UI is the often unsung hero of game design. Serving as the go-between for player and game engine, much of our time spent gaming will involve staring at it, whether we realize it or not. Maps, health bars, ammunition, simple command prompts – this barely scratches the surface of what a UI might have to convey to us in as unintrusive (or failing that, stylish) a manner as possible.
The trappings of successful UI design can be kind of vague, but as a general rule, it will not leave players confused about core gameplay mechanics, take up too large a portion of the screen, or look too out-of-place with the game’s style. Fallout New Vegas’ VATS-themed UI would look jarring in Skyrim, for example. For the most part, we don’t notice when a game has average or good UI. But if it’s bad, everyone notices.
The Effects Of Bad UI Design
So before we get into examples of great UI in games, let’s take a quick look at some of the worst. Bad UI can make navigating the game world difficult. Terrible UI can make it outright harder, especially when that UI clutters the screen or makes us feel like there are too many buttons to keep track of. Weaker MMOs are notorious for falling into this pitfall by giving us too many windows and too much information at one time. Clutter is by no means exclusive to those types of games, though.
Most people can immediately look at this and feel it’s not streamlined; the visual style seems to contradict itself, and there’s too much happening on the screen. Although Lightning is engaged in combat here, there’s so much on display that it’s actually difficult to even see her lock-on reticle. The mini-map isn’t helpful when everyone’s in close quarters, either – it’s just pinning four circles to the same spot. The UI is giving us plenty of information, but that information is presented haphazardly, making it unpleasant to look at.
Conveying too much information can obfuscate what’s actually happening on the screen or make the game look ugly or cheap. On the other hand, presenting too little information can make players frustrated if they don’t have extensive experience playing the game. Striking a middle balance might seem hard, but again – we tend to notice when the UI has jarring shortcomings in fundamental categories like these. For the most part, UI designers have managed to learn what doesn’t work and keep it out of their games.
The Beauty Of Good UI Design
Making actively good UI is much more cause for celebration. Goalposts for “good” vary: some like their UI practical, others like it stylish, and others want maximum immersion. One thing most of us have come to appreciate in recent years is contextual UI – striking somewhat of a middle balance between immersion and functionality; contextual UI elements are only visible when it’s likely that the player will need them. A good example of this is Destiny 2.
In this screenshot, we’re able to see a few important details relatively quickly. The health bar of the enemy we’re aiming at is visible, but the enemy beside it is not. We see our gun types, ammo, super and ability status, and a small minimap. You might notice that the player’s HP isn’t anywhere in sight. That’s because just like enemy health bars, the player’s HP is a contextual element. If you can’t see it at the top of the screen, your HP is full. If you’ve taken damage, your health is displayed as a white bar at the top of the screen, above the reticle – making it easy to check while you’re aiming.
Others might consider UI to be better the more immersive it is, regardless of if it’s streamlined for maximum efficiency. These players might feel drawn towards games with diegetic UI – an interface that is typically explained as an in-universe item your character is looking at. In Persona 5, when players save their game, it’s displayed as Joker pulling out a diary and actually making an entry. Opening the command menu, on the other hand, has no such in-universe association. Whereas Destiny 2 has good UI for its streamlined feel, a game with a diegetic interface could be considered good for its immersiveness. It’s even better when in fits into a game’s highly-distinct visual style, like in Persona 5.
At the end of the day, many of us take these windows into the game world for granted – and that’s a shame. Next time you boot up a game you’ve spent a good chunk of time in, take a minute to appreciate what the UI design does right – whether it’s style, function, immersiveness, or all three!
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