ArmA Series: The disastrous action menu

I don’t get it. Half-Life and the Thief nailed contextual actions in the 90s and Bohemia Interactive is still screwing the pooch in 2018. Half-Life had a very simple scheme with a single action button (everybody knows it’s “E”) that would perform tasks ranging from accessing computers, opening doors, getting into vehicles, and talking to people. Thief highlighted any object that the player looked at, and right-clicking the mouse would manipulate or grab the object in question.

Both systems were fantastic. They were easy to learn and impossible to forget, and the chances of fat fingering were nonexistent. The detection zones for actions were properly calibrated too, emulating the arm’s length of your character.

Although both of these games involve a much simpler set of actions than ArmA, there is no excuse for ArmA’s ham-fisted approach to actions. If I’m being fair, I will give Bohemia credit for finally adding an expanded set of hotkeys for many of the functions. In the not so distant past, the vast majority of actions were in a single menu that looked like this:

In the first of the series, Operation: Flashpoint, that loathsome menu was the only way to do anything more complex than fire your rifle. You even had to use it to climb a ladder. Then, in 2006’s ArmA, came the contextual action icon.

Screenshot from ArmA 3

It would have been a nice, if too-little-too-late, first step toward actual usability, but that was pretty much all the evolution that happened. The contextual action icon still sucks pretty hard, and here is why:

The detection angle and radius are broken.

You have to be standing at the exact right spot, facing in the exact right direction to summon the contextual action icon. Moving a step away, or turning a couple of degrees could make it disappear, and then good luck finding it again, because it was prone to move. In the heat of battle with bullets flying around, it is likely you’ll get shot before actually doing what you were trying to.

Below is an illustration of the problem. If your guy is standing by the rear door of a Humvee, and he is pointed and positioned exactly right, the game will give you the option to get in. If you change your angle or position (the grey footprints), the option will disappear.

Oftentimes the detection radius caused problems that were completely out of my control. For instance, I once tried to get out of a damaged helicopter after crash landing, and the available action kept switching between “get out” and “engine off”. Before I could actually select “get out”, the helicopter exploded.

It is ambiguous.

The icon that appears in the dead middle of your screen only gives you a vague idea of what will happen if you engage the action. If you are in proximity to more than one door, you have no idea which door you’re about to open. If you’re standing by a vehicle with a “board” icon, you can’t be sure which seat you’ll end up in (not that the game will even let you choose). This could be so easily solved by highlighting the exact object in the environment you are interacting with, similar to what Thief does, but Bohemia lacks the brains for that, apparently.

Below is my idea of what the interface should look like:

Just a concept. Don’t get too excited.

It is used for too many things

Here are just a few of the insane variety of actions compressed into this stupid menu.

  • Setting off bombs
  • Weapon selection
  • Accessing your inventory
  • Climbing a ladder

Horror stories arising from this bad design include accidentally setting off bombs, grabbing a missile launcher instead of getting into a Humvee, or dying because the user was unable to climb a ladder. Say what you will about Half-Life’s ladder behavior, at least climbing them was easy.

It uses the single worst button ever invented for a computer.

I am referring to the mouse wheel button. Talk about a button that should never have been invented. It is bad enough that you must select between wildly diverse actions like climbing a ladder and setting off bombs — which in real life use an entirely different set of muscle movements, and are impossible to confuse — using a little wheel, but the icing on top is the fact that you must then press that wheel down in order to actually select the action.

It is already a test of your fine motor skills to press down on the mouse wheel button without also rotating the wheel, but imagine trying to do that in the heat of battle.

Match between system and the real world” is one of the ten heuristics developed by Jakob Nielsen. It means that the way things work in an interface should mimic the way things work in the real world. By this measure, ArmA’s action menu is a cataclysmic failure. It was moronic and inexcusable in 2000, making it downright embarrassing today.

For more on this topic, see this video.
For a mod to alleviate the problem, check this out.

Important lessons

  • Never employ the mouse wheel button.
  • Every action your character can take should be initiated by a user action that physically resembles the real-world action as closely as possible. If this is not possible, then space out the controls according to the similarity of their real-world equivalents. For instance, the hotkey for “open the door” should be close the one for “grab the item” but far from the one for “call in airstrikes”.
  • Refine the hell out of your detection radii. This applies to everything, not just contextual actions.
  • If you have contextual actions, always make it unambiguous what they are, and when/where they are available. In real life, we have our arm’s length to make that judgement, so you need to simulate that in your game.

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