Last year I have interviewed a number of game developers and interface designers as a part of my postgraduate research. These interviews are tailored for research into narrative potential of videogame interfaces; however, they provide useful insights into the mindset of interface design and how it ties into game development.
The following are my interviews with Jono Yuen, an graphic interaction designer and illustrator, and Simon Ortiz, an independent developer formerly working with Platinum Games.
1. I like to start these off with a short introduction. Tell me about yourself, the kind of work that you do and what lead you to a career in graphic design. What are some of the projects that you have worked on which stood out to you on a personal level?
My name is Jono Yuen, I’m a designer and illustrator living in Melbourne, Australia. Primarily, I have been designing interactive experiences for over 10 years, but my interests often take me
outside of that.
I’ve always loved drawing and animation since I was little, so a career in design or art was all I ever wanted to do. On a commercial level, the Telstra: Store of the Future project was definitely a highlight. It’s rare for these projects to come along and to be given the opportunity to play a creative role in that was amazing. We created several interactive experiences for the store using the latest technologies like object aware surfaces, large format touch screens, RFID, interactive projections etc. The whole process of working with unusual form factors, various UX challenges, and designing a cohesive interface that span across multiple experiences was so exciting.
On a personal level, I’m working on my own game project called ‘Skate Bums’ with a friend of mine, which challenges me to wear several hats. It’s fantastic to have a project where you create everything from scratch. It’s been challenging but very rewarding at the same time.
2. Let’s talk about hudsandguis.com. How did your website came to be and what inspired its focus on GUI design?
HUDs+GUIs started 6 years ago now. Wow, can’t believe it’s been so long!
It started not long after Minority Report came out. I found myself doing research for a gestural interface I was creating for a job, and was looking for anything I could find. I had collected a bunch of research but it wasn’t easy. There really wasn’t much around, and I found it hard to find the type of work I was looking for. Then it occurred to me that perhaps I should share what I had found, so that it could help other people doing the same thing. That’s how the idea of HUDs+GUIs came about, also thanks to my wife who prodded me into action!
From there I thought about what else it could be, and it evolved into a site that showcased the best examples of HUDs and GUIs. At that time, motion graphics was all the rage, and I had remembered a time before that, before people were talking about it, before ‘motion graphics, or mograph’ became a common term. I had attributed part of the success to the awesome site www.motionographer.com that Justin Cone started. I had hope that HUDs+GUIs would do the same for this obscure area of design.
The goal of HUDs+GUIs was to promote conversation about this area, and to put a spotlight on it because some of the work is truly amazing.
3. How does your process of selecting interfaces to display on the website work? Do you have a set of criteria that you apply when curating the content?
There’s definitely a lot to consider when reviewing interactive work, and it differs across various platforms. FUI in films, games, vehicles, products etc all have different reasons for being and challenges, so curating each one is quite different. Some common considerations would be…
– Was it creative or innovative?
– What challenges were involved and how have they been resolved?
– Visual and Audio communication – was the execution of the design, animation, and sound etc effective in communicating information or function?
– Was it believable? Or did it feel out of place in the story or film and therefore
pull the viewer out of the experience?
– What was it’s impact on the film/story/society?
– Does it solve a problem elegantly?
– Does it offer food for thought or raise interesting discussions?
This does not reflect negatively on any work that’s not featured on there. It’s difficult to select work, but the goal is to curate the works with content that offers something new or worth discussing at the time. This is also a shared effort with lots of people sending through links they’ve seen. There’s a really great community of people helping with that.
4. What, in your mind, separates good interfaces from bad ones? Can you name examples of both?
Essentially a bad one would be one that doesn’t achieve the goal it’s set out to do. If it’s a practical application, then it’s when the user is unable to accomplish the task they set out to do. On the other hand a good one would be where the user is able to accomplish the task efficiently, intuitively and if possible enjoyed doing it too. In film or games, the bad ones often pull you out of the story. The good ones feel naturally and believable.
The first one that come to my mind from films is the first Iron Man movie, where Tony Stark uses a holographic model to build his suit. There’s a scene we he puts his arm in a holographic glove to test it, which was amazing when I first saw it. The interface was visually stunning and you could immediately understand how useful it could be.
A bad one? Probably some of the smart-watch interfaces I’ve seen and possibly some smartphone interfaces, where they haven’t properly considered the form factor and the interfaces feature tap targets that are way too small and aren’t tappable by a regular sized finger. Sometimes they’re trying to fit too much into a small screen. These types of interfaces fail badly and are pretty much unusable.
5. What do you find are some specific challenges of designing interfaces that do not occur with other forms of visual communication?
I guess there’s probably a lot more problems that can happen with an interface as opposed to a printed form of communication like a poster for example.
– There’s challenges in teaching users to learn a new way of interacting
– Balancing functionality with the overall experience
– Making things intuitive
– Considering errors that may occur
– The way people interact with interfaces changes constantly
– Creating for new devices, new form factors, new technology
These are some examples.
6. Do you find that you need to vary your approach when designing for different kinds of media? How is the UI of a website different from that of a piece of productivity software, an operating system or a video game?
Completely. Each one has a different user need and experience. You have to tailor content specific to the way the user will be digesting or interacting with it. One solution does not fit all. You are dealing with so many varying factors, for example a video game can be single minded, whereas an operating system is not. The game usually allows you to do one thing, play the game. On the other hand the operating system must allow you to do an unlimited amount of tasks like word processing, browsing the internet, file manage, watch videos, email, you name it! Another relevant example is mobile devices. When you use them, how you use them, where you use them is completely different than a desktop experience. So you need to consider how the user is going to use your interface and tailor your design to that.
7. In your capacity as an interface designer, you have worked with UX specialist, software developers and other media professionals. What are some of the challenges of this kind of collaboration?
Currently there’s a huge emphasis on UX. I often find the best solutions are a balance between UX and design. Sometimes UX can get in the way of trying something new, but if UX is done properly you can find a way to do something for the first time and allow it to be intuitive enough to learn.
As a designer I think you’re inherently a pretty flexible person and can adapt. So working with others shouldn’t normally be an issue. I think the challenges happen if you don’t have the right people. The best is when you work with people you can trust and rely on.
8. How important is the role of visual design in terms of the overal functionality of GUIs? To what extent is a graphic designer involved in the more technical aspects of interface design?
It’s very important, along with UX, design ensures that the interface is intuitive. Design can dictate hierarchy and create urgency. It can even set a tone for the experience, an interface can be enjoyable to use or stressful.
In certain instances like driving interfaces it can have potentially life threatening consequences. For banks, bad design and visual hierarchy could cost millions of dollars. It is very important.
9. How do you approach testing? How often do you need to test out the elements of a UI throughout its development process and what methods do you employ?
Testing is essential for real world executions. It’s definitely important to test during the conceptual stage, and it doesn’t have to be overly formal. Testing could involve creating a basic working prototype and testing it in it’s final environment. The more opportunities you get to test in the final environment the less unwanted surprising you have at launch. You could get people to use it and observe how they interact with it. You could also set tasks for them to do and see how they go about achieving those tasks naturally. I also sometimes create motion prototypes as it’s relatively quick to do and it could be a rapid way of testing ideas.
10. You are an illustrator as well as a graphic designer. Do you ever find there the be an overlap between illustration and GUI design? Have you ever used illustration as a UI element?
Not a huge deal, of course there are principles in illustration that relate to design and vice versa, but I have yet to really find a need to blend both. I’d say if you were implementing icons, then illustration is a good skill to have.
11. GUI design has a reputation for being a very down to earth, purely functional area of graphic design – interfaces are often considered to be at their best when the users don’t notice they exist. Do you believe there is potential for UIs to be pushed to the forefront of user experience – for example as a game mechanic or a narrative element? Do you follow the ‘UI should be invisible’ rule with your own work?
It really depends on what the interface is for and the environment it is in. For UI in film it is sometimes necessary as a plot device to progress the story. For something very functional like a smart home, you probably don’t want to spend your time fiddling with dials, you just want it to work. It’s a means to an end. For educational purposes perhaps the interface needs to be apparent and assists in the learning process, where the interface itself is fun and the attractive element. There’s definitely a time and place for it.
1. Let’s start with a brief introduction. Could you tell me about yourself, your work as a game designer and the areas that you specialise in? How did you get into game development and what are some of the projects you have worked on?
I’m a programmer. I worked for 4 years in Platinum Games Inc., a Japanese AAA game developer. I specialised in systems and tools programming, and sometimes I helped with NPCs.
Afterwards, I tried to co-found an indie studio. I was programmer and game designer.
2. To what extent are you involved in designing the user interface? What impact does this have on your specific role?
In Platinum Games I wasn’t involved in UI. There was one programmer dedicated full time to UI programming, and there were between 1 and 3 designers working in UI alone, depending on the development phase.
For the indie studio I was in charge on UI programming, but not UI design. That was handled by a UI/UX designer.
3. When designing a game, how important do you find user interface design relative to the rest of the development process? Where would you place it on the list of priorities and how much does it affect other areas of development?
In Platinum Games, UI was high on the priority list. Being AAA games, you can’t be cheap on any aspect of the game. There was one full time programmer and between 1 and 3 designers assigned full time to UI work.
In Platinum Games, UI usually has low impact on other areas of development. You could consider UI to be a very independent aspect of the game. Sometimes, UI has high memory requirements, so an agreement must be made so there is enough memory for all the UI models and effects to work, but so that there is also enough memory for the game proper. I remember a time in which the UI programmer, the lead programmer and my self were working on getting all the memory necessary for UI, since UI required displaying high-resolution models of the characters to show where would each item be worn by the player. In the end, we had to allocate more memory to UI so that all the weapons and items would fit in memory. This, of course, means that there is less memory for other areas of the game, but we managed.
On the indie studio, UI is very important. Being minimalistic games, you need the UI to tell the player everything she needs to know, without being overwhelming.
4. How much impact do you believe the quality of the interface will have on the final product? What do you find are the benefits of a well-designed UI and how much damage can a bad UI do to a game overall?
A bad UI can break an otherwise AAA game. I remember an occasion in which a player was playing a AAA title (Metroid Prime) and was complaining that the map and its UI was impossible to understand. The game was impossible to navigate for this person, and soon she gave up. Personally, I remember playing Vanquish, and being constantly confused about whether I had enough ammo or not, because the colours chosen to signal current weapon were the ones usually used to signal no-ammo. This was very confusing and took me a very long time to overcome.
A bad UI for a minimalistic game will leave the player in darkness or overwhelmed.
UI is definitely important, but UI is only one ingredient of a great game. UI alone cannot save an otherwise bad game.
A well designed UI will tell the player all she needs to know, and won’t show superfluous information. Also, a good UI conveys a big part of the look-and-feel of the game, or the feeling of the game world. For an action game, the UI will move fast, and rumble, or be explosive. For a puzzle, the UI can be quiet and not distracting. Etc.
5. How would you define a good or a bad UI? Can you name examples of games you believe stood out in their use of the UI, both in the positive and the negative sense?
Good UI: Tells the player what she needs to know, and conveys the feeling of the game.
Bad UI: Confuses the player, overwhelms the player, is too decorative without providing information.
Excellent UI example: Shadow of the Colossus. There is almost no UI. There is a circle representing how long can you hold onto a creature, and a bar representing your life. That’s all. Absolutely no unnecessary UI, gives me all the information I need, the style of the UI is very spartan, which matches the feel of the game of one human alone battling gigantic creatures.
I don’t have examples of very bad UI in games.
6. Do you find that visual design has a significant impact on the overall quality of an interface? Do you believe that a UI should be developed by a graphic designer or do you think other members of a development team are more qualified?
Certainly, UI should be designed by someone that understands about UI. In Platinum Games, the UI artists would specialise on this area. My understanding is that they are a team of graphic designers.
In indie games it’s a different story. Not every team can afford to have a UI expert, so someone else might wear the UI designer hat every now and then.
7. Can user interfaces convey any benefit onto the player other than functionality? Do you see potential in the idea of using the UI as a game mechanic in its own right?
UI can convey the feeling of the game. A good UI can take the player deeper into the game world. For example, Bayonetta 2. The UI is flashy and fast paced, just like the game. When a battle ends, there is a bit of peace for the player, and also the UI reflects this by showing calming tones and by moving slowly.
About using UI as a game mechanic in its own right, I think it is possible. Video games are about breaking the limits of creativity. There could be a new genre of UI-centric games, but I fail to imagine what these games look like.
8. A number of games have started integrating their user interfaces into their narratives and mechanics in order to subvert player expectations and break the fourth wall – examples of such games include the likes of Pony Island or Calendula. Do you see this trend developing into a full-blown genre? Would you like to see more games attempting to use interfaces in innovative ways?
It’s hard for new genres to emerge. I this use of UI is very interesting due to its novelty, but I don’t know if it will last the test of time. I think players tend to gravitate towards worlds that feel alive and are consistent. A UI that is constantly breaking the fourth wall, that doesn’t let you play the game, feels too far from the comfort zone of most players.
I can see UI being used in more creative, yet mainstream, ways. For example, Splinter Cell Conviction’s use of UI projection.
I would like to see games use UI in innovative ways. That’s the point of video games. To break the limits of creativity.