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I'm designing a 'retro-style' video game, in which the user has to navigate relatively complex (around six or seven options on the screen at a time) text-based menus very often (once every minute, approximately, depending on what the player is doing).

Given that these menus are entirely text-based, how should I design them for maximum usability? The way I'm personally familiar with is the [O]ption system, (which happens to be incredibly easy to code) where the user inputs the letter in brackets in order to select that option, but I've found that a lot of people can't figure out what to do when presented with such a screen.

The next most obvious way is to have the user press the arrow keys to highlight an option and press enter to confirm it, which people seem to be able to pick up more easily (why?). The problem there is that the user is going to be navigating these menus a lot, and should be able to get through them quickly- this option slows them down, plus it takes significantly more effort to make it work.

Does anyone have any other ideas, or know how to make the [o]ption system more user-friendly?

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Can't you combine your [o]ption system with arrow keys+enter? Possibly a faster system than the [o]ption system would be to number every choice (hopefully less than 9) and that digit when entered selects that choice. –  obelia Mar 3 '13 at 6:18
@obelia that is indeed often how it was done –  Marjan Venema Mar 3 '13 at 10:27
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2 Answers

One common way of making controls more useful is to support several methods of reaching the control. On example is cut and paste which have at least four different options: menu, right-click, keyboard shortcut and dragging. Translated to your case I would suggest multiple access options:

  • [o]ption
  • [alt] + underlined key. This was previously used on Windwos systems and being a retro game, I think it might work.
  • Numbers ahead of menu item (Thanks Obelia)
  • Arrow keys
  • Tab between menus (which I feel is faster than arrow keys)

The more of the above mentioned you implement, the easier you make it for your users. I would also suggest a wizard or a guide in "how to play" section where you explain how to use the menu options. The gaming experience will improve if you have a fast and easy menu system.

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My first impression is that you should be trying to solve the problem of asking users to have to navigate complex menus very often. Is this going to impact on the experience of the user playing the game, or is it part of the nature of the game (e.g. stock trading or something similar). Instinct would suggest to me that if there is scope to provide some context sensitivity logic around the interface design then you would get much more bang for your buck in terms of trying to improve user experience, because you would effectively be cutting down the number of options that they need to navigate.

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It's a game where you manage a private starship, and you have to move cargo, get the ship fixed, hire crew, etc. Most of that is going on in menus. I'm not sure about context sensitivity; the player's going to be navigating the menus on reflex by fifteen minutes in, so moving things around is only going to make things worse, won't it? –  Schilcote Mar 4 '13 at 12:29
I think it is a matter of creating logical groups and sensible hierarchy with the menus, then you can show/hide or enable/disable options depending on the situation in the game. Navigating the menus on reflex sounds like a pretty tough thing to do to me, but if you have some sketch of screenshot of the interface I could make some suggestions. Thanks. –  Michael Lai Mar 4 '13 at 21:56
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