RPG User Interfaces: Oh, how I hate thee

After emptying out another dungeon in Neverwinter Nights II, I’m dragging items around between characters, seeing what I should keep and what I should sell. It takes forever, has tons of unnecessary clicking, I have to actually drag every single item from one character to another, and it strikes me - why am I doing this?

I’m not talking about the general game design principle of dropping loot you then go sell. What I’d like to know is why on earth I’m putting up with a RPG user interface that feels like it was built in 1988. No, “go get some mods” is not a answer, shut up - half this shit is hardcoded and not extensible anyway.

Buffing Before Combat
This sure is fun. Having to remember which characters can cast which buffing spells is a memory game. Figuring out which spells conflict or supersede with each other even though the only documentation on this is a end-user forum post somewhere on the bioware forums just encourages internet search skills. Clicking on each buffer, once on their target, and then once on the spell icon for about a dozen spells scattered across three buffer characters just encourages mouse accuracy. Inventory buffing items just help things further! Having some sort of way to explain conflicts or an auto-casting system or a spell sequence memorization system would be encouraging gamer dependency, no doubt.

Healing Up After Combat
I just finished a combat, and one of my characters has some negative status effects I need to remove. I can tell because there’s these little icons next to their portrait that have a big minus sign on them - good job, designers. Now comes the hard part - uh, how do I get rid of it? Resting works for some statuses, so let’s try that. Nope, didn’t work. Ok, let’s tooltip on the icon - CON decreased. Great, thanks a lot. Let’s go to the character status screen, scroll down 2 pages (why scrolling exists here I have no idea), and then we see…CON decreased. No tooltip available on the status screen for the effect, either.

The answer, as any good D&D dork knows, is the spell “Lesser Restoration”. But you know what? Fuck you, UI designer, I don’t play video games so I can a trivia bonus round after every set of combat. Would it kill you bastards to explain why I got something (granted by item? Spell? Cast by who?), and how (What item? What spell? Castable by who?) to resolve it? Maybe even something CRAZY like a contextual button that has the cleric heal it off you.

Figuring this shit out in the middle of combat is even worse, obviously - do I need Remove Curse, Lesser Restoration, Restoration, or Dispel Magic? You have to pause and scroll back through the goddamn combat log and then rely on memory, that Player’s Handbook mod that includes all the spell descriptions in an easily accessible format - no thanks to the developers, or searching the internet. Or you just give up and try to get out of the dungeon alive.

Inventory and Shopping
There’s no filters on item type in your inventory, only at the shop. The auto-sorting only sorts by item type, it doesn’t sort alphabetically. There’s no auto-preview behavior which tells you what the effects would be if you equip an item - you have to open the character screen and remember what your stats were previously.

God help you if you’re trying to improve multiple characters or dealing with lots of inventory. There’s no way to easily move more than 1 item between characters. You have to manually drag every single fucking item from character to character. Bags don’t help, as you still have to drag everything into the bag.

There’s no way to buy or sell multiple items at once, either. To top it off, every time you buy something, the scroller resets to the beginning of the fucking list. I think they’re taunting me.

It’s fantastic the way I can’t see the feats I’ve already taken, or what I did on each previous level up as a development history (even though that’s actually stored in the save game file), or even what I’m wearing or what I have stored in my inventory. Making the player cancel out of leveling up to go look is clearly preferable.

The wizard spell mechanic of only being able to use spells you chose at level up or bought at a shop is also shit. You have to track it all in notepad or something so you don’t accidentally take a spell at level up you could have just bought in notepad.

The Stupidest Thing Ever
Once you’re past the opening, there’s a good half-dozen shops in the game. They’re virtually all on different maps, which require boring walking around and load screens to get to. They all have overlapping sets of items. This adds to the two ways of shopping that existed in 1988 games:

  1. Walk to every single shop and look at their inventory.
  2. Alt-tab out and write down in notepad everything you might be interested in later.

Where’s the in-game “inventory at shops I’ve seen” tracker, if you’re going to make half the game item hunting? This is probably my favorite design failing, because it’s so gratuitously awful and trivially easy to correct.

Would you people please hire a motherfucking competent design person at some point? No, I don’t mean “design” as in someone to make it all pretty, I mean someone who can design an interface that lets the user accomplish their goal with a minimum amount of hassle. It’s not rocket science, people.

…and don’t even get ME STARTED ON CRAFTING.

Note these sins aren’t limited to Neverwinter - virtually every RPG I’ve played has them. The ones that don’t have them seem to universally solve the problem by eliminating the features - one shop, no buffs, only one character, and so on.

Might be time to move the genre’s interface beyond the graph paper days, people.

I can’t think of a single RPG whose interface I thought was even on the good side of average in the past few years. I might just be blanking a bit here, but I really can’t.

Just about any console RPG. The enhanced version of The Witcher has a good interface system.

Truly awful RPG interfaces are increasingly uncommon. NWN2 is obviously full of flaws, but it still beats the hell out of something like Gothic.

Fallout 3’s UI was good. It wasn’t amazing, but it sure wasn’t terrible or annoying or anything.

Really? When I think console RPG I think gobs of pages of fairly inscrutable character info pages with bad navigation and you cry tears of joy if you can just get a basic item comparison or item sort.

I disagree about Fallout, if anything just for the overly huge dialog text. Having to scroll through 5-8 options when you can only see 3 lines of text on the screen at once is ridiculous. I’m playing on PC goddamnit, my text doesn’t have to be a half inch tall.

I just picked up Witcher Enhanced, I’ll update if I change my mind on that one, Matt.

The last console RPG I played was Fable 2. The interface was hellish. Slow, arcane, and stupid.

I don’t know why you’d think that. Item comparison and sorting have been standard procedure in almost every JRPG I’ve played in the last ten years. The only console RPG I can think of that lacks either is Fable 2 with its refusal to let you compare your current weapon to what you’re looking at in the store.

While NWN2 does have a ton of flaws (that you mentioned), I didn’t realize just how much it does right until I tried to play NWN1 again (never played the second expansion and got curious recently). Want to see your henchman’s inventory? Go through two menus. Want to cast a spell? Go through three menus. Casting anything becomes an exercise in frustration. In NWN2 press F, click on spell to cast it. Easy. Blood pressure not going through the roof with every successive spell.

And don’t even get me started on the interface in Planescape: Torment or the Baldur’s Gate games.

From your list though, I agree the most with the lack of feedback. That CON/STR/Attack reduced thing always annoyed me too. There’s literally no way to figure out where the negative effect is coming from.

You mentioned crafting too. In the first campaign and the MoTB expansion, it’s a convoluted mess. Better in the last expansion, thankfully. But, to be honest, crafting in WoW for example is hardly better. Just as annoying, only takes longer.

NWN1 has to hold some sort of record. You’re right that some places have been far improved compared to the bad old days; watching my wife suffer through Planescape: Torment was educational.

I’m just amazed how much time it takes to do something that’s been around, oh, FOREVER like item management.

Heh, funny that this should come up now as I am currently playing (or, at times, cursing) NWN2 for the first time. The sheer amount of items in the game exacerbates the inventory management issues as well; every Tom, Dick and Goblin carries around an arsenal of magical death apparently.

Edit: Oh and while we’re venting: I loathe the camera.

know is why on earth I’m putting up with a RPG user interface that feels like it was built in 1988.

This is where I stopped reading. Fire up a RPG from 1988, then report back.

I’m currently playing Etrian Odyssey II, and I can’t see any of the flaws you’ve mentioned in this fine time sink of a game.

Argue with the meta statements about RPGs if you like, but he ain’t wrong about anything he’s said in regards to NWN2.

I’m pretty sure the gold box games have every single problem I mentioned, and they were all solvable back then. You don’t need high resolution graphics or 3d acceleration for this shit; it’s just sheer design laziness.

Also, buffing before combat is why I simply can’t play a Cleric anymore in D&D games.
I want a script into which I can input spells. These are to be cast in sequence at the press of a single button, and without my attention. As in, the character would do so himself while I deal with another character or part of combat.

It can’t be that hard to implement. The mechanic would be something similar to putting spells into a spellbook to be memorized, which the games are already capable of.

Although this is again something most applicable to the D&D games. The likes of Diablo, Fallout or System Shock don’t have such buff craziness. Perhaps that’s a flaw of D&D itself. Too damn many options each with a small benefit, forcing you to use them all to provide a sufficiently great impact on your performance.

Saying you disgaree that Fallout 3 has a decent UI just because of one aspect is a bit picky, no game is going to cater to your every whim. It seems to me you are just looking for things to complain about.

By the way Jason, I totally agree about NWN2, the UI is awful. It’s lying around in my closet or maybe back at EB, I don’t really know. However, not all recent RPGs have UI as god-awful or even nearly as god-awful as NWN2’s.

I think it definitely has huge leveling interface flaws. Both it and its prequel gives only a super short description of what a skill does and a single word explanation for what leveling the skill up does. It’s impossible to determine where to place your points without someone telling you (which, for me, involves spending way too much time at gamefaqs), or experimenting, messing up, respecing, and grinding back the lost levels.

For example, if I remember correctly, one of the Beast powers increases in damage as it levels up but decreases in accuracy. Opinions I could find at gamefaqs think it’s worth about 7 points, but becomes less worthwhile after that. No idea how you’d find that out on your own. This problem is exacerbated by the difficulty. You actually have to know what you’re doing when you level up to succeed.

I love the series, but the lack of info during leveling drives me nuts.

Oh, there are plenty more things to dislike about Fallout’s interface, I just think that’s the most glaring one. The inability to bind weapon switching to the scroll wheel, the Pip as the focus of the entire interface constantly taking up more screen real estate with background than functional UI, the god-awful typefaces…

My technique for dealing with this in NWN 2 is:

(1) Before playing, load the wiki page which lists the character progression I’m aiming for.
(2) Play until I level up.
(3) alt-tab back to the desktop.
(4) Watch the game crash because I alt-tabbed.
(5) Decide to fucking never motherfucking play the fuckity fuckity fucking piece of shit game again.

Typically I forget about step 5 after 4 days or so, until the next time I play.