User Interfaces in Games

This post is going to be about different User Interfaces in games – I’ll list 3 that I think are successful, and talk about why I like them. Different genres need different interfaces, so 3 may not be enough to cover everything, but I’ll try and talk broadly about what works well.

Firstly, diegetic user interfaces. Diegetic UIs are interfaces that exist within the world itself; this means that the player may see that they’re injured because their character is limping, or their clothes are torn. An example is Dead Space:

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For those who haven’t played the game, the UI is famously entirely diegetic. The health bar is displayed as that line of lights on the player’s back; as the player loses health, the bar goes down and changes colour and when it’s empty, the player is dead. Similarly, the smaller semi-circle is the display for “stasis”, a resource in the game. The inventory is handled in real-time through a holographic display that the protagonist interacts with.

This is great for horror – not only is the inventory handled in real time (which adds to tension), but it also helps greatly with immersion. Since there’re no displays jumping out at you, it’s easy to forget that you’re simply playing a game, which is obviously great for horror. It’s used in other games, as well:

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This screenshot is from Far Cry 2, which generally used a non-diegetic interface (ie. minimap, ammo display). However, the map was both real time and diegetic, which added to immersion and made for interesting gameplay mechanics. Having to check your map while you were driving ended badly for many, many players.

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The final diegetic example above is from Metro 2033, which had (in my opinion) a fantastic UI. The game relied generally on in-world cues, such as the objectives existing on a clipboard (seen above). When on the surface, your remaining oxygen is displayed on a watch worn by your character, and the remaining durability on your mask is displayed by the screen cracking and breaking.

I think that it works well for immersion above all, which in turn is great for horror and story-driven games. However, I think there are quicker and more practical ways to do a User Interface, in my opinion. I don’t believe that a diegetic interface would work for something like Team Fortress 2 or any Mario game. For instance, I can’t imagine a way to display a score diegetically inside a Mario game, or how to display a scoreboard in a multiplayer game.

The next type of UI that I’m talking about is competitive FPS. I like them because they’re generally fairly simple, while still getting a lot of important information across quickly. Namely, I love the interface in Team Fortress 2:

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The UI has slight differences in each mode, and the above screenshot is actually a relatively empty example. This is Arena mode – the remaining lives of each team are displayed at the top, with the status of the capture point shown at the bottom. Ammo and health are shown at the bottom right and left respectively, with a small area designated for chat. The chat area disappears if nobody talks for a certain amount of time, which saves on screen real estate.

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Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is extremely similar, though it displays armour, selected weapon, remaining money and a minimap as well. I think it does a good job of doing so without taking up too much more screen real estate, though I do question if the mini-map could be placed somewhere else. I’m not sure where, honestly, but I know when I’m playing I spend most of my time looking at it (I’m not a good player). I think there’s probably a better way to display a minimap that lets the player look at it more easily and regularly.

On that note, I think that FPS games are one of the worst in the sense that they’re so rarely improved upon. I believe they do their job fine (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it), but I wish more developers would experiment with the tried and true formula. If they don’t, we’ll never see an improvement, whether or not we need one.

Finally, MMORPGs. MMOs are typically very interface heavy, and they’re interesting to talk about. The first MMO game I played religiously was RuneScape, because I was one of the coolest kids around;

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RuneScape isn’t necessarily the prettiest or best game, but it was the best free-to-play game around at one point. The interface has since been completely overhauled, but this screenshot shows what it looked like when I played, as far as I remember. I think it was fairly terrible, frankly – it takes up a ridiculous amount of screen real estate, and displays a lot of useless information. There’s no reason the inventory couldn’t collapse when it isn’t open, for example. They’ve since changed these things, but I haven’t played in a long time, so I can’t give an informed opinion of how it’s turned out.

The classic example, and the next big MMO I tried, was World of Warcraft.

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World of Warcraft has an alright interface. While it displays quite a bit of information, it does so without taking up an enormous amount of screen real estate. At the time of writing, the game is about 10 years old and still going strong, but the UI has only received minor updates from Blizzard. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the UI is great – a lot of fan-made addons have been developed to replace, alter or enhance the Interface, meaning a complete overhaul honestly isn’t necessary.

It does it’s job, and it does it fairly well. I used to think it was pretty great, until I played…

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This is a screenshot from Elder Scrolls online. This game displays all the same information much more concisely – obviously, it’s in keeping with the UI found in Skyrim, but with some MMO trappings. These two screenshots may not be a fair comparison, as the Elder Scrolls Online also shows a chat, XP bar and inventory, but the above screenshot doesn’t have them.

I think MMOs are in a tricky place, because they need to display such a large amount of information without taking up too much screen space. It’s a genre I think needs massive improvement by someone who knows what they’re doing. As I said with FPS games, there needs to be a drive to improve on these industry standards. I understand the risk – no small amount of money goes into these games, and several lives depend on their sales. Still, we’re already stuck into a rut with UI – this isn’t necessarily to say that the UIs are bad, just that at this rate there’ll never be an improvement.

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One response to “User Interfaces in Games”

  1. GeekSmarter says :

    Glad to see RuneScape show up in a well written blog post such as this. Kudos

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