The advent of cinematic quality graphics in video games has spawned some discussion about certain design conventions. Specifically, the HUD (or Heads Up Display for those of you who disdain the pervasive use of acronyms in technology) has been pegged by media sources as ripe for removal. I blame this development squarely on two factors: game that are suddenly designed to be playable without a HUD, and the mass majority of people who don’t understand good design principles and think that no HUD is The Future of Gaming.
If you are reading this, chances are that you read Chris’ post titled Disrupting Immersion, over on Only a Game. Chris covers the gist of the discussion, the positions of the two “sides”, and then gets to the crux of the issue. The issue is immersion; creating it, fostering it, keeping it. With the ability to produce a more realistic world than ever before, questions are arising about how much information we need to display and how much we can passively convey.
There are more ways to convey information about the game state to the player than just telling them outright. The most obvious is to project the physical information into the environment. Stuff gets deformed, or blackened, or otherwise damaged. Injured players move slower, or limp, reflecting their inner state in an outer way. Advancing physics simulation adds to the ability to display these kind of things realistically. Combine this with ambient sounds that reflect the state of your environment, and you are a step closer to really great immersion.
Force feedback has been another slight improvement in the same direction. Pulsing the controller is a good indicator of urgency. Shaking it with nearby environmental effects creates a sense of proximity. These push the user towards a more intensive experience. Combine these kinds of feedback in the right way and it becomes very possible to create a game with no need to display any other information. The information can simply be gleaned from the environment provided. So long as the player is looking.
Pitfalls of the Zero HUD path are often missed. If you are designing your game in such a way as to make immersion necessary to play well, then you are doing something wrong. Without argument, immersion is a wonderful thing to strive for, but not everyone will have an environment that is conducive to it. Not everyone has a 50” television with full DTS 5.1 Theatre Surround Sound. Some people find the vibrating controller distracting. Not everyone is going to see the feedback elements you have so cleverly worked into the environment. If removing any of these immersive feedback elements produces a barrier to play, then you have limited your audience and the effectiveness of your game.
There is also no way to convey certain physical aspects of your game world through visual, auditory, or simple physical stimulation. There are things in the real world that we would take for granted that cannot be conveyed easily without a sense of touch. For example: it has been suggested that futuristic shooters could do away with the traditional bullet count display by integrating it onto the weapons themselves. Doom 3 did this (at least for one or two weapons). But how would you convey the same information in a Wild West themed game where your avatar has a handful of bullets that he carries in his pocket? Would you force the player to push a button, then force him to count them himself? In real life, you’d be able to take a quick estimate by feel. It would be instantaneous, if somewhat less than accurate. That kind of information simply cannot be conveyed in a HUD-less system.
Okay, I think that I’ve made my point. Some games require some way to communicate information to the user that cannot be communicated through the environment. Games should ensure that players have all the critical, and at least some of the desired, information when they need it. Regardless of their immersion factor. The answer it would seem, is some form of HUD. But how to design something that will not break immersion for those who have it (and want it)?
I am a volunteer sound technician at my church. I’ve been doing it for years; I started when I was in High School. When I was first learning what all the buttons, and sliders, and knobs did, I shadowed one of the best sound techs I could. Of all the things I was told, one thing remains the most fixed in my head. He told me that when I was doing my job well no one would notice. And it’s true. If you make a mistake, everyone knows – it’s embarrassing. If you do everything right, you become invisible, part of the background. The HUD of a game should be the same way.
Designing things is hard. It takes a long time to learn good design from bad. It takes practise to know what information is useful and what is worthless. It takes wisdom and patience to craft something well. It takes a great deal of humility to pour effort into something that no one will take note of. Not everyone, even with all of these esoteric qualifications, is capable of creating good design.
And it is not to say that a good HUD is the equivalent to an inconsequential HUD. It is not that you are trying to craft something that people can (or will) ignore. Those with the inclination to observation will see your work; those who review, or critique, or design things themselves. It is that the majority of people will so take for granted that it is there, that they will not notice it consciously. It can only do this if it provides what they need, without difficulty.
I don’t pretend to know how to create brilliant design. I don’t yet have a working vocabulary for it, let alone a basic rule set to get myself started with. But there are people who are beginning to think about design, and how it affects us. What I do know is that good design (in hardware, software, or interface) is intentional. It does not just happen, and it cannot be added as an afterthought. A good HUD starts with the first design.