The argument for addons

I was struck, when awaiting SWTOR’s launch last year, by the vitriolic debate for and against addons that raged within the fan community. Some fans — and I count myself among their number — were keen on addons; some hated the very thought of them.

Me, I love addons. I like the ability to tweak my interface to present me with the kind of information that’s important to what I’m doing. If I’m spending a few weeks grinding faction, I want to be able to see my faction standings onscreen without opening my character sheet. If I’m raiding, I want not just raid frames but easily-viewable buffs and debuffs and other important alerts. If I’m recruiting I want more social tools to hand. And I have a big monitor; I’d much rather keep that info onscreen instead of having to open up windows repeatedly to find it. I want to be able to put my action bars where I want them, and have different bars of different sizes depending on their function. I like being able to put all the elements where they suit me, style them how I like them, and hide the bits I don’t want.

For example, my WoW UI, Cataclysm-vintage:

My WoW UI, Cataclysm-vintage

Allowing players to move and resize interface components (in the style of LotRO, SWTOR, and RIFT) goes some way towards meeting the most basic needs of UI customisation, but it falls far short of allowing proper UI modding.

There are a number of reasons I like addons, both personally and on general principle:

1. Comfort

I don’t mind a single-player or multiplayer game with a locked-down UI because those games are generally limited experiences – you get in, you play, you log off. But MMOs are ‘home’ for so many of us – we log in to chat, to relax, and to socialise (and to do ‘chores’ like gathering consumables or doing dailies) as well as to actually play. The success of MMOs relies, in the long term, on players feeling ‘at home’ in their ingame environment, and UI comfort is a huge part of that. There’s a big difference between a hotel room and my own house, and uncustomisable UIs feel like the hotel rooms of the gaming world.

2. Accessibility

One of the reasons why I’m pro-addons is that they help solve accessibility issues. Not everyone is able to play with a stock UI, whether it’s vision impairments that mean you need elements bigger and more visible, hearing impairments that mean you need subtitles or onscreen warning instead of alert sounds, or physical impairments that mean you can’t move the mouse around easily while clicking so you need mouseover macros or click-to-cast addons — or some other issue. A robust addon engine means that, while devs aren’t off the hook in terms of addressing accessibility issues, players with uncommon needs or specific impairments have a much better chance of finding a solution that lets them play the game in comfort.

3. Customisation

We don’t expect everybody to play MMOs the same way or for the same reasons, and different playstyles need access to different controls and different information. It’s like buying clothing — “one size fits all” usually doesn’t fit anyone apart from those people who are within one standard deviation of the median. 1 The stock UI simply can’t be all things to all people, nor meet the needs of every facet of the (hopefully large) user base. Addons can help to make the game experience a lot more pleasant for people who fall outside the catered-to “norm”.

4. Reversion

Sometimes developers make choices that are simply ugly to your eyes, or leave you scratching your head wondering what they were thinking. (Personally, I think the unmodded original WoW UI was a simply terrible design that really doesn’t hold up to the huge screens of modern gaming computers, for instance.) Allowing addons that modify the interface means that hapless players can undo the dev choices that seem insane to them.

(Unsurprisingly, some devs are so attached to their precious interfaces that they cite the “user experience” as the reason they’re disallowing addons. Pal, if your interface design is so great, your players wouldn’t want addons to change it. Take the hint, yes?)

Customising the SWTOR UI

5. Inspiration

A vibrant addon-creating and -using community is effectively a volunteer workforce refining and playtesting the best (and worst) interface changes that addons can offer; the developers are then free to incorporate that sort of functionality into the game proper — which is good for everybody, as native features are almost always smoother and faster than those from third-party plugins. WoW has a long history of incorporating the most popular addon functionalities into the game itself, and I think other games miss out by not doing the same.

Countering the counterarguments

Unfortunately, all too many people have a kneejerk DO NOT WANT reaction to addons; to them, “addons” are synonymous with “elitist assholes who use DPS meters as a tool to put other people down”.

Certainly, every game community has its share of assholes, but despite the common arguments, addons don’t make the community toxic. Community size (plus its demographics and the basic asshole-amplifying nature of the internet) makes the community toxic. Gearscore, Recount and Omen didn’t make the WoW community a horrible place – 12 million players (and poor community policies and the proliferation of “level 1 forum alts” did that). Addons are just tools, and I can honestly say that my community experience in WoW, RIFT, TSW or LotRO (which all allow addons) was not any worse than my experience in SWTOR or GW2 (which do not).

The bottom line

What it boils down to for me is that having addons shouldn’t make life worse for the people who choose to play without them, but not having addons does make life worse for people who want (or need) to play with them. Provided I’m able to do my job in group play, and I’m not an asshole, it has no impact on anybody else whether or not I’m using addons.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to download some addons for RIFT.

  1. And this article is, totally tangentially, an interesting look at why off-the-rack clothes fit so badly.

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3 Responses to “The argument for addons”

  1. October 9, 2012 at 19:58 #

    I’m not against add-ons at all but I find the history of them interesting. WoW is obviously the best example because they had such an open add-on API (I can’t talk about Rift as I haven’t played it) and many popular addons were incorporated into the interface (multiple attachments in mail, gear management etc) which can only be a good thing. They improved quality of life.

    However, other add-ons – like BossMods and similar – change the way that the game can be played and can even affect how encounters are designed and I wonder if that is, ultimately, a good or desirable thing. Sure a threat meter is a useful tool but there’s a difference between taunting when a meter hits 25% vs taunting when you see a mob switch targets from you to a DPS.

    I agree about add-ons being tools though and the argument about not letting them because of the perception of them being used as against individuals is as silly as arguing a ban on forks because they can be used as a weapon as well as for eating.

  2. spinks
    October 9, 2012 at 21:13 #

    I do think damage meters change the nature of a game, and particularly how players relate to each other.

    I have a mild prejudice against addons because I think multiplayer games are fairer when everyone uses the same UI. If I’m going to be compared to other players, I’d like it to be based on skill (or personality) and not on how much time I wanted to spend tweaking the interface and searching out addons to make something that was supposed to be challenging become trivially easy. I especially hate the silverdragon/locate rare mobs addons because dammit, the challenge was supposed to be that you had to go find them yourself, not just install an addon and lol.

  3. Imakulata
    October 11, 2012 at 22:29 #

    I’d like to present a few counterarguments. First and probably most important, please keep in mind addon support is not free – I would even say it costs more effort than a fully customizable UI. The interface needs to be designed and implemented in a way that makes it enable to support all desired functions but not to present any holes to the players that would enables the addons to take over too much functionality from the player. Apparently, this is quite difficult and I can recall many games putting major restrictions on their extension system after it was implemented and players found what they were able to do. The effort put to developing an addon interface and keeping it secure could have been put to developing a better, more customizable UI. (I agree with you on WoW’s default UI.)

    Another issue I believe is that thinking it’s a yes/no question is a false dichotomy. WoW’s addons are just means to customize the UI, it’s possible to make an UI that’s more customizable than current ones but still doesn’t support addons as known from WoW and other games. There seems not to be many games that support a function as old as skins which would definitely help a lot with the issues you raise (the first four ones). Other options would be to have skins that enable the creator to work with containers (i. e. moving exp bar to your character window and reputation bar to your screen or creating a new window that would show names of all mobs you can see on your screen etc.) or addons that wouldn’t be able to keep their state or communicate via network to other users – there is a lot of options and even if the game is customizable, it doesn’t have to go all the way.

    The third argument is the well-known “what is, is what should be” one. While I’m a fan of convenience outside of free time, I think there is an important difference: There, it’s the goal that matters. I don’t buy food because I want to buy food – I buy it because I want to eat it. That means, anything that allows me to make the buying process more convenient is a good thing. However, when I’m playing it’s because I want to play – I could say I’ve reached my goal by logging into the game, so any convenience past that point is not the king here. Instead some designers – GW2 comes to mind – seem to view the UI as a part of the puzzle: How can I, the player, beat my opponent with the tools I’m given? (Let me note that most if not all games do limit the player, even if they do not limit the UI that much.) I’m not saying it’s a better approach but I don’t think it’s worse either – it frees players from having to tune their UI in order to beat their opponents.

    As for inspiration, addons are not required for it – instead, the developer can look at other similar games that support addons (such as WoW). As an example, many developers took inspiration in WoW’s auction house (I heard it used to be an addon before Blizzard decided to add core functionality) or Questhelper addons even if they games don’t support them.

    Addons (and skins) also make the updating more difficult. Often, the developers feel the original interface needs improvements, however the improvements break addon functionality, forcing players to change their UI after the patch or wait for the addon developers/skin designers to catch up. It’s much more comfortable to update a game that doesn’t support them.

    My opinion is that ultimately, the question of customization is how much of it can be supported without it becoming a hassle to maintain for the players and the developers.

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