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The User Interface Continuum: A Study Of Player Preference
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The User Interface Continuum: A Study Of Player Preference

April 12, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[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

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.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Kamruz Moslemi
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I hope I am never fated to work alongside a fictionalist on a project. It sounds like the stuff of nightmares.

Christian Nutt
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Ico dosen't have a HUD :3

Kamruz Moslemi
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ICO did not need it, you only lost if you fell into a pit or if Yorda was kidnapped. Shadow of Colossus did need a HUD and also had one.

Besides, I think if you read the article you'd know that my apprehensions regarding working with a fictionalist is not related to something as trivial as HUD design, but more on irreconcilably incompatible design philosophies.

Rob Allegretti
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Reminds me of running Mirror's Edge with no UI and no Runner Vision. I thought it really made the game fun.

Kamruz Moslemi
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What UI did Mirrors edge have? Do you mean the little dot in the middle of the screen?

Remembering Mirror's Edge I found it hard enough to figure out where I was supposed to go with runner's vision on, I imagine turning it off would have made the game nigh but unplayable. The most fun in that game was to gain momentum and keep it up, so having to constantly stop up and try and second guess the level design would have been the opposite of that.

I guess it could be done though, if you played a level enough to have its layout memorized, or if the level design was made a lot more straight forward. But where would be the fun in that?

Kevin Rogers
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Mirror's Edge is a classic example of a game requiring no HUD. And Runner Vision was handy, but hardly essential; most of the time, as long as you're paying a modicum of attention, the routes are obvious, even without Runner Vision.

And yes, although I think I'm really a "relativist" I definitely lean towards "fictionalist". =)

Nick Harris
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That little dot served three purposes:

1. It helped alleviate motion sickness

2. It helped you line up your jumps (especially to narrow poles)

3. It turned blue to show that you had built up enough momentum to "slow time"

This last feature was enabled by pressing the blue (X) button. It could be used in combination with (Y) to disarm an enemy when they attempted to melee you with their weapon and the gun was briefly highlighted in red.

(B) can be held to force your character to look in the general direction of where to go next. I definitely prefer this to a jarring "next objective X metres" HUD icon. Yet, I feel that given that this button is red, (B) should have been used for disarm rather than (Y). Crysis 2 uses (Y) for Look, prompting you through audio and the HUD to hold it to turn your head to see some in-game spectacle. Unfortunately, it never worked out for me as every time I used it there would be something in the way of me seeing the awesome thing, like an air-conditioning unit right beside my head. Clearly, working my way through the cluttered edges of a level gave me a lot of accessible cover during combat, but placed me awkwardly to see set-pieces. It would have been better to steal control away from me and walk my character into a spot where I could appreciate the cinematic, than miss every epic moment.

Although Runner Vision could be turned off to remove the red paint splashed over recommended paths through the level, it was always enabled for time-sensitive weapon disarming cues. Once acquired the dot (or 'reticle') would be encircled to indicate the area of effect of the pistol, or shotgun; the sniper rifle relied upon a traditional crosshairs embedded within its scope which the player chose to look through by clicking the right thumb stick in.

The options are very good for this game as they cater to all kinds of player.

The reticle can be on / off / weapon only (i.e. only shown when holding a gun). As with Goldeneye 007 on the N64 this weapon reticle can be an intrusion and is not strictly necessary provided that the environment and enemies react to bullets hitting them. TimeSplitters oversold this somewhat, with enemies spinning away with shoulder hits, but I suppose it was consistent with its cartoonish atmosphere (note, that neither Goldeneye or Mirror's Edge offers the popular solution of "iron sights", where aiming a weapon without a scope such as a pistol makes the back and front sights line up - thereby obviating the need for a reticle completely.

Unfortunately, the reason I mention Goldeneye is that it doesn't do this because it supports a "floating reticle" when you are aiming. This makes it very much easier to string together multiple head-shots as you briefly lean out of cover, something which would make the game too easy if it wasn't balanced by introducing many more enemies (enemies programmed to miss with their first shots, mind you...). It is this design that overcomes the comparative unergonomic qualities of the N64 gamepad relative to the PC mouse and ensures that the player doesn't feel clumsy and besieged, but skillful and empowered - like Bond.

It is important to recognise that the player cannot move Bond whilst aiming, other than to lean, or crouch. This may well be a happy accident due to the relative lack of buttons on the N64 gamepad compared to say the 360 one, yet it encourages a degree of strategy whose inherent "thinking time" leads naturally to stealth. It is not impossible to play it on the hardest settings without a reticle, merely judging the target from habituated experience to the appropriate tilt of the analog stick and the feedback provided by the change in angle of the visible portion of the gun barrel. In a way, all these modern games that opt for fixed, central, iron sights are inferior as they can't change target with sufficient rapidity, or precision.

I played Mirror's Edge without a Reticle and the Runner vision set to 'Hostiles off' which kept all the red paint around the level (and kept the pace up... I don't care to be puzzling about where to go next or how best to get there whilst a helicopter gunship is firing at me), but removed the silly red glow around enemy threats.

I've played a lot of Medal of Honor multiplayer recently (also from DICE) and got hooked on the Hardcore Clean Sweep game type with all HUD elements such as ammo made completely transparent. Hardcore matches remove the radar, so it is just down to you to spot a camouflaged enemy. Clean Sweep stops enemies from respawning behind you as they are forced to spectate once eliminated.

The reason I bring it up is to conclude that it is not enough to remove the HUD, but the rules of the game have to be adapted as well to keep things fair. I suffer from what is jokingly referred to as C.R.S. (i.e. "Chronic Reloading Syndrome), which means that I can't feel comfy in an FPS without a full clip. Thankfully, this condition makes the ammo counter irrelevant. Note: Mirror's Edge doesn't bother with one because once all bullets are used in a weapon you can't reload it as you stole it off the guy with all the replacement ammo!

Rob Allegretti
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I'm a fan of "It's not a shooter...just run". There's a few times you had to use a gun, but it was to break a window or something. You can complete the entire game without ever shooting(nice achievement too).

I completely forgot about the time-slowing. I never really needed to use it.

As far as the little reticle goes, without having to shoot anything I had no reason to use it. I enjoyed the little bit of challenge added without runners vision, as if I was actually running the courses.

Another plus of that game is that - as a first-person game - you could actually see yourself. When you jumped you can see your own arms flail, or if you look down you can see your legs/feet. In a way, I found this to be a different sort of interface - one that was immersive and seamless.

Can't wait for a sequel...hint hint, nudge nudge, you know what I mean DICE????!11oneeleven

Bart Stewart
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The "Fictionalist"/"Systemist" classification is one that I've found useful for a number of years now, except that I refer to these interests as "live in" and "play in," respectively. That is, the Fictionalist wants a gameworld to "live in," while the Systemist is just looking for a place to "play in."

For the Fictionalist (a group I consider to include both the Socializer and Explorer Bartle Types), it's important that the gameworld be implemented and treated as an internally coherent secondary reality from both story (Socializer) and systems (Explorer) perspectives. Particularly when the gameworld is built on a licensed IP, these gamers care that the elements of the gameworld all flow from and support the fiction of the world. And other players are expected to respect the "magic circle" as well. Yes, satisfying the people who care about canon can require effort. On the other hand, once they trust you-the-developer to respect "their" world, they will happily give you their money forever. (The "New Gameplay Experience" of Star Wars Galaxies is what happens when you destroy the world that "live in" gamers were happily paying to live in.)

"Play in" gamers -- Killers and Achievers -- don't care much at all about stuff like lore; they consider development time spent on that stuff to have been time that should have been spent tweaking the loot drop tables or fixing "armor holes" versus certain weapons. They come to a new game looking for new sensations through new game rules and new content. They may use them but they don't care about your game's social features or detailed backstory; they're just there to win. Once they've burned through all the content (much of which they will characterize as boring or "broken"), they'll move on to the next new game along with their friends. And short of paying them, there's nothing you can do to persuade them to stay because they have no emotional or logical investment in your gameworld -- they're only there to play in it.

Certainly there are some oversimplifications here, but for the most part this model has, in my experience of games and gamers, pretty accurately rendered how gamers actually behave and why they behave that way. So I'm inclined to think the author of this description of an interesting study is onto something.

Although I wouldn't have called them "Systemists." ;)

Kristine Jorgensen
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Hi all, and thanks for intetesting comments!

To Bart Stewart I want to say that I'm not certain these categories can be transferred to Bartle's player types, but it would definitely be interesting looking into that. Also, I don't generally use the terms "fictionalist" and "systemist" in my research publications, but I believe these archetypes are illustrative in the presentation of a selection of the results from the study.

Kevin Rogers
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Although there isn't really a one-to-one relationship between these player types and Bartle's player types, there is certainly some overlap.

Certainly the "achievers" are going to be "systemists", i.e. they'll need to see everything: past progress, current progress, and what's necessary for future progress.

The "explorers" and "killers" are likely more "relativists"...

The "socializers" likely lean more towards "fictionalists"; as long as they can interact with others, a HUD doesn't really matter.

One additional point: It's certainly possible to craft a UI that caters to the entire gamut. For example, Farcry 2 uses something of a hybrid approach, placing some elements, like the world map, in the 3D world, but in a way that closely approximates a more traditional 2D UI. Farcry 2 also has the more traditional 2D elements, like health bar and ammunition, but only displays these based on context, e.g. the health bar is only displayed if you're taking damage or healing, and the ammunition quantities are only displayed when firing or reloading a weapon. So the HUD elements are only displayed as needed. It works very well.

Jeremy Glazman
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She laughs out loud, then states that "in this world you can define whatever you want there to be, it's not like things are very trustworthy in themselves."

That's an interesting comment from one of the Systemists that I found a bit odd; it seems reasonable that the player can always expect the world to at the very least be consistent with itself. If not, then its probably poorly designed.

I wonder what the gaming experience is for some of the people in this study. I could see how newb players might be 'surprised' quite often in video games by basic mechanics (making deep immersion more or less impossible), whereas seasoned gamers learn the rules/physics of their game worlds more quickly.

Jeremy Glazman
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I don't really see a conflict between immersion and the HUD. "Virtual reality" isn't necessarily required for immersion as the entire experience, even including the controls interface, needs to be considered. Like the study basically concludes, as long as the interface isn't jarring or intrusive it just becomes part of the immersion.

If you've spent enough hours staring at a game of Nethack in a console then you probably know what I mean; eventually you don't even see the ASCII as text anymore, they become the objects themselves within the player's imagination. (capital D's can be downright frightening in some circumstances...)

Kristine Jorgensen
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Jeremy Glazman: One of my findings is indeed that the world needs to be consistent with itself, although this doesn't mean that the player accepts the gameworld as fictional or engages with it as if it were a fictional world. This is however part of a longer debate.

There are also tendencies that supports your comment about seasoned vs less experienced players. Some of the most hard-core participants lean towrds the systemist side of the continuum, while some of the less experienced lean towards the fictionalist side. However, I believe genre is more important - for instance, Crysis players clearly tend to lean towards fictionalist interpretations while Command and Conquer players lean towards the systemist side.

Jeremy Glazman
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That's really interesting, I would have guessed the opposite! But I can see how that could be the case. I would have thought that new gamers would too focused on learning the controls and the rules of the game to enjoy the fiction, but I suppose this might be a factor of how complex the game is and the player's preference towards that particular fictional genre.

Michael Kurtz
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I think that you may be overlooking an important demographic in your study, and that would be the group of individuals who may be prone to becoming active gamers, but rarely touch a console.

It would be interesting if people who were unfamiliar with certain concepts of gaming would be confused by things like an integrated UI system, or if they would prefer it above health and magic bars!