The user interface is something that doesn't get nearly enough attention. Much like good sound design, when a user interface is done well, the player doesn't notice it - and when it's done poorly, it can be aggravating and damaging to the play experience, to the point of turning some players away from a game. Although we tend to talk about good and bad interface considerations, it's rare that I really see many people go into precise detail about just what makes a good interface. In this article, I'd like to take the time to go over what I consider to be the key tenets of good user interface design - while I don't want to suggest that this is the only approach to take, in general, just about every game with a good interface I've seen has adhered to most or all of these points, and ignoring them usually leads to poor results in the end.
Function Over Form
Although it's nice to have a good-looking interface, the absolute worst thing that a designer can do is build an interface that ends up encroaching on the functionality it's supposed to be providing the player. While this problem can manifest in some very obvious ways from time to time, it's worth considering the small ways in which placing visuals over functionality can hurt a game.
|Wait... you mean all those dials and buttons don't do anything?
Take, for example, Fallout 3 - while the Pip-boy 3000 gives the game a significant dose of personality, helping to include what is usually a meta-game element within the game world, the Pip-boy is also generally poorly laid out precisely as a result of the designers prioritizing the look and feel of the interface over basic usability. Over a third of the entire game screen display is consumed by the Pip-boy, and many menus devote over half of the remaining screen space to large icons rather than providing more information to players. Combine this all with menus nested within other menus (and, in New Vegas, menus that toggle between different functions) and it's very clear that the desire to include the Pip-boy was so strong that it ended up sabotaging and hiding some of the game's most fundamental information. It's a classic case of prioritizing "cool stuff" over crucial information and usability, and it could have been completely avoided with a little forethought.
Compare the Pip-boy above to Diablo's health and mana orbs - they're distinct, and aesthetically interesting, even defining for the Diablo franchise, but they aren't obtrusive and remain easy to read and understand. Even the original Fallout, age and different standards aside, was more successful interface-wise than Fallout 3. All the technology and shaders thrown onto a menu can't change the fact that it's still cumbersome to use.
Interface is a Frame
Where many games treat the interface as just that, a tool, Fallout and Diablo treated it as more: a portal into the game which serves to reinforce the fiction, the tone and mood. A good comparison to draw is a picture frame - while a picture in itself can be beautiful, a good (or bad) frame will completely change one's perception of that picture, regardless of just how lovely it is on its own. This doesn't have to be completely literal: while the two games above do actually form a sort of frame around the game, and others, such as Ultima: Underworld literally treated the perspective view as only a single part of the gameplay experience, others, such as Half-Life, achieved the same effect by grounding the heads-up display in the narrative. The HEV Suit is one of the most iconic elements of Half-Life, and grounds us in the game's world... despite the fact that we barely even see it.
|Not only is Diablo's interface functional, it also helps define the game world.
While I often see it said that heads-up displays and other aspects of game interfaces can draw players out of the game, remind them of the barrier between them and the virtual world, I've always felt this is a poor argument that, if anything, is refuted by play experience. Contrary to this opinion, I find that most often, a good interface will actually improve immersion, rather than detract from it, and by attaching certain game functions to in-universe objects, the player can feel as if he or she is operating an actual mechanism within that game world, rather than simply pressing buttons on a gamepad. Granted, this can be taken too far, as seen in Fallout 3, but when the balance between aesthetics and usability is struck, the user interface goes from being just a tool, to a legitimate and defining character within the game world itself.
Don't Hide Information
This is another tenet that I feel doesn't see much discussion, at least with regards to interface. Put simply, a designer should anticipate the information the player will need during gameplay, and put the most critical of it on-screen at all times. For a shooter, this is pretty easy to figure out - health, ammunition, armour, and so on are all safe bets, and unless removing these common HUD elements is part of the game's design, there's rarely a reason to consider much more as far as shooters go.
But what of more complex games, or those which require the player to juggle more information at once? Too often, I see games which simply model their interfaces after first-person shooters, without much of an attempt to actually consider just what things the player might want to see during gameplay. Instead, information that the player might well want (or need) at a glance ends up buried in menus and sub-menus, meaning that not only is the player inconvenienced, but he or she may completely ignore that information entirely. To be blunt, if this happens, then the user interface has failed: its one goal is to give the player the information necessary to gameplay.
|250,00 gold and still unhappy? What must I do?!
Although otherwise a fantastic game, the 2004 remake of Sid Meier's Pirates! has one annoying flaw of this nature - though several critical aspects of gameplay are linked to the game's timer, often there is no precise information given on how much time the player might have to accomplish a task. The one that stands out the most for me is crew morale: although the interface displays a general indication of the crew's mood, and the player is able to respond to the crew's needs based on this, there's never a clear indication of just how much time the player has left to salvage his or her situation, or how much gold the player needs to find to improve their spirits. Where sometimes I'd be able to survive for months on end with a near-mutinous crew, other times my morale would plummet radically over the course of a single day, and suffice is to say, it really is no fun when you feel you have little control or understanding of why something in a game.
Give Me Details!
On a related note, it's a fairly common trend in gaming nowadays for the information available to players to be minimized or abstracted. Although generally considered an attempt to streamline gameplay, more often than not, this sort of approach ends up being confusing and detrimental to gameplay. Put simply, if there's no reason as to why information shouldn't be provided to the player, then there is no reason why that information should be withheld... and if you have the opportunity to be precise rather than vague, then precision should almost always win out.
|Without a standard for what those bars
indicate, these "stats" aren't particularly reliable.
A great example of this can be seen in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Although it features a deep and engaging multiplayer component, with strong RPG leanings in its equipment progression, perks and so on, the game hesitates to provide players with some of the precise information that they might want when playing the game. This ranges from the simple (how much damage, exactly, does a weapon do?), to a bit more crucial (what is the radius of a Frag Grenade versus C4?). Although the game does provide some statistics for players to review, interestingly, these aren't expressed as numbers, but rather, as simple bars... while this makes for a more approachable menu (no need to include a character sheet in your shooter), the data provided is vague at best and, according to fan feedback and testing, occasionally quite inaccurate as well. Yes, sometimes you want to just give the player the basics... but at the same time, there's no reason why players shouldn't be given the details either, because you can bet that there are plenty out there who want those details, no matter what the game is.
Minimize Required Input
Along the same lines, it's worth considering just how the player is going to get to that information. A mouse click? A hotkey? A nested list menu? A drop-down scroll box? A check box? A grid navigated with the thumbsticks? Pages flipped through with shoulder buttons? Game consoles especially have limited input functionality, and so additional prioritizing is necessary for console games, but regardless of the platform, all information should be quick and easy to get to, without fuss. Although I hesitate to provide a golden rule, if the player needs to perform more than two or three commands to find the information he or she is looking for, then chances are, it's harder to get to than it should be, and the more layers you have, the less likely the player is to ever refer to that information.
|Civilization V gives you the information you
need, but rarely in a way that's convenient.
Of course, this can be easier said than done. Sometimes, user interface can become necessarily cluttered, complex, or hidden - this is especially common in strategy games, where the player needs access to huge amounts of information, but only on occasion. There's nothing wrong with nesting information that you know players won't always need, but never put it deeper than it absolutely needs to be. Civilization V, for instance, despite being an excellent game, has major problems with this. While information on the resources different players have to trade can be easily seen in the diplomacy menu, for instance, there's no way to know if you have anything that player wants until you go into a completely separate series of menus via the trade screen. Additionally, the nested nature of many menus in the game and the use of large fonts and icons requires more scrolling than what would otherwise be necessary. While its predecessor's interface was hardly perfect, at the very least it was organized and grouped information together where it would logically be wanted - compared to Civ IV, Civ V can often require twice as many mouse clicks just to perform the same tasks.
Keep Controls Consistent
Have you ever played a game where pressing a certain button or hitting a certain key just didn't do what you expected? Although there's something to be said for challenging genre conventions, usually, deviating from standard key and controller layouts is a poor idea which only artificially increases the learning curve of a game. Unless you're genuinely able to improve on the interface, there should be absolutely no reason why your new game, Medal of Duty, maps the firing of weapons to the A button, reloading to the right trigger, crouching to the D-pad, throwing grenades to the analogue stick, and so forth. On the PC, this need only grows greater - with more buttons than ever available, and often necessary, it can be confusing for the player to have to re-learn all their familiar hotkeys again just for one game. Unless you can genuinely provide a good reason to not map J to the journal in your RPG, or the mouse wheel to switching weapons in your first-person shooter, then simply don't do it.
That said, that's no excuse to deny the player the option to customize and remap keys - even those hotkeys you tried so hard to make consistent. There is no technical reason why players should not be able to do so, especially on the PC, as unlike gamepads, mice and keyboards have far more equally valid button layout. Even so, as a basic usability feature, there is really no excuse not to allow players the option, even on consoles... that is, unless you don't mind telling disabled customers that they can't play your game because of your own oversight.
Ah, a new item! Wonderful! I was getting sick and tired of my old Bodkin of the Weakling anyway, but... wait, what's this? The Scepter of Ill Tidings? Well, just how am I supposed to know which one's better? I mean, maybe one's good for bashing, and the other is good for stabbing, but how do I know how, why, and where? What about the damage they deal? Which one is better for me? What about my character class? Ah, screw it, I'll just sell it.
|Even something as simple as comparing items
can dramatically improve the user experience.
Alright, perhaps the scenario above is a bit of an exaggeration, but it's common to play a game and end up with a situation where you might want to perform a task, such as comparing two weapons, and the game does not make it particularly easy to do so. Whether that's something as simple as not being able to see the stats of both weapons at the same time, or not having a clear indication of which one is useful for what task, or what their requirements are, or how much money is valued at, there are times where the user interface, while not exactly failing, can still easily let the player down. As a designer, it's important not just to give the player what he or she needs, but anticipate what he or she might actually want given the nature of the gameplay. The interface is something that exists to service gameplay, and anything you can do to make that gameplay experience smoother and more manageable is a worthy addition.
Videogame maps do not have a very good reputation. Sometimes, they take the "form over function" route, and end up looking cool without being particularly detailed or useful (The Witcher 2 has this problem from time to time, especially in outdoor areas). Other times, developers end up trying to incorporate some sort of 3D gimmick, resulting in a map that has the rare distinction of being both hard to read and hard to manipulate (for a long time the Splinter Cell games were haunted by this). And sometimes, well, there's just no map at all, or it's stuffed into a tiny corner somewhere. Suffice is to say, if you're going to include maps in your game, they had better be easy to read, access and understand - if they aren't, then you've wasted your time.
|Where am I? Why, let me just consult my handy... er... oh.
Of course, creating maps is an additional investment, requiring new artwork, programming, level design work, etc. At the same time, the incredible improvement to a game's usability that a good map can provide cannot be overstated. Even if you feel your game is simple, or small, or easy to understand, it doesn't matter: put a map in it, unless, of course, the player's perspective is such that the playing field might as well be a map to begin with (Supreme Commander and its strategic camera zoom feature). Chances are all players are going to use the map at one point or another, and there are plenty more who will use it to plan their approaches, devise more efficient strategies and plans, compare play-style with others. Maps are also extremely useful for guiding the player, both for in-game purposes and for secondary game information sources like walkthroughs, as well. No matter how much you might insist it's not necessary - trust me, it is.
Although this list is by no means completely exhaustive, I feel that these are the absolute most key points which an interface needs to hit in order for it to be considered good. Thankfully, most modern games have great interfaces, and some of the most basics problems are, in many cases, things of the past. That said, there are still many interface problems that continue to be prominent in the world of gaming, whether that's the withholding of important information from the player for no good reason, poorly-made and useless in-game maps, or the prioritizing of aesthetics over usability. As the metadata layer between the player and the game, the user interface is one of the most important things to get right... and one of the worst you can possibly mess up. Hopefully, this list has provided some food for thought on how to avoid falling into what are still in many cases common issues. Thanks for reading!