As a background, I’m a Starcraft gamer. I’ve played many RTS games, including AoE2, AoE3, AOM, SC:BW, SC2, all the SupComs, COH, Total war games, etc. First and foremost though, I am a Starcraft gamer. AoE4 is a lot of fun to play, its surprising how much fun I’m having with it because it has some relatively slow pacing compared to SC2. This post isn’t about pacing, game balance, game design, graphics, camera, etc, but about how the player interacts with the game, so let’s get started!
The UI/UX Design in this game is not optimal for a competitive RTS Experience. It looks like the devs are trying to “simplify” an RTS game to improve the retention of casual players, but the oversimplification is leading towards unnecessary headaches and complications. To not sound so dramatic, but to also sound dramatic, the UI/UX Design is crap and worthless. Here are all the reasons why the devs decided to make a ‘simplified UI’ that actually hurts the game, and due to this design, completely removed or hurts their ability, to implement many features players would absolutely love to have.
- The Unit Selection Box on the Wireframe
In AOE4, there’s a little box that has all the units you have selected displayed underneath. In their quest to simplify the process, the devs combined all similar units under a single icon. For example, with the spearmen, you’ll have the picture of a spearman then the number on top of the icon showing how many you have selected.
There are 2 key issues with this:
First, it’s small. Very small. Difficult to click small. Difficult to see sometimes kind of small. Imagine wanting to just select all the spearmen from your army, and control group them onto another control group (Control group stealing will be talked about later). You have to click the icon, then put them onto the control group. There’s no issue with this, except that the icons are so tiny that it’s easy to misclick. Of course, you can always CTRL+Click the units on the screen, but there may be times when you need to visually look somewhere else, and make some changes to your control groupings. This makes the process unintuitive and difficult. Having something similar to AOE2, where you have all your individual units laid out, with their HP displayed and a beautiful Icon on what the unit is is the absolute prefered method of displaying selected units. The current version is a downgrade on 20 years of RTS game design, and a step backwards for the series.
The second issue is that there’s no granular control of what units are there, and removed the Shift Deselect feature that is present in other RTS games that’s incredibly useful. Shift Deselect works by Holding the Shift Key and Clicking on the units you want to deselect. The best example of where this feature would be used is when I select 10 vills and want to send 5 to wood and 5 to gold. In this game, I cannot do that without manually boxing 5 out of the 10 vills, and moving them, then selecting the other 5 and moving them. Shift Deselect will work by sending all 10 to one resource, hold shift, click the bottom of the screen where you have your unit icon until you deselect 5, then sending them to the next resource. Until you have used this feature extensively, you won’t understand how much quicker it is than manually selecting.
Another way to think about this is with how Vills stack in this game. If I have 8 vills on sheep, they will stack on top of each other. Selecting one vill is actually quite a challenge sometimes because of how easy it is to accidentally make a teeny-tiny box and selecting 2 vills. Shift Deselect will literally solve this issue, but with the UI’s current implementation of having entire stacks of units together, and putting them in a little tiny corner compared to even AOE2’s massive unit selection box with all the individual units listed there, the AOE4 system is a massive downgrade compared to systems created over 20 years ago.
- Missing basic Hotkeys.
Since the last point was so long I’ll give you a short one. This is related mainly to how the player interacts with the UI, in that the UI should be there to help the player, not be an obstacle they need to overcome.
Escape doesn’t cancel units in production. They have to be manually canceled. Please let me select my damn production, see that I accidentally qued too many units, and hit escape to cancel them instead of clicking wildly on the screen. Thanks. Also, allow me to do the same with buildings being built. I don’t understand why this basic interaction isn’t in the game.
Shift Deselecting that I talked about earlier
Control Group Stealing (able to remove units from a control group while simultaneously adding them to another control group). I think this should be the absolute standard of what control grouping should be, but at least give us the option to do this if you disagree with it being the standard.
If I think of more I’ll add it. But the Escape to Cancel is a big one.
- Units in Production
So… The current placement of showing the units currently in production is a little confusing. So They have this bar, that shows the individual icons of the units in production, and they sort of line up across the screen as I build more… There are a few issues here.
The first is related to my #1 issue of unit selection being teeny-tiny and needing some changing and this issue is extended to buildings as well. In Starcraft, I would have all my Command Centres selected (Equivalent to a TC), and I can take a quick glance at the bottom of the screen to see if they’re all producing because these little white squares that appear saying “Hey there’s something being made here!” In this game, because of how the production is laid out, there’s no concrete way of knowing that you qued up enough units to have all your production producing. This becomes a big issue in the later stages of the game when you have 20 production facilities and you’re trying to make sure they are all building. Imagine holding the Q button to make archers on 10 Archery Ranges, and then double-checking to see if you made too many archers or too little. That takes another 5-10 seconds to sit there and count each and every box to make sure you made enough. In SC2, this takes a quick glance and you have all the information you need. A global queue would solve this issue by giving us a clear number of how many of each unit producing at a given time, but also just giving me those little white boxes that appear underneath, in my ideal world, the individual production buildings that will appear completely unstacked on my Wireframe.
- The “ALL” Tab.
So idk if you all have taken a closer look at this… But the ALL tab is so pointless it’s hilarious. The ALL tab appears when you have your production facilities selected, and combines all the individual production facilities together so you can produce from 2 buildings without having to tab between them individually. It’s actually a clever concept in theory, and it’s actually been helpful when maxing out unit upgrades because after I finished all my Barracks upgrades, I can see that there are some Archer ones left that I didn’t complete because they appear clearly under the ALL tab. HOWEVER! There are almost no use-cases where this is useful. I think the ALL tab should be removed, in favour of manually tabbing between the different production facilities to build what you need to build. The ALL tab just ads another key-press, that if miss-pressed, will put me on a completely different production facility that I may build the incorrect units out of. It’s a small thing, oh my is this tab annoying. Even if you could use the ALL tab as intended, and want to build Barracks units, ARchery Units, and Stable units all from the same control group at the same time, you cant. They use overlapping hotkeys and you have to tab through your selection anyways.
I will say that this is actually helpful with unit control, where you may have abilities on different hotkeys that you can activate without needing that granular unit control because the abilities just appear, but you’ll still run into the same issue of needing to tab through, or CTRL+Click the units you want to cast abilities with.
In summary. Remove the ALL tab. Thanks.
- Icons are all White Thing on Green Background and Look Very Similar.
I accidentally made 10 camels instead of Lancers one game because they looked too similar at a first glance. Upon taking 5 extra seconds to examine it I realized I was an idiot and saw that they looked a bit different. I’m going to say this in the nicest way possible: ICONS NEED TO BE UNIQUE IN THEIR VISUALS SO I DON’T HAVE TO GUESS OR THINK ABOUT WHAT I’M BUILDING ESPECIALLY WITH GRID HOTKEYS WHERE EVERY HOTKEY IS SHARED TOGETHER WITH SOMETHING ELSE.
- Units are not Distinct Enough From their Feudal Age Look to Their Imperial Age Look.
Wait… This isn’t UI and UX Design… Welp, It kind of ties in with #5 so it’s staying.
- QWERT Sub Tabs for Building Production.
Can we have Non-Military and Military back, please? Having all these different tabs makes my head hurt, and the process of transitioning between them is even worse. If I accidentally click the W tab instead of the Q tab, I have to hit escape twice, once to cancel the building that I almost (but didn’t) build, and to exit the sub-tab so I can hit Q again and select what I want to build. Look, I understand why the Sub Tabs need to exist. Some Factions have buildings that can produce all their units from it under a sub-tab. This is a proper use of the sub-tab. Even the infantry Units that can produce Siege weaponry. That’s also the correct use of a sub-tab. Currently, I have to interpret tiny little Green and White Icons that mean nothing, Use that to figure out what sub-tab I want, and also use that to figure out what building I want. I should not have to think about things like this. Those extra seconds I have to spend thinking are a few extra seconds that things are happening and I’m losing Vills somewhere to another Cav raid that I could easily stop. Give us 2 menus. A Basic and Advanced like SC2, or a Non-Military and Military from AOE2. It’s a much more intuitive design for an RTS game like this. Imagine, I want to build a University. Which tab is that in the current system? Idk, I’ve never built one. If there were 2 menu’s, it’s simple. A university is a Non-military building, therefore it’s under the first tab. No thinking is required.
Of course, this will mainly affect new players that haven’t memorized where everything is. Having a familiar system will help ease players into the game. This system does not do that.
I can’t think of anymore, but I know I have a lot more in my head, but these were the biggest pressing UI/UX design issues that I had. I’ll add more as I think of them.
In the Devs goal to try and make things simpler, they regressed on basic features that players would come to expect in an RTS game.
The Devs intentions of all these features make a lot of sense to how they would benefit the player:
#1 gives the player more screen space by limiting the space the UI takes on the screen, #3 shows all the units in production at one spot of the screen, once again trying to limit the extra UI necessary, #4 is trying to make it easier for the players by having everything on one tab and make certain tasks more efficient and simple, #5 is meant to have a more “Modern” look (Or they’re placeholders for the beta, who knows), and #7 is meant to separate things by age so you can visually see what you unlock when you advance to the next age.
HOWEVER, In practice, this makes the game so unintuitive and frustrating as an RTS veteran and overcomplicated for new players by removing features that have been around for over 20 years, and by changing things that have been standard in the series for over 20 years. This makes the game feel foreign to everyone that plays it, and adds a new learning curve, and gives players untransferrable muscle memory that can’t be used in other RTS games because of the unique and backward nature to AOE4’s UI/UX Design.
The funny thing is, the fix is there already. Literally copy-paste AOE2 DE’s UI and you’re done. It’s baffling how this game somehow managed to go backward from a UI that’s been in the series for years. If all my concerns in this post are addressed, this game will probably be one of the best RTS games to come out in the last 5 years.