displays, or HUDs for short, have been an integral part of video game
design since the industry's infancy. Currently, however, three factors
are working to shift the console game player away from a reliance on
HUDs. This has created a challenge for developers: how do you convey
necessary information to the player without utilizing a traditional HUD?
it's important to answer the question, “What is a HUD?” A HUD is simply
a collection of persistent onscreen elements whose purpose is to
indicate player status. HUD elements can be used to show, among many
other things, how much health the player has, in which direction the
player is heading, or where the player ranks in a race. This makes the
HUD an invaluable method of conveying information to the player during
a game. It is an accepted shorthand, a direct pipeline from the
developer to the end-user. So what would make console developers
suddenly rethink the necessity of such a seemingly essential and
time-honored technique as the HUD? Here are three compelling reasons.
is only recently that console developers have begun to address the
hi-def revolution taking place in living rooms around the globe.
According to the Consumer Electronics Association, over 12 million
high-definition televisions (HDTVs) were sold in the United States
between 1998 and 2004, and the market continues to grow rapidly;
research firm Strategy Analytics has predicted HDTVs in almost 30
million American homes by 2008. With the advent of a new generation of
consoles, developers are finally taking advantage of the ultra-sharp
screen resolutions and theater quality sound offered by these
increasingly common home entertainment systems. However, millions of
high-definition televisions have an Achilles heel that can hinder
developers as well: burn-in. Burn-in can occur on different types of
phosphor-based HDTVs, including plasma and traditional rear-projection
units; it is caused by persistent onscreen elements that, over
time, create a ghost image on the screen even after they are no longer
shown. Hmm… persistent onscreen elements? Like a HUD? The short answer
is yes—traditional HUDs can pose a risk to many who play console games
for extended periods of time on their HDTVs. Although some newer types
of HDTVs are not prone to burn-in, these are generally more expensive
and often have shortcomings of their own. In addition, while the
dangers posed by burn-in may be less frequent or severe than many
consumers believe, this doesn't stop the consumer from worrying; many
an HDTV owner has had a marathon gaming experience effectively ruined
by the nagging concern that the health bar at the top of the screen
might never go away after the game is done.
Peter Jackson's King Kong by Ubisoft offers a HUD-less, cinematic level of player immersion.
many years, game developers have spoken of the goal of achieving a
cinema-quality experience in a video game. One of the key ingredients
for such an experience is the successful immersion of the player into
the game world. Just as a filmmaker doesn't want a viewer to stop and
think, “This is only a movie,” a game developer should strive to avoid
moments that cause a gamer to think, “This is just a game.”
then, does a developer avoid such moments? Increasingly sophisticated
home theater systems have helped create a sense of immersion for those
that have them. More detailed graphics and more refined storytelling
techniques can also draw a player into a rich and complex game world.
However, nothing screams “this is just a game” louder than an
old-fashioned HUD. It is not a part of the game world; it is an
artificial overlay that is efficient, but often distracts the player
from the environment in which he or she is immersed.
The rise of the casual gamer.
video games attempt to reach new audiences beyond the core gamer
market, developers are realizing the need to simplify interface design.
While hardcore gamers might not be intimidated by numerous status bars
and gauges onscreen, a casual gamer is much more likely to feel
overwhelmed. Gamers looking for a “pick up and play” experience are not
inclined to spend time figuring out what all those bars and gauges are
for. The simpler and more intuitive the interface, the more accessible
the game can be to non-traditional gamers.
these three factors are prompting a sea change in how and when HUDs are
used in video games, especially those developed for console systems.
(This shift is also noticeable in certain types of PC games, and many
of the games used as examples herein are also available for the PC
platform. The discussion here focuses on console design due to the
added problems of console-specific issues such as burn-in.) Peter Jackson's King Kong
by Ubisoft (Xbox 360) is a perfect example of things to come: the game
features essentially no HUD elements, and offers a level of immersion
comparable to the film that shares its name.
How to Go HUD-less
then, does one convey player status information without a HUD? There
are many techniques that can be utilized to reduce dependency on HUD
elements, or to reduce the intrusiveness or potential screen damage
from necessary HUD elements. A survey of recent games illustrates a
number of these techniques, though in most cases the solutions are
applied redundantly, partially or only within certain contexts; a
well-planned and comprehensive interface design that addresses these
concerns during preliminary design stages can lead to a more consistent
and successful end result.
Decide what you need… and what you don't.
elements found on a typical HUD are there not out of necessity, but out
of convention; they represent a sort of “info overkill” that, for the
vast majority of players, has no impact on gameplay at all. For every
piece of information you offer the player, ask, “Is this information
essential to the game experience?” In doing so, you might find that you
don't need to bombard the player with quite as much data as you once
thought you did.
Call of Duty 2
(Xbox 360) provides a good example of eliminating one type of
unnecessary information. Although the game does feature some elaborate
HUD elements, it's also notable for what it doesn't feature: a visible
health meter. It seems illogical for a first-person shooter to not
include a health meter of some sort; and yet, the game plays
beautifully, relying on a very simple and intuitive visual cue that
warns the player when health is dangerously low: the screen periphery
turns red and pulses. It doesn't take long for a player to realize that
this means, “Take cover and give yourself a few seconds to heal, or
you're going to die.” This not only removes unnecessary onscreen
information, but also creates a much deeper sense of immersion in the
At the same time, however, Call of Duty 2
features an indicator that lets the player know if he or she is
standing, crouching or crawling. While this sort of indicator might
have been valuable back when camera height was the only differentiating
factor between the different stances (as in, say, the original Half-Life ), more intuitive visual cues offered in a game like Call of Duty 2
have rendered this sort of indicator essentially redundant. Even if it
were not redundant, though, it is still unnecessarily distracting; with
a HUD element such as this, it is well worth the time and asset