Hotbars: Less Is More

Hotbars
There has been a trend recently in MMOs away from the WoW-like hotbar interface, i.e. three on the bottom and at least one on the side, to a more ARPG-like one, that allows only one row of slots. The three MMOs I bounce around between right now–Guild Wars 2, Wildstar, and Marvel Heroes–all have limited hotbar space. At first I disliked this change and viewed it as a dumbing down of my favorite genre. Now I recognize it as a design choice which, while occasionally frustrating, is actually preferable in the long run.

As an altaholic, the best thing for me about this trend is that it makes it really easy to get back into a class, or game for that matter, after being away for a while. The reason why I’ve never gotten past Moria in LotRO is that every time I come back I’m faced with the daunting task of relearning what all of my skills do and how they fit together, so I usually end up rerolling so I can relearn how to play over time. In games like Guild Wars 2, or Marvel Heroes, I simply have to go down the line of 10 or so skills I had active when I parked this character and read their tooltips and I’m set. Later I may swap out some my skills if they don’t fit the playstyle I’m looking for right now, but for the most part I can jump in and start playing with minimal thought.

Another recent trend that the changes in hotbars facilitates is the move away from rooted casting. Honestly, I’m trying to remember why anyone ever thought this was a good idea. Especially in dungeon settings, where players often have to run out of the way of things, putting casters at a big disadvantage. I guess it took away the disadvantages that melee classes have that I’ve been noticing in WildStar, i.e. squishy ranged classes can run and gun to avoid damage, but melee classes are kind of forced to just tank it out. Either way, one archetype or the other is going to suffer, and I’d rather not be forced to stand it one spot for several seconds at a time to heal or hit big numbers.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, forcing a small number of hotbar skills means that the skills that are on the hotbar are more generalized and less situational. There are no spells in Guild Wars 2 that do extra damage to undead or only put fear on animals (there are potions that do extra damage to one type, but that’s different). Wildstar doesn’t have different breaks for different types of lockdowns. Everything is generalized. This is one of the places where it seemed like the genre was being dumbed down. But really, why should I have to remember which of my obscure hotkeys I only use once in a blue moon is the one I need in this situation? Is that really what the game is or should be about?

I am still a little frustrated with smaller hotbars. For one, as nice as it is that developers have done their best to reduce the number of situational skills, some still need to exist. Many times I’ve charged into combat in Guild Wars 2 with a portal or stability or run speed increase in my slot skills because I needed them once and forgot to flip them back to skills actually useful in combat by the time the cooldown ended. I also feel like Wildstar discourages me from experimenting with my build, partly because I have to buy my skills before I know if I want to use them or not, but mainly because I don’t want to give up part of the rotation I have now to see if something else would fit in better. Overall, however, I think the trend is a good one. If I continue to gravitate toward games that force fewer hotbar slots, it would seem to be a good trend.

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