Muddy waters - Usability and design issues

Ford (Flat, Shallow Water)Ford/Flat

Grey Shallow Water/ (Shallow Water)Grey Shallow Water

Grey Deep Water/ (Deep Water)Grey Deep Water

Starting with Wesnoth development series (1.9.x) new graphics and animations for terrain and unit types were introduced. These new graphics enrich the gaming experience, since they render the board smoother to the sight.

However, some users highlighted some problems with these new terrain types, in particular for water based terrains. It seems rather hard to distinguish at first sight the type of terrain for certain 'waters'.

Is it a problem? Why?

Distinguishing different terrain types is not a minor component of the strategy game. Terrain types affect Defence modifiers, so while for most units "Flat Water" provides a 40% defence, for "Shallow Water" it only provides 20%. Deciding where to place your units when considering an attack/defence strategy it also imply to consider which units to put in what type of water (For instance 'water-friendly' units have higher bonuses in water, than 'earth-friendly' ones, so sometimes you will need/wish to bring the battle in the water).

However, on the one hand this only seems a marginal problem. When playing, it is enough to hoover with the mouse over the terrain hex to receive all the information that are needed to make strategy-wise decisions. The right-column of the game interface provides such information. On the other hand, this additional step to retrieve information about terrain types was not required in the previous versions. So, from this point of view it looks like a regression in usability. Moreover, it is true that with some training and use of these graphics, players could get used to them and become able to distinguish different terrain types at first sight. However, it was highlighted that for colour-blind player this would not be that easy. So, beside being an usability issue, there are some aspects of game accessibility involved.

Water terrain types in 1.8.xWater terrains in 1.8.6 Water Terrain types in 1.9.xWater Terrains in 1.9.6

Was the problem discussed?

I found three 'places' (I'm sure there are more, perhaps IRC) where the issue was discussed and reported. In the Italian community forum; in the international forum, and in the bug tracker (bug #18059). The issue emerged in all places during the second half of April 2011, and it faded out within a couple of weeks. Not surprisingly, the place where the discussion flourished the most is the international forum.

In different ways, all participants (users, developers, and art contributors) agreed that the contrast and the differences between Ford/Flat Water, Shallow Water and Deep Water are not as evident as they should be for a smooth gameplay. What was not agreed upon is the proper way to solve the issue.

Can it be 'solved'?

Of course it can be solved. As for any other element of the game, terrain appearance/behaviour can be modified and a solution can be found. At the moment however, the bug is still open and (of the few workarounds that were suggested) I could not find any that are actually implemented.

The two most obvious directions to go are: either to replace new terrain graphics with older ones or to modify/create new ones that do not suffer from this 'low contrast' issue. Of course the first solution would imply a further regression and the waste of months of artworks improvements. The other solution would require someone to produce this improved terrain graphics. Both solutions are technically possible, though they require work, but in the forum only the second one was discussed a little more in depth.

An add-on that is able to identify 'problematic terrain tiles' and replace them was suggested. Similarly, it was suggested to replace the graphic local files for the terrain with better ones. Both solutions would solve the problem at the end-users' side and only through the end-users' effort, but not at the upstream level.

Anyway, many different ways to solve the problem exist, and it will be interesting to see if/when/how this will be solved. Moreover, I will be curious to understand why a solution will be favoured over the others.

Water Terrains in 1.9.7Water Terrains in 1.9.7

UPDATE (22/06/2011): A couple of days ago, the new development version (1.9.7) was released. Notably, it already includes a fix for the low contrast between Shallow/Deep water terrain tiles (changelog).

The screenshot here, shows  the new water tiles and, admittedly, now it is easier to grasp the difference at a glance (notice that in-game water tiles are animated, so moving waves increase even more the contrast).

Interestingly enough, I just noticed that as of the moment of this update nor the forum thread which discussed the problem nor the bug report have been updated/closed.