Hot Topic: Hotbars

by northernbeholder

A friend of mine recently got back into World of Warcraft, and has pulled me along for the (free, thankfully) ride.  I don’t particularly love WoW, but it’s fun enough as an activity with a friend – which is, I suspect, how Blizzard retains the majority of their players.  It has, however, served to re-expose me to the way MMOs used to work, particularly the skillbars (or ‘hotbars’ are they’re sometimes called), and this has been a rather harsh realization after playing more modern offerings.

Let’s start with Guild Wars 2.  I was very into this game for a while – I even wrote a guide – before endgame fatigue burned me out.  It’s a blast to play, particularly because of the combat, where skillbars find their primary use.  The combat is primarily about positioning and active dodging; you’ll be using the keyboard to move and mouse to steer, so the hotbars have to be done with the numerical keys if you want to stay alive.  Fortunately, there are only ten buttons at any one time.

Look at how few buttons there are. It's beautiful.

Left side is your weapon skills; these change depending on what weapons you have equipped. You can have two weapons sets equipped at any time and swap freely between them (with a brief cooldown if you’re in combat), so there’s actually ten skills on the left side – you can just access five at a time. Importantly, because the game requires you to pay so much attention to movement and positioning, there’s no such thing as the traditional MMO skill rotation.  Apart from the very first skill, everything else is situational.  I have a longsword and a shield, so I have a leap attack (covers distance), a cripple, a shield stun and a block.  If I don’t need to use any of those skills, I don’t; there’s no need for me to watch their cooldowns and keep them active if the situation doesn’t call for their particular effects.

Automation is a beautiful thing.

The very first attack skill is its own automated skill rotation.  The autoattack defaults to here, and it cycles through two ‘builders’ and a ‘finisher’ ad infinitum, providing all your damage output and applying its own debuffs too.  As a warrior with a longsword, I stack bleeding debuffs to cause extra damage over time.  Melee weapons automatically attack in a cone, so this attack sequence also serves as area-effect damage when facing multiple enemies.

Still beautiful.

The right side are the utility skills, which you can choose from a total list of over 40. Specifically, from left to right you’ve got your heal, three utilities (which can range from additional attacks to secondary heals to small buffs), and an ‘elite’ which is just a more powerful utility.  All have many, many options to choose from so you can customise your skills to suit your playstyle and/or the situation you expect to face, further backed by a traits system to make the skills and weapons you enjoy stronger and more effective, sometimes adding free bonus effects.

There’s also that little fellow hanging out on top with “F1”.  That’s the unique class ability; every class gets something different.  For the warrior, it’s an extra-powerful attack (varying depending on what weapon they have equipped) that does more damage the more ‘adrenaline’ you have built up (acquired by fighting).  Personally, because I don’t like having extra resources to manage, I chose traits that gave me passive bonuses based on how much adrenaline I have, so instead of remembering to poke that extra attack I just let it pool up.

So what’s the cliff notes version of the GW2 hotbar? It’s slick and minimal, allows fairly deep customization behind the scenes, and doesn’t distractingly overwhelm from concentrating on the combat.

What does Star Trek Online bring to the table?  Let’s look at the skillbar for space combat, since the ground combat is kind of boring and lackluster in compairson.

So many buttons.

Wow, okay. That’s… less good. However, first impressions are deceiving; like with GW2, there is no such thing as skill rotations to keep track of.  Everything you see on this bar is situational.  STO’s combat is, like GW2, all about movement and positioning, only instead of actively dodging attacks, you’re focusing down sections of enemy shields while protecting your own, and trying to bring the firing arcs of your best weapons to bear while staying out of theirs.  The keyboard handles flight maneuvers and your weapons can all be set to auto-fire, which leaves the mouse free to clicky-click on all these buttons.

Also like GW2, what skills you actually have available are highly customizable.  The vast majority of what you see on that skillbar comes not from my character personally, but from the NPC bridge officers I have manning my ship.  These officers can have their skills changed, or be swapped out for different ones.  Different ships have different caps on what officers of what rank you can equip, but within those guidelines it’s possible to have wildly different skill setups.

As for the skillbar itself, I’ve arranged things in a somewhat sane pattern. The top row is all offensive powers; either things that upgrade my next attack (i.e. fire a volley of torpedoes instead of one) or provide a short-term buff (+X% energy damage for Y seconds, etc).  The second row is all heals, damage resistance and debuff removal, and the third row is miscellaneous – a few powerful heals/buffs with longer cooldowns and, at least for this particular ship, the commands for the launchable fighter squadrons.  There are also about a half-dozen more buttons I’m not showing because they’re either useless or non-combat; they’re hiding out on hotbar #4, which I can cycle to from any of these if I want the non-combat speed boost or mobile banker transponder.

STO summary, then:  Lots of buttons, but all situational; lack of skill rotation means attention can stay focused on the action and the important work of maneuvering.  Strong behind-the-scenes customization allows adaptability to playstyle and situation. Oh – and there’s no resource management (stamina, mana, rage, adrenaline, whatever) added on top.

So … how’s WoW doing?


Okay, well, that’s worse.  A lot worse.  The icons are tiny, and the buttons are sprayed all over the-

What’s that?  There’s more?


Hiding out on the side of the screen is another hotbar, this one filled with the buttons I don’t use.

What’s going on here?

First problem: The primary hotbar shares space with the buttons to access all the various in-game windows (character sheet, social tab, dungeon queues, settings, etc.) and all your inventory bags.  This means it’s very busy, and the important skill buttons are pushed off to one side and made rather small. STO’s are slightly but noticeably larger, and GW2’s may as well have gigantism in comparison.  All these screenshots are in the same scale; I haven’t zoomed in extra on GW2’s for dramatic effect. This is how they appear for me in-game (all games running at the same resolution, of course).

Second problem: Skill rotations exist.  One through four on that bar are what I need to keep hammering – in order, lest I fail to manage my Rage resource. Yay, resource management!  Then skill five is my pitiful self-heal, which I throw into the rotation if I’m starting to suffer.  Oh, unless I’m facing three or more enemies. Then I need to rotate one, two, six and seven instead, because god forbid my massive two-handed war-axe hit more than one enemy per swing unless I specifically direct it to.  Eight is a fear effect in case I get overwhelmed and nine is a minor party buff. Oh, and way over on the end is a little item I picked up that causes poison.

And that’s just the first row.

Second row? A ranged taunt to bring enemies to me. A charge to bring me to enemies. A very powerful attack that’s only usable when an enemy is nearly dead and only practical when fighting dungeon bosses or better. A crippling move I rarely have cause to use.  Health potions. In-combat sprint. Two different kinds of spellcasting interrupts.  More potions. A pet. My mounts. Three different out-of-combat heals and a racial non-combat ability.

Third row: Three different ‘stances’ that passively affect my damage, defense and rage generation.

And then all the stuff off on the side, which is more stuns, and enemy debuffs, and a few more single- and multi-target damage attacks.

The really fun part? My WoW character is only halfway to max level, and I’m still using the default UI.  At max level, you get so many buttons that there are UI mods whose sole purpose is to add more hotbars.


Image courtesy of

Unlike both GW2 and STO, there’s no option to customize my skill loadout to something that suits me.  I get all of the skills  no matter what, and all I can do is find the ones that seem the most important and ignore the rest. Which, of course, makes me totally unsuited for anything beyond a very specific role (in my case, hitting things really hard).  What doesn’t make things easier is the fact that, beyond the very first hotbar, none of those buttons automatically get a key combo assigned to them. GW2 didn’t need such a thing; STO automatically assigns the second and third rows to CTRL+number and ALT+number, though using the mouse works fine in that game anyway.

In WoW, the mouse is needed to target and to steer. Positioning is fairly important; your character will refuse to attack anything that’s not in a forward cone relative to them, and enemies will move, so melee especially has to keep on their toes.  You’ve got to hammer the hotkeys to get your skills going, so have fun custom-assigning dozens of keybinds and remembering what they all do.

Now, clearly this isn’t an insurmountable problem. WoW has an enormous playerbase, and many of them are quite good at what they do – especially those who engage in PvP, where timing is everything.  Memorization, muscle memory, key macros (EDIT: I have been informed by my friend that WoW does not let you use macros. Related: My friend’s skill rotation has reached seven buttons and he’s getting fed up with it) are all ways to mount or bypass this learning curve.  But that’s the thing:  I shouldn’t need to surmount or bypass a learning curve whose difficulty consists solely of overwhelming me with buttons.  I refer you back to the very start, and our friend the GW2 hotbar, with ten whole buttons.  Enormous depth of customization behind them, and application of skill in choosing the right buttons to play to your strengths and the situation at hand, but only ever ten.  The difficulty does not come from the UI overwhelming you with clunky, cranky, unusable levels of button-spewing; and it never should.

Didn’t I used to talk about history around here? I should do that again.