On Menu Fluidity

Let’s talk for a moment, you and I. Let’s talk about menu fluidity.

For the past few months I’ve spent most of my development time doing menus. I’ve ripped apart both the old UI-scene system and the new Scaleform system, I’ve spent countless nights immersed in code and utterly frustrated. But even more importantly, I’ve done a lot of research. I’ve played games from the old Super Mario Bros. to stuff like Crysis 2 and everything in between — as many games as I could get my hands on. And when I didn’t have a game, I looked up videos of its menus on YouTube.

From all this research I’ve learned a lot about how menus should be made and a great deal more about how they shouldn’t be made. Now I’m pretty sure you’ve heard this argument before: how a menu looks can sometimes make or break a game. Take two games equal in stature gameplay-wise and compare them. I guarantee the one with the better menu will win out.

Let’s face it. Menus (and UI elements in general) don’t get as much attention as they should. That’s because they’re non-essential to the core of the game. Take a UI, change its colors, move stuff around, add useless features — the game may suffer, but ultimately the way the game is played hasn’t changed. But simply change the camera from first to third person? Why, you’ve shifted the game into an entirely different genre! As such, menus are usually the last thing a development team works on; after everything’s all polished and the glitches worked out, they tack on a frontend and ship the game out.

But here’s the thing: how a menu looks matters little in comparison to how fluid it is. Sure, you can add all sorts of snazzy animations (Brutal Legend), amazing backgrounds (Halo Reach), and 3D effects (Colin McRae: DiRT). But players aren’t playing your game to look at menu animations and effects. They’re playing your game to play your game.

That’s why I abide by the 15-click rule: from the main menu, a player should be able to do whatever he wants in 15 clicks or less. Start a match? 15 clicks. Change audio settings? 15 clicks. Create a custom badge to use for a profile? 15 clicks.

If he or she sees cool animations along the way, more power to you, but it should NEVER be solely about the menu. Too many times I’ve seen menus fall flat on their face because developers don’t put enough effort into them, but on the other hand sometimes developers cram too much into their menus. Think of the menu as an road trip: you want to get from A to B, and the menu is the vehicle to take you there, but you don’t want to hear “are we there yet?!” from the backseat. Make a few pit stops, fill up on gas, go to the restroom. But remember: 15 clicks.

That being said, making such a “perfect” menu requires talent and hard work. You can’t start such a menu after the game’s already done and hope to make it half-decent. The process of menu creation and game development go hand in hand; once you start making a game, your UI specialist should start making a menu.

But if you can make such a fluid menu, I guarantee your players will love you for it. And love from your players is always a good thing 🙂

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2 thoughts on “On Menu Fluidity

    • A few of the ones I like are mentioned above. For some reason I find racing games have the best menus, one of my new favorites is Split Second.

      Worst…not sure. Killzone 3’s one was pretty meh (but that’s more aesthetics, not fluidity). Lots of MMOs have menus I hate, but then again I don’t play MMOs enough to have a strong opinion 😛

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