Just a forewarning before you get too deep into this post: It’s going to be full of jargon and the nerd will be deep; both the gamer nerd and the library nerd. Truly full-on nerd. (Or Geek. Whatever.)
Disclaimer: This is in no way endorsed by Bioware, and it just contains the authors’ opinions.
Bioware has also been noted as saying they understand the Galactic Trade Network system is lacking. Rumor has it that they had another system in place during beta, but it taxed their servers so much it was crashing the game. (These statements are conjecture)
Diane and I are making a couple of assumptions for this post, so we’ll just list them here.
1) You know what an Massively Multiplayer Online game (MMO) is.
2) You know what Star Wars, The Old Republic (SWTOR) is.
3) You’ve used an online auction system before (like eBay).
The Galactic Trade Network (GTN) is the (rough) equivalent of eBay, but it exists within SWTOR. That’s right. A hugely robust search system that is completely independent of the world wide web exists. This area of information search and retrieval is undiscovered by most, if not all, of the information science world. It’s time to take a look at it now. And more than that, it’s time to critique it, and see how it can be improved when hundreds of years of classification and organization are applied to it.
^A visual of the GTN, so you know what we’re talking about.
Everything is already classified
The good news about the GTN is that (almost) all of the content is already classified, and that’s just because of the function that the content plays within the game. Items have a number of different metadata attributes (ways to describe something), like: Title, Level requirement, Stats on the item, Quality (Artifact, legendary, etc.), Armor Type, Weapon Type, the list goes on. All of these different things are metadata attributes that are applied to different items. (Librarians use the word “metadata” because it’s easier than saying “the word(s) you use to describe an object” when talking about stuff like this. Additionally, the formal definition we learn in library school – “data about data” – is just too circular to be meaningful).
So all of the items in SWTOR have rich classifications and abundant metadata already on them. What does that mean?
It means that Bioware has the foundation to create amazing search interfaces. All of the content exists and it’s easy to find, and now it’s just a matter of taking all of the content and creating a user interface that allows for easy access for the user. Sounds easy, but it’s extremely difficult.
Bioware has already come out with a system, and it works, but it could be improved upon. The SWTOR Community has already commented on how the system could be improved. I’ll run over them really quickly and add my comments to them. (The original post is what I’m using for this section)
1. The drop-down categories (armor type, rarity, level reqs, etc) should be for NARROWING DOWN EXISTING SEARCHES, not confining what you may search for.
This is possible, and could be done, but not in the current system that Bioware has implemented. The common “faceted navigation” that you see in most commercial websites like Newegg and Amazon has become an industry standard, but applying it to an in-game system has yet to be done (to my knowledge). This would be a large innovation in the gaming world.
2. We should be able to search by name FIRST. I should be able to type in exactly what I’m looking for, click buy, done. It’s that easy.
I completely agree with this one. The current system allow for no “Title search” of an item. You are required to pick a filter before searching by title, which makes for extremely nice database design and a lot less server load, but annoys users now that they are used to being able to search how they like. This keyword search to narrow down an existing search also does not work very well right now, it only works on a direct match of a keyword (e.g. “Red Goo” not “red go”), which is frustrating as a user.
3. If I’m listing multiple same-item auctions, PLEASE have it memorize what my price was. If I’m leveling up my crafting skill and I made 20 Random-Blue-Chest-Piece-of-***-Kickery, please for the love of all that is Star Wars let me only name my price once rather than making me type the price in 20 times. That is way too many clicks and key presses.
Save the time of the [user]. Any little change that can be done which will make the life of the user better should be done.
4. Include an armor SLOT drop down. Helm, gloves, chest, legs, etc. If I’m looking for a Purple Medium Armor level 47BOOTS, I shouldn’t have to search through pages and pages of chest pieces, leg pieces, and helmets to find it.
This will be an easy fix, and one that I assume Bioware will implement rather quickly. As I mentioned above, all of the data is already classified well, this is just a matter of adding another “filter” which the current UI doesn’t support.
Hit up the original thread to read these. They don’t have anything to do with the system or UI, so it is beyond the scope of this post.
6, 9, 10, 12, 14, 15
Save the time of the [user]. (see #3)
11. Some of the items are currently being listed under the wrong categories. For example, Underworld Trading Fabrics are being listed under Diplomacy.
A bug in a new system that needs to be worked out. Perhaps the metadata for “Underworld Trading Fabrics” is in the wrong part of a database somewhere. Just needs to be looked into on the back end.
Simple GTN Additions
Aside from a complete overhaul of the GTN system, there are a few things that Bioware could do to improve upon the current GTN UI. They’re simple changes that will make the lives of all of us users much easier.
1) Alphabetize the drop down menus.
The current drop down menu that is first chosen looks to be ordered by “priority”.
That’s fine for someone who is looking for something at the top of the list, but each user has a different priority. Alphabetizing the list will make it easier for people to scan down the list for what they’re looking for (e.g. I’m looking for a “consumable” so I automatically will look toward the top of the list, instead of the middle where it currently is now). This is by far the easiest change they could make, and it would increase usability so much.*
*Some of their drop downs are alphabetized, some are not. There is very little consistency to it.
2) Make the list shorter / Separate it somehow
The best practice for creating lists like this (a taxonomy) state that you don’t want a list longer than 7-10 terms because the standard user just zones out and stops reading the list. Either make the list shorter (hard), or separate it into different lists for easier reading. Create a hierarchy out of it, just on the list.
- Melee Weapon
- Ranged Weapon
- Item Modification
- Crafting Material
- Crafting Mission
- Crafting Schematic
- Spaceship Upgrade
- Miscellaneous (this term [from the current list] is worthless, it doesn’t actually give the user something to search on)
This way, users can see what they are looking for at a glance very easily. And it doesn’t even require a change to the background programming of the system, it’s just a cosmetic change on the UI.
3) Refine by specific stat
This one may be a bit more difficult, but I’m unsure without knowing the intricacies of how Bioware’s actual database system works. There should be a filter or refinement tool to allow for searching/narrowing by a specific stat (e.g. Willpower, Might, alacrity, etc.). It could even be more general and you can narrow by primary or secondary stat.
Right now being able to find crafting materials on the GTN is a nightmare, mainly because of the no title or keyword search option (or the keyword narrowing function not working properly). A quick example: If I want to find a material for crafting something, doing a search yields 26 pages of results, with 8 items on each page. Narrowing this by title would be easy, but the best way to be able to do it would be to sort it by crafting level.
Most crafting items just have “Item level 1″ as their item metadata, but they also have a specific “grade” applied to them, which can be Grade 1 through 6. There are also many sub-categories of crafting materials.
Being able to search or refine a search by a “Grade 2 Biochemical Sample” rather than a “Grade 4 Biochemical Compound” would allow a great amount of functionality for advanced users. And, again, the metadata/classification already exists, it’s just a matter of implementing it in a user friendly way.
If you liked X, then you would also like…
The above was all Jacob’s work; now it’s my turn (this is Diane). Think of us as two sides of a d20.
Recommender systems try to predict what the user would like based on current and past searches. If you use Amazon, you are familiar with recommender systems. For example, if I search Amazon for SWTOR, I get the following recommendations on the SWTOR product page:
As you can see, it recommends SWTOR game time, another video game, an operating system that supports SWTOR, and so on. This is based on past behavior of other Amazon users.
Pandora is a popular example of a recommender system: If you start a “Katy Perry” station, Pandora will play music by other dance pop artists. Some of us think recommender systems in their current forms are frequently too narrow in scope, and some of my academic research seeks to work on these ideas. For example, Katy Perry is certainly similar to Taylor Swift, Avril Lavigne, Rihanna, and so on, but what else could a system find for me that is not so obviously related? Who were their musical role models when they were growing up? Who has a voice similar to Katy’s that I might enjoy? I’m currently leading a project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada called “Using affect-based labels in whole collection retrieval” to, in part, investigate these issues.
As a researcher, it’s my job to be visionary, so here we go. In the long run, information science needs to stop thinking about documents/objects (e.g. A pdf, a word doc, crafting materials, medpacs, or PvP gear) in a system as individual silos, things that can only be retrieved if you can identify one or more facets. The idea that you can only find things by telling the system what you are hoping to find- and telling the system in the terms of the system – needs to become old school. In the paper entitled “Breaking in and out of the silos: What makes for a happy photograph cluster?” that I presented at the Document Academy conference in 2010, I stated the following:
… extensively known Web sites and tools really only provide ways to start “searches” with “keywords.” A search for any relatively broad search string retrieves far too many documents for an individual to sift through. Additionally, the “black box” phenomenon in which the user does not know what exists in the system is of ongoing concern … known-item and narrowly-defined subject access searching … has denied us any substantial progress toward new ways of thinking about information exploration.
Let’s say I am a Sith Assassin, and my crafting skills are archaeology, treasure hunting, and artifice. Here are some potential information exploration questions:
- I have x, y, and z crystals (crafting materials) in my inventory. If I could learn what products others are selling that are made with those materials, it might help me decide what to make next based on supply, demand, and physical feasibility. Also, knowing what products are most popular might help me decide what I should spend my time and credits on.
- I am at level 13, and it’s my first SWTOR character, so I am still a noob. I think Khem Val would be a better tank if I could get him some better armor, but I don’t know how to find armor except by sifting through the GTN with the existing interface that Jacob described above, or by hoping to loot/find something good. How can I find things that fit my character’s (and Khem’s) current status? He can only use heavy armor. I think his pants are already pretty good, but he doesn’t have anything on his head yet.
Max level players/characters won’t have these kinds of questions, but you can’t get to 50 until you figure out things like these. Be patient with the noobs’ needs. Focusing on the user and how their information exploration happens is a valuable tool, rather than just focusing on finding specific documents or objects. It’s about the user experience, not the the search result.
In conclusion, finally
MMO players are in a constant state of information seeking. This knowledge state compels us to retrieve or explore information constantly; the plethora of items we need to purchase for crafts, combat, and other tasks are essential to becoming 1337. Better in-game information search, retrieval, and exploration systems that facilitate making the obvious and not-so-obvious connections between items for sale would help us put these pieces together in meaningful ways. We, Jacob and Diane, with our classification and systems expertise, would love to help Bioware make this all better. (We’d also love an all-expenses-paid speaking engagement in Hawaii, but as previously stated, this is all just our opinion).
Side note: We had to edit this post before publishing it because Bioware fixed a few of the issues without mentioning it in patch notes. Good work Bioware!
The UI for SWTOR’s GTN could use some improvement, as many players have noted. We have some ideas on how to make it better.
Ding! You’ve leveled up! Please see your local librarian for training.
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