Explore, expand, exploit, exterminate -- Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is a true 4X game. Released in 2012, the game still has a healthy following and mod community, with modders focused on changing the game's lore and maps to reflect Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Halo, Stargate... and more.

Overall, Sins is a solid game -- since I bought it ~three weeks ago, I've played 39 hours (thanks, Zeal, for the recommendation!). But there are certainly some usability elements where mods or game updates could make a difference.

Namely, Sins' issues rest in legibility, finicky notifications, and difficulty zooming into to planets.


Sins, especially in the tutorial series, has an issue with font size. In this game, the yellow font color works both thematically (à la Star Wars) and practically, where other font colors may be difficult to read on a starry background. Sins' font size, however, is way too small -- to the point where the modding community has made mods to increase the font size. 


  • Add a setting in the Options/UI features to increase the font size throughout the game -- with except of sizes to the left of the world/ship/scuttling picture in the main UI bar (shown above). 

Finicky Notifications

There are many notification announcements in Sins. Notifications for combat, for successful planet exploration, for completed construction... and so much more. As such, the notification bar becomes overwhelming very quickly. In the tutorial, players learn that they can view more the most recent notification by hovering their mouse over the correct notification card (planet, construction, diplomacy, conflict) by left clicking, and that they can cycle through these notifications by left or right clicking. The issue is that because notifications come in so quickly (especially as you're expanding), it's hard to keep track of which notifications you've looked, and it's too easy to accidentally cycle past important notifications by clicking. Plus, it's easy to for a notification to "fall off" the queue (~10 are listed at a time) if there are so many notifications incoming at a time. 

And if the player wants to view the location of the notification's event (for example, completed construction), the player must press space bar to move the camera above the planet (not in planet-vision). This feels unintuitive -- for some reason, it feels like one ought to be able to double click on a notification to see its location, but that then cycles the notifications. 

While, over time, the player may become accustomed to the ebb and flow (well, torrent) of notifications, here are some recommendations for making the notifications less overwhelming.


  • Potentially lower the number of events that generate verbal notifications, or at least allow the user to specify which announcements they do/don't care about. For example, the announcement "Explorers have found natural resources on this planet" could be removed -- while sure, that's nice to know -- it doesn't have direct and immediate bearing on the situation. It would still be good to have in the notification frames, but doesn't need to be verbalized by the announcer/AI voice.
  • Potentially don't allow users to open a notification frame by left clicking -- only allow the frame to open by pressing space bar. This would prevent players for accidentally clicking past the notification they want to read.
  • Just as the planet icons flash when there's an enemy in your gravity well, it may be good to have other flashing notifications above planets (such as for construction). This may reduce the number of notifications that the user must interact with (so one doesn't need to open a notification pane to see where construction has just been completed.)

Moving the Camera

If there were one aspect of Sins I could change, it would be making camera transitions smoother. When interacting with notifications, such as "your planet is being attacked," the player can press space bar to then be brought to that planet. But it's quite difficult to shift between two planets that are under attack, or really just quickly zip from planet to planet to monitor their progress. For example, if two of your adjacent planets are being attacked, you need to scroll out, move your mouse over to the adjacent planet, and then scroll in. As such, it's difficult to micro-manage your own armies -- and when you need to spend so much time entering and exiting planet-vision, combat can feel tedious. 

Sure, the side bar (shown right) creates a way to quickly look at the number and types of units stationed at a planet, but does not make zooming in and out of a planet any easier.

In addition, it's not clear how to navigate a ship through a wormhole. On some maps, players can send their ships through a wormhole to travel to new galaxies. In order to do this, the player must navigate their ship into the middle of the wormhole (I found this out through the might of the Great Goog), and then scroll out to see adjacent galaxies. The player must then hover his or her mouse over one of the planets within a specific galaxy (no easy task), and then zoom in to individually select a planet to send their ship/s to. It's fun to expand to other galaxies, but it's a pain to have to scroll in and out of each galaxy (and then hover over a planet, then scroll back in, etc) in order to keep track of your empire.


  • Allow for easier zoom into a planet, potentially by double-tapping the space bar
  • If a player has sent a ship to a wormhole, and then attempts to path it to a planet/star in a distant galaxy, automatically move that player's ship to the center of the wormhole
  • Potentially make a way to quickly switch between planets -- so you press a key combination to shift between the last three planets viewed in planet vision

Final Thoughts

I took a week-long break in between starting and finishing this post because, as I've now learned, it's bad to over-play a game when you're trying to review it for usability issues. The more I played, the more I 'forgave' troublesome elements, and the less I saw them as issues. Sure, in any (well, most) program, a user can learn how to navigate the fiddly bits and overcome complicated usability aspects -- but that doesn't mean that the usability issues aren't there.

Well, I've learned my lesson. From now on, I'm not going to play more than three hours of a game before finishing a review. Or I at least need to return to writing it after some time so that my brain isn't as muddled with forgiveness. Or something.

Thanks again for reading! I hope you all had an excellent January, and are expecting an excellent February. 

In Shoppe Keep, an Early Access Steam game, you play as the main merchant in a small medieval town who sells a variety of goods to adventurers. Furnish your store, order and price goods, slaughter shoplifters (I paid good money for that Health Potion!), and craft new items to sell in the store. Since there's no (apparent) way to speed up time, the game is almost zen, as you must wait real-time for customers with creative names such as "Dick Butthead" to saunter in and purchase items. And, though I'll be covering quite a bit in this review, the game can be quite fun (and I believe has earned its 9/10 rating on Steam). 

The usability problems Shoppe Keep displays are inconsistency, legibility, a lack of 'guard rails,' and unexplained elements. 


Probably the most inconsistent element of SK is its font usage. Playing through the game, one will see at least five different fonts throughout the various menus and text bodies. While font inconsistency doesn't necessarily make a game harder to play, it's good form to keep font faces constant throughout a product.

Another element of SK's inconsistency is that it breaks from traditional UI elements. For example, when the user first opens the game to input their Shoppe Keep's name, they see two buttons in the pop-up. But the left button, which reads "Enter your name," isn't a button. While it does give the visual clue that you can click on it, the format doesn't immediately read as "this is where you will be able to type in your name." Of course, once you click on the button, your typing cursor is shown, but up until that point it isn't immediately clear what'll happen once you click on the name button.

SK also falls into a familiar in/consistency trap --  re-using the same key to perform different functions. In SK, it's guaranteed that something will happen when the player presses Q, but what happens depends on which stance (combat, shoppe keeper, building, cleaning) the Shoppe Keep is in . So the fact that something will happen is consistent, but the effect is inconsistent.

While re-using the same key means that the user has to learn fewer keys and shortcuts, in the end it results in wasting some of the player's time. For example, one might be in the cleaning stance, and want to open the Order menu, but has to press (1) to change stances and then Q to open the Order menu. Sure, requiring two steps means that the user can't accidentally open the Order menu in combat -- but safeguards could be put in place such that the player is not able to open the Order menu while in combat.


  • Choose two fonts and stick with them. Use one for menus and one for text bodies. Make sure the fonts are legible (more on this later).
  • Instead of making the "Enter your name" bit look like a button, make it look like a traditional textbox and have a flashing cursor in it. That gives a good visual cue without confusing the user as to why it's a button.
  • Consider adding shortcuts to open menus, rather than having Q be the catch-all. For example, "O" could open "Order," "S" could open "Skills," etc. Allow these to be pressed regardless of stance.


Now, this is a topic that I've touched upon in many a post. SK isn't the most illegible I've seen -- I think Karos Returns takes the cake on that one -- but there's certainly room for improvement. 

For example, one of the main font styles that SK uses is a white, old-fashioned font face.

My favorite part of this is that "greatness" is spelled "grateness."
Is grateness an excellent cheese grater? Who knows.
While I understand wanting to include a thematic font face for a medieval game, SK sacrifices clarity for theme. Written on a light-peach background, the font is very difficult to read. If the font were bigger, and the background a different shade, this might be easier to read. But I wouldn't advocate for keeping this font -- or the formatting. Light on light is difficult to read -- and when reading is the only way to learn the game (I'll get to that), the designer needs to make reading as easy as possible.

One other location where legibility was an issue was the Ordering menu (shown below). Showing the hands while browsing the menu is a cute idea, but the font angle of purchaseable items is hard to read. 


  • Ditch the light-on-light font. If you want to use a parchment look/feel, check out classic manuscripts such as the one shown here and try to replicate that feel
  • I'd recommend also swapping out the old-fashioned font you're using in text bodies for something more modern. Sure, you're reducing some of the theme, but it's more important that your users can read. Using fancier font is fine for menu text (such as on the main screen)
  • Don't use yellow as a highlighting -- or font -- color (as done in the tutorial text). It's hard to read on both light and dark backgrounds. Try a different color.
  • Flatten the Order menu so that the font isn't angled. You can keep the clipboard look while still making the menu easier to read. 

Lacking Guard Rails

While trial and error is one way to learn a game, it's not always the best to let players fall into traps that they can only escape by restarting their saved game. 

For example, my first game, I didn't know I had to place furniture before I could sell items. So I used up all my gold buying items, and then couldn't actually put them down to sell them. I couldn't recover any of that gold, so I needed to restart the game. 

I was doing pretty well in my second game, and eventually had enough money to purchase armor. This time I knew how to place pedestals to display wares -- but the game wouldn't let me place the armor on the pedestal. I had, again, spent all of my money buying items -- and wasn't able to sell my stock. Fatal. 

In games with low stakes, it's okay to let players make these kinds of mistakes. But SK requires a lot of grinding to unlock new items -- so needing to re-start your game is devastating. 

For a game like SK, I'd recommend putting in what I'll call guard rails, or really safeguards against players making fatal mistakes.

One way that SK can address my first mistake -- buying items before placing furniture -- is to redesign the tutorial to provide context-sensitive tool-tips. As soon as the user loads into their first game, begin the tutorial, and tell the user how to access the build menu (and switch placeable items, which took me a long time to figure out). After they've placed furniture, show them how to open an Order, tell them about the wait time, and then show them how to raise/lower these prices. While all of this information is in the tutorial menu, walking the player through these steps aids learning.

Unexplained Elements

Maybe I didn't read the tutorial well enough, but there were quite a few parts of SK that I didn't understand. For example, what is the K bubble? There's already an XP bar, so I don't know what the K does. Is it related to my shop's appeal? How do I increase my shop's appeal?

How do I get a cauldron to make new items? How do I get seed packs to grow my own plants to sell? How do I unlock new furniture so I can sell armor and weapons? 

What are skill trees, and why do I want to use them? 

Why do I want to do quests, and how do I turn them in? Are there smaller quests that I can do (that don't require crafting fancy items? That seems like a late-game quest). 

I think this is one of the instances where I could've browsed community forms or the related Wiki, but I prefer it when I don't need to do research in order to play a game. I don't like having to pop out of immersion to understand how to succeed.

Final Thoughts

Shoppe Keep is a fun game, with room for growth in how it teaches and displays information. I wish there were a way to speed up time (those customers walk soooo slowly!) or other ways to spend time when waiting for customers to appear. 

But before SK's final release, the designers really need to spell-check the game. There are a lot of spelling errors peppered throughout. For example, "grateness" should be "greatness," "aparently" should be "apparently," "cant" should be "can't"... there's just so much. My final recommendation to SK's team would be to go through all text with a fine-toothed comb and pick out all the spelling errors. Accuracy helps your game look polished and complete.