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The Menus of Dragon Age: Inquisition

A critical look at some of DA:I's menus (on PS4) and how they're accessed, along with ideas how they could be handled differently. Focus lies on 1) unresponsiveness of character switching inside menus and 2) the crafting/modification menus.

I'm currently about 75 hours into DA:I. It's a great game, the characters, the interaction with them and interesting, non-obvious choices being my favourite parts. However, I've found myself wondering about some User Interface aspects and how they might be improved. Obviously, a lot of work has gone into the UI and it's always easier to critique the work of others than to build a coherent system for such a complex game from the ground up. Keeping this humbly in mind, let's have a look at some of the game's menus, how they're accessed and alternative ways of how they could be structured.

 

1. Slow Switching of Characters in Menus (PS4)

When you're in the game's numerous menus, switching characters can be incredibly sluggish. We're talking seconds, not milliseconds. Crucially, this is not just about loading character models, but also affects updating the displayed item and abilities lists. C.f. the video below.

It is hard to believe that a game can feature such huge, incredibly lush outdoor environments with almost no performance issues, yet at the same time struggles so hard to switch between displaying some lists or others. I don't know if this is just on PS4, but it makes navigating the game's inventory, crafting and ability menus a rather unpleasant experience.

This is a technical issue, however, and I couldn't possibly speculate or comment on why it exists, or even how to solve it. So let's just assume it can't be improved directly and consider if there could be a way to work around it and what its trade-offs would be.

Some Possible Ways to Switch Characters

DA:I offers you up to 10 playable characters, one of them being your player character. If we're going to switch menu views based on character selection, here's some ways to do that:

 a) a single, circular* character list (the implemented solution)

*circular meaning the next item after the last item is the first item again

  • max # of steps to desired chars, optimally: 5
  • max # of steps to desired chars, wrong direction: 9
  • required buttons: 2 (if bi-directional; dpads up & down)
  • pro: system is easy to communicate visually, and easy to understand
  • pro: even if you go totally in the wrong direction, eventually you reach desired char
  • con: hard to memorize char order, especially since there's not even an apparent system to their order! (afaik, it's not gender, race, alphabet, class or even order of appearance)
  • con: requiring lots of switching steps exacerbates load time issue!

b) a radial character menu

  • max # of steps to desired chars, always: 3
  • required buttons: 2-3 ( button 1, analog stick, maybe 2nd button)
  • pro: required number of steps is always the same
  • pro: skips on unnecessary loading of unwanted char's data
  • pro: maybe spatial distribution makes memorization of position easier
  • con: 10 is simply too many for a radial menu, 8 is the limit
  • con: doesn't integrate well with what is otherwise a list or table-based menu system
  • con: a single switching step requires multiple gestures = complex

c) a vertically and horizontally circular (i.e. spherical)  character table*

*displayed like a), just with the option to switch between 3 smaller lists (i.e. columns)

  • max # of steps to desired chars, optimally: 2-3
  • max # of steps to desired chars, wrong directions: 3 or more
  • required buttons: 4 (e.g. dpad's up, down, left, right)
  • pro: easier to create mental map
  • con: complicates already complex menus

Here's how the number of required steps to reach a specific character is distributed for the 3 variants:

A circular table might work well for DA:I because the characters can be distributed evenly in 3 easy-to-remember columns (or sublists, if you will): Their classes. The class with your player character has 4, the other classes have 3 members each. This system makes it much easier to know where you are in the table and realize what you have to do to reach the character you wanted to select.


Given the long switching times, being able to reach 4 different characters at just the push of a button, and all but one of them with a second button press would make for a much more pleasant experience. There are still unmapped buttons available on the DS4, and not just in the context of menus; the left/right dpad buttons aren't used at all in the game. Using all of the dpad for character selection would therefore create no consistency problems. While there would be a slight deviation from the way you select characters during combat, it would be easy to create a mental model of that: Basically, you always cycle through lists; In the field, the list is made up of the available characters, whereas at home you can switch between three lists, organised by character class.

A quick mockup of what it could look like:

Up/down dpads could also be displayed next to the character name, and right/left dpads next to class, both at the top right. The currently selected class could be highlighted more, now that it serves a navigational purpose. The point being, there's plenty of screen space and an aesthetically pleasing way could be found to communicate that characters inhabt 3 lists/a table instead of a single big list. Also, grouping characters in lists that way would have additional benefits because classes share skill trees and the kind of equipment they can use. So menu navigation would be more efficient beyond just reducing switching load times.

Whether the gained efficiency by using method c) instead of a) is worth the increase in menu complexity, is debateable. Once the players learnt this system, however, it would definitely allow them  to spend more time actually playing, rather than waiting for some menu to update.

 

2. Crafting and Modifying Equipment

Many players love tinkering with their equipment and crafting their own weapons and armor. To do that in DA:I, you have to walk to 4 different workbenches, one each for crafting and for modifying weapons, and one each for the same for armor. I don't understand why, considering:

  • Their four corresponding menus would easily fit into a single unified one.
  • the workbenches all look pretty similar, are in the same place (thankfully!)
  • using them just opens a menu, so it's not like they do a lot for immersion or facilitate roleplaying
  • the activities they represent are not different enough to warrant the hassle. The fact that they couldn't find clearer differentiating icons for them (a hammer, vs. a hammer & anvil) nicely underlines their similarities.
  • it's disorienting to keep diving in and out of menus, like you have to do if you craft an upgrade at one workbench, then use that upgrade to modify your weapon at another.
  • It exacerbates the sluggishness of menus and draws unnecessary attention to it.

All in all, it's a disorienting and irritating waste of time, regardless of player type and playstyle.

 

A more efficient alternative way to craft/modify:

Similar to the shop menu (c.f. screenshot above), L2 and R2 could toggle between views. L2 toggles between Weapons/Armor and R2 between Crafting/Modification. It's consistent, easy to grasp, hard to get lost in and easy to communicate visually. It could look like this:

There is one major difference between modification and crafting menus: the crafting view doesn't filter visible items by character as all other equipment menus do (they hide all equipped items, except those equipped by the selected character). But that doesn't warrant separating it so drastically from modification menus. It could even be viable to simply stop hiding any items in the modification menu. Sure, it would increase list length a bit (most noticeably for the armor type of the class with 4 characters where it would increase by 3 items. For all other items the list size increase would mostly range from 1 to 2, in the worst case 3). But it would completely eliminate the tedious character switching load times. It's not like you can compare or directly equip items in the modification menus or do anything else that is character-specific, so nothing would be lost there.

Integrating all equipment crafting and modifying into a single menu in such a way would make crafting/modifying equipment more time- and input efficient, at no loss to style, immersion or roleplaying. On the contrary, reducing the impact of character switching sluggishness would remove possible flow- and immersion-breakers. To keep the eye-candy, there could still be multiple workbenches around the workshop that simply access the same menu, if that makes the place look nicer.

What about Potion-Brewing: is it like Equipment-Crafting?

In my magical dream-world where I get to tinker with DA:I's UI, I'd keep potion brewing separate. While it might fit into a unified menu, I think potions differ enough from armor and weapons to emphasize that with a segregated menu:

  • Different gameplay functions: Potions are consumable and require active use, weapons and armor are permanent, passive equipment.
  • The "real-world" process of manufacturing them is very different (tools, physicality of a smithy vs. a lab...)
  • potions use herbs, while armor and weapons share the same materials
  • Alchemy and herb collecting might appeal to different player types than crafting, whereas I don't think there's many people that, say, do enjoy crafting weapons but don't care at all for crafting armor, or vice versa.

It would be interesting to read why exactly BioWare favored convenience when it came to putting the alchemy stuff in the same room in Skyhold as crafting and modification, yet chose to complicate matters for the player by splitting weapon/armor crafting/modification into 4 separate menus with 4 different access points. The former represents a missed "style" opportunity, though it's an understandable trade-off. The latter simply ignores low-hanging convenience fruit. Maybe there are technical reasons? I've wondered the same about the decision to split the crafting area (the Underloft) from the general Skyhold area by a loading screen.

Final Thoughts

  • In a wonderfully implemented virtual world with beautiful landscapes and dragons, the last thing the player wants to do is waste time in unresponsive menus
  • Sometimes it's ok to have user interfaces that aren't maximally efficient, for instance if it allows for a particularly nice roleplaying opportunity or a metaphor that fits well into the game world. After all, games are about play, not productivity, so they're not solely about efficiency. But there needs to be some sort of aesthetic payoff to justify inefficient UI.

What do you think about the slow menus and the cumbersome crafting? Would you agree with the proposed unification of crafting/modification menus? Why not?! ;) Drop me a comment, I'm curious what other folks think about DA:I's user interface in general.

This article was originally posted on http://www.david-canela.com/blog.

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