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AAA Games and UX foundations

For Christmas I received Red Dead Redemption 2 for the PS4, the much anticipated latest game from Rockstar Games, makers of the GTA series. What amazes me is that despite the huge budgets for these games, they still seem to overlook getting the UX foundations right.

There is so much time and effort put into these games; the crunch on this game got some press attention at launch, but ultimately no one was surprised. All those hours and all that hard work, crafting a beautiful open world experience that is truly outstanding. However yet again (and this is consistent for Rockstar games) they haven’t addressed a terrible menu system and an even worse control system.

I wonder if this issue persists because new game releases are often evolutions of previous games, and like trying to fix the navigation on a website, making the changes after everything has been built on top of it, becomes a prohibitive barrier because it’s too expensive and requires too much rework. But if you spend many years and hundreds of millions of pounds building a game, like a house, get the foundations right!

It also doesn’t seem to diminish the game’s success, RDR2 has sold very well. Gamers are all about overcoming challenges, I just prefer my challenges to be by design rather than neglect. To fail to address the control system in a game, feels like filming a movie while neglecting the lighting, or recording an album ignoring the balance, it’s so intrinsic to how the consumer experiences the final product.

My complaints about the RDR2 control system stem from a need to perform some kind of finger contortion to use the selection menu. Usually, I’m a fan of radial menus in games, it makes the most of the joystick and is great for quick select. But in RDR2 you hold L1 to open the menu, then just the joystick to select your choice, but there is an added level of complexity where you can use triggers to blindly scroll through the options in each space of the wheel and R1 tabs through different menu wheels.  In addition if at any point you release L1 on a selected item is will use/toggle/select, which can often lead to unintended results.

Red Dead Redemption 2 wheel menu showing how trigger is used to change the item.

Combined with an unforgiving game system, so that if you fire unintentionally in the wrong place,  or remove your mask at a critical point, the game will punish you with people shooting at you, higher bounties or even death. This game is often challenging for the wrong reasons and that’s a shame because there’s a lot to enjoy too.

My other major complaint with the controls and the menu system is around context. Controls vary depending on what you’re doing, for example, riding your horse, standing next to your horse, walking around, armed or unarmed. Controls changing based on context is pretty standard, but my problem with RDR2 is consistency. The challenge of modern games is their increasing complexity, while the controller remains largely unaltered. So in trying to meet the needs of that complexity buttons have to do more than one thing. But most games reduce this complexity through consistency, so the right trigger will fire weapon, whether on foot or on a horse, firing with a gun or attacking with a fist. But RDR2 then also uses the triggers for navigation,  increasing the risk of mistaken action.

For a good example of a wheel menu look at Overwatch.

Overwatch’s control system is largely very good, one exception is a relatively new character Moira who uses magic in her hands to attack, rather than a gun. The main attack action throughout the game is the right trigger, but with Moira that heals! In addition this animated from her left hand, so there is a visual disconnect. You often see newer players unintentionally healing enemies before attacking. It makes no sense to me that they don’t swap these around so there is continuity between the user action and what they see on screen, and so right trigger is consistent with the main attack as with other characters.

Demonstrating the disconnect for Overwatch’s Moira, between the controls and what is shown to the player.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is still a beautiful game, although I confess I’d rather go bird watching than on a train heist. With all software development it’s a matter of priorities, but if you can have someone dedicated to animating horse scrotums I’d suggest you can find the capacity to make sure your control system is uo to scratch.