Karos Returns: Usability Review

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GamesCampus' Karos Returns (PC only) is a free, fantasy MMORPG which hosts an open world and PvP system. The game has not been well-received, and currently holds a 37% approval rate on Steam. Including this, and six other, "positive" reviews:

Reading through the reviews, the primary complaints are that the graphics are outdated (think ~2003), the UI is clunky, and that the game offers little autonomy to the player. And I'm very inclined to agree.

From a usability, and really a fun standpoint, Karos' shortcomings stem from a design that is simultaneously constricting and hands-off -- an unpleasant cocktail that has driven players away. I'll cover how Karos is limiting its players, and what GamesCampus can do about it.


Locked In!

One way that Karos limits players is through its character creation. For the last few years, most RPGs have introduced increasingly detailed character customization menus, allowing players to alter anything between a character's eyelash style to their voices. As time moves on, the more nuanced character creation menus become.

Of course, not all studios can keep up with this rate of change, or effort: the more customization a game offers, the more developers must work on model development and animation. And with a limited budget, as many indie companies have, it doesn't make sense to spend oodles of time generating content to enable customization.

Karos Returns opted to limit the number of character models players can use. The only aspects a player may alter are their character's class, hair, and facial structure. Each class has a predetermined gender and race, set in stone and unchangeable by the player. Though rationally, I understand why GamesCampus might choose to lock gender and race, my first reaction as a player was, "Hey, that's not fair."

With introspection, I've realized that my knee-jerk reaction can be attributed to how Karos' character selection screen is set up. Right now, Karos' screen follows convention, placing the character model in the center of the screen, with customization options presented on a side banner. As comparison, I've provided a screenshot from the character creation screen from Elder Scrolls Online.

Karos Returns: Character Creation Screen
Elder Scrolls Online: Character Creation Screen
While falling back on the classic character creation UI makes page wire-framing easy, it has one major downside: using the most common creation setup confers with it certain expectations. Coming into Karos, I subconsciously compared the character selection screen to previous games (such as ESO), and made specific assumptions about what options I would be provided. And when I discovered that my assumptions were wrong, I was not only disappointed, but almost felt slighted.

As the character selection is currently set up, Karos Returns seems to be a hybrid between Diablo III/Path of Exile's strategy of presenting players with a specific cast of characters in that world, and RPGs method of allowing extensive character customization. In linear stories such as DIII/PoE, race and gender locking a class makes sense, as players are assuming a specific role. But players in Karos Returns aren't playing specific story heroes -- and so race/gender locking a specific class doesn't make sense.

Fixing this issue, assuming adding more models isn't an option, is tricky. My suggestions hinge not on adding more models, but instead fundamentally changing how character customization is presented.
  • For example, you could take a route similar to Diablo III, where each class has a male and female model (and there's little customization on top of that). You could still have the race locked for each class.
  • Scrap the classic character model in center, customization bar on the side. While character creation is presented in this way, players are likely to make assumptions about what options they'll be given. How you then choose to configure characters is your choice -- maybe even placing the character customization on the left (instead of usual right) might be different enough to break expectations. Testing would be needed.

Too Hands-Off

There are some people who enjoy figuring out how to play a game through reading the rules. I'm the kind of person who likes to pick it up as I go along. Karos is strange in that it tries to teach you how to play by bribing you with quest rewards to read the rules.

This could have worked okay had the rules and explanations been clear. But instead, the rules are poorly organized (have no flow of what information you need to know first) and rambling.

Really, part of the problem is that it seems the developers put the game together and assumed players would understand what was going on or even read the rules. As a fledgling boardgame designer, I've learned that it's best to blind playtest your game and rules (give it to someone who hasn't played the game before, and have them learn from the rulebook) before sending it out into the wild. It feels as if GamesCampus didn't truly think about how the game would be taught -- and so they shoehorned some incomplete ideas together. Instead of writing the rules more clearly, they opted to bribe players with items instead to learn to play the game.

I question how effective this tactic actually is, and wonder why the developers decided to put it in place. Did they not want to devise more clever ways to introduce players to the mechanics? Did they assume players would pick up the game easily?

Either way, my recommendation here is simple: streamline how the game is taught.

  • Remove the "Entire Interface" tab in the rules --  I think anyone who has played games recently know what a minimap and a chat bar look like)
  • Instead of having the beginning quests require players to kill a bunch of spiders and owl bear cubs, develop one that is built to level the player, and then send them to an NPC that teaches them to assign fletta points.
  • In general, use the starting quests to teach beginning concepts and mechanics. TERA (also F2P) does a good job with this.


Other Features I Find Odd

"Auto-Pilot":  If someone is playing for lore -- Karos really isn't the game for it. Players can opt into what is essentially auto-pilot for their character: once activated, their character will automatically attack nearby enemies and loot them. It's strange -- because though the game advertises itself as "hardcore," even a mindless AI can accomplish the same task that I've been sent out on.

Confusing Map Icons: Looking at the mini-map is absolutely baffling. In cities, there are dozens of icons on the map that aren't explained, or self-explanatory, and clog up the screen.

Playtime Rewards: The game rewards players with items for playing for more than an hour, or for logging in a few days in a row. If developers need to bribe players to continue playing the game, they should probably consider and explore why players don't play for extended periods of time. Sure, just giving players a flat reward is easy on the developer's end -- but it's not a sustainable way to retain players.

No Differentiation: I'm not entirely sure how Karos Returns varies from other MMORPGs in its mechanics, story, or really anything. Nothing feels innovative (except maybe the auto-pilot feature, but I'd say that's a poor design choice), or really challenging.

No 'Interact' Key: Karos differs from recent RPGs in that it doesn't give players an 'interact' key (such as E in Fallout/Skyrim, F in TERA, etc.). Instead, players must click on NPCs to speak with them. I think this is another poor design choice: using an interact key feels less error-prone. When using a mouse to click, players can miss, and just spend more time trying to line up their cursor with the NPC. Interact keys ask less of the player.

Font and Spelling Difficulties: At times, the font is difficult to read (too small, bad coloring) and there are occasional spelling errors peppered throughout. There's really no excuse for that.


I feel like there could've been a lot more to write about with Karos Returns (I could've expanded upon the previous section), but the game just feels so rough, and the problems so deep, that this post could've been thrice the length.

All in all, I don't recommend Karos Returns. From a non-usability standpoint, the combat is boring, the graphics are terrible, and it's just markedly worse than any MMOs I've played. If the game was in alpha, maybe I could see it being this rough. But in full release, this game is just entirely sub-par. Good thing it was free.

0/10 do not recommend.


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