head-up display

When in battle, an overlay provides a remarkable amount of information without obscuring your view of the action, as shown in screen 3. You’re able to keep track of each character’s current and maximum health, current and maximum magic power, available actions, next action, how soon an action will be performed, which character is leading, whether their gambits are active, whether a character is being targeted, the enemy’s health, and your character’s position in a map of the world. That’s really quite a lot, yet it doesn’t feel at all obtrusive. The economy of space strikes me as very Tufte.

Scratching the surface

That’s really just the beginning; I could go on at some length describing the menu structure, automated mapping, selection controls, cursor behavior, etc. There are so many good things happening in this game, many of them very small touches that are easy to overlook because they feel completely natural. Far from treating the game as frivolous, it’s clear that the designers put real care into this UI.

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