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Disclaimer: My opinions do not reflect those of my employer.
Why this game?
I think it would be obvious, in a series of UX breakdowns that cover games that I’ve played, that Dragon Age would feature heavily among them. I’m comfortable analysing it because I have first impression reviews among my previous blog posts and I can tell you exactly what motivates my playing the game.
Because this is a game that I’ve played a lot and a game that I love almost unconditionally, it’s tricky to be critical of it. However, I do have notes saved from my past play though and in that lies my rescue. I’ll get back to that later on.
I should also point out that Dragon Age Origins is getting on in years, meaning that the UIs and the game itself looks and feels old. It’s definitely still playable and I would argue – and I will – that there are aspects of this game that are very compelling, still.
In my notes from my first playthrough, I’m not very impressed. Primarily because the game has many and very lengthy cutscenes.As someone who had, up until that point, primarily played fighting games, the story took me by surprise. I had played games like Diablo before this, but Diablo plays differently and the ratio between cinematic and gameplay is heavier on the gameplay side.
The introduction to the game is massive. It has an extensive backstory and a long lead up to the start of the game. It takes about an hour before actually starting to play the game, and at that point a lot of players will already have been turned off the game. A ”modern” game needs to be snappier and hook the player a lot faster in order to retain them. Thank the internet and social media for that.
There is a number of origin stories and they are uneven in execution, but I believe they speak to different players in different ways.
There’s a bit of a lost opportunity in tying the origins stories back into conversation later in the game. There are bits and pieces of it coming through in the dialogue, but the player might not be aware of it because the time it takes to loop back is fairly lengthy.
There is quite a bit of dialogue in DA:O and there are quite a few discoveries to be made through it, but it is hidden underneath layers of responses. A casual player may never come across them. Much of the backstory and exposition is contained in a hard to read and to some extent inaccessible codex.
What I find most compelling in DA:O are the relationships represented in the game. Even if I as a player am not having designs on romancing a follower or companion, the relationships in the game include those between player and vendors or even between NPCs. Herren and Wade manage to have a very florid and expressive relationship, even if the player doesn’t interact with them very much. They also manage to sent the player character on missions despite being ambivalent towards the player character themselves. It’s also positive that the NPC’s have minds of their own.
My choices as a player are also important. I can choose any background or origin I want. The choices aren’t always apparent, but they do feel important to me and I do feel empowered by them.
Another strength with origins is the mood set in the Deep Trenches and in the Brecilian Forest. Both areas introduce the enemies in a strong way. In particular the Broodmother in the Deep Roads. I’ll get back to that later on in this post.
Let’s dig into the game itself and the UIs and UX of it.
When I first start up the game, a long introduction sequence with Duncan (my mentor) killing darkspawn. This leads up to character selection. The neat thing with Origins is that all information about the origin of the character is packed into one screen, giving me the overview I need to make the right decisions.
The loading screens leading up to the character selection/ creation also provide the player with information about the selection they’re about to do.
The Origins selection is clear in where the focus of the player is and what selections are available once the player has made a choice. The drawback is that the UI feels a bit like ”playing excel”. It leans heavier on transparency and usability than immersion.
The origin creation flows seamlessly into character creation. Since it’s a fairly aged game, the character creation is rather clunky, although it wasn’t for its time. It consists mainly of sliders. While this gives the player less apparent freedom than a grid with a cursor, it’s also easier to reach decent results.
With sliders, it’s also easier to recreate a previous result with a decent chance of success. The best experience would of course be to let the players save the faces they like, or barring that, let them easily recreate the settings somehow, perhaps like Mass Effect with a code or numbers.
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There is a minor issue in the flow of the screens. The ”next” option is placed just after the presets, and that placement may be confusing to the player. To my mind, I think it would have been better to save that as the last option on the page.
In general, the options for quick play and entering a character name could have been better placed, and perhaps removed from the buttons as actions based on the screen layout.
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The tutorials in DA:O are nothing fancy. They consist primarily of message boxes that pop on screen at different locations. Each tutorial seems to be tailored to the first time a player encounters a feature, which is a good way to do it. Wall of text, not so much. However, knowing the plight of game devs everywhere, I certainly understand why it was done that way.
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Settings and Options
Settings and options is a screen flow that often receive little attention, probably because it’s one of the more thankless and purely functional set of screens in a game. In DA:O, the settings and options screen is fairly standard for an RPG, although it was good for its time.
Loading Screens and Transitions
This is one of the most overlooked areas of a game, but at the same time it’s super important. A lot of the time I spend not playing the game, I spend looking at load screens.
Most games try to make the time spent at least somewhat useful to the player and that includes DA:O. In DA:O the load is tailored to the location the player is in game, giving helpful information to the player. The tooltips also circulate, reminding the player of unlocked features.
However, returning to a previous statement – players can live with long loads, in particular in single player games, but the more online and multiplayer a game gets, the lower the threshold for waiting for other players or terrain to load.
If you can offset that by having players know what’s happening, the frustration the player feels can be channeled towards the actual culprits. Knowing what’s happening taps into the player’s feeling of control and can help offset frustration.
The landing page for DA:O is still a simple list of options. There are additional messages being displayed on screen when relevant (such as the release of a new DLC) but the messages are limited in scope.
The options consist of:
- New Game – starts a new game for the player.
- Resume Game – Resumes the current game.
- Load Game – Allows the player to select a load game and jump to it.
- Downloadable Content – Lets the player look at the DLC for the game.
- Options – Opens up the settings screen.
- Achievements – opens an XBox specific screen.
- Credits – Runs the credits.
- Trailer – Runs the trailer
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The perk of a main menu like this is that it’s never going to run into compliance issues, or at least not massive ones. It’s also relatively easy to populate a screen like this with a version number, player ID etc. The drawback is that it’s not built to showcase MTX (microtransactions) or add-ons. For a game as old as this, I think the requirements were slightly different than they are now, not in the least because it was a console generation earler than the current one.
In Game Menus
There are two menus in DA:O, in game. One is the pause menu with the journal, quests, map etc. The other is the systems menu with the save7 load options, settings etc.
The systems menu consists of the following options:
- Resume Game – resumes the game without action.
- Save Game – Opens the Save Game menu. From here the player can save a new game or overwrite an old one.
- Load Game – Loads a previously saved game.
- Options – Opens the settings and options screen.
- Achievements – Lets the player see what they’ve accomplished in the game. This opens up a 1st party screen.
- Exit Game – Shuts down the game and returns the player to the main menu.
This is a fairly standard systems menu. usually the set of options available in this menu is folded into the main menu as well.
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This menu is usually called Pause menu, In-Game menu or Escape menu. It has all the options that are associated with in game features.
- Current Quests – The current set of quests the player has picked up.
- Completed Quests – The quests the player has completed.
- Codex – Notes, books, and other texts that are in character for the game.
- Conversation History – The conversation history of the player.
- Heroic Accomplishments – The statistics for the player character and companions in the game.
- Downloadable Content – What the player has downloaded to the game.
- Local Map – The area the player is currently in.
- World Map – the world accessible to the player.
- Weapons – The weapons available in the inventory for the player.
- Armor – The armor available in the inventory for the player.
- Accessories – The rings and necklaces, dog collars and crystals available in the inventory for the player.
- Useable Items – Potions, books, salves and other consumables available in the inventory for the player.
- Crafting – Crafting materials available in the inventory for the player.
- Character Record – Current status for the player character, including current XPs, stats etc.
- Assign Skills – Current set of skills available and the ability to assign them.
- Assign Talents – Current set of talents available.
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The journal contains a row of different options, making it one of the menus with a lot of depth to the hierarchies. It also uses multiple left/ right navigation schemes which does make it confusing and awkward to navigate the menu, at least for me. The journal navigation in combination with the sub-selections in this and other in game menus increases the complexity of navigation. Some use shoulder buttons, some use triggers and some use the d-pad or the stick to navigate.
From the current quest tab, the player can mark a quest as active. In addition to this the player can mark all entries as read.
The map consists of an overview of the location the player is currently in. The map is covered by a fog of war which allows me as a player to find my way around the locations in the game without having to backtrack too much or miss out on location in the game. Since DA:O is very much about exploration, the ability to make out the path taken is very useful to the player.
The world map does not offer that kind of keeping track, instead it allows the player to navigate from location to location. There’s also a legend in the map, but it doesn’t overlap any information and isn’t really necessary to turn off for that specific reason.
The inventory has to cover several character, not just the player character, which makes it slightly tricky to navigate. The player moves around using the left stick or the d-pad.
The following tabs are available in the inventory:
- Weapons – The available weapons.
- Armor – The available armor
- Accessories – Rings, belts, necklaces and dog collars for the mabari as well as crystals if you pick up the Golem companion Shale.
- Useable items – Potions, books and other consumables that give the NPCs and player character a boost.
- Crafting – Crafting materials.
- Other – Gifts and runes.
- Plot items – Items needed to resolve quests.
- Junk – A quick-sell tab where the player can place unused or unuseable items.
One of the issues I have with the weapons inventory is the “switch weapons” feature. Each character can carry two sets of weapons, but placing weapons in the secondary slot for some characters will make them default to the melee weapons, wether they can use them or not. In other words, it’s a feature that I only use when the inventory is full or on my own character as I can switch back and forth relatively easy. I’m assuming it’s done as a service, but because of the behaviours associated, it becomes a nuisance.
Apart from that, the player can inspect items in the inventory, equip, unequip, move items to junk tab or use consumables. This is not unusual for inventories but I think it may have gained some usability by slimming it down and perhaps placing items of no value in the junk tab automatically.
Another issue that would solve is the awareness of which items are useful and which are not. About half of the precious stones the player picks up can be used for quests or to give to the dwarven faction to keep them alive during the endgame. As a player, I don’t know what’s valuable and what isn’t , so either the gems take up space or I lose out on missions or perks.
The inventory is overall a fairly efficient screen. It does what it needs to and most actions are close to the top layer.
As with all screens in the pause menu, the navigation can be confusing since it’s possible to navigate horizontally in multiple ways.
I can use the triggers to navigate the menu, shoulder buttons for the characters and the left stick to switch between different inventories. All in all, it makes pressing the wrong button very easy, and very frustrating.
The character record is the character sheet for the player character and companion NPCs. From here I can check out my stats, look at active status effects and open up the tactics screen.
This screen is also where I land when I want to level up a character.
Just as with the inventory, the navigation can be somewhat confusing in the Character Sheet.
From this menu, and from talens, the player can see which skills they have bought, get a quick overview and assign a skill to the power widget in the HUD.
Talents is much the same as skills.
Level Up Sequence
The leveling up sequence in the UIs follow the same sequence as character creation. I select attributes, skills and talents. There’s no way for me to determine what a level up includes except experience.
There’s an auto level up option in the sequence, which makes it fairly quick if the player doesn’t want to spend time or effort on leveling up the companions.
The standalone UIs in Origins are the following:
- Message boards – The message boards include the chantry board, the Blackstone Irregulars and the Mage Collective board. There’s also a similar board in the Gnawed Noble Tavern, initiated through conversation.
- Stores – The stores all use the same UI, and they’re located in all the larger areas and villages such as Denerim and Orzammar.
- Fade Navigation – The fade navigation is a one off that allows the player to navigate the fade level.
- Enchantments – Allows the player to enchant items that have rune slots available.
- Death Screen – This is the screen that shows up when a team is all killed.
- The Camp – The camp is not a screen per se, more of a gathering place and a location to regroup. This place allows me to interact with followers, prepare for missions and manage my inventory. This is also a hub where I can access DLCs.
The message boards are more of a set of locations where the player can pick up side missions for a specific faction in the game. It does not have much of an impact on the game at large. At most I can access missions through the contract boards.
The main locations to find these boards are Lothering, Redcliffe and Denerim, all large mission hubs. The message boards belong to a mercenary group, a group of mages, the chantry and a set of “interested parties”. Because the missions are limited in scope, they’re useful for extra XP and filler material.
After completing an entire set of missions, there’s an end mission close the quest chain down.
The message board is fairly clear on what the mission is and what the player needs to do. The rewards are not listed, and it seems as if the idea is for the player to just jump in and do the mission anyway. Some of the missions are locked off after the first part of the game (after Lothering is overrun by darkspawn) and there’s nothing to let the player know that this is happening.
An accepted mission is clearly marked, but an empty board is still accessible. The missions do not have any information on where they’re picked up.
Stores are stand alone screens accessed through vendors. All of them use the same template. A list of items for sale on the right and the player’s inventory on the left. Buying is done on the left and switching to right sells items.
The player can compare items in the store with the items equipped on the player character and the companions. The can also sell all junk with one button press.
The Fade Navigation UI is only used in one location in the game, and it falls under the “unique experience” UIs. The sequence that uses the UIs us fairly lengthy. It allows the player to move through the Nightmare Realm of Sloth, combatting a bunch of enemies in order to reach the equally imprisoned companions and free them. The boss fight is unlocked once the player has progressed far enough in the fade.
It’s an excellent example of using a UI to tell the story about the fade. It doesn’t look like any of the other screens available in game, and from that perspective it sets the tone for the experience.
This is experientially one of the most unique UIs in the game, primarily because of the surrounding experience. Meeting Sandal, the young dwarven boy who’s obviously very fond of enchanting, Sandal’s obvious joy and the end sequence of the game that shows Sandal inexplicably standing around in a whole room full of dead darkspawn.
Sandal is both popular and enigmatic as the source of enchantment in the game, which is an excellent way to build a story around a UI.
The Death Screen is a fairly typical death screen for a single player RPG. It allows the player to load last save, pick a save to load, to change the difficulty and to exit the game.
The camp is more or less the social hub of the game. From the location I can:
- Interact with followers
- Level Up
- Give Gifts
- Manage Inventory through Bodahn’s store
- Enchant items through Sandal
- Initiate missions
This is a simple UI, but it’s still very efficient. There’s not much extra needed in the flow and it’s surprisingly nice to see my followers stood up as I select them.
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The HUD consists of the following elements:
- Combat HUD
- Mini Map
- Weapon/ Power Widget
- Player Health
- Companion Widget
- Messages & Notifications
- Interaction Prompts
- Radial Menu
- Conversation Choices
Because of the nature of the widgets above and their use in action, I’ll use a bunch of cups and screenshots to illustrate.
One of the risks and drawbacks with HUD UIs is that they have a tendency to become very busy. The combat HUD in DA:O certainly does. The player can see the following interactions:
- Enemy Health Bars
- Damage floaties
- XP gains for player character & NPCs
- Level Up for player character & NPCs
- Status Effects
The Mini Map is located in the upper right corner of the screen. It shows the player as a yellow dot, camera PoV as a cone, shifting depending on where the player faces. It’s not a super useful widget, but it works. In order for me to find my way around in most cases I have to bring up the large map.
Weapon/ Power Widget
The widget in the lower right corner has six different slots. Three at the surface layer and another three if I press and hold the right trigger. On PX this is a row of numbered slots at the bottom of the screen.
Activating a skill or talent is done by pressing the corresponding button. The menu is fully customizeable.
Player Health is represented both in the lower right and the upper left corner of the screen. Personally, I keep track of the upper left status, because the rest of my companions are listed there.
The Companion widget is placed in the upper left corner of the screen showing the current mana/ stamina and health status of the player and their companions. It also displays if a companion is doing something and what they are doing.
Messages & Notifications
There are a number of different messages and notifications in the game.
- Mission Acquired
- Mission Completed
- Codex Entries
- Shelf Notifications
- Confirmation Screens
Interaction prompts do not contain buttons, instead there’s an icon and an indication when the player is close enough to interact.
The radial menu is brough on screen by pressing and holding LT. The radial can also be set to toggle in the settings. There are several options available for the player in the radial menu.
- Inventory – Opens the inventory game menu.
- Advanced – This menu contains orders to the group of companions and any special ability the player acquires or has access to temporarily.
- Talents – The active skills the player has access to.
- Sustained Spells/ Talents – Talents or spells the player activates and that are kept active until the player deactivates them.
- Quick Heal – Quick option to health potions.
- Traps & Potions – Useable items in the form of traps & poisons but also the ability to craft more traps & posions.
- Potions – Useable items in the form of potions and salves, but also the ability to craft more potions and salves.
Conversation Choices in DA:O uses a list or responses. Since the player character doesn’t have a voice, the response is literally what’s on screen.
Some of the enemy introductions in DA:O are worth mentioning, in particular the broodmother and the archdemon.
The Broodmother is introduced with a creepy rhyme, spoken by one of the members in a Deep Roads expedition, Hespith. Hespith is one of the NPCs who are next in line to become a Broodmother, and her despair is evident.