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User interface 'shouldn't just be icing on the cake' says Double Fine's Kowalski
User interface 'shouldn't just be icing on the cake' says Double Fine's Kowalski
November 18, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield

"You really shouldn't think of user interface as just the icing on the cake." These are the opening words of Joe Kowalski, UI designer at Double Fine, as he addressed the crowd at GDC China.

"That first interface can be an effective hook. When you're setting a scene with an engaging menu, this is the first interaction players are going to have with your game. You can do interesting things with that, it doesn't just have to be 'new game,' or picking things out of a list."

"Sometimes the UI is really communicating something to the player without the use of language," he adds. "There are other ways to leverage these opportunities to create something different."

As a level designer, Kowalski has to balance two, often conflicting goals. Those are "to present information in a way that's easy to use and understand," and "to evoke the personality of the game in the work I create."

"When there's a conflict, your gut feeling is often to go with the first one, presenting information in a functional way," he says. "And that generally is good advice, but (there are times) when you should go for personality instead. ... This can bring out much more emotional responses in players."

UI can give a game an implied narrative, even if it's not explicitly about story. In Chess, for instance, the look of the characters you interact with gives you some idea of a story, since they resemble a royal court.

While a lot of good UI simply gets out of the way, he says you should go further. "Games are often trying to craft a unique world, so why not have an interface that can match that?" Kowalski was UI designer on Guitar Hero and Brutal Legend, both of which had unique interface design that informed the player about the world and the tone of the game, but also stood out within the game itself.

The Brutal Legend main menu interface, which has player flipping through a gatefold vinyl album cover, has some usability problems. Kowalski the first to admit that -- but it inspired a pretty positive reaction in players, because they could feel the love that went into the game. The menu made the game feel like a cohesive package, like unwrapping a new piece of vinyl.

"Inspiring a reaction is better than feeling nothing," says Kowalski. "Even if they hate it, at least you gave them something to talk about."

Gamasutra is at GDC China 2012, bringing you all the latest coverage from the event. For all the lecture reports and news, head over to our main GDC China event page.

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Maria Jayne
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I always find it shocking how little attention ui gets in some games. The biggest culprits for me are Console ports to PC, they seem so lazy and ill conceived. However even among exclusive PC games there are big divides between a well designed ui and one that just works. Everquest 2 gets plenty of flak, but I remember how many ways you could customize its ui and present the information you wanted, by comparison, 5 years after launch WoW still wasn't as good.

Given the nature of the ui always being the window to the game, you'd think it would get a little more love, a little more often.

Adam Rebika
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I believe there is a special circle in hell for the UI designers who, when making a console port to PC, don't include mouse support. They killed Beyond Good and Evil for me.

Roger Haagensen
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I agree with the article.
But for this to be successful something need to be fixed first.

4-6 videologos that can't be skipped, that always play when you start the game, that crap must stop.
The first time you start the game, fine. But the second time you should be taken -directly- to the game menu.

Publisher Logo, Publisher Two (somtimes), Studio, Other Studio (colaboration/porting), Nvidia or AMD or Intel logo, some other logo, copyright/antipiracy watrning, game title.
Then you stare at a screen that says "Press Start Button" (on a PC keyboard?) then you do so and get a game menu, where one option is "Singleplayer" you click that, then you get more choices, one of which is "Campaign" then you get more options one of which is "Continue Campaign". *sigh*

Now imagine going through that each time you start the game...
The second time should only be this:
A static image with the game logo, some logos of publisher/studio/cooperators/brands, and a startup loading bar. That's it.
And when the loading bar is full you get two buttons. One says "Continue Campaign" the other says "Main Menu". And if it doesn't get too crowded a "Quit" button would be nice too, but that could be tucked away in the main menu I guess.

Point is. The player start the game (for the second time) and can then select/click the "Continue Campaign" and boom the last save/checkpoint/whatever is starting to load.

Likewise when you are playing and what to quit. Why do you choose "quit" only to be taken to the itro screen, where you have to click the "start" button, and then you get the main menu where the "quit game" button is.

I should only have to do the following: I pause the game/bring up the menu, I choose quit, I get asked if I'm sure, I select yes.... and the game quits. No start menu, no main menu mess at all.

And games should not crash just because you Alt-Tab to your browser to lookup some game tips on the net. Proper games auto-pause when you Alt-Tab out.

Some of you might raise an eyebrow. But you would be surprised at how many games out there do behave this badly. The third issue here is rather PC specific, but the first two issues apply to console games as well.

And I'm yet to see any games truly take advantage of multiple monitors. By either spanning across them or by using a secondary monitor to display menus or maps or statistical info.

Other pet eves of mine are achievements and similar. At the start of a new game/new campaign the player should have an option there that says "Enable achievement notifications?" which defaults to unchecked.
Nothing worse than a notification going "bling" and obscuring part of the scenery.
If possible get the OS/Console setting for achievement notification (always on, never on, etc).
Also, achievements could be shown/tallied during chapter breaks where they would not be intrusive.

To me these things are instantly logical, why after so many years hardly any games get it right is beyond me. These 4-5 issues here should not be issues any more, yet they are...

Christiaan Moleman
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Pro-tip (for PC games):

1) Go to the game folder.

2) Find the sub-folder that contains all Bink videos.

3) Move unwanted logo videos to a new folder (call it "nah" if you like).

4) Run game. Enjoy lack of logos.

Works for most games that use this system.

I wonder if the reason opening logos tend to be unskippable is because publishers and middleware require it as part of their contracts... Otherwise can't think of any reason devs would not let players skip this.

Adam Bishop
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I used to work for a dev where the legal department required those logo screens.

As for achievements, that's a system-level thing that MS and Sony mandate. They can't be turned off on a per-game level.

I completely agree that it takes way too long to start most games up (NHL 13 takes a good 2-3 minutes just to get to the main menu!) but a lot of this stuff unfortunately isn't going anywhere.

Michael Rooney
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@"A static image with the game logo, some logos of publisher/studio/cooperators/brands, and a startup loading bar. That's it."

Is this really any better than showing videos while loading happens? There's generally a little bit of useless time while they play, but a lot of game initialization happens during those videos as well in my experience.

But yea, a lot of them are legal things. For example, I believe every Fifa has to show a screen with every league in the game for 2-5 seconds on start up.

"Point is. The player start the game (for the second time) and can then select/click the "Continue Campaign" and boom the last save/checkpoint/whatever is starting to load."

This used to be a bigger problem, but a lot of games are starting to do this better; guessing which menu item a player is most likely to pick and defaulting to that. I used to agree, but haven't found myself having as much issue lately.

Evan Combs
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I have never understood the need to have a "Press Start" screen before going to the main menu. It is just a waste in my mind. Just go straight to the main menu and forget the pre-main menu screen.

Adam Bishop
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The "Press Start" screen is so that the game knows which controller you're using. Unlike on old consoles with wired controllers, it's no longer assumed you're using Controller 1 even if it's just a single player game.

Ron Dippold
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I did indeed love the Brutal Legend UI. It was perfect for the setting and really pulled you in from the start (especially for someone who can remember opening a gatefold LP in the days when a cover mattered).

Then the surprise RTS saddened me, but that's another issue.

Michael Rooney
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Just out of curiousity, if you had known it was an RTS beforehand would you have been upset? I agree I was upset by the surprise, but looking back I probably would have enjoyed the game if I had just known beforehand what to expect from it.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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Michael, it probably would have caused me to pass on the game initially, as it rightly turned out to be yet another failed attempt at making an RTS title work on consoles.

It's honestly still one of my biggest disappointments ever-the demo (And previews, which were purposely misleading-do recall that it was strongly suggested that the rts stuff was specifically a multiplayer mode) gave the indication that the game was going to be essentially an open world God of War/Zelda style experience.

And god, those first couple hours of game were absolutely incredible...but as it started becoming clear the -entire- campaign was a soft tutorial for the fully featured multiplayer mode, I became pretty disenchanted with it. EA pushed it pretty hard as well, so one wonders what their culpability was in the marketing of it/putting out a half-finished game (as it was also so starkly obvious that there was meant to be a final area and group of quests).

Still a charming, beautiful game with tons and tons of fun snappy dialogue, but it's hard to overlook the significant flaws in it.

On the subject that Ron brings up (the one pertaining to this article), I still think the intro menu and UI is about as good as it gets-I still regret never getting the reproduction album sleeve for the game.

Ron Dippold
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@Michael and @Kellam: I would have gotten the game anyhow. I expected the writing would be entertaining and funny, and it was. Running around in the car and beating things up were both fun. And I loved all the classic rock references - nostalgia in the house!

Then, yes, I think I would have at least been prepared for the surprise switch in mechanics. To be clear, I still have good memories of the game (with the RTS sections reduced to a vague blur), and maybe I should play it again and see how it feels on second run.

Christiaan Moleman
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The Brutal Legend menu was amazing. Really felt part of the world.

Roger Klado
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can't even begin to give Brutal legend UI due consideration till it is released on my platform ( console controller challenged handicapped )

I would never had believed that I would not ever have a chance to enjoy Brutal Legend some day... ( being a Rabid RAZ fan. Whut a nightmare. )