In this article I’d like to discuss several important elements of console system menu design which are done … oddly to say the least … on many modern systems. The Switch may be in the title, but everyone is guilty here in different ways! I have two main points.
These two points are, essentially, one good and one bad thing about the Switch UI, with lots of comparisons to how other consoles do things. Before i start though, I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the Switch OS on a lot of fronts, including its lack of visual customization, lack of cloud saves, limited options in the shop (though Nintendo did just slightly improve on this), and more, but for the Switch or any other console, those things, while important, are secondary. These are, after all, gaming consoles, things which exist to allow us to play videogames. So, the top issue, of primary importance, is simple: How hard is it in any given console’s operating system to actually find and run the games that you own and have installed on the system and/or own a physical copy of? And why does every modern system make this a lot harder than it should be, though each in very different ways?
First: Is the Game Playable Right Now?
On the last generation of consoles, including the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, DSi, Wii, and usch, each system had a menu system for digital titles only, but ran physical games from the disc or cart. As a result, their OSes clearly delineate your digital game library from the game currently in the system, which they also easily let you play. Two more current systems, the 3DS and Wii U, still work that way. The rest of the current generation of systems, however, work differently, and the way they do so cause some really annoying problems in every case. The rest of the modern, current-generation consoles, including the Switch, PS4, Xbox One, and Playstation Vita, have a menu system which list every game you have played on the system, digital or physical, in the system menu’s games list.
This is an important change because all consoles which list all games you have played on the system on your system menu also require any game you own a physical disc or cartridge copy of to be in the system in order to play the game. Even though the PS4 and Xbox One fully install all games to their hard drives, for DRM reasons you need to put the disc in to play any game you didn’t buy digitally. This makes sense and is a good thing, since it still allows for used game sales. I really like that even on these systems I can still buy used games.
However, the Xbox One and Vita all have a critical flaw in their interface design: they do a terrible job of telling you which games you own physically and which are digital. On the Vita, there are no hints at all about which games are which. All games you’ve put into your system have an icon, as do all digital downloads, and those icons all look the same. You’ll just need to remember which are which. On the Xbox One, there is an icon on the home screen with a disc logo on it, which shows you what’s in your disc drive right now. When you put a new disc game in it’ll automatically appear and let you launch that game. However, it’s just an icon in the recently-used-things section of the home screen, so if you just leave a disc in while playing a bunch of digital games, that icon will be pushed off the list. At this point you’ll need to go to the full games list to find the game… but this screen has absolutely no indicators whatsoever of whether games are physical or digital. That is, it won’t tell you until you try to launch a game you own on disc, when an error message will pop up prompting you to put in the disc. Yes, Microsoft doesn’t want you to know which games games you need to put a disc in for, and which you own digitally and can directly play! This is just insane stuff, and I have no idea how not one, but TWO current consoles all completely mess up this very basic element of user-interface design. All I can do on my Xbox One and Vita is just memorize which games I own a physical copy of and which I don’t, so I know which ones I’ll need to get a disc out for and which I don’t. This is possible of course, but it’s an annoying and perplexing thing for console hardware manufacturers to force on their userbase. Microsoft has done a great job with backwards compatibility, including the ability to play even backwards compatible original Xbox games on your Xbox One with the original disc, but in this important way they’re behind.
What is the point of this, to encourage digital purchases over physical? That seems like a fair guess, because there is no good reason to annoy and inconvenience your users like this when it’s an issue that would be so, so easy to fix, but regardless of the reason this is a problem that it’s kind of crazy to see has never been fixed…
It is different on the Playstation 4 and the Nintendo Switch, however. Both have nice, clear little icons next to each games’ name in the system menu for games which you own physically and thus will need to put into the system in order to play. It’s great! Any game you own on cart/disc has a little icon next to it, which is empty for the games not currently in the system, and filled in for the game that’s in your system right now. It’s a great touch which all consoles should have. With the Switch there’s never any confusion about which games I can play. Its OS has another major problem, however…
Second: How Do I Find the Game I Want to Play?
In the past, console games all were on physical media. Every game was on its own cartridge, card, or disc, and you put the game in the console in order to play it; it was simple, on a console-UI front. However, thanks to the advent of digital downloads things are very different now, and console operating systems need to be able to allow the user to sift through a potentially very large game library. Most modern consoles deal with this by allowing the user to search and sort their game libraries, in order to either display games the way you want, or at least to be able to find the kind of game you are looking for in the potentially-long list. Some consoles do a better job of this than others, but from the Xbox 360 and on, every console had sorting and/or search functions.
Nintendo, on the Wii, DSi, 3DS, and Wii U, allow you to fully customize how the games appear, as each has an icon which you can drag around the screen to put them where you want for easy finding of the games you want to play more often. The 3DS and Wii U additionally allow you to make folders, in order to further categorize your collection. Neither system had folders when they first launched, but their addition was welcome. These interfaces have some issues, particularly on the Wii where the decision that all games on external storage, that is an SD card, must be copied into the system memory is a crippling flaw for anyone with a larger collection, but this issue is fortunately fixed on Nintendo’s other modern consoles, or rather, it was. The 3DS and Wii U game-selection UIs are fantastic, among the best ever in my opinion. With nice icons for each game, nice-looking OSes, easy customization, and more, they are very good menu systems that get you to your games quickly and allow you to organize things just how you want. Nintendo should have stuck with something along these lines, but sadly they did not. I will I’ll get to the unfortunate, absolute disaster that is the Switch’s UI later.
Microsoft, in contrast, does not allow you to directly move your game list around, but does give some nice sorting tools. I particularly like the Xbox 360’s, which has a great option to hide game demos, an option sorely missed on all the rest of the consoles here. I really wish the Xbox One, PS3, and Switch had that option, it is needed! The 360 also allows you to sort either in alphabetical order or by how recently you have played a game, and both ways are useful. The system displays only about five games at a time, in a long horizontal list, but it switches through batches of five quickly. The 360 has the easiest to use single-wide list I have seen in a console. I’d still rather be able to customize it by having folders and such, but this works. The multiple sorting options and move-five-games-at-a-time features are key.
The Xbox One changes interfaces from the 360, and while still functional and sometimes good, most of the changes are for the worse. First, I have often found it difficult to figure out which game is the one in the drive, if I’ve forgotten, as the main menu doesn’t necessarily show the icon for the game in the system right now and, as point one above says, the OS doesn’t tell you which games even need the disc inserted until you try to run them. All other systems with physical media have a clear location in the OS where it shows what’s in your console’s disc drive or cart port, but not this one for some weird reason. I know MS wants people to buy digital copies of things and not physical, but come on! Once you do get into the list of games though things improve, as it is displayed in a nice, quick-to-navigate grid, but there are still some limitations. You can still sort your games list, thankfully. The Xbox One isn’t quite as good as the 360 in this respect, as the hide-demos option is gone, but you can still sort alphabetically or by most recently played, and it also has options to display games only installed on one specific hard drive and more, which can be nice depending on how you have your games organized. It also shows a lot of icons on screen, in horizontal rows. It’s not the best, but is a solid interface and finding games isn’t too hard. And to address one of the system’s bigger issues, Microsoft is apparently working on folder support for the Xbox One. It’s a needed addition and I hope that they add this soon. Just being able to separate disc-required games from digital games alone would be great, if they won’t add a disc icon!
On the positive side though, on both the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, Microsoft also has very good search tools which allow you to use voice commands (if you have a Kinect attached to your console) or text search, better if you have a keypad addon for your gamepad, to directly search for games and such. I don’t use this a lot, but it is a good option to include that I’m sure some make use of. Having a search box in their console OS is something that only Microsoft does, I believe, and it is actually useful.
Sony has tried several interfaces, but the PS3’s is, as I have said before, pretty bad. The PS3, and also the PSP which uses nearly the same interface, but all games installed on your console one massive vertically-scrolling single-wide list, and there are essentially no good sorting or search tools available. The only sorting options are to list in order of the last time you used each game, newest to oldest; by platform, separated for PS1, PS2, PS Minis, and PS3 (or PSP games, as the case may be) games, with unsortable listed-by-last-use lists within each category; or in a single folder which again is sorted by use only. You cannot create your own folders, sadly. As a result, the alternatives to the main list are mostly useless, so basically you just need to scroll down a massive list of games, or mixed demos and games in my case, hoping to eventually find the one you’re looking for. You can’t even sort alphabetically instead of by use, or quickly move through the list! It’s a huge pain. The PS3/PSP user interface is terrible and barely works if you have more than a few digital games. No, I do not want to scroll 100 items down a slowly-scrolling list in order to find the one I want! You can’t even scroll very quickly, a group of games at a time, like you can on MS’s consoles, either. The absence of customizable sorting options, user-creatable folders, and a better design than a single list are sorely missed.
The PS Vita abandoned that bad old interface in favor of one much more like the Wii or a cellphone’s, as there are now icons for each game, in pages which display about a dozen games or folders each. You can make folders and put icons in them, and move icons around the screen just like on the Nintendo interfaces it resembles. This interface works great and is the best interface of any of these Sony consoles, except for that annoying bit I mention in issue one above about how it doesn’t say which games require you to put the cartridge in. Like the Xbox One it doesn’t highlight what game is currently inserted into the system either, you just have to remember. But that is a separate point here.
As for the PS4, I’ve never used it myself, but from what I see it seems to have a horizontal list of recently-used stuff, and a separate page with all of your games. It looks much more like the PS3 interface than the Vita’s, though, unfortunately, but it is at least a lot better looking than the PS3/PSP’s. The horizontal list of recently-used stuff allows you to create folders here for quick access to games, and the library has a three-wide grid and actual good sorting functions finally, for the first time on a Sony console — you can sort by name forwards or back, install date, or recently used. That’s good, and that folder support allows for at least some custom organization support, but other things about the PS4 OS still look clumsy and slow, like Sony OSes always seem to be. The PS4 also has voice support if you have a PS4 camera, like the X1. Features-wise this is pretty decent stuff, but I’d need to use it for a while to know how I think it compares to the X1 OS, which has issues but mostly works fairly well.
So, how does the newest console, Nintendo’s Switch, handle things?
With one of the worst interfaces of the last couple of console generations, that’s how. Seriously, how did Nintendo mess things up this horribly? It all starts off so well, with those great icons I mention in point one, showing if games are actually playable right now or not! That’s great… but the list they are a part of is the worst. Very much like the PS4 but without any sorting or folder support, the Switch’s game list is in two parts, a horizontal scrolling list of the ten or so games you have played the most recently, and a list, which you have to scroll all the way over to the end to access, of all of your games. This list is a grid of maybe five wide by however many deep as you have games. It’s easy to scroll through, but has NO customization or sorting functions WHATSOEVER, which is unbelievably awful! Instead, it has only one sorting method: by most-recently-played. It will sort from what you have used the most recently, at the top, to the things you’ve used the longest ago or never, at the bottom. I can’t even begin to understand why Nintendo decided to remove the great, fully customizeable interfaces of the Wii, DSi, 3DS, and Wii U in favor of this stripped-down debacle, but this is almost PS3 levels of bad, maybe better because the list is quicker to scroll through, but maybe worse because there are even fewer sorting options — literally zero other than the default. What the heck, how did this happen?
So, here are one very good and one very bad thing about the Switch’s OS UI. I really hope that at some point Nintendo adds options to the Switch game library list, because they are desperately badly needed. Nintendo should be commended for showing users which games you own physically and what game is in the system right now, though.