Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Ultra Fractal 5 -- For Engineers Only!

I think the developers of Ultra Fractal 5 have fallen into the trap that has plagued fractal programs from the earliest days: overly complicated, user-dependent configuration.

I have always gotten the feeling, the several times I've tried out Ultra Fractal, that it was designed for people who weren't like me. With Ultra Fractal 5 this feeling is even stronger. While browsing the reference pages for the new Ultra Fractal 5 formula feature that incorporates classes, I was stuck by the thought, "This is an improvement? This is like going back to the old days of DOS and writing your own programs!"

I'd quote some of the formula lingo so you can share my "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore" feeling, but it's not as simple as cutting and pasting the sort of everyday language that us humans use; you'll have to browse it on the site.

Ultra Fractal in general, and Ultra Fractal 5 in particular, represents to me the "evolution" of fractal art in a direction away from greater usability and user-friendliness and instead in a direction towards increasing complexity that requires skill and training to do anything beyond the most simplest of tasks. This is the classic fractal software design error: making it hard for non-technical people to use and not easy.

From a user's perspective, Ultra Fractal 5 offers a few new features that make life easier. It seems very evolutionary, a continued refinement of an already excellent product. A thumbnail browser, layer groups, linked layers, image importing. Very good things, but they don't seem earth-shattering--perhaps a minor earthquake, but certainly not anything that will make California fall into the ocean.

This appearance is quite deceptive. Under the hood, UF5 packs a MAJOR foundational change in the way fractal formulas are written, a change that will--once mastered by users--break down constraining walls that many fractal artists didn't even know were there.
(Damien M. Jones, "Introduction to Objects: Users Version")

"From a users perspective"; "once mastered by users". I think the developers long ago lost that "user perspective". Or did they see themselves as typical users? And design a fractal program that is written by engineers and for engineers?

A lot of work has gone into Ultra Fractal, and from the looks of Ultra Fractal 5, a lot of work is continuing to go into it. But what I question is whether that work is making Ultra Fractal a better tool for the average user to make fractal art or is simply making a better tool for the developers and beta testers to play with and "oooh" and "aaah" over. Ultra Fractal 5 strikes me as the fractal programmer's fractal program.

But does the complexity of Ultra Fractal just simply reflect the inherent complexity of Fractal Art? Perhaps Fractal Art really is Rocket Science after all? and maybe good fractal art is like a golden castle high up on a mountain and if you can't do the math, you can't walk the path? (ha, ha, funny eh?)

Hmmn... these are big questions. I'll just say that your answer to how much technical (i.e. math and programming) skill is necessary to make fractal art will probably predict whether you're going to like using Ultra Fractal 5 or whether you're going to find it a ball and chain that slows you down and requires you to do excessive, detailed configuration when you'd rather be experimenting and exploring fractals.

I used to hear it said that Ultra Fractal simply had a "steeper" learning curve. But what appears to the eager engineers of Ultra Fractal as a steep learning curve is actually more like a tall mountain to be scaled by the average user; which is to say it's a barrier and not something most users will simply "learn" their way over. Go ahead, call the users "stupid" or "lazy" or do what the linux gurus do and just say, "RTFM"; but Ultra Fractal 5 is a fractal program that only an engineer would love.


Blogger kymarto said...

I think the thing you are missing here is the fact that v5 adds functionality without changing the previous functionality.

No one is obliged to learn the additional capabilities in the latest version; in fact there are even a number of improvements when using the older formula structure.

The only frustration the upgrade might cause is the need to learn a new way of working to take advantage of the additional capabilities and flexibility in the program. But users happy with the traditional formula structure need never even touch the new features.

Is that a bad thing?


7/09/2008 8:58 AM

Blogger Tim said...

Of course it's not a "bad" thing. It's a good thing -- if you're an engineer!

7/09/2008 9:14 AM


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