UI is the game, the game is UI
Just a short piece today, where I'm going to look at one of the things that makes the difference between a good game and a great game: understanding how the user interface fits into the experience. I'm going to do this with the help of some 1980s text book magic:
As we all know the user interface is, as shown in my amazing diagram above, the bit that sits between us humans and them computers. It takes input from us and gives us a response back. It's one of the simplest concepts to understand, yet one of the hardest things to actually get right. Software companies spend a fortune on research into user interfaces because they can make something successful or render something clever too difficult to use. Games companies do spend a fair amount on UI, but often as a disconnected unit from the rest of development. You can really tell when a UI team has been brought on towards the end of development to plug in their bit, and 2D HUD elements dominate the experience. Conversely, you can really tell when a team understands what UI is and why it's so important.
Everything is the user interface
The biggest thing that it takes time to understand is that everything in a game is the user interface. It doesn't matter what kind of game it is but, as my experience lies in third and first person shooters, I'll use those as an example. Everything from the width of your doorways to the height of the walls that surround the player is part of the user interface.
As an example, on the right are two pictures. Spot the difference between the original shot from Uncharted 2 and my photoshopped one. If you've played the game you'll instantly know, and even if you haven't it should be fairly obvious: there's a good chunk of yellow on the top image. This is the visual language Uncharted uses - the player can climb on yellow things, and therefore this is a strong signpost to the player in the world. 2D elements aren't required to be overlaid on top.
This is a strong example, but things that may seem trivial can be used to guide a player around. It's common to add a flashing light to a doorway you want the player to go through, or adding a memorable silhouette on a distant horizon as a landmark: each and every element gives information to the player as to where they should be going. Its ability to spot patterns is one of the most amazing parts of the human brain, which can be a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it enables us to be very subtle in some of the language we create for the game, and a curse because we have to remain thoroughly consistent with it. To achieve this you need to have your visual language set and clearly communicated to the team, because if they don't adhere to a set of rules the game will suffer.
The point here is that, in Uncharted's case, it's not just about painting anything that can be climbed yellow: it's also about making sure that there isn't anything that the player can't climb painted yellow as well. That consistency is the key. Does this turn Uncharted into 'hunt the yellow thing to climb next'? Yes, a bit. But that's not a criticism: it's part of the fun. The developers realised that and become more creative with what is yellow - sometimes slightly obscurely but often clear enough that when you do find it (or the hint system kicks in) you feel that you were at fault for not finding it earlier, not the game.
(I'm aware that Uncharted 2 changes from yellow to red ledges at one point, something that I'm sure caused a lot of discussions on the team. Ideally I don't think it should have changed, though by the point that it did players were so far into the game that they inherently understood the rules of what could and couldn't be climbed on because the rest of the art style remained consistent.)
There was a big trend a few years ago to try and get rid of the traditional heads up displays (HUD), a feeling that it was an outdated method of relaying information to the player and that we can do better. It depends a lot on the type of game, but when done well a game without a traditional 2D HUD can feel very good. The problem is, it's very rarely done well - King Kong is still one of the best examples of it. So why is it so difficult?
Well, a lot of it actually comes down to these:
There's a big desire from designers (and I'm guilty of this as well) to make sure that every button on the controller is mapped to a function. And there's a lot of buttons. Which means a lot of features. Which, in turn, means a lot of things to give feedback to the player on. There's a whole other discussion to write about with regards to balancing your feature set to the needs of your game, and also why gaming on a smart phone is so much more accessible, but for now I'll conclude with this for designers: it's absolutely fine to use every button on the controller, but be aware of the knock on effects that has to the user experience. Every function you create, every feature added, has to be understood by the player. There are many ways of achieving that, but don't just believe that a 2D HUD can do the job for you. It can go a long way, but if you get your entire art and level team on board as well you'll discover there are many more tools in the box.