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KoA: Reckoning - On menus in console RPGs
by Axel Cholewa on 02/17/12 03:20:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Shortly after the release of Bethesda's Skyrim, Ted Brown wrote a quite amusing little article on that game's bad menu structure, shortly followed by a deeper user interface analysis of Skyrim by Eric Schwartz. In the former post, you find the following lines:

"This was tense!  I swung again, hitting, but now I was out of Stamina, and a swing from my opponent took more than half my health away.  I couldn’t Shout and blow him back, or I’d kill my companion. Sighing, I:

  • Pressed Start.  The Orc was swinging again, but the game was paused.
  • Wrong menu!  I cursed and pressed B, unpausing the game.
  • Pressed Up quickly.  The sword was descending.
  • Wrong menu again!  
  • I pressed B and B again, to close the Favorites menu and open the other menu of menus.
  • I pressed Right to open Items
  • I scrolled down to Potions
  • I pressed A
  • I scrolled down and considered my options.  The tense state of combat had already been lost, I was just playing numbers at this point.  Health, yes, stamina, yes, magicka, why not.  I drank all the potions I needed, mentally wincing at the thought of my character stopping time to quaff eight potions.
  • My finger hovered over my B button.  Ha!  I just wanted to go back a menu step, not back to the game!  Caught myself!
  • I tapped Left
  • I scrolled to Apparel
  • I checked to make sure I had on all my good armor.  Yep.  OK, back to it.  Could I change to magic in this menu?  No, I had to return to the game.  Alright, press B!


Guys!  Gals!  Gamedevs!  This is unacceptable!"

What happened there is exactly the reason why I didn't finish Oblivion and Fallout 3. Even a more console oriented title like Fable 2 had similar problems (leaving a submenu always leads to your "cursor" ending up on top of the previous menu, for example). That's why I was really looking forward to KoA: Reckoning in that regard, and the game is surely superior to its competition in terms of UI design and controls. For example, in order to do what Ted Brown was trying to do in the Skyrim example above, in Recking I would:

  • press LB to bring up the radial consumables menu and pause the game
  • press down on the left stick to select a healing potion
  • press A to select it and
  • press B to leave the menu and continue the fight.

This looks a lot better! Why, then, in order to switch from a sword to daggers, I have to:

  • press Start to bring up the main menu
  • press A to select inventory
  • press A (!) to select weapons
  • press A (!!) to select primary weapons
  • scroll down to the daggers
  • press A to equip them and
  • press Start to reenter the game?

I mean, this is still quite ok, because once you know that the inventory is the top most menu in the menu screen (!), and that in the inventory the weapons are the top most menu (!!), and in that menu the primary weapons are the top most menu (!!!), pressing A three times in a row is quickly done. Still, they have this neat (although not new) solution to avoid menus in combat and apply it only the consumables menu! In a game as combat oriented as Reckoning, changing a weapon shouldn't be such a hassle.

This is especially painful because the solution would have been so incredibly easy: put a weapons menu on RB. The same radial menua as for consumables, just for weapons, on the same button, just on the other side of the controller.

"And how to enter the stealth mode, then?" some of you might think, since that is triggered by RB. Well, that's easy: stealth mode would be triggered by pressing the left stick (LS). That button anyway has no function in this game, except if you use it for running. (You can choose between pressing A to toggle running, holding A to run or holding down LS to run. My guess is that someone in the team said: "Hey, there's a button we're not using," and someone answered, "Well, in some games it's used for running. Let's make that optional.") But this option is obsolete, anyway, so using LS for stealth would be a good solution, I think.

In case you wonder how to incorporate primary and secondary weapons into a radial menu similar to the consumables menu, here's how it could work:

  • press RB to pause the game and bring up the radial menu
  • select (empty) slot with LS
  • press
    • A to map weapon to slot
    • X to choose the weapon in the selected slot as the primary weapon
    • Y to choose the weapon in the selected slot as the secondary weapon
  • press B to leave the menu and reenter the game

This would have been an elegant and simple solution of problem widely present in western fantasy RPGs.

It seems weird to me that western RPG developers still have a problem with UI design for consoles. Maybe it's because most of them come from PC development, or maybe they tend to look at or even play more PC RPGs, simply because there are more than on consoles. Maybe this doesn't have anything to do with PC RPGs.

Demon's Souls raised the bar considerably on what a good RPG UI for consoles can be, and Reckoning shows what engaging combat means. Even though not perfect, these two games will hopefully shape the future of controls and UI of console RPGs.

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Eric Schwarz
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Very good points, and thanks for the shout-out. I found that Amalur's default button layout was a bit of a problem as well, especially as, by default, you have to hold down A to run, and this led to me constantly interacting with objects or speaking to NPCs accidentally - it also meant that I couldn't rotate the camera when running. Suffice to say, I think tap-to-run should have been the default option.

My real issue with the interface is that it simply takes too long to do anything, especially inventory-wise. Want to destroy an item that isn't in your junk bag? Start -> Inventory -> Category -> Select Weapon -> Add to Junk (one button on a gamepad, about 4 mouse clicks on PC) -> Back -> Back -> Junk -> Find Item -> Destroy Item. Frankly, this makes Skyrim's inventory look masterful and elegant. How this happened, I have no idea. Surely, somebody on the dev team didn't actually say "yep, this is definitely a good state to ship in" with respect to UI, because I can't imagine how anyone could come to that conclusion after playing the game more than 5 minutes.

There's also a lot of strange inconsistencies and other weird design choices. You can't destroy items unless they are in your junk bag. Your skills are listed in the Status sub-menu, but your abilities are listed on the main menu. In the ability trees, the only way to see all the level bonuses is to level that ability up (and then remove the points), which is impossible for most skills since you only get 3 points per level, and reassigning them requires a respec. Skills, on the other hand, you can view at leisure. When you unlock Destinies, they disappear from their respective categories and instead go into the Unlocked category, which can be confusing if you go for, say, a jack-of-all-trades approach and want to hunt down a specific type of Destiny.

I do like the game quite a bit, but not being able to bind equipment to the radial menu or hotbar (on PC) is a big issue. In a game that revolves around loot so heavily as well, it's mind-boggling why inventory management is such a chore as well, and chances are you'll rarely have more than 30-40 slots free at higher levels due to all the potions and whatnot you'll need to carry around (backpack upgrades are way, way too infrequent).

There are a whole slew of issues related to the camera (camera lag making it hard to see what's in front of you when turning, camera going close to ground and character in combat rather than zooming out, sometimes clipping through the ground, camera getting stuck on objects or not catching up quickly when the player runs from enemies, camera just generally too low to the ground and close to the character, etc.) but those are probably something you can cover in another article.

Thanks for the read, I enjoyed your analysis!

Axel Cholewa
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I'm so used to hAtr (hold-A-to-run) from so many other games that I was surprised by the tap-A-to-run (tAtr) option. And after I tried it out the first time I shook my head and actually went back to hAtr, only to realise immediately that, yes, tAtr should have been default.

I'll continue my observations of Reckoning's interface, and I'm sure there'll be more to read about it soon.

Michael DeFazio
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Axel, thanks for the thoughtful and entertaining post.... Agree there needs to be more work/focus on UIs/menus in RPGs... And (although I consider Dark|Demons Souls the two best RPGs this gen) I'm going to have to disagree with this statement : "Demon's Souls raised the bar considerably on what a good RPG UI for consoles can be..."

if you don't have the correct weapon equipped in Dark Souls you have to:

->Start to open Main Menu

->RB to select Equip Menu

->A to open Equip Menu

->Dpad to select which hand to equip

->A to show equip selections

->Dpad to select a specific weapon/shield/item (and they only show 5 items at a time... ugg)

->A to equip a specific weapon/shield/item

->B to close equip menu

->B to close main menu

(You can replace the last two (B+B) button presses with Start I believe)

Anyways, I DO like the quick swap in Demons/Dark Souls, but I think it's a stretch to say the Demon/Dark Souls UI doesn't leave much to be desired.(I especially don't like how it obscures the screen considering the game doesn't pause when you go into the inventory).

Axel Cholewa
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I agree. But the quick swap makes it only half as frequent ;)

But even though Demons' Souls has its issues, it's UI is still better than in any other fantasy RPG on console that I've played. At least you have the "paper doll" that Eric was talking about in his analysis, although it's not as good as it could be.

Jack Kerras
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I'm having kind of a similar UI problem in the Mass Effect 3 demo. I'm playing multiplayer and sprint, interact, take cover and roll are all the same button. Like, it says SPRINT/COVER/INTERACT in the keybinds menu and there's no way to map something to just Sprint or just Interact.

Drives me outta my fucking mind. I'm cool with assigning multiple functions to a button, but 'rez comrade' 'take cover' and 'get the Hell out of here' are very different choices, all of which are perfectly, simultaneously feasible in some situations. I'd like to be able to choose in some less horrendous way.

I understand that this is a console-game problem and that pisses me off extra, but I don't think there's much to be done.

Eric Schwarz
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This is even more of an issue with the PC version, as the context-sensitive nature doesn't work with digital keys (the "soft" nature of the analogue stick makes actions flow much better), and you can't really turn to the "not enough buttons" excuse. This was an issue with Mass Effect 2 but is accentuated even more by all the new movement options added.

Roger Tober
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I don't really get rpg's. I wish I did. There so much stuff to pick up. I just want something useful, not all that garbage. I think it has something to do with the unlimited freedom concept. You can pick up anything, even old shoes that are nearly worthless and not worth carrying around. You can decide between hundreds of similar tasks where you go find something for someone. It's so complicated they have to give you this compass so you remember what in the world you promised to do. I gave up pretty early on Skyrim. Every time I talked to someone I ended up taking on a new task. It started to seem more like a chore list. I guess I'm one of those people that just can't say no. It makes me mad because I really want to like them, but every time I get into them, it's just this blah feeling. They need a "no junk" mode for people that aren't into that kind of thing.

Eric Schwarz
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Freedom and tons of items have nothing to do with RPGs. There are plenty of RPGs focused on loot accumulation, outfitting inventory items etc., but many RPGs (especially older ones) are focused less on accumulating things and more on actually using what you have effectively.

As for the "chore list" issue, that's called "filler." Skyrim has a lot of it, but again, this isn't really an issue with RPGs that are both smaller scale and have more attention to detail.

Unfortunately most RPGs where these are the opposite also tend to be older ones that might be less accessible to newer players, or have a higher learning curve due to more complex game systems and mechanics. I could refer you to the original Fallout, for instance, but it might be too dated for you to get into (or slow-paced, etc.).

Roger Tober
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"Unfortunately most RPGs where these are the opposite also tend to be older ones that might be less accessible to newer players, or have a higher learning curve due to more complex game systems and mechanics. "

I like a slower pace actually. I'm trying out Avadon, which is a turn based indy game. It's quite a bit of junk but I just don't pick it up. I'll keep Fallout on my list to possibly checkout. Grand ol games has it for 5.99.

Iain Miller
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I guess you really missed the point of an RPG then. You don't have to do those things for people in the first place. However, the point of having so much to do in a game like Skyrim is that your character is taking on the role of a hero, at least if that's what you want to do. You could just as soon kill that person that wanted you to retrieve some item or other, although then you might miss out on some worthwhile reward. It's meant to make the world feel like it's lived in.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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@Michael DeFazio

I think all of that is done on purpose. DS doesnt want you to be able to easily re-equip in the middle of battle. The game wants to to carefuly consider the challenges ahead when in a safe place, and select your equipment accordingly, limiting immediate access to what you choose to put in the quick swap. Restriction is an under-appreciated design concept...Honestly I think the only reason you can even access your equipment out of a bonfire is because of the sellers and blacksmiths. The equipment menu is more oriented toward comparing with what you're currently equipement than showing 50 items at the same time.

As for Skyrim, I can't stand the UI, it breaks every rule of UI design and not for the better. This explains it better than I can:

Michael DeFazio
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I liked your post, and think we have a difference of opinion. (And I'm certainly not saying I'm right, I'll just argue the point from my side... would certainly enjoy a counter-points from the other side).

I understand what you are saying about not re-equipping in the middle of battle, but let me posit a scenario to describe why I find the UI frustrating:

In the middle of a battle with a dangerous enemy, (lets say a red-eyed Black Skeleton), you get invaded...

Well, here you have appropriate equipment for PvE, and you have aggro'ed an enemy, but the invader has a huge upper hand because (he/she) is already equipped for PvP (not to mention for the invaded, it's really PvP&E.)

This has happened to me in both souls games, and in this high stress scenario forget about trying to change your equipment. I suppose highly skilled veterans can quickly change their gear (from PvE to PvP) in this scenario, but then it's more of a game of who can navigate the menus faster, verses who can prepare and execute.

Perhaps if the person being invaded were given more lead time to prepare it would alleviate this somewhat, but it still seems like to me (for a game in which your equipment is such a critical piece of success and failure, the UI/HUD is cumbersome).

In short: it's not any of these individual things:

1) that menus obscures your view

2) the game doesn't pause while you are in your inventory

3) it takes many button presses to change equipment

4) that your equipment can greatly influence your success or failure in the game's cumulatively ALL of these things together make me dislike the UI.

Ohh yeah, and the Dark/Demons Souls UI is plain ugly as hell.

(FWIW I'm with you on Skyrim's UI)


Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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Finishing both demon`s and dark`s souls, I got invaded like 3 times, so the problem never really occured to me. Apart from exploits (most got patched), I didnt realize there were pve and pvp gear. Stab them with the pointy end, I say!

Iain Miller
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In Demon's Souls and Dark Souls you can still move while in the menus so you just have to learn to move while swapping out your armor, and honestly there really isn't a PvE set and a PvP set that has too much of a difference. If you know what you're doing you can make do anyways. Besides, usually in PvP you use your most heavy hitting set up. Why would that be different for PvE?

Also @Michael

The only thing that really, really affects your success rate is your weapon. Armor isn't necessarily all that important if you can't dodge correctly and block correctly.In other words, if you're relying on your armor too much you're playing the game wrong. You should be trying not to get hit at all.

Iain Miller
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In response to the article I would just say a couple of things. You have to adapt to the game's menus and learn how they work. If you can't take the time to do that, why are you playing? The main problem in Skyrim and other games is that you have so many items that you have to scroll through them. However, that is on the player to remedy since there is nothing stopping the player from emptying their inventories of things they feel are extraneous.

However, I do not understand why they got rid of hot keys in Skyrim. Using the Oblivion system with the D-Pad worked very well.

"This looks a lot better! Why, then, in order to switch from a sword to daggers, I have to:

press Start to bring up the main menu

press A to select inventory

press A (!) to select weapons

press A (!!) to select primary weapons

scroll down to the daggers

press A to equip them and

press Start to reenter the game"

The simple fact is that you don't, not really. All you have to do is favorite the item and then all you have to do is press down on the D-pad find your dagger, press R1, then press circle. Again, it's up to the player to figure out what items they need to use over the course of a dungeon according to their character's build.

Axel Cholewa
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"All you have to do is favorite the item [...]"

--- How? I Couldn't find anything about that.

"[...] and then all you have to do is press down on the D-pad [...]"

--- Nothing happens if I do that. In fact, if you look up the controls in the options, the down button on the D-pad (at least on 360) does not have a function.

"The main problem in Skyrim and other games is that you have so many items that you have to scroll through them. However, that is on the player to remedy since there is nothing stopping the player from emptying their inventories of things they feel are extraneous."

--- Say you want to keep six weapons, each from a different category. You then have 12 different menu points, 6 of which are the categories themselves! That is a waste of menu space, even if you keep your inventory clean. When someone makes a game where collecting items is central, she or he needs to provide the game with the best possible interface to handle that.

"You have to adapt to the game's menus and learn how they work."

--- Well, I have. That doesn't make them good.

"If you can't take the time to do that, why are you playing?"

--- Uhm, what? Are you saying that the reason you are playing is because you took the time to learn the menus? Sounds weird to me. I'm playing the game because it's fun despite the menu issues.