Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 (PC) Quick Look at the User Experience

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 recently came out and I’ve found myself unexpectedly drawn into it. Though I loved Infinite Warfare’s single player story, it didn’t seem like many people stuck with the multiplayer. I was skeptical about Black Ops 4’s exclusively multiplayer approach, but it seems like the refocused approach is just what the series needed.

Aside from the gameplay, I first noticed how Black Ops 4 use of menus and icons in new ways from the previous Call of Duty games. Some of it works well, but other parts feel like they have some unnecessary friction. You’ll immediately hit some of these on the homepage.

Black Ops Homepage

The center of the screen is dedicated to the primary functions of the game: the training mode, a theater mode for viewing old matches, the store for in-game transactions, and the three primary multiplayer modes; Multiplayer, Blackout, and Zombies. Above each multiplayer mode is a callout to a specific playlist within that mode. For example, “Quads” allows you to play Blackout in a team of four.

There’s a bit of unnecessary friction caused by how sparse and stark the top menus are, but it’s also the kind of friction that will easy be resolved by the player’s natural exploration. No doubt Activision researched the menu layout extensively and determined that this configuration fit the problems they sought to solve. As is, it’s usable, but doesn’t do a lot to engage players who may be unfamiliar with everything the game has to offer. Furthermore, once you get into some of the more complex modes like Zombies the menu structure becomes a significant hindrance. Maybe I’ll revisit the information architecture and different approaches to the home menu in the future.

Another key component throughout the game is the footer toolbar, which provides access to core systems and areas throughout the game.

Footer toolbar

Unfortunately, the icons are a bit nondescript and unclear. On console the releases they’re replaced with prompts with hotkeys and text calling out each action, but on PC the player must hover over each to decipher their meaning.

Quit Icon Chat Icon Friends Icon Social Icon Settings Icon Player Account Link

Left to right the icons are Quit, Chat, Friends, Social, Settings, and Player Account. Quit and Chat are both represented by fairly standard icons, the IEC power symbol and a ubiquitous chat bubble respectively. Things get hairier when you get to the Friends and Social icons. Settings uses the common cog, which is also easy to recognize.

Things get weird with the remaining three items. One individual humanoid icon represents Friends, while two humanoid icons, one solid fill and another hollow, represent Social. Strangely, the word “PLAYER” is all we have for Player Account. Why not use three distinct icons? You can see where the problem starts. All three concepts often share similar icons; individuals or humanoids in silhouette, grouped in different ways to imply relationships. On their own these concepts can be useful, but when you need all three icons next to each other it’s a fine line between reinforcing your pattern or adding in extra confusion.

You can address this issue many different ways depending on audience you’re targeting and the device they’re using, but all three concepts can be replaced with clear, unique icons. For this scenario, we’ll target savvy first-person shooter fans. You can create as many different icon sets as there are different types of gamers, but given Call of Duty Black Ops 4’s emphasis on intense combat it’s safe to assume FPS players are one important demographic for Activision. Here’s one quick mock-up demonstrating some other icon ideas you can use to differentiate Friends, Social, and Player:

Same footer, but with icons redesigned for Social and Player Account

First, Friends takes the icon Social was using. The menu is listed as “Friends” plural, so illustrating two players is a useful design. The social icon is redone to demonstrate many users connecting, with a simple circle made up of round circles. We’re re-emphasizing the pattern from Friends, by using the solid and hollow circle heads as the nodes around the circle. Finally, the “PLAYER” text is replaced with a dog tag icon. Shooters often use dog tags to represent player profiles. In fact, in Call of Duty’s own Kill Confirmed mode dog tags drop from dead players and act as an objective to be retrieved by the team. And to tie all three together, the dog tag brings back the silhouette of an individual player.

These are just a few ideas and recommendations based on my own observations. Big budget games like Call of Duty often use extensive user research and UX design, so I imagine the team came to these icons based on the different problems they were hoping to solve. I believe in giving teams like this the benefit of the doubt in their design work, even if there’s some friction in my own experience.