My Issue with Menus

It is late August, which means several things for me, firstly is that I’m wrapping up my 8th book I’ve read this year (Steven Kings The Gunslinger – personally it’s taxing to understand), also it’s another day where I try to learn a foreign language (Hola y Cíao). As a side note I’ve also landed a proper job so that’s going on, but most importantly on a personal note, it’s the 3rd month where I’m making a game.

I’ve always wanted to work on games, I loved games as a kid and thank god for Remasters so I can enjoy them again. Final Fantasy X coming to PC was a dream come true and I’ve spent about an entire day playing Blitzball, now I just have to wait for Jak & Daxter to make a resurgence and I’ll be ecstatic.

I can remember the moment that I knew that games were an option, they were something that could be ‘made’, and if people made them, then surely I could learn to make a game. Admittedly this was the thinking of about an 8 year old child, but I was fascinated by it. I remember thinking:

so I’ll just open a word document, and say “analog = move, x = punch, a = jump…” and then I can just put it in my playstation and I will have made a game!

I was told that games were made by a family friend by the name of Oliver Stothert, we were having a meal at a restaurant called Man-Zen which has now sadly closed, it was located in the village I live near-by. I didn’t think then, sitting at the white table cloth with red walls surrounding me, intricate wooden carved frames separating the restaurant from the bar, and with a huge wheel of chinese food in front of me, I didn’t think I’d end up here.

Obviously my understanding of creating a game has changed, and it has done over time, and over that time I always imagined making a game, and making characters that were cool and fun to play. Playing different games gave me different ideas on cool games, spelunky really made me appreciate procedural generation for example, and I’ve several hundreds of hours in that game to prove it.

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I always have had a pretty good imagination for exposition, and scripting, and how something should look. I’m a person who can listen to a song and from start to finish create a music video that fits with the feel, I don’t interpret lyrics, I’ve no idea what I’m singing along to, but the vibe I create goes into the imaginary landscape I create in my head with camera angles, crane shots and all thought through carefully.

The one thing I never really thought about, or dreamed about, was a menu system. Menu systems to me are in all honesty annoying, because I know what I see as important to me, master volume, remapping controls, resolution and done, that’s it. So I find it very hard when I’m confronted with making one, and in all honesty, the menu systems I’ve created over this short period of time have always been the things I dread the most and feel I do the most poorly on. How do you create a compelling menu user experience? I feel it’s just fluff.

When I’ve thought about games, it’s been about gameplay, or setting, or visual style, as someone who can’t draw for toffee that means I’ve relegated myself to creating gameplay, which as it happens I enjoy thoroughly. But menus? I’m just not good with them, I’m not excited by them, and they don’t seem to have a clear online consensus of what is and isn’t best practice which makes me then worry (as a perfectionist) that I’m creating something that’s absolute dross behind the scenes.

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Part of it is that I just don’t like menus, as soon as I’ve gotten my settings set up in a manner that I like, they’ll stay that way for me for just about ever unless I want to listen to my own music when I play or I get a better graphics card and now fancy myself some ‘ultra’ settings. So I’ve always personally seen them as minor and inconsequential, which is rude toward those who’ve put hard work into those menu systems, but it’s also impractical because now here I am trying to design them.

That leads to my next issue, design. As someone who’s read a lot about User Experience from Don Norman & Steve Krug, I can’t believe that I just can’t seem to analyse what’s good about a menu system. What makes it good or compelling? I know that I personally don’t want to have to go ‘hunting’ for settings, it should be 1 or at most 2 levels deep in the menu, but beyond that it’s an effort. Beyond that it just appears to be art style to me, what fits, what’s the style guide of the game, okay *slam* there you go, that’s your menu system. It just feels a bit shallow, how do you make it interesting?

My final issue with menus, and this is the poorest excuse I have, is that I realise how much work would have to go into making something that fit. I don’t know much about Unity, I’m just stumbling my way around, but I realise that if I wanted to make a good Menu, it’d have to be more than just visual/audio/possibly haptic feedback, I’d want it to have some animation and that’s just something I don’t know how to do. For Brick Breaker (the current game), I’m imagining a paddle bouncing a ball into the menu option you’ve just chosen, at which point the option disintegrates to reveal either the game mode you chose, or the options menu/credits/etc. And I get paralysed by the idea of doing that poorly, or doing it and having to gut it because it won’t work.

Another Procedural Game that made me appreciate the blend between interest mechanic and tight gameplay loops.

Ultimately though, a menu needs to be made, it needs to fit with the style of the game visually, it needs some visual feedback at the least if not some auditory feedback too. As for the animation that I don’t know how to do and worry about doing it wrong and therefore releasing something that looks broken (which I’ve done with the stupid WebGL builds as that doesn’t work well), that’s just a case of learning to be brave, biting the bullet and putting it all out there. Half the motivational videos I see say to go all out, don’t be afraid to fail, and when it comes to Menu systems, I’m slightly terrified of not being perfect, and that needs to change.

Thanks for reading this far if you’ve made it. If you’ve liked this, please do share it on whatever social media you enjoy, you can reach me on Twitter, and until next post have an awesome day and keep on designing.


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