Analysing the UX Design of Elden Ring
A deep, detailed look at the user experience of Elden Ring
We're coming up to a year since the release of Elden Ring, and it still remains the game to which I always return. In that light, I thought I'd continue breaking down games that consume me. I want to write an article aiming to understand the types of players Elden Ring is targeting, how this informs their design decisions and a few design concepts that aim to solve problems in the game.
Throughout the weeks surrounding the game's release, the discussion around the game's UX was all-consuming. I admit it was hard to ignore or share my thoughts on the topic, however, I decided to put aside my intrinsic need to analyse, enjoy a new FromSoftware experience, and come back to the discussion at a later date. It was clearly a debate on usability vs the intended experience and it's difficult to find a middle ground to please everyone.
While FromSoftware tends to lean heavily towards its intention (with good reason) and does what it sets out to do so well, this leaning can often put highlight to the things it doesn't do as well. With this in mind, player feedback is integral to game development and should be viewed with an open mind to establish paths toward future refinements, and those giving feedback should consider taking the time to understand the developers' intent, in order to provide the most optimal feedback. Hard truths cut both ways (thanks Stannis).
So then, I will break down the game's experience into the following areas:
- Player Profile (Motivations & Gamer Type)
- The Core Experience
- Game Loop (Short-term & Long-term goals)
- Design Decisions to Assist Goals (Exploration & Power)
- Potential Improvements to the Experience
Identifying the target audience
Time, Skill & Mastery: Hardcore Gamers
Motivation Group: Action / Social / Mastery / Achievement / Creativity / Immersion
Gamer Type: Gladiator (Quantic Foundry)
This player profile encapsulates the type of player Elden Ring is targeting. If you're not familiar with FromSoftware's games, they're mostly aimed at experienced and skilled hardcore players, though the audience has grown tremendously since the launch of Elden Ring which is no doubt the most accessible version of their souls-like franchise.
The souls-like community is filled with hardcore gamers that base their day around their game time. They're passionate and engaged gamers with an average playtime of 15 to 45 minutes which could extend beyond 5 hours. The learning curve is also intentionally high to accommodate hardcore gamers' need for challenge and accomplishment. Though design decisions reduced this barrier through the open world nature and the abundance of tools to support the player in battle.
How does Elden Ring motivate its player base?
Elden Ring covers 6 main motivation groups:
Action: Provides an exciting world, with many weapons at their disposal to fight in intense battles resulting in a constant adrenaline rush.
Social: Travel together in Co-op, compete in PvP, and interact with community features such as in-game messages to collaborate and feel the presence of other players.
Mastery: Challenging boss fights that rely on skill and patience. Players must be persistent and take the time to practice and learn the gameplay.
Achievement: Gain as much power as needed to become the Elden Lord. Collect rare items and try to discover all the hidden locations if you wish.
Creativity: Customise and tinker with your build to suit your playstyle. Adjust your character's appearance to your liking.
Immersion: Enter the flow state in the Lands Between with deep lore, characters, and a unique setting.
While Elden Ring covers a wide variety of motivations, it broadens them further by allowing players to bypass the challenges that come with accommodating some of these motivations.
For example, perhaps some players are not interested in mastery of the game, and boss fights are part of the game that requires immense skill and time learning their movesets to defeat them. Players can choose to roam the lands and defeat smaller, less difficult enemies instead, gaining power and slowly becoming more comfortable and capable of fighting difficult bosses.
Still others may find the game's story holds no interest for them. The main method Elden Ring uses to communicate its narrative to players is through NPC dialogue and item descriptions. For those players not interested in this area, they can simply choose not to interact further with NPCs or avoid reading item descriptions. Players are not forced, although it may be helpful to read a few of the items to understand where to progress. There are usually additional ways to progress if players do not receive guiding information.
1. What type of player is Elden Ring targeting?
The Gladiator Type:
Quantic Foundry's gamer types is a tool I find incredibly useful when working to understand player motivations. 'Gladiators are much more likely to identify as hardcore gamers, and they want games to engage them using a broad spectrum of features. They are looking for an epic experience that provides team arenas, fast-paced explosive gameplay, power progression mechanics, challenging gameplay that requires strategic thinking, and a rich world setting with lots to explore and customize'.
This type fits with the wide variety of features used to motivate Elden Ring's audience.
2. The Core Experience
Identifying the core experience
The best way to identify the core experience of any game is simple - block out all external noise and play the game. In Elden Ring, you're placed in the world without distraction, it's up to you to take note of the world - the grand landscapes, fierce enemies, or helpless souls. They're taking you on a journey but you're in control.
The core experience in Elden Ring is to create a sense of wonder and mystery in the world, providing the player with the desire to discover, explore and gain power in an immersive environment by themselves and with the help of the online community.
This experience involves using the richly detailed environment to tell stories and guide players with diegetic cues to points of interest and the presence of other players. The game rewards them for using their own initiative to explore and grants players a sense of accomplishment when they reach their goals or discover something unique that other players might have missed.
3. The Game Loop
Identifying player needs and goals
To further understand player needs and goals for making design decisions, breaking down the game loop of Elden Ring can help us answer this question.
This simplified core loop shows the player's short-term goal throughout the game. The long-term goal is learned throughout the playthrough as we gain power and interact with the world.
- Explore & gain power through defeating enemies and gaining souls.
- Defeat the main bosses to obtain the Elden Runes scattered throughout the lands and become the Elden Lord.
4. Design Decisions to Assist Goals
Based on our understanding of Elden Rings's core loop we can observe the design decisions made in enhancing the core experience of its players and assisting in helping players reach their goals, mainly involving two key areas: exploration and power.
Design Decisions that Assist Exploration
- Sites of grace exist in each region and guide the player to the path they should take if they're unsure where to go. Similar to many waypoints such as the merchant, they're found where bright light gathers.
- The Spectral Steed named Torrent helps players traverse mountainous terrain through Spiritsprings and generally boosts mobility.
- Birdeye Telescopes gives players a better view of their destination instead of looking at their map to gauge distance.
- The Map is an exploratory tool enabling players to review sites of grace, track their points of interest through a variety of markers, and provide NPC location information which benefits the ambiguous questing strategy.
- An important aspect to how the map is presented is the visual hints of roads that the player can faintly see on the map. This also shows where the steles are located once the player has discovered the area. These steles provide map fragments to reveal portions of the map and add details to encourage further exploration. The map puts the player in control of their own discoveries that will stimulate their quest for power.
- Marika statues are a welcomed addition to reduce run time to boss locations.
- The HUD Compass shows players the direction to their dropped runes.
- Crone statues and glowing spirit trails guide the player towards hidden dungeons.
- Item descriptions provide you with the information needed to explore further. E.g. The first half of the 'Dectus Medallion' provides the whereabouts to the other half.
Design Decisions that Assist Exploration
- Scarabs allow players to recover uses of flasks and can give you precious items.
- Crypts and Caves reward players with spirit summons and new weapons.
- Mines reward players with ores to upgrade weapons.
- Sites of Grace are a great source of power, enhancing the player's level and flasks.
- The Roundtable Hold contains fellow Tarnished to learn incantations, upgrade weapons using the blacksmith, and be granted blessings to boost attributes.
- The travelling merchant trades precious items and information with you and provides a crafting kit to create tools yourself.
- Cookbooks found with the merchant and in the world unlock new items to be crafted such as fire grease or bone darts to counter certain enemies.
- The player can use a multitude of Summons to help with difficult boss fights including NPCs, online players, or the spirit calling bell.
5. Potential Improvements to the Experience
There are not many perfect games, so I'll highlight a few elements that would be interesting to see built upon and improved in future titles. This is not an exhaustive list and most were likely not a priority to the core experience.
- Narrative Interaction
- Map Features
An overlooked aspect of Elden Ring's experience is the narrative interactions with NPCs. There is a lack of feedback to the player when an NPC has something of value to say. The player unfortunately has to select to interact multiple times to exhaust dialogue until they repeat their last line to indicate they have nothing more to say. It's a slightly cumbersome system, especially for players who are interested in everything NPCs have to say.
A possible solution would be to provide an icon next to the interaction panel to indicate the NPC has something novel to say, or even the small circle of light that is used in parts of the interface within the sites of grace. Even dimming the interaction panel to show that nothing new can be learned is a common technique. This small change could help players parse when they can learn more information, which in turn could encourage them to interact further with characters, connecting them with the world.
If we can connect more with the characters, especially the ones we fight, the experience could become even more epic and satisfying. It's often why I enjoy the second playthrough just as much, although in a different way. While you lose the initial childlike wonder and novelty, you gain more understanding of the world, making it more meaningful.
I remember reading about how certain enthusiastic Dark Souls players will create their own journals to keep track of the fragmented narrative. It's always interesting to see how players invent their own systems or third-party applications for the games they play. I feel it can be a noteworthy hint to potential gameplay solutions or ideas, building on how players are reacting and creating things to enhance their experience.
Perhaps in the future, they'll give us a journal with character entries of those we've interacted with, and log their dialogue. We can sit and relax at a bonfire after a boss fight to remind ourselves of the state of affairs, rather than wonder why a particular boss was viciously angry at us. Did we steal their favourite blade? Trespass on their sacred ground? Or do they simply want to consume our soul because they worship a god who thinks death is a blessing?
Sure, sometimes you just want to bonk things and that's fine, but it will be interesting to see how the franchise evolves its storytelling in the next installments, if they choose to do so.
Below is a concept based on the Elden Ring inventory.
Shown here is my concept for a dialogue-capturing system that contains characters you met in the world, categorised by the area where you first met them. Dialogue is renamed 'Reminiscences' to fit the world narrative and on the right side, we can see 'Last Reminiscence' at the top half to present simple recall for the player if they struggled to remember the last thing a character mentioned to them. Underneath are all the previous dialogue entries from the character to allow players to piece together information told by characters in the world.
With George RR Martin being advertised as a key contributor to the game's worldbuilding, it would've been satisfying to put the pieces together and form a coherent narrative without external sources or trying to remember key dialogue excerpts within the world. However, the brilliant community presence is vigorous inside and outside the game, so perhaps they don't want to alter the course, and for that, I can't completely blame them.
I love the hand-drawn map design, - it's perfectly fitting and a great addition. However, unlike previous titles, it lacks a location preview which can be useful for knowing exactly where the sites of grace are in the world. There are moments where the sites of grace are in close proximity and on multiple different levels. It can be confusing and you may find yourself at the wrong site of grace. A distinct image of the location attached to the UI panel can present the information in a simple fashion.
This design decision could be intentional, as they may believe a location preview goes against their exploratory goals. It's possible they want the player to get lost or treat the map as they would an actual map, staring intently at the details to ensure you're on track. I believe this is a matter of balancing goals and the inclusion of this feature would be welcome and not tip the scales too much.
I really like the idea of map markers used to track your journey and points of interest, however, the implementation feels somewhat incomplete. Map markers are all a standard green which isn't that clear nor does it make them individually distinct on the map. Sure, they don't take priority over the sites of grace, but if we take a look at how map pins are on such a map, you can see they're a variety of distinguishable colours. Below I've recoloured the pairs and groups: Red for battle, green for natural elements, blue for precious items, and brown for landmarks. This is a simple change that would make using the markers more effective and again encourage players to interact with features that help them navigate the world.
Due to cultural differences, these colours won't have the same meaning everywhere, which could be a reason why they opted for a green batch of icons.
Bows are still cool (right?), from Skyrim's stealth archer to the colossus Monster Hunter bows. I'm inclined to believe they are and with the inclusion of magic builds in Elden Ring, one might think that bow builds are also an option, but they remain secondary as in Dark Souls 3.
Using a bow is pretty lacklustre due to low power scaling, and this correlates with a laborious need to regularly craft arrows. While resources are plentiful, arrows' low power threshold and the many volleys needed for a bow-only battle with a boss can make fights and the collecting of arrows exhausting. While there are still a variety of playstyles one can use, players attached to bows may be disappointed they can't re-enact their Legolas fantasies without masochistic endeavours.
Finally, the inability to compare the merchant's gear with your own makes it likely players will completely avoid checking if the gear is worthwhile. Players may potentially miss out on armour that will make them more powerful because of the mental effort needed to pursue the comparison.
Without a doubt, Elden Ring fully deserved GOTY, it's a fantastic game, though one that still has its faults.
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