ArmA 3 – The usability of context menus in games

ArmA 3 is the third installment in a tactical military simulation FPS series by Bohemia Interactive, which gained a lot of popularity ever since the release of the DayZ mod (now a standalone game) for ArmA 2. The series stands out within the FPS genre for various reasons, one being the heavy focus put on realism regarding all aspects of the game such as unit movement, physics, ballistics, communications and what actual war “feels like”. I would like to focus on a particular feature in this post, and it is the lack of “Action” buttons and instead the use of a Context menu that adapts to the player’s surroundings.

User goal
In ArmA 3, the goal is to complete missions by embodying a member of the armed forces. The mission can anything from defending a village from insurgent attacks, or storming a beach and taking control of its cliffs, or even safely transporting troops in a helicopter during the night to perform a tactical insertion behind enemy lines. The objective is to be efficient and methodical. Being detected by enemies before one’s unit is in position most often ends up in a blood bath. Rambo-lone-wolf mode is definitely not the name of the game. Given the level of realism, the respawn/revive mechanics are almost non-existent and usually even disabled by the majority of users to play an accurate simulation of warfare.

Tools available to the user
The controls of the game are fairly similar to other FPS games, with the mouse being used to look around and aim, and the keyboard used for movement and physical actions, ranging from sprinting to loading a different type of ammo into a gun, to using the coms radio. For all other actions that involve interacting with the environment, players use a context menu that appears when the scroll wheel is used. Actions available through the scroll wheel include opening/closing doors, boarding/dismounting vehicles, turning headlights on and off, switching weapons, placing C4 satchel charges, disarming mines, search a dead body, pick up items, etc. To keep things simple, the context menu can have many different options at any given time, and as the name suggests it, it adapts to what the player is looking at and what is around them at the time.

ArmA 3 Context menu

Context menu

Game mechanics
The context menu is set up so that its contents automatically update themselves to adapt to the player’s surroundings. This effectively means that unlike most context menus, which have a set of options depending on the time and position of the cursor or player at which the menu was called, this menu is either open or closed, but is always active. Given that you can activate the top action in the list without calling the menu via the middle-mouse button, you basically have a very adaptable Action key. Or so it would seem.

What you are hovering over one moment might not be there the next. Say you are running for cover while under heavy fire. In ArmA, this means that you probably have 1-2 seconds to live. If a bullet hits you, there is a 90% chance you will never get up again. Medics can only help people that are bleeding out, not the ones that have been shot dead. So it is imperative that when you reach that door, you can open it up and rush into the building so that you can hide and take cover. You open up the menu, ready to press Open Door. It appears!…and because of the way you moved, you are now facing 1 pixel too much to the left, and the sign disappears. You are now swapping guns, and you are stuck in the animation so you cannot open the door. Your body is filled with holes only milliseconds later.

With ArmA’s system, misclicks are hard to avoid and can cause anything from minor frustration (swapping a gun when trying to open a door) to deadly mishaps (arming a C4 charge when you simply wanted to climb into a vehicle). It is not the game’s fault for not having a better predictive model. It is a usability issue for forcing a tool into a gamestyle that it is not suited for. Here is why: context menus are lists. A list is a sum of items that require time in order to be processed by a user. As you can see from the screenshot above, the list is not alphabetically organised. It is based on algorithmic priority, with “Special” events such as getting in a vehicle at the top and “Usual” events such as opening your inventory further down the bottom. However, “Special” events themselves are organised based on other contextual factors such as distance from the player. So fast scanning of the list is impossible, due to its unpredictable nature. It also means that the bottom of the list is usually going to be the same, but that bottom can be 2nd place, or even 6th place down the list since the number of items in the list is not constant.

To sum up, the context menu in ArmA 3 is a list of items with:

– changing number of items

– changing order of items

– changing availability of items

One reply to these claims is that all you need to do is simply take a moment and look at the list, move your scroll wheel to the item you want, and click the button. That is not taking into account at all how the game is played. When your helicopter is stalling and spinning down towards the ground and you need to find the right action among 7 others to jump out or cut the engine rather than “turn lights off”, an unpredictable context menu is the last thing you need. Context menus can work in slower-paced games, but not for ArmA. In games that allow players to pause at any time, such as Neverwinter Nights by Bioware, the player can take the time to click on the correct target and look through the list of available options before making a safe choice. Misclicks are easily rectified because they can just set up a new action before resuming the game.

Neverwinter Nights Context Menu

In real-time games with a specific set of interactions such as MMORPGs, it can work by graying out the unusable actions. In World of Warcraft, by Blizzard Entertainment. When a player right-clicks on an allies portraits, a set of specific actions appear. The list is always in the same order, and of the same length. Actions that cannot be completed due to context (e.g. distance from the target) are simply grayed out, as can be seen below.

WoW Context Menu

White – can do. Gray – can’t do.

SWAT 4, by Irrational Games, is a slower-paced, tactical FPS game. The context menu is used to give timely orders to various squad members. Player actions themselves are bound to keys, so that the player can act fast, but can organise a well-coordinated team action with the context menu when the pace is quieter (e.g. before busting a door down).

SWAT 4 Context Menu

Recommendations
A lot of possibilities are better options that a quasi-random and unpredictable context menu in a game such as ArmA 3. The game is generally not always fast-paced, in fact it is usually slow. But when the bullets start flying, you want to perform quickly and precisely, the opposite of the current context menu. A better interaction with the environment would be to keep the context menu for more complex situations, like selecting which seat to switch to when climbing into a vehicle, while more important actions, such as “Get in vehicle”, should be bound to a specific key.

I will not re-iterate how PC games don’t take advantage of the multitude of keys on keyboards and how the lazy design solution of chucking every possible action on one key creates very bad UX for the players.

My opinion as a player
I absolutely love the ArmA series to death, and I just want to say that no other game has ever provided me with the immersion and thrill that playing in an organised, multiplayer clan has offered me. Go check them out, they’re a really friendly bunch! Not much more I can say.

Disclaimer: I know the default key for ArmA 3’s menu selection is the spacebar, but I changed it to the middle-mouse button due to personal preference.

Cover image © D34

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