A few posts ago I talked about the new "modeless sandbox" user interface. It was nice because it didn't require the player to manually switch modes between building ships and playing the game. Unfortunately, as I pointed out at the time, having on the screen at the same time the full U.I. for everything you might want to do made the screen feel quite crowded, and it has become apparent to me that, unless I reorganize the user interface for the sandbox, it will only continue to become more and more crowded.
What I'm presenting here is what I think is a visually clean, usable compromise between not having modes and not having everything on the screen at once.
You could certainly argue that what I've done here has simply re-introduced distinct modes (and added 2 more), and from a strict word-definition standpoint you'd be right. (You could also rightly say that I never really eliminated modes entirely in the first place. You'd be right there too.)
But the new mode interface is different from the old mode interface in presentation, organization, and efficiency. I steal shamelessly from games like Sim City and software like Photoshop that organize tools into a handful of high-level categories and then show the individual tools in the category once the player opens the category. So in a sense, these new modes feel just like tools in Sim City or photoshop. And this re-categorization really allowed me to minimize the amount of U.I. on the screen during normal play, which keeps the game from feeling claustrophobic.
In the screenshot below there are four buttons stacked vertically on the left, each activating a single "category" or "mode". The first button, highlighted below, is the default mode. It's called the Command Tool, but it serves exactly the same purpose as the Play mode did previously -- when selected, you can click on and command ships like normal. As the default tool, clicking the right mouse button while using any other tool will return you to the command tool. This is an important feature borrowed from the modeless sandbox version, because it eliminates half the nuisance of switching modes.
In this next screenshot, the Build Tool is selected. While selected, a sub-menu is displayed from which the specific desired part can be selected. While the Build Tool is selected, it works just like the old Build mode from the original sandbox U.I.
Here I show a brand new tool, the Ships Tool. In prior versions of the sandbox, if you wanted to add a previously-designed ship into the sandbox, you had to open the Ship menu, click the Load button, and then select the ship from a dialog. In this new version, all of the previously-saved ships are put into the Ships Tool. Simply select the Ships Tool, select the ship you want to add, and click where you want it to go.
And lastly we have the Doodads Tool. Right now the only objects it contains are the asteroids, but eventually it could contain other objects such as worm holes, salvageable resources, or gas fields.