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GUI Thoughts

April 13, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about the GUI (Graphical User Interface) lately, which is a lot less complicated than it sounds. It basically means the menu. Most people just kind of dismiss this, thinking that the main gameplay design is far more important. Well, it is far more important. That’s as true as it gets. But that doesn’t mean that the GUI should be ignored. Many people who play games (myself included) don’t ever think about the GUI at all, unless it becomes an obstacle between them and the game. Most PSN, Wiiware, or XBOX Arcade games have a very simple menu system, because they usually don’t have as many parts as a retail game (with many exceptions). The menus don’t add much to the game, or take much away. When the GUI is poorly designed, or unintuitive, it makes itself known. Ever had an experience of wrestling with a menu? Perfect Dark Zero comes to mind, but there are many games with bad interfaces. Non-RPG players may have been lost in the Oblivion or Borderlands menus, for example. Maybe not everybody, but the main issue here is when the GUI stops the player from being able to play the game.

Lode Runner main menu

Most XBOX Arcade and PSN games have very simple interfaces. You never really have to think about them.

Braid manages to bypass this problem entirely by starting the player smack dab in the middle of the game. This is a great approach, because again, the menu shouldn’t come between the player and the experience, but it doesn’t work for every game. Halo, for example, has more than one main mode (multiplayer and singleplayer), so this approach would not be ideal. Tons of games fall into that category, and I’m sure you can think of ten right here on the spot. I mean, essentially anything with multiplayer or more than one main mode will require the user to make some kind of choice before they start playing the game. The difference between a good GUI and a poor one is the usability, intuitiveness,  and speed at which the user can access whatever feature they want. If the player needs to press the A button 17 times to get from the boot-up screen to the game, you have an issue. Is it possible to get rid of the GUI all together? Sure. Atari games, for one, but there are many times when it might be appropriate.

fallout menus

Uh.... what?

So, this was only brought to my attention because I’m working on the GUI for my game, Starlight, and I thought I might explore it. It’s difficult to really dive in deep with the topic, considering it really is just a menu. Is there a way to make GUIs more interesting, both visually and design wise? It’s a cool idea to explore. My goals for the Starlight interface is to provide a way for users to get into the game very quickly if they wish, to find any options very easily, to have the menu be visually unique, and to match the style of the game.

So there you have it. Menus. Pretty exciting stuff, right? It’s not very hard to make sure that a menu works well and preserves flow, but because it isn’t as importaint as gameplay or something, it’s easy to brush it off and end up with something that confuses the user terribly. Just like any other aspect of game design, you should probably put some thought into it.

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