[University of Bergen senior lecturer Jørgensen studies gamers' responses to HUDs, and whether or not the need to preserve the fiction or the gameplay is paramount to players -- and delivers the results of this investigation, along with suggestions.]
During the last several years we have seen designers being drawn towards integrating the user interface into the game environment in different ways.
Examples that are often mentioned as particularly elegant ways of doing this are Dead Space, where the health bar is substituted by a tube running down the spine of the avatar, and Meteroid Prime, where the HUD gives the impression of being part of the avatar's helmet due to shaping and the reflection of the avatar's face.
Along with this trend, there has also been a debate in the developer community about whether or not this ideal of transparency is desirable.
Greg Wilson argued strongly in 2006 that the standard HUD approach to interface design hinders players from immersing into the game world, and that it is an intimidating and intrusive technical feature that turns potential new players off.
On the other side of the fence we find Luca Breda who argues that the above approach has pitfalls, since a total lack of interface leaves the player without any information relevant for play. Instead he believes that HUDs don't harm the players' involvement in the game, but on the contrary provide information that helps them become more closely attached to the game world.
In between these extremes there is a middle ground. This middle ground represents the argument that the goal of in-game user interface design should be to communicate all necessary information in a clear and consistent manner, while also making it elegant, aesthetically pleasing, and integrated into the game environment whenever this may be done without losing necessary information.
This is the approach taken by Erik Fagerholt and Magnus Lorentzon in their master thesis [PDF] on the design of FPS interfaces. Following from this line of thought, minimizing the interface may be an ideal, but this doesn't indicate that complete transparency is desirable.
The arguments supporting either view come from experts such as game developers, game students, or game journalists. Although the developers may take their conclusions from testing with target group players, there are no references that indicate this. With point of departure in four PC games belonging to different genres (Diablo II, The Sims 2, Crysis and Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars), I have in my research done 22 studies of players regarding their attitudes concerning game user interfaces.
In my study, the general tendency was that players accept the user interface regardless of whether it are present as overlays or made invisible or parts of the natural environment as long as it provides necessary information at the appropriate moments. However, although this is the attitude of most of the players in my study, there were those with different attitudes towards the presence of the user interface.
The study was a qualitative study where the aim was to understand players' general attitudes towards game user interfaces. In the study I observed players while they were playing one of the games in question, followed by an interview where we discussed a recording of their gameplay with special attention towards the user interface. A group of five was subjected to a group interview where they discussed screenshots from all the four games, with which they all had previous experience.
The games were selected based on popularity and diversity and technological and time-related constraints only allowed me to use PC games for the particular study. The players were recruited through the use of web forums of game communities and posters at game stores.
During the study, the players were free to also talk about games other than the ones selected, and they provided several examples of games where they found the user interface to be interesting for different reasons. This means that the study is not based on the above mentioned games only, but that these titles were the primary, but not exclusive, focus of the conversation.
The conclusions were based on careful categorization and analysis of the interviews, and for the sake of illustration I have in the figure below grouped the players according to the different attitudes they presented towards game interfaces and the integration into the game environment. Of course, this is a simplification for the sake of presenting the data as clearly as possible, and the illustration shows the general attitude that the individual players were presenting in the interview.