Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion Usability Review

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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. 


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