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KoA: Reckoning - On menus in console RPGs

In tradition with Eric Schwartz's and Ted Brown's blog posts about Skyrim's user interface, here's a small comment on what Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has to say on that matter.

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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