Is Hotbar Overload A Thing Of The Past?

Jason Winter
By Jason Winter, News Editor

It's not hard to spot the trend in new MMOs to have minimal hotbars, or in some cases, small and unobtrusive UIs as a whole. More and more, developers are abandoning the “six-rows deep” array of buttons and powers in favor of smaller, more focused ability sets, and a few – such as The Lord of the Rings Online – are changing their older games to try and reduce the amount of clickable clutter.

The most obvious reason devs cut down on their hotbars and action buttons is simplicity. Eight to 12 powers to keep an eye on and rotate through are easier to deal with than 30 or 40. This makes games more accessible to a wider audience and less esoteric and difficult to learn for new players. Not to mention, having fewer abilities requires less work on the developers' part, in terms of creativity, balance, and graphics needs.

I think this strategy is also intertwined with the recent proliferation of free-to-play games, which also have the implied goal of getting as many people into the game as possible. Make a game that's easy to get into, price-wise, and relatively easy to play, and you can go straight to phase three! Well, in theory, at least.

Also, considering how often people leave an MMO for long stretches of time, whether F2P or sub-based, the less you have to remember upon returning, the easier it is to get back into it. I've avoided getting heavily back into Rift at least in part because I don't want to have to remember all the intricacies of my skill rotation, not to mention how I'll likely mess up when I'm dying and can't remember where my “oh shit” buttons are.

But, as with free-to-play, there's some resistance among the MMO old guard regarding the low-button-count trend. Reducing the number of buttons available brings forth concerns of “dumbing down” a game or making it “for noobs.” Back in my day, we had 40-man raids and 40 buttons on our hotbars, and we liked it! Kids these days have it so easy...

I feel like there's an argument to be made that having fewer powers can make for a better game, or at least not make a game worse. The first argument against that thinking is often “More choices are always better.” If that's the case, why does your character only have 30 powers? Why not 50? Or 100? At some point, it becomes too much to manage, and adding more doesn't add anything useful to the game. We only have so many fingers, after all. The only reason most people are used to having 30+ powers at their disposal is because that's what you grew up with. If early MMOs had only had 10 keys each, you'd probably think 30 was overload.

But maybe you truly think 30 or 40 is “just right” and games with around 10 buttons just don't offer enough strategic options and aren't fun. Do you play any shooters? How many buttons do they have? Apart from movement keys, most have left-click for shooting, right-click for zoom/scope, Shift to run, Ctrl to crouch, R to reload, Space to jump, and maybe a few miscellaneous commands for grenades, vehicle access, and other powers. That's about 10 buttons, maybe 12-15 max. And, while they can be simplistic, shooters can definitely be fun and strategic.

Shooters aren't MMOs, though, and there's the belief that you need to have access to a wide array of spells, sword techniques, and so on to make combat interesting. I'll agree that having fewer than 10 abilities at your disposal seems limiting at times, so I'd hope that more games offer ways to swap out your abilities during combat, like Guild Wars 2 and The Elder Scrolls Online.

Still, even with a “hard” set of abilities – ones you can presumably change outside of combat, as in Rift – there's enjoyment to be had in finding combos and strategies that force you to work with a limited skill set. To me, it's like playing a sealed-deck tournament in a CCG, or Arena mode in Hearthstone. Of course, the best solution would be for games to de-emphasize combat a bit, or at least make it less of a grind, so you can feel like you're doing something different, even if you only have a few buttons at your disposal.

In any event, it's unlikely that things will regress any time soon. The subscription fee may not quite be dead yet, but extensive hotbars in new MMOs almost certainly are, whether they have a box and sub fee (like The Elder Scrolls Online) or are free-to-play (like EverQuest Next Landmark). There might still be the occasional big-budget game, like Star Wars: The Old Republic, that offers them (for sale, now!), but for the most part, they'll probably be confined to indie games looking for that “old-school” vibe and the occasional Asian import. I think it's next to impossible to imagine that we'll ever see another highly successful MMO feature a slew of hotbars.

I'm OK with that. Are you?

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About the Author

Jason Winter
Jason Winter, News Editor
Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.

Discussion (27)

Kevin Flemming 6 years ago
A game with far too many skills is a huge deterrent for me. I can't stand having to just sit and watch like 25-50 cooldowns, instead of focusing on the combat, my surroundings and enjoying the visual aspect.
Since playing TERA (still has a fair few skills but less than most), GW2, Neverwinter, ArcheAge and such, I much prefer the more action-based games and/or tab-targeting with less skills to press. It's just less hassle. And with hassle, less is always better.

lynspottery 7 years ago
I currently play GW2 and have played WoW, SWTOR, EQII and Rift. Each game offered different setups for the player to use but for me the best was the GW2 setup. You can actually get great usage out of the limited skills available, especially when you don't have any duplication in skill ability.

I also like the way GW2 offers a way to swap weapon sets which change up your skill bars to another set completely, Each offering something the other did not, all dependent upon the situation.

I hate having to macro skills because there is always going to be a "waste" factor involved. More judicial use of the good skills available is much better then mashing buttons for the sake of the extra skill offered...which might not even be helpful.

grims bane 7 years ago
Love how everyone is arguing yes there can be Action bar overload and no there can't be, honestly IMO and this always holds true it depends on someones play style. Some people love having all those skills on the screen I know I do in some games because it gives me other abil's to play around with when i'm bored of the standard 3 or 4 skill rotation that most games have adopted these days. Then again i've played every style of mmo out there and honestly it really does come down to ones personal preference of how many action bars and skills they want to put on the screen. Remember Action Bar overload does not truly exist, only the player makes it exist, for they have the option to have one or two skill bars in almost any mmo.

ama8o8 8 years ago
I do not see the point of having multiple skill bars ...I understand having multiple skills and choosing which skills you want to use ...but come on unless you have like 1 billion fingers you cant just use them all ...idk I have a dislike for tab click games thta have so much hotbars+skills that it ruins any immersion for me in the world is a lowbie supposed to run a way from someone thats super high level that has the best gear has all the skills hotkeyed? And dont give me that hardcore/casual bullshit ...there is nothing hardcore with games that decide your characters strength based on gear skill needed all you need to do is level up and farm and craft -_-

Yes 9 years ago
Don't like it. You have no customization of your skills that you use IMO. You equip a sword, and they give everyone the same skills to use.

View 1 reply
Merkadis 9 years ago
They "moderate" nothing, it's an old system that acts as swear filter, just re-post like you did.
I didn't know u need to learn to play piano to be considered "skillful" in mmorpg's.... nice story bro xD

zenomex 9 years ago
Correction to this terrible article: Companies decide to go for 5-10 skills on your hotbar because it CUT COSTS. Aside from that they cba to balance the game properly, because 20 skills is too hard and too time-consuming to balance.

You're a hero in a fantasy world. You yourself have learned over 20 skills, but for some reason you decide to only use 5 in a battle. I call BS.

Stop moderating these comments, makes MMOBomb look really bad.

Padsoldier 9 years ago
"But maybe you truly think 30 or 40 is “just right” and games with around 10 buttons just don’t offer enough strategic options and aren’t fun. Do you play any shooters?"
No, I don't play any shooters, because they reward mechanical skills and reflexes (precise aiming) more than strategical skills and actual thinking (decisions on what to use).

You take WoW as a primary example of "hotbar overload". In order to play a Retribution Paladin in WotLK (it's the easiest class) you needed about 3-4 rotation abilities and about 3 cooldowns for doing DPS in a raid, and that was enough for the basics. When you needed to use any other skills that was because the situation changed, and you had to adapt to it. Sure, you could also ignore it, which results in someone (maybe the whole raid) dying. If you're skilled and you adapted (popping Lay on Hands on a tank or healer when they're in danger) you could prevent deaths, wipes, and I think that's enough reasoning for having that many spells - it makes a difference between players who're skilled and players who aren't. Also, WoW was again the primary example for having many skills: about a quarter of each class' skills are buffs or non-combat skills. The screenshot you posted is over-exaggerating (as obviously it was the intention) - over 30 of the listed abilities on the hotbar are not supposed to be used in combat (or you simply can't use them) and for an encounter without CC (most bossfights) you'd use about 8 skills on rotation and somewhere around 10 for cooldown/burst periods.

In short, I prefer more complex combat systems with many abilities, because that shows a difference in skill between people.

gorak 9 years ago
i think 2/3 bars would be best

LordHikaru 9 years ago
If you ask me, games shouldn't have to be overly complicated and hard to learn. And when I say hard to learn, it shouldn't be like having to take a year of Calculus just to learn everything. A game should be challenging and have enough depth to have seasoned(sorry, I don't like the term hardcore) players happy but make it so even a less experienced player can learn the game understand it enough to enjoy the game with the others. A game doesn't have to be easy to play but it should be easy to understand. You can have a hard game but if you make it so that players understand everything(god granted it'll require people to actually read) and get a grasp of what the game is about and how it works, it can be enjoyable to anyone.

Those are my thoughts anyways.

Merkadis 9 years ago
Too many bad, too little - also bad.
Need golden middle, plus i don't want to buy 17 button mouse wtf p_p when you play game i doubt you play it to learn how to play piano.
If we are to use a ton of skills we need something better than keyboard and mouse.. something that can receive commands instantly, directly from your brain.
But that kind of tech is a bit out of todays league.

Xanxus 9 years ago
As long as the game is fun its ok :P
But overall more abilities mean more choice , more specializations , more stuff to do as longs as can choose 5 from 50 to have its ok like in neverwinter , not as much but its allright . And World of warcraft was fun at the start when you had like 2 abilities to spam in pve + 4-5 cd's and 10 abilities overall for pvp , later on with rotations to spam like 7-8 abilities as main spell rotation + 10 cd's for pve it was not hard but was not as simple and interesting .

But i dont get the involvment of Shooter , I never seen skill hotbars in shooter and thats like to say well thing can like in shooters you use 15 buttons overal , but in puzzle games you can play with your mouse only ... nothing in common .

For me it does not matter if i have 3-4 abilities as long as i can customize them in a lot of possible ways , thats why i play Path of Exile , and i like some mechanics in Diablo 3 .

Trenix 9 years ago
People are not lazy, just companies are starting to realize a game doesn't need to be complex in order for it to be fun. I like Blizzard's reference to chess, it's such a simple and easy to learn game, but yet has so much strategy involved. No one wants to be challenged anymore by how well we can multitask, now-a-days it's about problem solving and making quick decisions. Multitasking should be frowned upon, studies show that it only makes you stupider anyway.

tolshortte 9 years ago
like unmarked said, gamers are lazy. they want all the end game loot, they want it within the week, and they only to push 4 or 5 buttons aside from movement to make it happen. personally its a sad day to me when people are too lazy to play video games lol.

I preferred the SWToR skill set. lots of situational skills that helped separate the great players from the good players. I hated GW2, part of the reason was the lame hotbar. to me it does dumbdown the game, it does make it easier, and for me its not a good thing.

Wildstar seems to have tons of skills but only so many at a time usable. they seem to try and mix the complexity of multiple skills with the ease of only so many hotkeys. ill have to see it before I judge it. but if there is one thing I don't like already about that game its that approach.

I bought a Nostromo and a Naga for a reason. to have ease of access to 30+ skills with a few button combinations. so no matter the ui layout, how many skills there are I have no issues with it. but in todays age where gamers don't even want to pay for the game I don't see as many buying input devices as there were before.

Unmarked 9 years ago
Coming from someone who plays video games and is definitely apart of the new generation of gamers the reason is, people are impatient and don't like reading much. Think about it, people now a days don't wanna spend time on a game that requires alot of patience and knowledge (for fun) they want something "fast paced" and quick and simple to learn and more focused on graphics.

Zyx 9 years ago
Thing is, back in our day, raids were utterly broken with bugs and stupid design decisions. It's ok to get sentimental, but we forget about how bad it was.

Unmounter 9 years ago
^ nope unmounted son!

kasaxhasunohana 9 years ago
Not okay with it. MMOs starting with GW2 onward have been nothing but a complete let down to me. None of them have been challenging or fun and to be honest, this entire trend has killed the game genre for me :/. It might sound silly for some but more skills kept me engaged and enjoying myself. Now I can play with my eyes closed just about and do well. MMOs have just grown so...boring lately.

View 1 reply
Mounted 9 years ago
Mounted son

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