ARK's New Inventory and a Rusty Old One

Last week we talked about the character menu in Studio Wildcard’s Ark: Survival Evolved, and how it was not so great. It’s been updated, and I’m impressed. You can almost smell the polish. There has been some clever consolidation of elements, reworked labeling and a general reduction of clutter, and this makes for a relatively clean and functional system. We’re going to examine this today, explore what's working, what's not, and then dive into how Rust (Facepunch Studios) approaches some of these issues. Let’s get to it, nerds.

The first thing of note in Ark's new character menu is the removal of most of the text on inventory icons. No longer are the pretty images hidden behind redundant labels - players can let their visually-literate brains do their jobs. Much of the supplementary information (item name, category, flavor text, spoil time) is hidden in a tooltip box that appears when the cursor is hovered over the icon, meaning that new players can easily figure out what they're looking at, and more experienced players can get in-depth information about the item when they need it.

The text links to the Survivor Profile and Tribe Manager have been removed too, replaced by icons that run across the top of the screen. The weird single-letter buttons that used to contain options for managing and filtering the inventory have been turned into pretty icons, and the labels that name each panel are bigger, cleaner, and better positioned. The quick-access bar where we can put weapons and items for easy use while we explore the world is now given an intuitive position - occupying the same place that it does when the character menu is closed.

The final little touch of polish is that every clickable icon or button has a mouseover tooltip, which means that if a player doesn’t understand the function of an element they can immediately figure it out. Things are much improved. But it’s not quite there yet.

When a player opens a menu, they have a task in mind. I argue that the mark of a successful character menu is how few actions are required to complete the task at hand. Ark’s character menu requires far more interactions than it should, and the blame for this rests almost entirely on clutter. This clutter is caused by the display of unnecessary information, and it leads to a significant lack of space.

Have another look at the image above. You can see environmental data that players rarely refer to. There's both text and icons labeling the player’s various stats when there ought to be one or the other. The indicator bars for these stats are easily ⅓ longer than they need to be. And the most glaring space-hog of all is the huge visual representation of the player’s character. I assume this was included so players can see how their clothing and gear looks once it’s equipped. Dressing characters up isn’t the core of what the game is about, and when the player is already being shown so much information, inclusion of this dress-up-doll leads to spatial compromises being made elsewhere in the interface. Like putting scroll bars on the inventory. Scrollbars mean more interactions. You don't need 'em.

Once players get into the crafting interface they get two display options: to have craftable objects in one big, unwieldy list, or to have them arranged in folders. Can you imagine double-clicking through folders and subfolders just to craft an arrow? It's a hassle. There are workarounds, but they take up space elsewhere and feel clumsy and clunky. If you’re being chased and you need to craft ammo in a hurry, you can’t. You’ll die, and it won’t be the fault of your own incompetence or due to the skill of the other player, it’ll be because the interface isn’t helping you do what you want to do. And that’s not okay.

While Ark seems to live in the shadow of complication, Rust thrives on simplicity. It’s important to note here that Rust is a simpler game than Ark - there are no levels, there are less player stats to keep track of, and there are fewer resources to harvest. There are still lessons for the Ark developers in how Rust deals with interface design, however. At the core, Rust has been designed around understanding exactly what players need, and when.

Take a look at what’s on display when we open the character menu in Rust: a depiction of the player’s character, 6 quick-use item slots, a bunch of icons that describe the types and levels of protection offered by the player’s clothing, an inventory, a quick-craft menu, and a basic run-down of the character's needs. Look at all that empty space - beautiful.

Players don’t have to deal with a chart of environmental information, nor an oversized stats window, nor a too-large and too-dominant representation of the character. Rust limits how much the player can carry by number of item stacks and not by weight, so the inventory is always a 6x4 grid - no scroll bars. The inventory is central, which means players aren’t taking their eyes away from the center of the screen unless they need to. The icons that describe the protection given by the player’s clothing are easy to understand for anybody who’s been playing for a few minutes. No text required.

There’s nothing shown here that players aren’t going to use almost every time they open this window. The negative space in the interface gives room for context-sensitive functionality while leaving the majority of the interface intact, which is important for preserving the core functionality and giving players visual landmarks with which to navigate the interface. Click an item, and players get information and options related to that item.

Open a crate and players see the contents of the crate to the right of their inventory.

It's a solid foundation. But there are a couple of issues.

As in Ark, Rust's crafting menu is in its own screen. It’s not a perfect solution - it’s nice to be able to see your resource stacks while crafting - but it works. It’s the Quick Craft menu that I’m more interested in - you can see above that it sits to the right of the inventory. It’s job is to display the items that the player can craft immediately with the resources that they have on hand. It needs some sort of filter, however, to limit the display to ammo, or tools, or whatever else players need access to quickly. It also needs some indication of the resource cost of the crafting operation before it begins - currently, as soon as you click the icon it begins crafting the item. Wherever this cost information goes - in a tooltip or dynamic icon - it needs to be there somewhere.

I'm also concerned about the background. Ark made the choice to contain menu elements within clearly defined boxes. While this can be problematic if you're looking to implement a more fluid, context-sensitive layout, it has the benefit of separating the menu from the world behind it. Rust does the opposite, and shows as much of the game world behind the menu as possible. A little too much. Look at the screenshots above and you'll see what I mean - there are times when the lighter parts of the world leave the interface feeling muddied and confused, sometimes resulting in the clothing-protection icons becoming completely obscured. A small oversight, but one that does make the experience uncomfortable as players' eyes struggle to distinguish background from menu.

But in spite of these issues, Rust's interface still feels intuitive. Facepunch Studios seems to have been understood that fewer menu interactions are better, and that a fluid, context-sensitive menu system that retains a core set of panels is the most effective way to help players do what they want to do, as quickly as they want to do it. While Ark's new interface is a far cry from perfect, they're doing well given the complexity that the interface has to manage. Simplification is the key and, perhaps, Ark: The Game needs to be refined, stripped and simplified before the same can happen to Ark: The Interface. Whether this will ever happen is anyone's guess - the game is still evolving. Time will tell.

What do you think? What scathing critique or gentle praise have I forgotten to dish out? Let me know in the comments.