Dragon Age: Inquisition Interface Intermezzo

I'm currently about 65 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 dissatisfied and wondering about some User Interface aspects and how they might be improved. Now, 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 and possible improvements. 

 


1. The Single Biggest Menu Issue: Switching Characters (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 much to switch between displaying some lists or others. I don't know if this also affects other platforms, but on the PS4 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 consider it a given and do some mental experiments as to how it might be worked around a bit better.

 

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) single, circular* 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
  • chars within 1 step: 2
  • required buttons: 2 (if bi-directional; dpads up & down)
  • pro: system is very 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 no apparent system to their order
  • con: requiring lots of switching steps exacerbates load time issue!

b) a radial menu

  • max # of steps to desired chars, always: 3
  • chars within 1 step: 9
  • 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) table*

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

  • max # of steps to desired chars, optimally: 2-3
  • max # of steps to desired chars, wrong directions: 3 or more
  • chars within 1 step: 4
  • required buttons: 4 (e.g. dpad's up, down, left, right)
  • pro: easier to create mental map
  • con: complicates already complex menus
Distribution of required steps to switch to another character
Distribution of required steps to switch to another character

I believe option c) might work 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 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 2 button presses 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. There would be a slight incoherence with the way you select characters during combat, but it would be easy to have 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.

Grouping characters in lists by their class 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.

All in all, I get why they went for version a), but when I'm managing my inventory and abilities or when crafting, I often wish they'd gone for c). While it's more complex, I think visually communicating how it works would be feasible. It would allow the player to spend more playtime 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:

  • they all look pretty much the same, 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.
  • Their four corresponding menus would easily fit into a single unified one.

 

All in all, it's a disorienting and irritating waste of time, regardless of player type and playstyle. Something like this might just make sense if there was some sort of roleplaying element to it, but there isn't in opening and closing an unnecessary amount of menus.

 

A more efficient alternative way to craft/modify:

Similar to the shop menu, 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:

Dragon Age: Inquisition modified weapon modification menu
one way a unified crafting/modifying menu could look

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 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.

 

Ok, sure, but isn't Potion-Brewing also kinda like Equipment-Crafting?

I don't think so. 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 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, 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.

 

To be honest, I don't quite understand how BioWare favored convenience over style when it came to putting the alchemy stuff in the same room in Skyhold as crafting and modification, yet weirdly saw some benefit in complicating 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, while the latter ignores low-hanging convenience fruits. 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, even though the general area also includes shops.


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 sluggish 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. Games are about play, not solely about efficiency. But you need some sort of aesthetic payoff, else you're just wasting the player's time.

Is anyone else bothered by the slow menus? Is the issue less pronounced on other systems? Would you agree with the proposed unification of crafting/modification menus? Why not?! ;) Drop me a comment, I'm curious how folks feel about DA:I's menus and it's user interface in general.

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Comments: 1
  • #1

    Mike (Saturday, 20 February 2016 03:44)

    Loading times on character switch aren't a big deal to me, but you nail the issues with the crafting menus.

    Its not switching benches that I have a problem with so much, it's that when I go to craft anything, I constantly have to recheck my current equipment to see if it's an upgrade bease the benches dont alow you to comare what you want to craft to what the characer currently has equipped, or to what the different Stat types effect for each class. I could get over it, but the problem is made exponentially worse when you try to take into account what the stats on the piece will be once you apply upgrades, compared to your currently upgraded equips. When I want to craft I need to remove all the upgrades, then write down for reference the stats of each piece, craft the armor at one bench, then I go thru the same nightmare 2-3 more times for the upgrades. Not to mention if I just want to craft an upgrade, I can't easily compare that to the plethora of upgrades I currently have. Wasting tier 3 mats is punishing. The whole system is a tedious headache, way too time consuming and an interface nightmare. I'm the kind of player that loves having my own crafted armor in any game I play, but I barely craft in this game because of these issues - and when I do, I literally dread the menu nightmare.