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?

the author

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.

26 Readers Commented

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  1. lynspottery on July 5, 2016

    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.

  2. grims bane on November 3, 2015

    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.

  3. ama8o8 on October 29, 2014

    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 …how 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 …no skill needed all you need to do is level up and farm and craft -_-

  4. Yes on February 19, 2014

    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.

    • Sabin on February 22, 2014

      Not true, there really few games that do that, and even for the games that do , 2 peoples with the same class and weapon can have different gameplay styles because of builds and gears.

      Secret world, elders scrolls online, wildstar , all games with few skills at the bar but with a lot of customization options.

      Final fantasy xiv, hotbar overload + no customization.

      • Estrama on February 22, 2014

        Really few games that do that? You mean besides the few you chose there? Every game I’ve played, which is a shit ton, usually has that type of customization. If you choose a sword then this is what you get. Even WoW and GW2 does that. If you’re going to play a certain class then these are the skills you will receive. What I liked about them is that you could customize the skills to have varying effects. If your complaint is “hotbar overload” then take a closer look at the WoW image. Less than half the skills have a keybind. A lot of the other “skills” are items and mounts. Plus the player is using an addon in which the hotbar has no choice but to be bunched up in such a way. I see no reason as to why a game shouldn’t have a vast majority of skill. WoW has a lot of skills, some oriented towards pvp where others are oriented towards pve. With those vast majority of skills alone you have quite a lot of customization at hand but WoW furthers the customization with the use of glyphs in which the skills will have different effect depending on the glyph used. That’s a lot customization in my opinion.

        • Sabin on February 23, 2014

          you only quoted wow and guild wars 2 , and guild wars 2 also has the same wow system to further customize your skills based on your build.

          I can bet wow has a lot of uneeded skills, skills with same animations, skills that similar with different classe and so on. Everything you described in wow can be and is easilly done in any other mmorpg without action bar overload. I dont know what game you have been playing ( my guess would be WoW and nothing else) but even ragnarok gives you different customization with skills and gears towards classes and man, that game is OLD!

        • Sabin on February 23, 2014

          Actually if you stop and think a little , You see much often games that try to copy wow with skill overload without any customization at all ( star wars,Final fantasy XIV, perfect world and its games, allods online , dragon ball online ,Tera , and any other wow clone here) then games with few skills at the action bar at a time.

      • Z'ythe Nuhn on December 24, 2015

        Hi guys! Long time player of FFXIV here, I’ve PVP’d, RP’d, Raided, and done casual content and I can agree with what this man is saying. FFXIV does suffer from UI overload. when your class does have 15+ skills to fit into a rotation that’s extreamly picky it can get hard to manage. I just restarted SWTOR and holy crap it feels easy to me now. Play SMN at lvl 60 and your head will hurt. Monk can be much worse unless you’ve spent a massive amount of time on it. Couple that with insane dps checks the game can be a bit overwhelmed.

  5. Merkadis on February 17, 2014

    @zenomex
    They “moderate” nothing, it’s an old system that acts as swear filter, just re-post like you did.
    @Padsoldier
    I didn’t know u need to learn to play piano to be considered “skillful” in mmorpg’s…. nice story bro xD

  6. zenomex on February 17, 2014

    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.

  7. Padsoldier on February 16, 2014

    “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.

  8. gorak on February 16, 2014

    i think 2/3 bars would be best

  9. LordHikaru on February 15, 2014

    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.

  10. Merkadis on February 15, 2014

    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.

  11. Xanxus on February 15, 2014

    As long as the game is fun its ok 😛
    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 .

  12. Trenix on February 15, 2014

    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.

  13. tolshortte on February 14, 2014

    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.

  14. Unmarked on February 14, 2014

    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.

  15. Zyx on February 14, 2014

    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.

    youtube.com/watch?v=RDP3T3j2vOc

  16. Unmounter on February 14, 2014

    ^ nope unmounted son!

  17. kasaxhasunohana on February 14, 2014

    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.

    • RenzaiKoenn on February 14, 2014

      answer to your question 🙂 it is sad but true but the MMORPG/FPS/RTS/etc…. are all being created to suit the casual player, what i mean is, there are more casuals than hardcores and that pulls more income to developers, it is all made with the sole intent of giving easy games to get more kaching in their pockets. (btw what is this mounted crap mean?)

      • Karnaij on February 15, 2014

        They did a study like this in WoW and only like 10-15% of players are hardcore

        • Sabin on February 16, 2014

          Not there is anything wrong in not being hardcore nowadays, you have to remember that wow players from 10 years ago now all have jobs. I think mmo’s are being created with that in mind, why should someone that plays 18 hours non-stop be any better then a guy playing 3 hours.

          Also, I played many games with 30 to 40 hotkeys for skills and always find it terrible. there are skills that you barelly used. I hate when games make you spend 1 single point into a skill you are not going to use! 1 point into fireball to get the advanced fireball, thats awfull

  18. Mounted on February 14, 2014

    Mounted son

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