Game Analysis: Elden Ring

Analysis of Usability vs Experience in Game UX (2022)
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The Question

There was a lot of discussion around the UX of Elden Ring, with some designers openly criticizing it for "bad UX".

In this analysis I want to analyze elements of Elden Ring's UX, and explore the question, does Elden Ring truly have bad UX, or does it prioritize player experience before usability?

Many images on this page are screenshots of the game Elden Ring developed by FromSoftware published by Bandai Namco Entertainment (2022). Find more about Elden Ring on Bandai Namco's website.

Usability vs. Experience

A lot of websites, apps, and games leverage UX for usability. 

Or, they use UX to help users accomplish tasks and goals effectively. 

Elden Ring, in my opinion, leverages UX for player experience.

Or, it uses UX as a tool to enhance immersion and feel.

A common misconception in game UX is that our job as UX designers is to reduce friction and help players navigate through the game's systems efficiently. However, I like to think more about game UX as a supplement to gameplay, meaning that sometimes, finding the most user-friendly or efficient UX does not benefit the gameplay experience.

This is why Elden Ring is such an interesting case for me, as the UX, while possessing elements of good usability, also intentionally produces friction for the sake of the gameplay experience.

Game Pillar Overview

My Process

When looking at game pillars, I don't like to think there is a right or wrong answer because everyone experiences a game differently. When finding pillars for my own analysis, I play the game as much as I can and try to consider the intention of gameplay mechanics. For example:

  • Are there a lot of classes of characters to choose from? Can you adapt them to play how you want to? Are there a wide variety of weapons in the world? That hints at a Combat pillar.

  • Is it open world? Does the game hold your hand, or do you have to figure things out for yourself? That can hint at an Exploration or Environment pillar.

Finding these game pillars is really helpful to give a foundation for your analysis, because you can look at design elements and see if they work against the pillars, or align with them.

Elden Ring's Pillars

Environmental Storytelling & Exploration

 

Strategic Combat

 

Challenge & Difficulty

From here, I'm going to go through each of the pillars and certain game elements presented in each of them.

Environmental Storytelling & Exploration

Summary

  • There is no straightforward quest system or map markers

  • You experience the world, find waypoints to travel and talk to NPCs. 

  • There is a small tutorial section, but for the most part, you are thrown into a hostile world and given vague instruction about what to do.

  • The game’s environment gives diegetic cues about points of interest, and next steps for the story as well as character development.

  • Players must find and defeat enemies to gain power 

  • Players are rewarded for thorough exploration & interaction with the environment through summonable NPCs for boss fights, unique interactions, items, and narrative elements that supplement Elden Ring's mysterious lore.​​

Diegetic Cues

Below is a screenshot from the starting area of the game, with examples of how the world of Elden Ring uses diegetic cues to enhance player experience and subtly guide them forward.

starting area of elden ring with diegetic cues highlighted

Image: Elden Ring's starting area with diegetic cues highlighted

In this image:

  • Large intimidating architecture in the distance, hinting at long term goal

  • Ultimate goal, the Erdtree, is always visible and most prominent thing in distance due to the light effect

  • Harvestable resources are splotches of colour in the landscape and have slight glow effect

  • Use of light:

    • Important objects glow in the world​

    • Waypoints (a.k.a. sites of grace) have instantly recognizable light effect & light trails that emanate from it

    • Warm light around the church hints at a campfire or safe space

  • NPC standing still in distance

    • standing in obvious place, drawing player towards them​

    • says nothing, barely moving, builds tension for cautious players

  • Gold horseman is moving on a clear walking path

    • Teaches player first lesson about engaging in combat​

    • Appearance with gold shiny armour becomes a symbol for a difficult enemy

While Elden Ring throws the player into this hostile world, the world is constantly using feedback like what was mentioned above to subtly guide the player in their journey.

 

Lets suppose that Elden Ring used quest markers in the compass to guide the player towards their goal.

Elden Ring quest marker mockup

Image: UX mockup of a quest marker in the compass

Would this help players navigate the game world more efficiently? Yes. 

 

However, such a change would work against the game's intention of encouraging exploration, as players would more often follow these markers instead of work to figure things out for themselves. So, while the lack of quest markers negatively impacts efficiency, it greatly improves player experience as they become more immersed in the game world through exploration, which in turn allows the environmental storytelling to shine.

Map

Elden Ring's map reinforces the pillar of Environmental Storytelling & Exploration, as it pushes the player to determine what is interesting or significant and explore those locations themselves. To see the full map, players are required to blindly enter new zones to gather map pieces, which when collected, fills in the map to show the landscape and architecture in the world.

Image: Elden Ring's map with section yet to be discovered

Even once all the pieces are gathered, the map in Elden Ring does not give the player much new information. It is up to the player to explore areas that look interesting, such as locations with architectural elements or bodies of water. Dungeon and boss fight locations are also hard to find from the map alone, so the player must still explore and examine in-world cues to progress. Icons only appear on the map if a player places a customizable map marker, or if a place or site of grace has been visited. This reinforces the idea that the map is for recording the player's journey exploring the world, and not for showing the player what to do next.

The map UX is not perfect, as small tweaks to keybinds and navigation would be helpful for usability (such as changing the keybind for the map legend from start, as you have to train yourself to not press start again to close the map). However, the core design of the map is a great example of a map that encourages exploration, as it shows the environment in detail without explicitly pointing to areas of interest the player hasn't explored. 

In-Game Messaging

Elden Ring is a unique game in that it encourages in-game messaging between players, which sacrifices immersion in favour of community & solidarity between players. Since so much of this game is relying on cues and staying wary of danger, messages & bloodstains work in favour of the player when entering dangerous areas.

 

Sometimes these messages are not helpful and can try to sabotage players (ex: “try jumping” next to a cliff) so players still need to rely on environmental cues & their own judgement when reading these messages.

elden ring message about a turtle being a dog

Image: a message about a dog

The inclusion of in-game messages between players reinforces the feeling that it is the players vs. the game. With the number of death traps, hidden enemies and secret locations, in-game messages are often helpful and warn players about imminent death or hidden items (such as in the image below, where messages warn about a chest that is booby trapped). This is extremely helpful when navigating the harsh world of Elden Ring which can be overwhelming to explore on your own.

decoy ahead message elden ring

Image: A helpful message warning the player of a trap chest

An interesting side effect of these in-game messages and bloodstains is that they begin to represent the spatial objective markers that the world lacks. When walking up to a clearing in the game world, if the player sees a bunch of messages and bloodstains on the ground (such as in image below), it is a likely sign to proceed with caution.

in world messages elden ring diegetic

Image: A bunch of messages and bloodstains on the ground ahead of the player

While I categorized this mechanic under Environmental Storytelling & Exploration, it does not necessarily belong to one pillar. These messages are helpful when exploring an environment that actively tries to kill you, but also mitigates some difficulty, reinforces feelings of community, and (often) give players a laugh in a dark game world of brutality and violence.

Strategic Combat

Summary

  • You must think out how to approach combat & enact your strategy.

  • You learn how enemies attack you, and use your skills to counter attack & predict how to fight

  • Animation time is punishing, so heavy attacks and potion drinking must be done at the right moment 

  • Death is a core strategy for combat

    • Dying a lot is part of this game.

    • Through trial and error, you can develop a strategy based on your knowledge to move forward

Punishing Animations

Punishing animations force players to approach every encounter with a plan & pay attention to resources. Almost every combat variable has an animation of some kind. Heavy attacks and strong spells (Comet Azur being a favourite of mine) have some of the longest animation locks, which is balanced by their damage potential. There are animations for resources as well, such as attempting to cast a spell without mana or drink a potion with no charges left.

Using potions & spells feels especially cumbersome, as the player must press the D-pad to equip the potion or spell, then another button to activate it (X or RB respectively), then wait out the animation to receive the benefits.  The milliseconds spend in animation lock could potentially be a death sentence in Elden Ring, as many enemies can easily kill the player in one hit.

Video: Short gameplay video highlighting various locked animations in Elden Ring

The animation timers seems like intentionally difficult UX, as it would be theoretically simple to cut animation timers or have a single keybind dedicated to health potions.  However, Elden Ring is intentionally difficult, and it seems their animation timers are specifically designed to prevent button mashing for success. Each choice a player makes in combat has to be intentional, and players that don't have the right spell equipped, drink a potion at a bad time, or try to cast a heavy attack while an enemy is charging at them will pay for their mistake. 

Long, locked animations might not be the most efficient UX, however, it forces the player to prepare themselves and stay mindful of what is at their disposal for every encounter.  In this way, Elden Ring's punishing animations reinforce the Strategic Combat pillar.

Death for Success

you died screenshot elden ring

While not necessarily a UX element, it is worth mentioning that dying in Elden Ring is an essential part of developing strategies for combat. With many boss fights, attacks can be unpredictable and have small margins for escape, so dying by these attacks is helpful for successfully beating the boss on the next attempt.

Defeating enemies drops Runes (which are essentially currency and experience combined), and they are the most important resource in Elden Ring. An interesting element to player death is that the player drops their acquired Runes on the spot, and the icon for dropped runes is one of the very few icons that appears on the compass in the HUD.

Image: Showing the runes icon in the compass at the top of the player HUD

Using the compass for this purpose underscores the importance of this resource, as the compass is not used for much else. In this case, the Runes icon is an example of traditional, usability-oriented game UX in Elden Ring; it helps players efficiently recover this resource, which in turn makes death less of a punishment and more of a temporary setback.

 

From a UX for player experience lens, the Runes icon on the compass also intentionally guides the player back to where they died. As players often die from bosses and mobs alike, this design choice encourages players to re-enter difficult combat areas and try again, or risk losing potentially hours of XP. This is a subtle (or not so subtle) cue that is tempting, or can even feel like mocking, the player who decides to ignore their dropped runes and focus their attention elsewhere.

Challenge & Difficulty

  • Many enemies can kill you in one hit

  • Some bosses are nearly impossible for the average player to beat in one try

  • There are no in game step by step guides for completing dungeons or NPC quests

  • Elden Ring essentially trains the player to play strategically and methodically​​

Mitigating Difficulty

Elden Ring has a base difficulty level that is quite high. Certain boss mechanics can feel overpowered, with some attacks taking up almost the entire boss arena (insert any picture of Malenia fight here :). These mechanics can make it so it’s almost impossible to beat a boss on the first try, requiring players are required to learn through trial and error, or even consult the game community externally for tips. While these mechanics can be extremely frustrating, they positively impact the player's experience because successfully beating a boss with these mechanics feels like an even bigger achievement.

scarlet rot Malenia boss fight

Image: Showing the dreaded Malenia boss fight, this attack takes up most of the arena

There are ways however to mitigate the difficulty of these boss fights, which ties directly into the Environmental Storytelling and Exploration pillar. If the player thoroughly explores the game world and interacts with the various NPCs scattered around, they are rewarded with access to powerful items and questlines that can result in summonable NPCs for boss fights. 

maidenless elden ring

Image: One of few NPCs that are found in Elden Ring

Completing NPC quests is intentionally quite difficult due to the lack of a tracking system. However, as mentioned before in the Environmental & Exploration pillar, the lack of a tracking system is essential to encourage players to explore the world on their own. While completing these questlines with little in-game guidance, players are sometimes able to summon the associated NPC during boss fights, which is incredibly helpful when playing solo. It makes sense for the player's experience that the effort they put into these questlines is especially rewarded, since completing such NPC quests is not a simple (or efficient) process. In the final section,

 

I did a small design exercise for the questing system to one could throretically be added to Elden Ring without negatively impacting the player expreience or going against the core design pillars. 

Design Exercise: Quest Tracking

Let's suppose Elden Ring had a Quest Tracking System. Is there a way to do it that balances Experience and Efficiency the "Elden Ring" way?

  • I considered the idea of a traditional quest tracking system seen in other video games, but that quite obviously does not fit into the core pillars of Elden Ring.

  • I don't personally believe a new menu option showing quests fits in with Elden Ring's design intention of the quest system, since quests are given verbally and it's up to the player to follow up on the pieces of knowledge they recieve.

  • So, what is Elden Ring's quest system?​​

    • NPCs give dialogue cues for things they want you to do​

    • Following through with their requests, finding items, etc. unlocks a new dialogue option

    • So on and so forth, then...

    • The NPC dies and/or the quest is completed

Option 1: Panel in the Map page dedicated to NPCs

elden ring map page UX mockup

Image: UX Mockup of Elden Ring's map page with an added panel

  • This option introduces some other interactions on the Map page "Select", and "NPC Panel"

  • Select will appear when hovering the cursor over an NPC

  • On selection, a panel will appear showing the NPC's name, and the important line of dialogue they gave to the player that states the quest.

  • The dialogue box will also be interactable with the D-pad, so players can scroll up and down to view the list of known NPCs. 

  • The player can then highlight any list item (with the D-pad up and down) and press Select to open up the info box with any uncompleted quest information. 

  • Dpad left/right will minimize and maximize the panel.

I do not think this is the best way to implement a quest system in Elden Ring. Why? Because:

  • It adds more complexity to the map page, which already has a lot of controls and interactions, which can lead to more frustration

  • It tries to force a structure onto the Elden Ring quest system, which is quite vague and dynamic by design

    • Quests can easily be terminated or become impossible to complete, how should we account for these cases?​

      • Simply greying out an NPC in the list could be a solution, but this might give away extra intel to the player, when the core design of Elden Ring calls for player exploration and figuring things out for themselves​

  • Simply put, this option is not in line with the core pillars of Elden Ring.

Option 2: Map overlay with quest dialogue

elden ring quest system ux mockup

Image: UX Mockup of Elden Ring's map page with an added dialogue box

  • When hovering an NPC, the last dialogue the player learned will appear under their name in a text box

  • This box would ideally contain the main context for the quest that was said to the player by the NPC

  • No additional controls are needed​

  • Some tweaks to the cursor functionality might be needed, since the cursor automatically snaps to Sites of Grace, and that could make it difficult for users to hover certain NPCs correctly​

This option has some shortcomings, but in my opinion, is the most thematically in line with Elden Ring's design intention with the quest system.

  • It does not add too much clutter to the map page

    • The player could simply stop hovering the NPC, and the box will go away.

  • This option could be complex to implement

    • Requires code to know what the essential quest dialogue is, then flag that string to be shown in the map​

      • i.e. the single line that tells the player what to do​

      • No guarantee that all quest dialogue will have this line (though most that I saw did have this essential line), so this is not totally scalable. 

  • It only gives the player information they already have access to​

    • NPC location + dialogue string they already heard​

  • It reduces the desire for players to look externally for quest clues

    • However, this will not replace this desire entirely

I don't necessarily think Elden Ring needs a quest tracker, and I'm unsure if one could be implemented that aligns well with the game's design pillars.​ While something like Option 2 above could theoretically work and make user's lives easier, I don't believe that Elden Ring actually wants to make user's lives easier. I believe that to truly experience the game and carve their own path, players need to take it upon themselves to follow up on quests, find NPCs, and explore the world Elden Ring has to offer. Without a questing system, I think the rewards players receive have more impact, because completing all of the steps to fulfill a vague NPC request becomes a new kind of challenge outside of combat or epic boss fights.

Conclusions

why is it always dog

Elden Ring was critiqued on social media for "bad" UX, but I find the UX of Elden Ring to be purposeful in that it weighed player experience over usability. No game is without faults and all critique can be valid, however Elden Ring seemed to generate discussion because of it's unconventional approach to game UX, especially for an open world RPG. Unconventional UX does not mean "bad" UX- and stepping away from the mentality that UX = optimizing usability in games is a healthy approach, as I think players are getting tired of recycled formulas that result in repetitive experiences and interfaces. 

Referencing the core gameplay pillars in our UX processes is a great way to start breaking the mold, and I believe Elden Ring did this extremely well. While not perfect, the UX of Elden Ring is a fascinating case study on putting the player experience first. 

Thanks for reading this far!