"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.