Chunking Rotations and Pivoting Thumbs

Using interaction design to customize my gaming experience

Amongst players of massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) there is a ritual, bordering on being an obsession, of selecting which keys and buttons will invoke your character’s various abilities during gameplay. I would like to use the lens of interaction design to suggest an approach to this task of “setting up your bars” which can lead to a more fluid, immersive experience of the game.

Gilliam Crampton Smith and Kevin Silver suggest five dimensions of interaction design: words, visual representations, physical objects or space, time, and behavior. I’ll be mostly concerned here with the latter three; while words and visual representations are very present and very important to my ability to play and enjoy the game, I rarely if ever have the ability to adjust or tweak them myself. But when it comes to the physicality of input devices, time, and my own behavior patterns, applying an interaction design approach to the moment of use creates opportunities to improve my experience of interacting with this video game.

Welcome to Eorzea

My main character in the MMORPGH Final Fantasy XIV, Catherine Soft, as four different classes
I normally play one of the three healer classes available in FFXIV (from Left: Scholar, Astrologian, White Mage) Right: Catherine as a Bard

This is Catherine Soft, my main character in the massively multiplayer online role playing game Final Fantasy XIV, which I play on a Playstation 4 console. FFXIV allows you to play any of the game’s 18 character classes and jobs with your character, but for this discussion I will use the Bard class as an example.

In FFXIV the Bard is a ranged DPS (damage-dealing) class — an archer — who can also provide support to the rest of the party in combat through song-based “buffs” which increase stats, damage done, or healing received. The weapon designers of FFXIV have had a lot of fun coming up with bows that also incorporate, or transform into, harps or lyres, to create that “singing archer” vibe 🙂

Unlike many other classes, the Bard has a very small core “rotation” of abilities. I’ll begin with two “DoT” abilities, short for “Damage over Time”: abilities which cause ongoing damage to my opponent every second for 30 seconds. Then I’ll sing a song (also lasting 30 seconds) which gives various beneficial “buffs” to myself and my companions. Then I fire arrows at my targets until one of my DoTs or songs runs out, at which point I’ll reapply it.

Image showing all 32 slots on my basic ability bar setup in Final Fantasy XIV
My Bard ability bars, with the basic rotation sequence highlighted

What makes a bard interesting to play is a gaggle of other abilities that are either on cooldown timers of different lengths, or only become available to use randomly, when certain conditions are met (“proc” in MMO lingo, short for “programmed random occurrence”). These can be buffs (which boost my attacks or other abilities for a period of time), debuffs (which hinder the enemy), or additional attacks. I want to easily slip out of my core rotation whenever an ability procs or comes off cooldown, then go right back into it until the next thing happens. So I need a setup that allows me to be very responsive to random, irregular events!

Interaction design dimension: Object

The most obvious physical object when playing any video game would be the input device(s). Because I play FFXIV on a Playstation 4, the choices I’ll be discussing are based on the movements, gestures, and physical interactions with a PS4 controller. While specific layout decisions would certainly differ if using a keyboard and mouse, the underlying design approach to setting up the bars would be the same.

Schematic image showing the Playstation 4 controller, with the 10 relevant buttons highlighted
The Playstation 4 controller

I’ve highlighted the buttons involved in selecting abilities in FFXIV. On the right you have a diamond of four thumb buttons formed by the Green Triangle at the top, Blue Cross at the bottom, Pink Square on the left, and Red Circle on the right (△ ✕ ▢ ◯). This diamond is mirrored on the left by the directional buttons, or “D-pad” (▲ ▼ ◄ ►), operated by your left thumb. Collectively these buttons give access to a total of eight abilities on your “ability bar”.

That number is doubled to 16 by requiring the right or left trigger button to be held down to activate an ability. And I find it useful to add two more bars to my screen, giving me 32 concurrently visible abilities. I activate the third and fourth “back bars” with a *double*-tap-and-hold of the right or left trigger.

Animated GIF of thumb moving between the Square and Triangle buttons
Easy thumb pivot between △ and ▢ makes these buttons great for abilities I will use a lot!

So with 8 buttons (▲ ▼ ◄ ► △ ✕ ▢ ◯) and two modifier buttons (right and left trigger) that recognize two types of input (single- vs. double-tap), how do I approach laying out my 32 abilities? And how else do those dimensions of interaction design come into play?

For starters, whenever possible I place my most often-used abilities on △ and ▢. This is all about how the controller-as-object sits in my hand, combined with my right-handed biases. My thumb rests naturally in the center of each diamond of buttons, so a gentle pivot of my thumb lets me touch △ or ▢ easily.

Animated GIF of thumb moving with more effort to the Cross and Circle buttons
…while the additional movements needed to reach ◯ and ✕ make them good for abilities that are used less often or that I don’t want to activate by accident

Selecting ◯, however, requires me to pull my thumb inwards towards my palm slightly to get to the button; reaching the ✕ button requires both pulling the thumb in and also angling it downwards. The movements required mean I am less likely to accidentally hit ✕, making it a great choice for abilities that I use less often or with more intentionality. The is true (in reverse) for the D-pad on the left: I’ll put go-to abilities on ◄ ▲ ► while reserving ▼ for abilities I use less frequently.

I also try to use the button groupings (▲ ▼ ◄ ► and △ ✕ ▢ ◯) as a memory aid by placing thematically-linked or sequential abilities together. I do this with my basic rotation of Bard abilities: I lay in the DoTs with △ and ▢, then use ◯ for the basic attack, making an easily repeatable sequence of “top-left-right, top-left-right” for the rotation. The fourth button in the cluster, ✕, gets assigned to an ability that resets the timers on the DoTs (saving one button tap over reapplying each individually, with the added bonus of syncing up their timers). This unites the four buttons thematically around a regular rotation through my Bard’s core damage abilities, chunking them together in my memory.

Images showing the bard’s most basic rotation of attacks as laid out on my bar
The bard’s most basic rotation of attacks

Interaction design dimension: Time

This plays out in a very basic, fundamental way: it takes less time to activate an ability on the main two bars (single tap of the right or left trigger) than one on the back bars, which require a double-tap to activate. Therefore my main abilities, as well as those with shorter cooldowns (meaning they are available for use more often) will go on the first two bars. Abilities with longer cooldowns or with very specific situational usage go on the third and fourth bars.

(Also on my back bars are “set it and forget it” abilities: things which I’ll activate at the beginning of a dungeon or raid and don’t use again unless I die and need to re-activate it. The Bard doesn’t have any of these abilities, but healers do: a Scholar needs to summon their fairy assistant, while Astrologians decide whether to align their abilities with the Sun or the Moon.)

Interaction design dimension: Behavior

The Bard wants to always be singing, since each the three available songs provides a different beneficial buff to the party. Each song lasts 30 seconds, and has a “cooldown” period of just under a minute and a half from when you start singing until you can do it again. With three songs in rotation it means that by the end of the third song, the first song will be out of cooldown. Certain buffs are considered better in single-target situations, like boss fights, while others are better against trash mobs (groups of relatively easy to kill enemies). If the fight lasts at least 90 seconds I’ll end up singing through all three, of course, but it still helps to tailor the song sequence to the type of enemy being fought.

Image showing three song buffs on bar, with arrows and numbers where different starting positions
For the song buffs, all I have to remember is where to start in different situations. After that I just go from left to right, and repeat when I get to the end

Because the songs only need triggering every 30 seconds, I put them on my back bars, on the ▢ ✕ ◯ buttons (△ gets a standalone buff ability that is thematically chunked with the songs as “party-wide buffs”). As a native English speaker I arrange the abilities in the sequence reading from left to right: The Wanderer’s Minuet on ▢, Mage’s Ballad on ✕, and Army’s Paean on ◯. The sequence never changes, only where I start: with Mage’s Ballad if it’s a trash mob, but Wanderer’s Minuet for a boss fight. By expending energy on planning my bar layout I free myself from having to remember in the middle of a fight which song I should sing next. I just activate the next ability to the right, cycling back to the beginning when I hit the end of my line of buttons.

Using repeated and common patterns to lighten cognitive load is one of the central tenets of good interaction design (and user experience design generally). The rest of my ability bar layout decisions will also involve these kinds of behavioral assists and shortcuts.

Image comparing single-target and group-target bars, with connections drawn between abilities which share cooldown timers or proc triggers
When single target and group target abilities share the same cooldown timer or proc trigger, I place them on the same buttons on different bars

There are other Bard abilities that share the same cooldown timer or proc trigger, but are either single-target or AoE attacks (“Area of Effect,” meaning abilities that affect all enemies standing in the danger zone). For these I place all the single-target abilities on the right trigger and the AoE abilities on the left trigger, but then use the same specific button for each pair. When an ability procs or comes off cooldown I see whether I’m fighting a single enemy or multiple ones, press the appropriate trigger, and then hit the button. In addition to lessening memorization, this is also good error management and recovery: even if I press the wrong trigger I’ll still execute an ability that is roughly what I intended — just not optimized to the situation.

I already mentioned one of my favorite things about FFXIV compared to other MMOs: my character Catherine can learn any class or job, and switching between them is as easy as changing the kind of weapon she is wielding. When I want a break from healing I can instead play a damage-dealer (either melee or ranged, like the Bard) or a tank. Each of these core roles has 3-4 specific jobs to choose from, each with its own playstyle. This amount of choice and variety can be a very sharp double-edged sword — especially when it comes to remembering where abilities are assigned, or what my rotation is when I haven’t played a particular class in several months! Fortunately, my interaction design approach to laying out abilities can be applied here as well.

For example, the Monk, Ninja, and Dragoon all have sequential abilities which, if executed in the proper order, will do increased damage. For these repeated sequences of button-taps I always use the same pattern of sequence of buttons: △ → ▢ → ◯ (the same “top, left, right” I use in my base Bard rotation as well). This sequencing becomes automatic very quickly, so anytime I’m playing one of those classes I know I have the core abilities on autopilot. This frees up cognitive resources to remember the nuances of how to best use the other 29 abilities!

More broadly, all the individual jobs within a specific role (tank, melee DPS, ranged DPS, or healer) often have base abilities which are similar in intent and rotation. But putting the core healing, damage, and buff/debuff abilities on the same buttons across all jobs in a role, even if I forget that today I’m playing a Scholar instead of a White Mage, I still have a decent chance of hitting roughly the right ability.

Healers (and two non-healer jobs) are able to resurrect dead comrades — a very important task, especially in high-end raids. One dead party member can easily domino into a full wipe, so I need to fire off a rez quickly and without error. The ability “Swiftcast” helps by making the next spell cast instantaneously. (Resurrections typically have a 7–8 second cast time, during which all sorts of trouble can happen.) I always place Swiftcast and my rez ability next to one another in a quick one-two action, and no matter what job I’m playing I’ll always place those two abilities on the *same two buttons* so I never have to hunt for them.

Image showing placement of Limit Break in same place on bars for every class or job
Every class or job, Limit Break is in the same place

This same idea applies to an ability which every combat class has, called “Limit Break”. As your group progresses through a dungeon or raid they collectively build up a pool of power which can be used by anyone in the group to cast an ultimate ability. (Most often this is used for a big killing move at the end of a boss fight, but in harder content it may be used by a healer as a Hail Mary group resurrection and heal when the team is about to wipe.)

I assign the Limit Break ability to the same slot for all my classes and jobs so no matter what I’m playing, Limit Break is where I expect it to be. Since it isn’t something that gets used all the time — and never during single player content, which is where I spend most of my time anyway — I have it placed on my back bar. It also goes on my “high intentionality” ▼ button because you never want to be the player who fumbles their buttons and wastes the team’s Limit Break on a trash pull.

I’ve probably thought about this too much…

I derive a lot of pleasure from having well-designed button compositions for my character’s bars in FFXIV. When I first start learning a new job, setting up my bars helps me to understand how the job is played since thinking about the layout forces me to think about the patterns, repetitions, and cycles of ability usage. As I learn more about the job’s nuances (and as I gain in levels, thereby acquiring new abilities which change the rotations and gameplay for that class) I tweak my bars in response.

By using the tools and critical approaches of interaction design I have created a series of ability bar setups in Final Fantasy XIV which allow me to respond faster and better by reducing cognitive load. They are tailored to the physicality of my hands and how they interact with the controller. Most importantly, they embrace and support my playstyle and behavior patterns, increasing my enjoyment of playing the game.

Originally published on Medium.

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