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User Interface Analysis: Skyrim
by Eric Schwarz on 11/14/11 12:54:00 pm   Expert Blogs   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.


In my previous article, I took a pretty scathing and critical look at Skyrim's PC user interface, as well as some of the issues with the port in general, such as poor performance.  Bethesda released a day-one 1.1 patch just after I had written the article, which fixed a number of the interface problems (such as inconsistent keyboard and mouse controls), but it's clear that the shipping version of the game still had some major problems, and likely that the PC version fell by the wayside in order to hit that majestic "11/11/11" shipping date.

Though user interface is something that one can write books on, and has been the subject of a number of my previous articles, Skyrim's user interface is something which I feel deserves specific scrutiny beyond the PC compatibility and usability complaints I voiced.  Indeed, Skyrim has, for all its sleekness, has, to be completely frank, one of the worst user interfaces I have had the displeasure of using.  Skyrim, the game, is one of Bethesda's best works and a substantial improvement over previous ones, I do want to stress... but actually interacting with the game is an exercise in frustration, and the interface itself violates so many fundamental design tenets that it's downright upsetting.

Oblivion and Fallout 3, it's fair to say, did not have the best user interfaces.  Their layouts were a bit confusing and inconsistent, there were too many tabs, menus, nested menus, menus with multiple pages and sub-screens, etc.  Moreover, in Fallout 3, close to two-thirds of the screen space was taken up by the Pip-boy 3000, a fancy model with lots of shaders which had precisely no gameplay function whatsoever (but it sure did look neat, huh?).  One would think that after these two instances, Bethesda would go back to the drawing board and try to improve things for the better.

Initially, it looked that way.  Bethesda's bold new iPod-esque design, with plenty of clean, futuristic fonts and scrolling "cover flow" menus was clean and seemingly efficient, removing a lot of the excess baggage of previous menus and more effectively organizing information.  It's fair to say that this is one of the more radical redesigns of a user interface in a modern console game short of Fable III's interactive 3D Sanctuary.  However, like Fable III, Skyrim completely forgets that conventions exist for a reason... and demonstrates that Bethesda really have not learned very much about designing interfaces at all.

Poor Use of Space

The first, and most glaring fault, and a problem shared with their previous games no less, is an almost criminal misuse of space.  Though the heads-up-display is minimalistic and efficient actually getting into the menus demonstrates an almost complete ignorance of even the most basic design rules.  Upon opening up one of the game's menus (inventory or magic are the two most common), one is greeted with a single sidebar on the left or right side of the screen, containing a list of categories.  While there are ten distinct entries on the inventory list (depending on what types of items the player has), the default position for the list is not at the top of the screen, but at the center of the screen.

While this is immediately more readable, it quickly becomes apparent that not all entries can fit on-screen at once.  On a gamepad, this means that sometimes you'll need to do additional scrolling to be able to read some of the additional items in the menu.  On the PC, you'll need to actually scroll the list just to be able to click on the items that fall off-screen, even though there is more than enough real estate on screen to click each of them. 

Despite all that extra space up top, the default list position makes no use of it whatsoever.

Actually selecting one of these categories will reveal a second menu which lists all items within that sub-category, i.e. potions or weapons.  However, whereas a single column works for the smaller, ten-items-at-most list for inventory and magic categories, for the items underneath, it's a complete disaster.  While only a few items won't put any stress on the format, when you have potentially dozens or even hundreds of items, as in the case of various potions, ingredients, food items, and so on, this misuse of screen space and fixation on adhering to a specific aesthetic means that sometimes it can take ten seconds or more to even reach the item you're looking for.  Adding another column  would have mitigated the problem almost entirely, and placing the default list position at the top of the screen rather than the center would have further reduced additional scrolling.

Finally, there's the item or spell display itself.  Though it likely seemed a good idea at the time, over 50% of the screen space is taken over by a 3D model or particle effect of a given item, with attributes and a short description taking up close to 20% of the entire usable screen space.  Why this is, I cannot fathom.  Most of your time in the inventory will be taken up scrolling through items, not staring at 3D models.  Furthermore, a separate option to examine the models in detail already exists - so why do they take up so much room by default?  I imagine the goal was to show off the pretty models their artists no doubt worked very hard on, but to devote so much screen space to such a non-essential function is a major interface slip-up.

Text vs. Pictures

One immediately apparent characteristic of Skyrim's menus is that they almost entirely eschew pictures, instead replacing everything with text, sorted alphabetically in most cases.  This is a trend I've seen in a lot of modern games lately, and is often sold as "getting rid of the Tetris inventory" or the more general "streamlining."  Unfortunately, such a mode of thinking completely misses out on some of the many advantages that pictures and icons have over text.

While smart sorting options and using text aren't outright bad decisions, I want to stress, text, especially on a TV screen where real estate is more limited, takes up significantly more room than icons can, and have the immediate downside of being less easily identifiable.  Those lengthy lists which define Skyrim's menu systems could take up half the space if more traditional and RPG-like inventory icons were used instead - and it would have further eliminated the need for a large 3D model to take up the majority of screen space.

One of the most defining features of RPGs, especially in the West, has been a paper doll feature, or a graphical representation of the in-game character.  Traditionally, this was done (even in previous Elder Scrolls games) due to technical limitations, as highly-detailed and unique sprites were often beyond the graphical capabilities of many game engines.  Over time, this practice has generally waned, mostly because modern games are able to display a high-detail 3D representation of the player character anyway, either during gameplay or in cutscenes.

Though clearly not optimized for a gamepad, Icewind Dale and other Infinity Engine games accomplish far more with pictures than with text.

Though the paper doll was initially included in games as a compromise, a way to have a customizable character without needing to create high-detail animated sprites for every possible combination of races, sexes, equipment, clothing, and so on, it also ended up serving a very important purpose as far as user interface goes.  The paper doll, more than just a vanity, helped to instantly and immediately express exactly what items a player character had equipped - what suit of armor, what weapon, what magic amulet, and so on.  When coupled with an "equipped" inventory sorter of some variety, it meant that players could quickly and easily figure out what items they had equipped at any given time, literally at a glance.

Skyrim removes the paper doll function entirely in favor of the aforementioned 3D models, and the result is that it's actually harder to figure out what one's character is using at a given time.  Playing as a warrior, unless I have my weapon at the ready, I genuinely have no idea what I have equipped, potentially until it's too late and I meet the game over screen.  Playing as a mage, unless I have my spells at the ready, I have no idea what I can cast at a given moment, leading to much mashing of hotkeys - and furthermore, as many spells share similar visual effects, often I find myself casting the wrong spell for a situation because I can't even tell them apart until I've fired them off.

Comparing the interface in Skyrim to the interface in Icewind Dale, it seems that the old Infinity Engine was capable of producing a more immediately usable, quicker, and more attractive interface than all the modern technology and theft from Apple in the world could.  The pictures look good, it's easy to see what each item is, there are reams of more detailed information to be had at a single mouse click, quick-slots are easy to set up, it's never a mystery what items I have equipped, and there's even something tactile about the weighty sound effects and item selection lacking from Skyrim's sterile menus.  Even Arena did some things better than Skyrim, and that was over fifteen years ago.

The Worst Screen in the History of UIs

That header is not hyperbole.  I think that Skyrim has genuinely managed to lay claim to the title of "worst interface element ever made."  It comes in the form of the skills menu, used primarily for leveling up.  It violates almost every single rule about designing user interfaces, and it does so for only one reason - to show off a pretty picture.

Among many other problems, the skills screen doesn't even give you an idea of how many skills there are to choose from.

The gimmick with the skill screen is that it resembles a number of constellations in a night sky, with each constellation representing a specific skill.  I was under the impression that in previous Elder Scrolls lore, it was birthsigns that were the constellations, but I guess that idea was thrown out the window as birthsigns have been removed in Skyrim.  But I digress.  There are honestly so many issues with this screen that I am just going to list them one-by-one.

  1. It's impossible to see all the skills at once.  Want to know what your skill level in something is?  Prepare to do some additional left and right scrolling.  Depending on what skills you use, this could mean several seconds and close to a dozen discrete inputs to move the list along to where you want it.
  2. It wastes a lot of extra screen space.  By linking each of the headers to an image, instead of, say, displaying multiple rows or a vertical list with independent images, the numer of items on screen at once is further limited.
  3. It needlessly violates conventions both in games and in the real world.  From an early age, we are taught to read information left to right, and to list items top to bottom.  This convention may not be the ultimate in organization, but it works and most players are going to be used to it.  Instead, Skyrim presents a left-to-right list of items which is completely counter-intuitive to our existing understanding of how lists work.
  4. The default point is the center, not the left side.  Though it may seem more intuitive to place the currently-selected skill in the middle of the screen, in actuality it creates more work for the player, as the eyes have to travel both left and right to view other skills.
  5. The list scrolls both left or right, meaning there is no "starting" point to go from.  Usually in a game I want to know my information is organized in some sort of coherent way, but in Skyrim, the left and right scrolling ruins any spatial organization of information players might have.  Furthermore, anything that's off-screen might as well not exist at all, so if it's not immediately visible, you probably won't have a clue of exactly where it is in relation to the other items.
  6. On the PC, the controls are baffling and awkward.  Mouse clicks only move the list one position left or right.  Think you can click on one of those far-off items to select it?  Too bad.  I mean, really, what do you think that mouse even is, a cursor or something?
  7. When it comes time to inspect the perks in the skill trees themselves, or level up, only one perk's details are visible at one time.  This makes it impossible to view information at a glance, and furthermore means that it's harder to compare different perks to one another and weigh trade-offs.
  8. You have to go back from the perk menu to change to a different skill.  The way the controls are set up both on PC or gamepads, using the usual "back" button actually closes the entire skills screen, rather than going back to the main list.  Why the needless break from convention?  I certainly couldn't tell you.
  9. Navigating through different perks is a tedious and difficult process.  Rather than using a list, perks are represented by stars in each constellation, and must be "traveled" to using the analogue stick or mouse pointer.  If you're imprecise with your movement, be prepared to waste time as you travel to the wrong perk selection.  Furthermore, it takes around two seconds to move from one perk to the next, which itself can grow irritating if you want to find something at the opposite end of the perk tree.
  10. UI elements and camera perspective can actually block out perks that should be visible.  Instead of being able to see all the perks at once, the angle of the camera means that only a handful of them are even visible in the first place.  In some cases, such as the "Perks to increase" counter visible in the screenshot, the titles of perks that should be visible are actually blocked out entirely, requiring additional scrolling.
  11. When leveling up, there is no way to go back on a selection you've already made.  Chosen a perk and then change your mind?  Maybe pressed the back button by mistake and kicked yourself out of the menu again?  Too bad, you're stuck with your choice.  Almost every single RPG I've ever played has had a "confirm changes" button somewhere, usually upon fully exiting a menu rather than immediately after selecting a given item.  Why it's not in Skyrim, I can't say.

I honestly do not know who designed this portion of the interface, but it has so many elementary problems that I have trouble understanding how it even made it into the game - surely, somewhere, someone must have said "you know, this doesn't really work well"?  And yet they didn't - it's in the game, and players have to suffer through it.

As if scrolling everywhere wasn't bad enough, doing it in different directions presents its own share of issues.

I have a theory about what likely happened.  Somewhere, a designer came up with the idea... "it'd be cool if there were constellations, with all these stars on it representing skills."  Then, some artist whipped up a neat concept that looked really pretty, and everyone was on board.  However, in not sitting back and asking exactly how it would work from a user interface perspective, what the trade-offs were, and so on, the result was something not at all enjoyable to use, or intuitive.  Developers sometimes get married to an idea they really like, to the point where it can sometimes interfere with the rest of the game... in this case, Bethesda's designers were probably dead-set on this idea.  As a result, one of the game's more important interface elements was utterly ruined... all for the sake of a pretty picture. 


I again want to stress that I have been enjoying my time with Skyrim.  The game is great, it's a lot of fun, and aside from my complaints with the interface and the PC version of the game, it really is a great experience compared to previous Bethesda titles.... and for what it's worth, there is one thing about the UI I do like - the mouse/stick gestures for selecting menus does work very well.  I also don't want to point any fingers at anyone in particular; I don't work for Bethesda, I don't know their company culture, and I don't know who makes exactly what decisions, or how much freedom and back-and-forth there is.  Put simply: there is nothing personal about my complaints, and I genuinely hope they are ot taken that way.

Even so, I have trouble understanding how such a, frankly, badly-designed user interface ever made its way into a supposed triple-A game.  If Bethesda don't have a dedicated interface designer or engineer, then it's clear they need to get one as soon as possible.  If they're willing to sacrifice so much functionality and usability for the sake of aesthetic gimmickry, on the other hand... well, then I think maybe there are deeper problems at Bethesda that the company needs to work out, and in a way which doesn't leave their players saddled with the soiled fruits of their experimentation.  The interface is one of the most important parts of the game; it's time to see it given the respect and attention it deserves.


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Harry Fields
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Sorry, you lost me at " it really is a great experience compared to previous Bethesda titles". Their titles may not be everyone's cup of tea, but their MC scores are amongst some of the best and their games provide some of the best bang for the buck on the market.

Eric Schwarz
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Well, to each his own. That said, I'm still not sure why you feel Metacritic score is relevant here, or what bearing my opinion on Bethesda's games has on the interface problems I discuss in this article.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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I absolutely hate text-list user-interfaces in RPG-games.

I understand that this is for the readability on consoles where you sit further away from the monitor, but seriously its one of those things that drive me crazy.

Fable did it, Borderlands did it, even Loki did it which is a PC exclusive title (which makes even more baffling).

There is just not enough information displayed in a text-list for RPGs, especially loot-heavy ones where stats, specializations, skills, etc matter a great deal. I don't know how many times i cursed the Borderlands inventory which was infuriating to navigate. Fable was another offender where getting to a relevant item-list required at least 4 clicks, which is 2 clicks too many.

The UI i enjoy most is the oldschool Diablo-style checkerboard. You see the icons, immediately knowing what type of item it is, the color tells you the rarity and if you are interested you hover your mouse over it. Thats 1 click for all the information.

Of course this wouldn't work on console, but we are talking about the PC port here.

One of the better UIs recently was Deus Ex, also had a nice touch with the 1-9 quick-bar in the PC version, it made me feel right at home.

Josh Bycer
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I hate when a UI is designed for style instead of substance. One painful lesson for designers is that the systems that the player is going to be interacting with the most, should be designed to be easy to understand and not tedious to use.

I hated the UI from the Witcher 2 for similar reasons and when it comes to good UI design, sometimes less is more.

Christopher Braithwaite
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Arguing that the skills menu is "The Worst Screen in the History of UIs" because you can't see all the skills at once is like arguing that a convertible is the greatest failure in automotive design because it has diminished torsional rigidity. Clearly, You. Do. Not. Get. It.

Games don't need to be about hyper-efficient menu systems and optimal click paths, thank god.

Eric Schwarz
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So should I just leave this straw man here, or...

Evan Jones
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Yes, the constellation menu is more awkward to use than a standard skill tree. No, I don't terribly care, because it looks really, really cool.

Sometimes aesthetics do win over usability.

Eric Schwarz
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Just going out on a limb here, but what if you could have a menu that worked well, and that was good-looking to boot? Is the constellation idea really so compelling that it has to be integrated in such a specific way that it compromises so many aspects of the interface? It strikes me as a false dichotomy at best.

Christopher Braithwaite
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What if you could have chocolate cake with no calories? Of course having everything would be preferable, but faced with a choice between style and optimization, as is often the case in game development, the choice that enhances the overall game experience should win out every time. The "right" answer is different for each game and depends on the developer and what they are trying to do. In the case of Skyrim, that choice is the stylish star chart menu. Why? Because it reinforces the overarching themes of the game in a way that a more efficient menu probably would not. Much of the charm of the menu system lies in the inefficiencies you pointed out. Oh, and it looks really cool, which serves a multitude of purposes.

Remember, Skyrim is ultimately about exploring. The menu is part of that; navigating the star chart is part of playing the game. You don't have to like it or appreciate it, but you should at least recognize that if you want to have a meaningful discussion about the menu's merits as a UI.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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The "it looks really cool"-argument is the death of anything related to game-design.

Battlefield3s jet-section "looks really cool" but its boring, tedious, and breaks the flow of the game.

Enhancing the game experience IS making a UI that works and is not a bother to work with. After all you want to play the game, not fiddle with the UI.

Evan Jones
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Good aesthetics can't turn a bad UI into a good UI. But the constellation menu is mediocre UI turned into great UI by the great aesthetics.

wansai ounkeo
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In the design world, sometimes aethetics wins over usability but that is usually done with much more rigour and the result is a minor hit on usability. The overall goal of the designer is to find a balance. It doesn't have to be perfect. However, there are clearly broken systems where the decision is far too reaching and skews too much in either direction. Skyrim happens to be one of those; and in fact, this is not just an indictment against just Bethesda but pretty much most modern games.

Stunning visual that so minishes usability is not the work of someone who cares about design. "Sometimes aesthetics do win over usability." is a cop-out and an excuse for poor designers making poor decisions.

@ Christopher Braithwaite

Except this is not like your examples at all. There is a balance that can and are often met in design. It is not some fantasy nirvana to expect that. A designer that cannot find usability is a poor designer. A designer that can't find the conceptual expression is a poor designer. A good looking interface that disrespects usability is just as bad as a fully usable interface that disrespects the concept and identity of the product. There is almost always a middle ground.

The only time where the middle ground cannot be achieved is because the system is so vastly complex that you must make both visually and usability broken decisions for the greater good for the rest of the system to both function and retain some consistency.

Skyrim's system is not so overly complex that the designer cannot still achieve both the aesthetic and the usable. That noone could find this solution makes it very clear that they simply did not care to. Again, an indictment against the entire industry.

Montana Payne
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Some seriously valid points here, if I had to guess I'd say you're spot on regarding the designer dictating the UI and engineers perhaps getting attached to the concept. Cool in concept, but not in reality. I've worked with some extremely difficult designers in the past and sometimes, as an engineer, you have to do what you're told even when muttering under your breath about how stupid it is. I do think however that a couple of the points you've made are forgivable, 3 in particular. Not everyone was taught to read left to right top to bottom - I can look past that for sure.

Bart Stewart
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Maybe it's just old-programmer familiarity with circular queues, but the "no fixed starting point" in the list of perks (skills) doesn't bother me.

What *does* bother me is (as Eric points out) that it's really tough in this scheme to quickly compare the effects of perks. It takes unnecessary extra time to compare perks in adjacent skill trees. In skill trees at opposite ends of the circle of skills it can take numerous clicks... and that's assuming you don't inadvertently select an intermediate perk, because the tolerance between "grabbing" part of the circular skill constellation to spin it and selecting a perk is extremely fine.

Overall, I don't mind the aesthetics of the skill constellation interface. And I'm not always entirely focused on efficiency über alles. But Skyrim's perk interface does, I think, go too far toward prettiness over utility. If there were a way to collapse the circular constellation into an overall "sky map" so that there's not so much clicking for the gamer who's trying to compare options for spending precious perk points, that would be very helpful for PC players.

The inventory interface has a similar problem for different reasons. The point about representing inventory objects as icons in a grid is fair, but it's also fair to acknowledge that this only works for the PC with its mouse selection capability. Implementing this interface would be a completely new feature just for the PC, increasing the cost of making and shipping the game.

So I don't think I'd go so far as to say that Bethesda "has to" offer a visual inventory interface for the PC versions of their games. But I would say that I think PC gamers are perceptive enough to notice when a developer makes an effort to optimize their play experience and to reward that developer over multiple games for doing so.

Finally, I would note that even in the initially patched PC version there are still two inventory interface bugs if you remap the default "E" key to the middle mouse button (as I have).

1. When you select an item to store, pressing the Enter key to perform the action removes the item, but then the focus doesn't reliably shift to the item below the one removed. Sometimes it does, sometimes it shifts to the item above. This requires extra mouse clicks if you're trying to store or sell numerous items with similar names (like "fur" or "hide" or "iron" items). Surprisingly, if you do it often enough, the focus actually shifts to an inventory item that isn't even on the screen!

2. You can't Take or Steal books. You can read them by selecting them with the Activate action if it's remapped from "E" to MMB/MB3, but to be able to Take/Steal them you have to remap the Activate button, perform all the Take/Steals you want to do, then map Activate again back to MMB/MB3.

I understand (and sympathize) that there are a lot of mouse/keyboard combinations that have to be tested when porting from console to PC. But I just don't believe it's that rare that PC gamers will remap the Activate key. These inventory control glitches give an otherwise excellent game the unexpected appearance of being poorly ported to PC.

I don't know where these breakdowns occurred. But it's tempting to think some could have been avoided by taking the time to give the PC version its own custom interface that's a suitable match for its typical keyboard+mouse controls. For what it's worth, I would have noticed and appreciated that attention to making the UI as transparent as possible to my play experience.

Paul Szczepanek
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Seeing as most people play at 1920x1080 you could easily fit ALL the labels for skills without zooming in. That way, you don't have to waste time trying to navigate the skill constellations. Interfaces from games from 20 years ago with 320x240 resolution put the designers here to shame. The compromise here has been heavily weighted towards style.

Gregory Kinneman
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Extremely valid points. I spend a lot of time in RPGs looking at my inventory and deciding what gear to equip and how to progress my character. My goal is not to enjoy the scenery of a menu, but rather to make a decision that will change how the game (you know, the thing I spent my money on) plays, and to make it in an informed and quick way.

Christopher Braithwaite
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The time you spend in menus is time spent playing the game though. Or do you see that time as being outside the game experience? I don't want to spend my time staring at charts and menus unless they make contextual sense (i.e. power curves for a race car). Otherwise they're meaningless and make me feel like my character is nothing but a spreadsheet. I look at spreadsheets all day so I don't want to see them in my fantasy dragonslayer game. Ideally there would be no menus at all but that would be very hard to pull off.

The Skyrim star chart introduces the concept of spatial relationships to skill trees which is an interesting way to address leveling up. If I navigate to the end of a skill tree it feels very far away from other skills, communicating a sense that the skill is expensive in a way that merely big numbers don't necessarily do. There is a lot of potential in this approach that I think is being overlooked by players who have grown accustomed to earlier CRPG conventions. As an aside, has anyone made a skill tree that was, well, a tree?

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"The time you spend in menus is time spent playing the game though. Or do you see that time as being outside the game experience?"

I see it as time wasted to get a result that is not part of the experience. What makes power curves for a race-car more special than 18 strength?

I understand you are trying to connect the UI with the gameplay experience, but its just not how it works. The UI is there to navigate certain aspects of a game, thats its function, its not part of the gameplay, it -facilitates- gameplay.

Lets consider an example. You want to give an item to an NPC, the action of giving is the gameplay, the UI is the tool to facilitate it with. In Fable 3 the character needed to go into his fancy representation of a inventory, physically walk around in it, select the item, go out again, and give it to the NPC.

Another example. Skill trees. Do you know another game that tried to incorporate exploration of skills in gameplay as a UI decission? Final Fantasy X and its elaborate skill-sphere dungeon system:

The fact is, the UI is not gameplay. It certainly isn't in the case of Final Fantasy X, Fable 3, or Skyrim.

You said in a previous comment that Skyrim is about exploration and that it reflects this in its skill trees.


What exactly are you exploring in a skill-tree?

I understand that in the actual game you have a goal, even if set by yourself, like i want to explore to find all the cool stuff, or secret dungeons or daedric weapons, etc.

But what exactly are you exploring in your skill-tree? What is your goal in a skill-tree?

The goal is to put down a point in a certain skill. There is no exploration or reward waiting for you, you are not going to find a secret skill or a daedric skill that you would not get otherwise. There is absolutely -no- incentive to navigate the skill-tree like that.

The UI is there to let you manipulate the game and provide information about it, nothing more nothing less.

If you -really- wanted to break the convention and approach the problem of removing the skill-distribution from the UI, you could code it into the actual game with actual context to the game-world.

Fallout 3 had skill-books for example.

Christopher Braithwaite
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"I see it as time wasted to get a result that is not part of the experience. What makes power curves for a race-car more special than 18 strength?"

If you see it as wasted time I submit that the developers missed an opportunity for engaging you with the game. This doesn't necessarily mean flashy menus however. I think the matter-of-fact menus in Forza 4 are very efficient and in many ways the antithesis of the star chart in Skyrim but ultimately they achieve the same goals.

Power curves are better than 18 strength because they have an analogy in real life. Even if the power curve is for a fantasy vehicle, it is a relatable method for representing a vehicle's dynamics. 18 strength doesn't correlate to any conventional way of representing the body and I question whether it is even a relevant statistic in an RPG. Strength is usually used to calculate the amount of damage a character can do or how much they can carry so why not just tell players that information directly?

I am not 'trying' to connect the UI experience to the gameplay experience per se, rather I see them as part of one complete experience. Each informs the other. Interface is just one component of the game like any other asset. All of the game's assets are there to facilitate that experience. As far as I'm concerned any time spent interacting with the game, which includes menu navigation, combat, camera movement, input device manipulation etc is gameplay. In fact I'd even go one step further and say any time spent thinking about decisions to make in the game *even when not interacting with the game* is part of gameplay but that's outside the scope of interface.

"The goal is to put down a point in a certain skill. There is no exploration or reward waiting for you, you are not going to find a secret skill or a daedric skill that you would not get otherwise. There is absolutely -no- incentive to navigate the skill-tree like that."

I disagree. The goal is to enjoy the game. Whether I'm wandering around Skyrim, choosing perks, fighting dragons, crafting items, conversing with NPCs or waiting for the game to load the goal is always to enjoy the game. Skill points and perks exist to serve the greater goal of enjoying the game. Yes, the skill menu is clunky and I think it could have been implemented better, but the concept of my character looking to the heavens to determine his fate is an appealing one. It reinforces the mysticism of the game and is an homage to a time when people were very serious about studying the sky for direction in their lives. The reward is getting to choose a perk in the menu itself, because that means I have further defined my character. This allows the menu to have more resonance than just being a bunch of squares and text for choosing skills. That is a good thing.

Eric Schwarz
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"The Skyrim star chart introduces the concept of spatial relationships to skill trees which is an interesting way to address leveling up. If I navigate to the end of a skill tree it feels very far away from other skills, communicating a sense that the skill is expensive in a way that merely big numbers don't necessarily do."

I get what you're saying here, and I agree with it. However, there are ways to communicate this which don't waste so much screen space. See the technology tree from Civilization IV as an example - it's lengthy to communicate the sheer amount of time the game covers, but actual individual eras more or less fit on the same page as one another. Skyrim does not need to include such awkward scrolling and such great distance between all the perks to get its point across. And ultimately, I don't think that such benefits trump usability.

Gregory Kinneman
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@Chris: I see time spent in the menu as being part of the experience, but not part of the game. It's the same way that packing is part of a camping trip, but I don't enjoy camping trips because of the packing. For this reason, a good inventory/skill interface is very important to me if I'm likely to spend a lot of time there due to the nature of the game, but it's not the part of the game that makes me go out and buy it.

I enjoy RPGs because I get to explore a world, interact, and accomplish things. An inventory system usually provides none of those. I can't really explore a world through my potions and swords, can't interact with them in any meaningful way, and equipping gear doesn't give me any in-inventory reward for doing it well. It's merely a tool for modifying how the game behaves. When an inventory system is good, I don't notice it much. When it's bad, and it keeps me from doing the things I enjoy in the game, then I tend to notice it a lot.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"I disagree. The goal is to enjoy the game. "

Not to sound like a dick but this is an incredibly redundant statement. Enjoyment is not measurable by any scale. If it was this easy to -know- what an enjoyable game actually is, developers wouldn't be struggling with it on a daily basis.

You need to understand that I am not specifically criticizing the "looking to the heavens aspect", absolutely not. I am criticizing the navigation of said UI element.

I agree that the UI is best if it contextually fits with everything else and that it should not throw you out of the game-experience.

Fallout 3s UI shortcomings for example are easy to forgive if you think about it, since the Pipboy is an aesthetic and technology that is part of the game-world (as in its not separated as a UI). However the contrast to this is Fable 3 where the "UI" is cumbersome and in a way completely removed from the game.

In the case of skyrim its a mixture. The UI for the skills is neatly incorporated into the game by being the representation of the sky, this is totally fine and a great idea. But its navigation - the flying around amongst the stars - is just flash and glitter. Form over substance.

If they left the constellations in the sky and for example let me click on separate stars in the skill-tree, without having me zoom about the universe chasing it, I'd not be writing this post at all. I think nobody would.

The problem is, the UI first presents you with a nice in-game skill-tree but then you are removed from it by being catapulted into the sun.

Its like you would have a skill-tree in your game, an actual tree, and to put down the skill-points you would turn into a pollen that needs to pollinate the flowers to grow the skill-apple that you then have to pluck and eat.

Its contrived and obviously put there just for the reason that it looks cool.

Neill Smith
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"Power curves are better than 18 strength because they have an analogy in real life."

This is wrong. Power curves are not 'real' any more than 18 strength is 'real.' They're both completely made up metrics used to approximate a phenomenon, one in the real world the other in the virtual. Why wouldn't or shouldn't we invent a power curve like metric for in game characters and present it to the game player? They need to evaluate and compare performance differences between multiple options just like a tuner does with cars.

Theres no reason to ditch the 'look to the stars' part of the design just to make it functional. If the skills were arranged in a circle around a central point and you could see the entire night sky at once, like the real night sky, you could navigate the stars without sacrificing the ability to see every skill and, by extension, click directly on the skill tree you want with the cursor. Similarly there is no reason to limit the players view of any given constellation once focused on it to just one star and the few stars next to it. Why not show the whole thing, like the current menu does on the radial menu, but make each star selectable? Why zoom in last the individual skill constellation level at all? There's literally no point to zooming in on one star at all. None.

Bryce Walters
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I was hoping someone would make a post about this. I'm loving Skyrim, but the first 4 hours I was seriously on the verge of throwing the game out the window because of the interface. I like the star chart's aesthetics a lot, but it really doesn't convey what it needs to easily. Just adding a zoom feature when you go into each constellation would be nice, and if the listed what each perk did all the time instead of only when it's selected, I wouldn't have a problem with it.

However, navigating threw a constellation is horrendous for me. I don't use the mouse, I use the keyboard, and it's terrible. The smithing and heavy armor trees (two of my main trees btw) in particular give me headaches. For example, I want to see the perk that increases unarmed damage in the armor tree. It's one star down the left path. What do I have to do? Hit foreword, which sends me all the way to the last perk in the tree, hit left, then down twice. Why? Because if I hit left on the first star, it switches me to another tree entirely. The smithing tree is a ring. I have to bounce from so many points to get somewhere it's silly.

The other thing that really screams that they didn't test the PC's interface at all? You can't unequip a spell from your right hand! This is really inexcusable. You have to equip a one handed weapon in your right hand, unequip the weapon, and then you can set a new spell. This is something very basic and essential to gameplay, and it was completely overlooked and left in the shipped product. I found this bug after I got my second spell only about 20 minutes into the game. I can overlook quite a lot in this game because it really is very good, but not this...

Edit: Also, in regards to having to hit the back button and reopen the menu to go to another skill, if you press down on the first star in the tree it takes you back to the list of skills. Press down again and you get to the main menu. Hope that helps a bit while you're playing.

Samuel Wissler
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I disagree about picture inventories always being a better option in RPGs, even on PC. There are many times where a picture is utterly meaningless without a text explanation. An example of this is WoW's inventory. They use all of these nice icons, but many of them are too rare or abstract or too often used to be meaningful. That game struggled mightily with making quest items distinct in a player's inventory precisely because they were using a picture only system. Skyrim would have the same issue given the variety of its items, because they are too detailed for a graphic to convey enough pertinent information. The player ends up reading the same amount and if forced to deal with tooltips going in every direction. I'm not convinced that's a superior design for every circumstance.

While the skills screen does have drawbacks, I do think it's hyperbole to say it's the worst UI screen in history. The constellations give you a lot of information while you scroll by them (you can hold A or D to do that). While scrolling by a full speed you can instantly recognize if you're in the warrior, mage, or thief section of skills. You can easily tell which skills you have placed a perk in and you can also quickly see which skills are about to level.

Once you go into a a skill's perk screen, the perspective makes navigating the tree irritating. I want to use my keyboard to navigate the perks, but that often ends up with me going to a different skill. I also agree that knowing what weapons you have equipped is a problem. You can just hit Q to see it, but depending on how many favorites you have, that might not be very fast. That information should be on the HUD somewhere, rather than put in an inventory screen.

Eric Schwarz
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You were right to point that out - many games have so much equipment that the details can't be expressed in an image, whether that's randomly-generated loot or something else.

At the same time, there's something integral about being able to see at a glance what items are swords, axes, helmets, boots, etc. without having to actually read "Boots of Malicious Guile +4" in a list with a dozen similar-looking entries.

Marko Muikku
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Good article. As a player nothing gets me off like bad interface and interaction flows.

The following text has got nothing to do with Bethesda or their internal processes. This is a collection of thoughts, not answers, gathered from a developers who work in this exotic field called: UX Design

The fundamental development dilemma: Everybody, regardless the discipline, has something to say about the usability. The main point is that the ones who call the final shots, the ones who define the timetables should listen the right people = The interface team, the individuals who are specifically hired there for a reason.

It is still good to remember that game development doesn't follow the traditional web-/software-design process model and I'd dare to assume these screens/systems you've mentioned have been designed and redesigner numerous times before hitting the final build. Interface design is all about compromises. Priorities change, features will be added/removed/readded/reremoved and the interface designers, programmers and artists are assumed to keep up and adapt accordingly.

Staying consistent in such a content heavy production is a challenge. I am not saying that keeping the overall picture crystal clear and the design coherent throughout the various stages of production is impossible but it sure is a challenge were many collapse and drop the ball.

In the end interface design like any other is a subject of prioritisation. Options: A) to have a mediocre UI but a great game? B) to have a mediocre game with a great UI? C) Once the features are locked, to extend the development time to make both UI and game great? When doing the risk assessments for a game of this magnitude this is, unfortunately, a no brainer - you can't have both.

Nicholas Muise
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To take the side of devil's advocate, here we go:

1. When suggesting an additional column for the Menu interface, can't see this being possible here due to character lengths of strings whilst still sticking to their vision of a 3D model driven UI. Not that it is the correct choice, just that it would had to have been considered.

2. Regarding the use of 3D models taking up screen real-estate. The system seems to have been designed so that the "in-your-face" assets will create a greater sense of both attachment to and identification of items by the player. It also aids in letting the player quickly know what the item is used for and it's properties without having to resort to text descriptions, (Example: glowing magical aurora, tilted weapon to show 2H, etc). I think it fosters a larger player investment into the world and it's items. This in turn enforces the classical "carrot on a stick" school of RPG design. Keep churning that loot hunt.

3. Regarding your comments on a text menu vs. an icon menu. I look at the icon system as a 1:1 type system. For example, one item in this system is always going to equal one slot (a physically defined space in the menu). In Skyrim, is a system like this really possible? Item's are weighted more realistically which means that it would be very difficult to accurately represent this system with icons (where would you fit everything?).

4. In regards to your points about the skill menu UI.

Point 3 - You've stated people read left to right, top to bottom. This is not accurate as there are cultures for whom this is not applicable. (Not that it was a major point in your article, but you did list it so I thought it was worth pointing out).

Point 11 - Adding two layers of confirmation would be redundant, especially in a system where you are typically only assigning one skill point at a time. You are asked to confirm your choice upon skill selection (which logically to me makes more sense than confirming something after you have already made the choice). In a system where you are assigning multiple skill points at a time and frequently for example, a single confirmation after point assignment would make more sense.

5. In regards to your theory on how the UI went bad. It is easy to make assumptions about what happened during development, however anyone who has actually worked in the industry will tell you that things are rarely ever so cut and dry as this. I guarantee that the core main guys designing this UI know what they are doing, were passionate about it, as well as would have made some significant changes were it in their hands.

Eric I think you have done a great job breaking down the UI like you have and you have constructed your criticisms in an effective manner. It is stuff like this that I enjoy reading the most on Gamasutra and I appreciate the time you would have taken to write this. I agree with pretty much everything else you have said as I think most people would.

In closing to my comment I will say that I am happy with the UI as it is a breath of fresh air to me, even if it is clearly imperfect. I am tired of the informational assault from RPG's that are completely unoriginal with their UI designs (DA:O, WoW etc imo.) I am thankful for a cleaner, sharper looking system and am glad they went this direction even if it can sometimes slow down combat by not having hotkeys etc and all the other issues it brings.

Chris Melby
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Skyrim has Hotkeys support. You can assign 1 - 8 with an item, magic, etc. It's somewhat limited in how it was implemented, but it still works better than nothing. You assign the keys while in the "Q"uick menu -- so where you access your favorites.

I'm playing on my Apple HD 30" at its native rez, so I'm finding it rather annoying that that I'm scrolling small lists on a screen that's 1600 pixels tall and that comparing item stats is so poorly executed; something that's crucial for RPGs IMO. This UI for Skyrim is definitely design over function, but I guess that moves some people.

I'm with Eric for the most part about Skyrim's UI and what your comments about the deve team, and I'm also for a fresh change, but only when it's a benefiet and not a burden. Ironically, as much as they tried to depart from the proven with the UI, the gameplay -- although really enjoyable -- is nothing new.

Nicholas Muise
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Thanks for pointing out the Hotkeys to me Chris, I did not realize they were in there. :D

Adam Isgreen
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Good points, but there's more you didn't cover.

There's a whole section to be written regarding the moment-to-moment flow of combat and how the UI hampers smooth play in that area as well. The lack of more than two hot-swap items on the pad (and not sets either, just two items) and the constant break in tension by using the shortcut menu both work together to kill what could be really flowing, dramatic combat. Instead of a fight that takes you across a wide range of spells and combat items, fluidly switching from one to the other as the situation arises, you ge t a series of br eaks in the co mbat that ser ve only to kill th e drama and t ension.

Why have this wonderful assortment of different spells and weapons, then limit players to such a tiny selection without hassle? Certainly there was a contradiction of ideals at work.

Great game, best ES game to date... but wow, what a disappointment on the usability side.

Derek Stout
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I think my biggest complaint is the favorites selection. Harking back to what you were saying about the selections being in the middle and the long text lists, this is the area that is affected the most I think. On top of that, the menu literally has no organization beyond being sorted alphabetically. It leaves the whole thing a cluttered mess of RPG jargon. I haven't played the pc version, but on the 360 it leaves me wishing they had done more with hot keys or at least separated weapons/armor, magic, and misc. objects into different vertical columns. Again more poor use of UI space.

Nick Harris
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Skyrim has the equivalent of UI porn. You totally miss the point. Skyrim had to have a UI that would suit consoles. This implies ease of navigation (without a mouse) and readable text on the TV from couch-distance. What if these menus are comparatively slow? It is not as if the game doesn't pause the action whilst you are in them. I don't understand why everyone can't chill out and soak in Bethesda's carefully sustained atmosphere.

I don't want to feel that I am using Microsoft Word 6.

Nick Harris
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I think too many people were expecting perfection. That is unreasonable. I am content as I merely expected progress. This has been acheived. In a way the problem with its negative reception stems from marketing hype, but this was entirely necessary to ensure maximum market penetration. This game was so expensive to develop that Bethesda had to ensure there was plenty of TV advertising for it so that anyone who might possibly think of buying it would get it - or even buy a 360 / PS3 for Christmas to be able to indulge in this fantasy game. In a way Skyrim is not for you. It is for the masses. Hence, a UI biased towards gamepads.

Kamran Ayub
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As for the apparent "misuse" of space when opening the menus (where the list starts in the middle of the screen), as a user this is much better. Think for a second where you are staring at the entire game... your cross-hair. Where is the cross-hair? Why, in the middle of the screen! Thus, opening the menus by default with the list starting in the middle actually is faster for my eye to get to then if they had started it at the top of the screen.

I'd agree with the skill menu insofar as the controls to navigate it suck. However, I really like the design. I do agree that if possible, it'd be best to either show all the skill trees at once or provide a quick jump-to menu. I do think it would have been better to present the entire skill tree once you're in it at once to make it easier to click navigate.

The fact the skill menu is a carousel doesn't bother me; holding down the A or D keys makes it pretty quick to navigate; however like I said, showing all skills at once at the bottom or somewhere might make it even faster to navigate. I do often find myself taking extra time because I have to look at each skill to find the one I'm looking for. For Bethesda, it was probably a trade-off between showing too much information (all skills and progress bars) and keeping to the minimalist aesthetic.

As for a grid vs. list based UI, I prefer the list... haven't you ever played Morrowind? I dare you to say finding a potion is easier than looking at a list. I would still say the list UI needs either a filter or sub-categories though, because (in the case of potions) it's still not easy to find a healing potion. A list is also incredibly easy to navigate if you are looking for an item by name; there are too many similar items for a grid to be useful, especially if you're carrying a ton of stuff. In Morrowind, you had to take an extra step to hover over an item just to make sure it was what you wanted; with a list, that is already clear from the title of the item.

I do think there needed to be a basic sort, or at the least, contextual information. For example, for apparel/weapons, simply add one additional column to the item view representing damage/armor rating and make the color green/red depending on if equipping it will be better for you or not. When selling, replace that column with the item's gold value. When over-encumbered, replace it with the item's weight. In the latter two cases, order in descending order. I think that would solve almost all my issues with the UI. The other useful feature would be a shortcut to transfer an item to my follower.

The other thing I think people forget or choose to ignore is that CRPG players are not the only people Bethesda wanted to play the game. For many people, Skyrim will be the first TES game they've played, perhaps even the first RPG. These people have no idea what to expect from an RPG UI and in fact, may have avoided RPGs in the past due to their complex UI (and they ARE complex); seeing Bethesda's new menu, it's probably less intimidating and easier to get their head around.

So far I've found the UI as a whole to be faster and more efficient than Morrowind or Oblivion. I would say it's even better than Fallout, and I don't remember people complaining so much about Fallout's PipBoy. I think people hear "oh the UI sucks" and then jump on the bandwagon. Does it need work? Yes. Is it unusable in its current state? No. Just because it doesn't look like an Excel spreadsheet doesn't mean it's bad.

Lastly, this is why there are mods... so arguing too much about it is a waste of time; there will be UI mods soon that cater to the people who want detailed information and those who just want some basic enhancements to the current UI. It'll be interesting to see whether or not all these features people want will make the menus easier or harder to navigate.

Ronald Stepp
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Reading through the various replies, especially from Christopher Braithwaite, it occurs to me that Christopher is the best example of how designers fall in love with an idea and then, come hell or high water, incorporate it into the game. They then rest easy, since the players WILL learn to use and WILL enjoy the consequences of those decisions.

Christopher follows the same trend, you WILL accept his idea of why the game is good, the designers are good, and you just. don't. get. it.

I have played the game for around 20 some hours and have to say, overall, I think I wasted $60 bucks on something that should have went through much more work and had a much larger beta test group, if it was even beta tested outside their offices.

Gary Cai
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Whether or not this UI decision was done on purpose or just a misguided designer's pet project, I just get the feeling that Bethedsa is placing a lot of empasis on mods. Naturally, it's not a bad thing, but it seems like they did a direct port from the consoles, probably realised that it wouldn't work too well on the PCs, but didn't change it anyway because they knew the modders would 'correct' it. This reliance on modders to make their game for them just comes across as pretty cheap.

RFC 3251
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You say you don't know anything about Bethesda's company culture. I do, at least about the time when Oblivion was being developed (and I doubt that changed). They key problem with their culture used to be (and I bet still is) that they don't do any large-scale testing of their games. Specifically, they don't ask anyone from outside the development team to play the game prior to shipping, and to give them their opinion.

The result is a lot of quest bugs and inconsistencies (because the quests are only being played by the people who designed them - and they don't try things that they didn't think of while developing them), and the interface is mainly being tested by the people who designed it (so they're just going to check that it works "as they planned it", not that it "works" in a usability sense).

Kirill Yarovoy
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Good article, i had same ideas in my head when played Skyrim.

Messing with TES5 UI takes so many time, so i feel that i spent more time in UI than in actual Skyrim world, TES5 feels more like broring turn-based strategy and inventory manager thant real time open world RPG.

Thats makes game really boring and annoying too fast, and it even starts to drive me mad.

One thing that seems to be missing in article - is lack of item sorting. I dont mean separation of weapons and apparel, i mean sorting in every inventory list.

Everything abc-sorted, and list is real mess, if i pick up any item it can appear anywhere in list, so i cant even memorize position of item and need to scroll entire list.

There should be simple sorting button that would change sorting mode to these standart modes:

By abcBy weightBy chronological order of pickupby value(price)by special powers

Also items should be grouped by tepe - boots to boots, armor to armor, shields to shield, helmemts to helmets etc, and i dont mean 3rd scrollmenu i mean just texticon title about subgroup inside Weapons and other item groups.

Right now entire list is a mess! Btw Witcher 2 suffered from same problem, however its UI was a little better but worse than UI in Witcher 1.

This is definetly stupid and ugly minimalistic scrolling trend - which infects brains of designers like a virus, which prevents them from rational thinking. And this trend infected not only game industry - look at Windows phone 7 - the ugliest and most non comfortable UI ever!

Designers who think that TEXT without icons is so "cool" just idiots IMHO, they need to learn a psyhology a little to find out how our brains recogines images with unique shapes more effectively than text.

Well they dont even need to be uber-psyhologist to get this idea, all they need is a bit of rational thinking and some focus tests if they not sure. When every man looking at pictureicon he can instantly interpreter as a known shape of object with some properties, when man looking at text, he needs to interpreter text as image 1st and then recognise its shape and properties, this takes extra step of thinking, and extra time, which brings extra frustration.

lets just for example take PS3 and XB360 controllers - lets remove colors from every button, they would be all the same, and lets remove letters and icons and write on every button text "Button 1, Button 2, Button 3, Button 4" or "CROSS, SQUARE, TRIANGLE, CIRCLE" and lets give this pad to new man player who never played with game, and lets give our original pads to few more noob players, let them play same game with UI variations - one game would have text-only ui, another would have all thats icons.

Now the question is - which players will learn how play faster and would use in-game controls more effectively? Answers is obvious - those who had UI with icons and pads with icons.

In addition to this, player with text-only ui would mess buttons too often and would be frustrated and stressed much more than other 2 players, because its harder to recognise and memorise text and distinguish ui elements and buttons from each other.

GFX ICONs, different colors and shapes = effective shorcuts for our brains! PLAIN TEXT = uneffective long, hard and messy way for our brains! Period.

Any attempts to disagree with that, are attempts to ignore facts and logic (which is franky called STUPIDITY), and Betheseda, as well as many designers these days (including Windows Phone 7 designers), managed to ignore facts and logic pretty well recently.

Also some people think that this UI is gamepad friendly - as PC gamer who prefer to play with gamepad 100% time, i can tell you for sure, this UI is pain in ass even for gamepad users and suffers from same problems and even few more.

For example D-pad usage is absolutely uneffective mess!

In Fallout 3 you could map 8 fav guns on every of D-pad 8 directions, for quick selection, this time d-pad just scrolls useless favoritites left and righ or up and down (i still haven manage to firuge out the logic of this), and yet again list of favorites have no sorting at all, no icons, weapons, armor, magic - everything messed in one plain list of text, and because im dont bother to memorise name of every stupid item in game, i cant even figure out what am i looking at and need to use trial&error method. If only list would have icons and logical sorting of item types, i would be usefull, but the way it works now its even less useful than inventory, so i dont bother mysefl to use d-pad at all, because i cant get information about item from stupid plain text with its name!

Oh and if you will try to scroll the perk-stars in skills menu, you will find out that you always jump not to exactly to that perk you want.

And i think OP making mistake trying to be too polite about this issue - lets Beth and other devs should face the facts about their "logic" - if they do UI like this, they are simply stupid and thy are doing stupid thing!

I cant really understand about whole madness that happens these days, but if really wish to return to 95-2005 era, when game industry was less greedy and more ratinal than it is today.

P.S. - BF3 is another example of stupidity of UI designers of this era. I really wish to kick ass of that IDIOT from DICE and EA who made decision, that SP and MP game should be started from Web browser, instead of having in-game ui for that as we always had before. Skyrim UI designers deserves to have their ass kicked too.

Oh yeah - these guys who made awesome skyrim Ui mod, reaaly should be hired by Beth instead of those idiots who made current UI (these idiots obviosly needs to be fired and their solary should be lowered, since they have no idea how to make good neither for PC nor for Consoles.

If you havent seen this mod just google for Skyrim UI MOD.

Karl Randall
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I could not disagree more with every point made in this article.

Having sunk many hours into Skyrim and completed nearly every quest within the game, the UI is one of the most thoughtfully designed, reductive and beautiful UI's I've ever used in a game.

Not only does it's look fit so well with the universe they've created — the celtic flourishes, the large high resolution 3d models, the celestial star sign screen for levelling up, the hawk's eye view of the world for the map — but they've been stringently reductive in applying the design, ie everything is white on black using single flowing lines.

Even the loading screens celebrate the immense artistic achievements of the games artists and designers by showcasing a different beautifully rendered in game model the view at your leisure.

Logically and functionally the system is intuitive to use pressing back opens the directional menu (items, map, magic and level up) and then pressing that logical direction takes you to that menu. the column setup works from left to right, top to bottom as per classic western reading culture.

The 'waste of space' argument overlooks such considerations as information overload and visual clutter. When opening the menu for the first time you would not want the entire screen filled with columns upon columns of text, your eye would not know where to start or what to look at. Displaying 10 items at first is a digestible amount to comprehend and make sense of and once you scroll down through the remaining items the 'wasted' space is then used to display the remaining items.

Every point in the article talks of wasted space, unnecessary visual additions and awkward use cases; the solution according to Mr Schwartz, give me a spreadsheet with tiny undeciferable pictures or why haven't they done the same thing as every other PC based RPG to precede it.

And this I think I the major misunderstanding when it comes to this article.

Skyrim has quite clearly been designed for two distinct hardware specifications: Xbox 360 and PS3.
These are the two hardware specs with the most market share attached to them and so unfortunately from their business point of view developing a game and UI with these specifications set as a priority is almost a given these days. Yes 'PC' may have similar market share to the 360 or PS3 (I don't know the exact numbers) but 'PC' contains thousands of hardware specifications and so the wider hardware and software environment means less efficient development time.

Unfortunately Skyrim's UI has quite clearly been biased toward controller based input.

And while I don't deny that the vanilla UI may feature the best experience for mouse and keyboard, the PC version can take advantage of user created mods to improve the game. This is not an excuse for the developers to release controller optimised UIs for a PC title, but a saving grace for a highly fragmented platform that can not compete on the same economical level as single hardware platforms.

It is, however, an undeniably beautiful, well thought out and considered UI experience.
And fits unbelievably well with the Elder Scrolls universe for Skyrim.