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Off With Their HUDs!: Rethinking the Heads-Up Display in Console Game Design

February 3, 2006 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2
 

Take it off the HUD and put it into the game.

The most immersive way to present necessary player information is to incorporate it directly into the game environment. In a racing game such as Project Gotham Racing 3 (Xbox 360), the “in-car” view during a race allows for an entirely immersive experience that also incorporates player information (such as speed) directly into the environment via the car dashboard. This solution is not effective for players who prefer a different camera view, but it does show a proof of concept: many important HUD elements can be seamlessly integrated into the game world to enhance player immersion.


Project Gotham Racing 3 offers an “in-car” view that incorporates player information directly into the dashboard.

In Doom 3 (Xbox), while a player's weapon ammunition count generally shows up as an overlay in the lower right corner of the screen, weapons like the chaingun include the ammunition count as a readout directly on the weapon model. When designing a futuristic FPS, there's no reason why a developer couldn't just put an ammo count display directly on every weapon model from the get-go.

In a third-person game, player health and/or damage indication can be shown in ways other than through a health meter. In many survival horror games like Eternal Darkness (Gamecube), player health—both physical and mental—is clearly reflected in the player-character model's onscreen appearance and movements. This can be accomplished through texture, animation, and even camera work. These indicators may not seem initially to be as precise as a counter or bar, but if players are given enough distinctive indicators, the process can become intuitive very quickly.

Sound it out.

Another way to convey player status info is through audio cues. This is an often underutilized method that can either reinforce a visual cue or offer a unique message that is not easily shown visually. For example, in Halo (Xbox), when a player's armor loses shield protection, an audio warning reinforces the flashing visual cue of the health status bar. This allows a player to know he or she is in imminent danger without having to refer to the HUD. In Project: Snowblind (PlayStation 2), if a player dawdles instead of advancing toward the location of an objective, non-player characters offer spoken dialogue that encourages the player toward the objective. This information could be conveyed in a far less subtle way—and indeed, a visual objective guide is available if the player wishes to turn it on—but these simple audio cues allow the player to remain fully immersed in the world the developers have worked so hard to create.


Deus Ex: Invisible War gives players control over the opacity of the heads-up display.

When you absolutely, positively must have a HUD

For many games, it may not be practical to eliminate all HUD elements entirely. In such instances, there are still ways to maintain immersion and simplicity while still providing important information to the player.

Since HUD elements are meant to convey player status information, one simple solution is to only show an element when the player status changes. For example, a health indicator does not generally need to be shown unless the player is either gaining or losing health. The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (Xbox) uses just such a health meter, to great effect. By the same token, God of War (PlayStation 2) features a HUD that disappears when the player is not near an enemy or performing an attack move.

Give the power to the player.

Another solution is to allow the player to control the appearance of the HUD. In Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal (PlayStation 2) , certain HUD elements disappear when player status is static; however, the player can temporarily call up these elements by simply clicking the left thumbstick if they are needed. In Deus Ex: Invisible War (Xbox), players are also given unique control over the HUD: through a sub-menu accessible during gameplay, a player can adjust the opacity of the HUD to his or her liking. This not only allows the player to decide how conspicuous the HUD is, but also gives HDTV gamers control over their own destiny when it comes to burn-in.


Kameo: Elements of Power utilizes a uniquely themed reticle that adds to immersion and resists burn-in.

Cut the static.

The HUD elements that pose the most risk of burn-in are those that seldom change, such as graphical borders. These static elements also offer the least benefit to the player, since they are generally decorative and do not contain information relevant to the game. Find ways to eliminate such elements or make them dynamic; Champions: Return to Arms (PlayStation 2), like many earlier games utilizing the Snowblind engine, offers a good example of how a typically static element like a level map can be made into a persistent yet ever-changing overlay. Cycling colors or animated textures can also invigorate a lifeless HUD while decreasing the threat of burn-in.

“Theme” isn't just about music.

One important thing to remember for necessary HUD elements is this: the more the HUD is themed to the game world, the less intrusive it will appear. This goes beyond superficial visual appearance; instead of just asking “What font looks the most science fiction-y?” ask instead “Based on the world we've designed, what is the best way to convey this necessary information to the player?” In Kameo: Elements of Power (Xbox 360), when a player assumes the role of Chilla and throws ice spears, some sort of reticle or guide is necessary for the player to properly aim the spears. The developers, instead of just utilizing a generic reticle overlay, came up with a cleverly themed solution that not only adds to player immersion, but also happens to eliminate any risk of burn-in: a reticle-shaped overlay that looks like a buildup of clear ice on the screen; it is visible only because it refracts the visible game world through it, and not because it contains static elements.


Metroid Prime uses themed touches, like this reflection of Samus's face, to incorporate the HUD into the game world.

Metroid Prime (Gamecube) also offers an excellent example of a fully themed HUD. Admittedly, it's a bit of cheat: the entire HUD can be explained away as the readout on the inside of Samus Aran's helmet. However, the developers embraced the theme and made it actually feel like a part of the environment—right down to the reflection of Samus's face that appears on the inside of the helmet during bright explosions.

The games mentioned above offer numerous examples to show how player status information can be presented in ways that are immersive and innovative. There are countless other solutions; in fact, the more specific a solution is to a particular game, the greater the odds that the developer is offering the player a one-of-a-kind gaming experience. As developers continue to challenge themselves to achieve more sophisticated levels of immersion and intuitive gameplay in their creations, they will no doubt devise equally sophisticated and unique ways to communicate critical information to the player.

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