The user interface (the current expression for GUI or graphical user interface) is how the player or user sees the displayed graphics and presentation of the game and communicates with the game through various commands, such as game controls, input devices (joysticks, mouse, steering wheels), on-screen interface (icons, buttons, gauges, score areas), timing mechanics (speed indicators or pressure gauges for hitting a ball or accelerating a vehicle), and text and messages to verbal commands through a speaker for game sounds or verbal responses.
The user interface is the most important aspect of a game since it is how the player sees and interacts with the product. A realistic sports game or an RPG with hard to remember or understand controls and screen buttons frustrates and often turns the players off from what could be a really great game. If players in the middle of a deeply involved and immersed experience have to stop to read a manual to figure out how to access the needed weapon or what command exits the room, they will be irritated and angry.
Cars operate and have similar features to all other cars, yet no two car models are exactly alike. People feel good about loading a game and feeling that the controls and screens look familiar and are easy to understand. A number of discussions at gaming conferences have been about how many levels a player should go in depth to perform a needed action. The designer should be thinking, “How can I make getting to this action command easy and logical.” If there are common game activities that are done on a more frequent basis than others, those commands should be placed in a convenient location where they can be accessed quickly and easily.
You might say, “Where’s the room for innovation?” There’s a lot of room and desire for innovation in gaming and user interface design, but the issue to debate is “innovation at whose expense?” If you decide to be innovative at the player’s expense and your design seems harder to the player, then it should be reworked or thrown away. If it seems hard to the player at first but over time becomes easier and players enjoy the innovation, then that’s a great thing. The thought of being innovative should include a default method, “following the rest of the crowd,” and your innovation as a bonus “better” method. Eventually, players will try your innovation, and if it truly is a better method, players, reviewers, and your competitors will emulate your innovation.
The user interface should provide easy-to-recognize icons, buttons, and menus. Placing “tool tips”—or little descriptions of the item when the mouse is over that location a second or so—helps the player understand the input control. Designing a mouse over and an on-click state of a button or icon, along with an audible sound, would also reinforce the input control. Placing pop-up menus or pull-down menus so they don’t interfere with critical screen elements is important. If you are in a strategy game where several of your units are about to attack your enemy’s stronghold and a menu blocks that section of the screen, you as the designer either didn’t understand your game from the player’s POV or the implementation of your design wasn’t clear enough in your design document.
In the design of your user interface, research is a crucial area. Read the reviews of similar products. What are the reviews and feedback from players saying? What mistakes are being made and could be repeated by your design? Then look at the competing products and understand why they have developed their UI in the format that they present to the players. Read Chapter 7, “Research” (again) and notice the evolution of the baseball games and military strategy FPS from their simple, first endeavors to today’s complex and highly competitive versions. If your game design is a baseball game, read about what you’re competing with. Notice their features, UI, team size, and budgets. Your UI design may be perfect, but it might require expensive technology and a budget or time frame that is unrealistic. Remember in Chapter 7 the two games that I dismissed as first-time endeavors entitled Intergalactic Council and The Lost Kingdoms? These two concepts could become a user interface nightmare if not planned out and tested properly.
In 2002, I was involved with a Civil War 3D strategy game developed by Walker Boy Studio entitled War Between the States. Here is an excerpt from the Walker Boy Studio web site (used with permission) on designing their user interface.