The First Mass Effect’s UI Sure Was Terrible

The First Mass Effect’s UI Sure Was Terrible
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I still think fondly back on when I played the first Mass Effect. It had so much going for it, and I was so excited about the game — I remember tearing through the campaign, loving the story and tolerating the somewhat janky combat and technical issues.

I also remember the interface. It was something that I was only marginally aware of as I actually browsed through my inventory and character sheets, but the farther I got from the game, the more I realised how lacklustre it was. And then, I read Krystian Majewski’s Massive Interface Fail series, and I finally understood: The first Mass Effect‘s user interface was an unmitigated disaster.

Majewski is the German game designer responsible for the IGF-nominated TRAUMA. In “Massive Interface Fail”, he goes through every aspect of the Mass Effect UI with a fine-toothed comb and comes up with an astonishing list of problems, inconsistencies and oversights.

He begins by going through character customisation, which has more than its share of problems, but they’re ones everyone probably remembers. In particular, he cites the “blind re-using of generic interface elements,” in how sliders are used both for features that need sliders (eg forehead depth) and things that do not (eg eye colour or hair preset.)

In creating his deliberately ugly avatar “Honk Shepard”, Majewski cites the Wii’s Mii creator as a much more intuitive character creator. I gotta say, I really like the Mii creator, and I’ve been able to make a Mii that looks very much like me, despite the simple settings, while my much more complex 360 avatar still doesn’t really look like me.


But things get good when he turns his eye on the HUD. In the image to the left, we’ve got the party health indicator, which is the first clear sign that things went off the rails with the design of this game’s UI.

(Bad) Styling obscuring function: Let us focus on the health bars in the lower right corner. Off the bat, that entire area is set in italics. An unfortunate choice as it is difficult to compare the three health bars with each other when they are aligned along diagonals. Also, it makes them all rhombuses and you know what they say about rhombuses. What baffles me is WHY they set that part of the interface in italics. Italics aren’t use ANYWHERE else after all.

He goes on to point out another glaring flaw: Shepard’s health bar is longer than the other characters’, but Shepard does not in fact have more health. The icons are terrible (seriously what is with that grenade icon — it may be accurate, but it’s confusing as hell and looks like a hockey puck), and goes through the hideous glut of information that pops up every time you take out an enemy, as well as a half-dozen other huge flaws.

Character management gets the same treatment, with the percentages getting knocked in particular — if a suit of armour “increases health by 12 per cent” but also “regenerates five health per sec” what does that mean? Context is entirely absent. The more you think about it, the more you realise that you kind of just smiled and went with it, not even really caring that none of the data on screen made any sense. I know I did.


Part 2 is my favourite, as Majewski digs into the equipment subscreen, which upon revisit is probably the most broken part of the entire interface. Or, as he puts it, “welcome to the biggest interface flaw of the entire game and quite possibly the worst game interface ever.”

As Majewski points out, there is no actual “inventory” in Mass Effect, just the “equip” menu. He goes through the many ways that the game misuses its considerable screen real-estate, he points out that even the Game Boy game Mystic Quest was able to show more information on the screen than Mass Effect.

It just keeps going, and going and going. There are far, far more observations in the finished collection than I’ve shared here — it’s a terrifically well-assembled, thorough critique at a major game’s interface failures. If you’re anything like me, you’ll read it and think, “Wow, I never even really complained! I just swallowed it and played the game.”

I go back and read the entire thing once a year or so, just to remind myself not to overlook the basic terrible design decisions that gamers put up with every day. It goes to show how far we’ll will go to enjoy the games we play — games may have gotten easier to play, but they sure can be hard to manage.

Mass Effect: Massive Interface Fail Part One [Game Design Advance]

Mass Effect: Massive Interface Fail Part Two

Mass Effect: Massive Interface Fail Part Three


  • My only complaint with ME1’s weapons and armor system was that it would get a little crowded at the end. But on the other hand I end I could craft some very powerful guns and didn’t need to search for “ammo”.

    • I enjoyed customizing my guns, but having the one shot nuke rifle in Mass Effect was a bit much. I’m tearing my hair out playing Mass Effect 2 on Insane right now. At level 30 I simply can’t do enough damage to the mechs in the time it takes for them to walk to my only cover option and blast me. It painful but it’s still better than having weapons that turn Insane into easy mode.

  • I’d rather a terrible interface and actual decent RPG mechanics than a streamline interface with very limited RPG mechanics.

    Better yet I’d love a good interface WITH a decent set of RPG mechanics. Just about every modern I’ve played can do this right, and if Bioware wanted to they could too.

  • Someone has stuffed up with web links/buttons.
    If I click past articles past yesterday it loads articles from October and older last year.

  • Funny that we have this article i was playing ME1 like two days ago, I was actually surprised at how fast you can finish it only took me like 7 and a half hours to do main story only on normal difficulty.

    Only thing that annoyed me was those cannons before the final Saren fight argg must of died like 5 times doing that.

    • Indeed. Side missions are where the bulk of the extra hours are. I think my speed run for main mission once clocked in around 6hrs 45 mins from memory. That was with skipping clips etc on PC. Im sure if there was an option to skip those damn elevators it’d be 2 hours lol

      • being a mass effect virgin i just started playing ME1 and so far sunk about 10-15 hours into it and have barely scratched the surface of the main quest.

        I pretty much finished 90% of the quests on skyrim (excluding auto-generated crapola) and found the game to be just far to linear and constricted. Despite a huge world town to town, forest to forest there wasn’t a hella of a lot of difference.

        I’m really really enjoying ME1 even if the interface is so clunky and confusing. It really breaks up the rythym of your game having to sit there after 2/3 major combats to upgrade all your weapons to the strongest on you’ve just picked up, and then having to go the lockers on the nomady and do the same for the crew that stayed behind, so then you could sell your weapons off..sigh. but then again it does limit how much wealth you create.

        in skyrim at level 55, I find myself giving everything away to helpers.I’m dragon armoring the lot of em. Or else I don’t bother picking anything up anymore. I also think the dialogue in ME1 to be superior to Skyrim

  • Some fair enough criticisms, but I’d like to see one on ME2 as well, I personally prefer the squad status of 1. It tells you exactly how much shield an ally has left, how much health. Yes it could have looked better, but a few things in 2 could have functioned better.

  • I’ve actually had the opportunity to meet one of the guys who designed it a few times. When I asked him about he was kind of sheepish and said they ended up wasting too much time on the Mako’s controls. Apparently tge mako sections were initially a blast to play, but once they got play testers in they realised it was too hard to control for the average joe. The resulting Mako sections were a rush job compromise.

    • I still believe the biggest issue with the Mako was not the Mako itself but the worlds you were given to explore most of them just had annoying terrain because to not meant that draw distances would be crapped.

      Personally as flawed as some of the systems are in ME1. And they are flawed(though i haven’t come across a great inventory system in a long time.) The game will always be more enjoyable that ME2 in my opinion.

      Yes the sniper rifle became OP. But the thing is they are things you work on fixing not scrap most of the first game elements because it’s simpler.

      Though personally i would give Amalur a worse inventory system than ME1.

      Blacksmithing in that game should sort the stuff you can salvage my weapon/armor type. Components should be listed based on quality level not the order they were found(At the end game i shouldn’t have 10 simple bindings on top because i was looting traps)

      The game doesn’t tell you what is and what isn’t an item that is taking up actual room in your backpack. There is a ton of miscellaneous crap left in your inventory after finishing quest lines.

      And when selling stuff it tends to go weapons/Armor/Consumables/Everything else in your inventory.

      The everything else should have sub categories for Blacksmithing stuff/Alchemy/Sagecrafting. Since those things can really take up a huge chunk of space, especially if your not planning on selling them(because none of the components in those sections take up space so their isn’t much reason to) And money is pretty easy to come by.

      But going through the 100’s of blacksmithing components to find the items that take up an inventory slot and only purpose in the game is to be sold is just annoyingly time consuming

  • Played ME1 on PC… UI definately a lot better than it was here, also elevator loading screen was literally a few seconds if that.

  • Aside from the inventory screen, Mass Effect’s UI was absolutely fine. Nitpicking on stuff like the grenade icon and health bar is stupid. You can easily tell when a squad member is at half health, full health or nearly dead, so I can’t see what the problem is. And how is “the grenade looks like a hockey puck” a criticism? Who cares what it looks like, it tells you what you need to know and that’s all it should do.

    The inventory screen was pretty horrid though. Needed a way to see all items in a grid or something. And a way to easily get rid of old upgrades.

  • I didn’t find the UI that bad to be honest. I thought ME2’s UI was worse, but I suspect that was more due to there being NO FUCKING OPTIONS! Could they have made ME1’s UI better? Sure. Did it need it? Nah. Skyrim’s UI needs to be fixed. ME1, no as much.

    • I am an avid Player / Raider in EQ2. While I agree with some points I dgarisee with the fact that servers need to be merged. Honestly I have levelled many toons to max level solo and while grouping, what I find to be the largest challenge is to get into groups that all want to do the same or similar things (grinding, questing, instances,whatever) IMO what SOE needs to do is actually remove some of the content at the middle levels so that it makes it easier to find a group for those that want one while leaving in the solo quests for those that dont in some of the middle zones . Now I know for those that like tons and tons of content this will sound like a horrible idea however the massive content makes questing very difficult when everyone is on different areas of the same quest. Sure we can share quests and all do them together but honestly I havent seen that much of that going on in the middle zones, Sharing seems to be a largely higher zone activity. Soloing is Fun, Grouping is Fun. Lets just make it easier to get a group for those that need/want one and at the same time lets also make it alittle more straightforward then having 200+ quests (just picked a number) in one zone to finish before moving on. Lets narrow down the quests increase the EXP off of those quests and get people to the End Game Faster . Just my 2cp

  • Words are in italics. It’s the end of the world! … What? That’s just petty, I think the interface is ok, I didn’t really have any problems with it. It’s only the many layers of menus which can be annoying

  • Am I the only one who doesn’t have a problem with the ME1 UI? Like seriously, didn’t see anything wrong with it lol. And ME2 had even less problems if any due to it being so damn simple haha.

  • I’m actually playing through Mass Effect 1 now and yes, the equipment screen nearly drives me insane.
    I’m also quite surprised at how short this game is..I’m used to 30+ hours in RPGs

  • It’s so long since I played it, but i remember cursing the ME inventory system towards the end of the game when i had so many old guns & ammo types collected that i couldn’t pick up any upgrades and there was no easy way to sort things out..

  • A little bit of a nitpick, but the armour example given (…a suit of armour “increases health by 12 per cent” but also “regenerates five health per sec”…) makes perfect sense. The armour increases your total health by 12% and also regenerates five health units per second. Not rocket surgery/brain science there.

  • The biggest i had with ME1 was when you had to delete items (reduce to omni-gel) when your inventory was full. The problem was all the crap equipment you didnt need or want was at the bottom of the list, so you scroll down and delete it aannd… you get put up the top of the list again -.- When you have over 100 items it really sucks to keep scrolling over and over through the list

  • My only complaint throughout the entirety of Mass Effect was when I suddenly reached a limit on inventory space. I assumed there wasn’t one. So then I had to spend prolly close to 1.5 hours going through and figuring out what I didn’t need anymore and selling it all.

    My preferances lean towards ME1 more than they do towards ME2 and what I’ve seen of ME3… all throughout ME2, and even more recently the demo for ME3, I kept trying to throw a “hockeypuck” grenade. I also keep wanting to upgrade my squadmates loadouts/armor… but yeah.

    I guess we’ll all just be carrying the same guns then? Right. Gotcha. 😛

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