After recovering from Ludum Dare, I resumed work on my 4X space strategy prototypes. In particular, I wanted to rework the interface before continuing with mechanics, switching to a two-panel layout, with an overall galaxy map in one panel, and then a details panel for whatever object is selected in the galaxy map. I also chose to have some fun with higher quality graphics, using some of the knowledge I gained during Ludum Dare, and made with the assistance of POV-Ray. Prototype #3 was the result.
The prior prototype tried to display everything in a single panel. This was clearly going to quickly become an overwhelming mess of noise. By splitting local details out into a second panel, I hoped to display large-scale features of the game state in the galaxy map, and small-scale features in the details panel. So only star systems and the hyperlanes connecting them appear in the galaxy map. Selecting a hyperlane in the galaxy map will show details of the hyperlane in the details panel. Most notably, this includes the units that are currently located in the hyperlane. The details panel will also show the two star systems connected by the hyperlane, and the units in each of those star systems. Selecting a star system from the galaxy map is similar, but shows the star system details, as well as all of the planets and their details and units. This model removed the planets and units from the main view, significantly reducing the high degree of noise possible in the galaxy map.
Regrettably, due to my movement mechanics, I don’t believe it worked very well, for three reasons. First, given that movement orders are not carried out immediately, but are instead queued up for execution once all players have confirmed all their orders, it is important that a player can accurately examine the movement orders already queued, and can correctly determine which units are involved. (Similarly, after a movement turn completes, players need to assess which moves were just made, whether by themselves or other players.) When the movement is between hyperlane and star system, the movement is visible in both the galaxy map and in the details panel when the hyperlane is selected. But when the movement is between planet and star system, the movement is only representable in the details panel when the star system is selected. Due to planets only being visible in the details panel, much of the movement information is no longer discernible from a quick glance.
The second problem is that given the linear display of planets in the details panel, I cannot easily draw arrows directly between the planets and the star system, as the arrows would overlap a bunch of other planets and each other. So I used small status icons to indicate movement, but this provides a much weaker indicator that again reduces the quick discernibility I was looking for.
Finally, the third problem is that star systems show up in the details panel both when the star systems themselves are selected, and also when an adjacent hyperlane is selected. I wouldn’t have expected it, but this overlap does throw me off a bit mentally. This is exacerbated by the present inability to easily navigate from a hyperlane details view to one of the adjacent star systems directly from within the details panel. That could probably be easily remedied at least, through some sort of go-to button or double-click action.
My conclusion based off of this prototype is that I need to keep all locations and movement indicators in a single view so that queued and past unit movements are easily comprehensible by the player. But it might still make a lot of sense to keep units displayed in a separate panel, with maybe only the briefest summary of units on each celestial body in the galaxy map. Fail early; fail often! That’s what prototypes are good for.