Gamedev Grievances #25: “Failure is Not an Option” (All About Option Selection)

Option selection is everywhere, from item menus to dialog boxes in story progression. It’s arguably one of the most common systems you’ll find in games, especially in the RPG genre (and other related genres like the roguelike). It’s also probably the system that people don’t think much about, unless it’s poorly implemented and difficult to navigate.

Perhaps the greatest difference between games in terms of option selection is the way that it’s implemented. Some games integrate the options into the textbox (Undertale), others have linear option lists that appear outside the textbox (Shiren the Wanderer, Etrian Odyssey), and others still present options in a non-linear or grid-like format (Fallout 4, Super Smash Bros., and some of the more recent Pokémon games).

In past incarnations of Ambience, I used “pictorial” menus which were navigated using the mouse. However, switching between keyboard and mouse frequently disrupted the flow of the gameplay. I then added a keyboard-activated menu which showed a single option at a time, but the fact that the player couldn’t see everything all at once was also problematic. So finally, I changed the menus to a more classic, “list-like” system which can be operated using either the keyboard (arrow keys and select button) or the mouse (click and scroll).

Throwback to the old, pictorial-based menus in a much, much earlier build of Ambience.

Even though I’m happy with the menus as they are at the moment, looking back I’ve found that I’ve tweaked the option selection systems quite a lot. In the current Ambience version (the one that’s sitting on my computer right now!), the option selection menus are used in everything from story progression to item storage to equipment load-outs. So it’s important that they not only work nicely, but also look and feel nice to use.

One problem I spent quite a while trying to fix was operating option boxes using the mouse. Specifically, it was very annoying trying to get the mouse to activate each option within the correct collision box. That was mainly because the menus aren’t really physical “objects”, but just images drawn on a screen. Navigating the menu using the mouse required that the option selection areas perfectly lined up with the drawn option boxes – which took a surprisingly long time to get right. Other bugs I encountered ranged from being unable to select the last option to selecting options at the end of the menu that didn’t actually exist.

The current top menu of Ambience, operated using the mouse.

Another problem I spent quite a long while tweaking was the appearance of the menus. Of course, there was the general appearance of the menus, especially the main in-game menu:

Other menus, however, took on a plainer appearance:

But I also had to consider the size of the option boxes. At first, all the menus were the same size – which became annoying when there were many options and not many of them were visible, such as when dealing with item storage.

For this purpose I made each option box smaller vertically, so that I could fit more options on the screen and so that the options themselves didn’t feel so large and “blocky”.

This new, “compressed” look was nice for menus with lots of options, but for menus with only two or three options, it was a bit too compact. So I kept the compressed menu appearance only where long lists were involved, and used the larger option size for the other options.

Besides item storage, some of the other places where I used the compressed menus were the in-dungeon battle log…

… as well as menus involving equipping and using items and weapons.

In this example, the list of weapons isn’t very long at all – but I decided to keep the compressed feel anyway regardless of the length of the menu, mostly for the sake of consistency. If the same menus look the same at all times, I reasoned, it helps to avoid confusion later on when the option lists become long. (“Hey, why is this menu suddenly all squashed up? Is this really the right menu I’m looking at?” And so on.)

Apart from fiddling with menus, I’ve also been adding some new characters, mugshots, and text. Slowly but surely the world of Ambience is growing – more people to interact with, more things to find out… And so on. I’m also looking forward to getting feedback from a few people later this week, so we’ll see how that goes.

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