The Lazy Designer: The Next Game
Chapter 5 (Part 1)
User Interface and Experience
Full disclosure here: I always worked with strong graphic artists who did much of the heavy lifting on interface design. That is, I'm not a user interface guru by any means. But here are my musings anyways.
For the purposes of my discussion the user interface refers to both all the menus and windows and on screen widgets that the player interacts with as well as any control mechanisms (game controller, keyboard, mouse, camera, et cetera) that the game requires.
What Should the User Interface Do?
Primarily the user interface should encourage the player to do those actions that you most want them to do. If the game is about combat then combat controls need to be front and center. If the game is about story then progressing through the story should be as simple as possible. If instead you are attempting to evoke a particular mood then the interface should reflect that.
In general unless your game is exploring completely unique gameplay your interface should resemble the interfaces of similar games. It does not mean it needs to be exactly like other games but it should include all the interactions that players will expect.
What is front and center to the player is what they will do most often. If you are lamenting that players do not spend enough time interacting with your merchants do a review of the merchant interfaces. Perhaps the act of buying and selling is too cumbersome? Or maybe the action that is required to invoke the merchant interface is buried in a menu and some players never discover it.
This is why it is important to track all the actions that play-testers undertake. It is not sufficient to have them self report. You need to be able to look at logs that show what they do and if possible have a way of viewing the data through graphs and charts to facilitate high level analysis.
Here are some features I like interfaces to include when feasible:
Icons versus Text In modern games text is not often featured prominently on the user interface as most interfaces have an icon based approach. While this generally works I think there's an over-exaggeration that icons are easily understandable to all users. Many people, especially across cultures, do not share a universal library of symbols. But most people can be trained to associate icons with behavior.
Customizable Interface The more complex the game the more complex the interface might be. To minimize this many developers choose simple interfaces that do not scale well once the player has a large number of powers. In effect the further the player is into the game the more cumbersome the interface becomes for them. In these scenarios it is beneficial if the player is able to modify the interface, either by enlarging elements or reordering and customizing rows of abilities.
- To facilitate this there should be tooltips (on PC) or info boxes (on console titles) so that users easily obtain a text explanation for what the particular icon does (whether it is a power, an action, or a menu item) without having to click it. Some players like to experiment with interfaces, others do not. The text helps guide the decision making of those who do not enjoy discovery through exploration.
- Customizing is always an advanced user action and should not be something new players might stumble across as it may cause confusion, but for more advanced players customization will increase their feeling of ownership over and involvement with the game.
What a User Interface Should Not Do
The interface should not distract unless the distraction itself is part of the core gameplay. While making an attractive interface is important that attractiveness should not make it difficult for users to use the interface. Text should be legible over top the interface screens.
Also be aware of the conditions under which the game will be played... you should generally have access to a variety of monitors and televisions under varying lighting conditions to have a good idea of the experience your players will have. Are the buttons easy to see from a distance (for a console title)? On a small screen is the text and icons legible?
As well the interface should not dynamically modify itself. That is buttons should not be moving around depending on the level being played or the player's progress in the game. Many players learn how to interact with the game at an unconscious level... their bodies learns where the buttons are and if the button's position changes then they have to consciously reorient themselves, taking them out of the gameplay. In the player flow section I'll explore some exceptions, where I feel it is acceptable for an interface to change.
When designing interfaces you need to be aware of several other issues:
- Color is Tricky There are a large number of color blind players. Depending on the nature of the game you need to dig into the pros and cons of using various colors. On one title I worked on we removed all of the standard troublesome colors (the ones most prone to being missed by color blind players) but found that for other players the game was more difficult to play because there are certain expectations built around color (especially red for stop and green for go).
- Options are Important The more options you provide, in regard to how video is displayed or controls mapped or audio heard, the better. We all have our idiosyncrasies and being able to tailor the game experience to our needs makes us enjoy the game more.
- Contrast and brightness controls These are essential and there should be an easy guide in the options menu to help players adjust these settings to maximize the gameplay experience.
- Flexible key/button mappings Consider people with disabilities... if possible can you have a key mapping system that allows them to select various control options so that they might still play? Be careful not to make the button mapping so difficult that some people cannot remap the buttons!
- Sound is Important Most interface actions should be reinforced by the use of sound. For people who are blind, this can assist with their use of your interface. On the other hand, sound should never be the only acknowledgment of an interface interaction. In addition to creating an awkward experience for players with hearing difficulties it might also alienate more casual players who might be playing, for a variety of reasons, with the sound off. As frustrating as this is to sound engineers this style of play is not uncommon.
Before we proceed I want to throw out a quick word of caution in regards to documentation.
As you plan the game you will find it necessary to create documentation of some kind. In the early phases of planning I advise keeping the design documentation simple and flexible. Take it slow. Once there is a core design kernel to experiment with, start prototyping before setting any decisions in stone (or paper or glass or whatever you use to write on). I will expand my discussion on documentation in a later book but for now focus more on using simple notes, perhaps hosted in a wiki or some other readily available and modifiable medium. At this stage we should not be making final decisions... we should be exploring the decision space possible for our game.