Scaffolding ConceptsWhen you're laying out your game's UI, what you are really laying out is a map of concepts. The quickest way to explain a concept to someone is by making an analogy between the new concept and something they already understand. In teaching and education this is called "scaffolding" - by propping up new ideas with old ones, the new ideas are easier to comprehend. Life bars are used almost universally in games, and they build on the common concept that people understand from progress bars or gas gauges. If the bars are full then you have much more to go. If the bars are low then you're almost out.
- Are there any UI concepts or analogies here that will be totally unfamiliar to players?
- Can these new concepts be scaffolded with old concepts to make them easier to understand?
Strive for Consistency in Actions and ColorsWhen you introduce a UI concept to players, then you want to make sure you are as consistent as possible across the game. In accordance with the scaffolding concept we just discussed, consistency helps players understand what's familiar. The worst experience is teaching the player how something works, and then in another area of the game, it doesn't work as you've taught them. A great example of this done well is in the recent indie hit Papers, Please. The game asks the player to deal with a variety of items in deciding who they should let through the immigration border control. These include passports, permits, photographs, and more.
- When designing your UI elements, try to have consistency between them. Don't switch from one interaction type to another, especially if it's different throughout the game
- Make use of color to subtlely point out similarities between game elements to your players
Digit Span and ChunkingLet's do an exercise. Memorize these numbers, and then close your eyes and try to recite them from memory: 4930661 If you're just trying to skip ahead, don't do it. Actually try to memorize them, it will help with the illustration. Have you done it? Great! Now try these numbers: 5982385741 How did you do? According to research, the first set should have been simple, but the second much more difficult. Why? Studies have shown that people can only hold about 7 unique numbers in their head at a time, give or take two. This is called "digit span" and is the reason that phone numbers are 7 numbers (without country or area code). This concept can be used in a more abstract sense as well. If there are 7 ideas presenting themselves to a player at the same time, that's reaching the limits of what most players can handle. Beyond that it becomes jumbled and confusing. However ideas can be pulled together to form one higher level idea. This is called "chunking" and appears frequently in psychology literature around memory. For example, try and memorize these numbers 199020012013 This is much easier to memorize if you chunk them into years: 1990, 2001, 2013. Simple, right? Let's look at this example of digit span and chunking in games from Dark Souls:
- Health Bar
- Stamina Bar
- Up Item
- Down Item
- Right Equipment
- Left Equipment
- Interaction Dialog
- Life bar
- Mana bar
- Items bar (chunked together)
- How many unique UI elements does the player have to pay attention to at once? If it's more than 7, consider reducing them or chunking common ideas together
- Make sure that chunked ideas are interacted with in a similar manner
SummaryWhen you're designing the UI for your game, try and draw analogies to knowledge and concepts your audience will already understand (even if you are making something new you can still pull parts from common ideas). Keep your interaction styles and colors consistent in order to allow players to navigate through without being surprised. Limit the number of ideas or concepts you are showing at once to no more than 7 to keep from becoming too jumbled. All of these are rules and there are exceptions of course. But adhering to them will help to make your game more quickly understandable. With some smart psychological principles, good UI can help your players get through the menus and into the game world you've created. Good luck! For more information on how to build and design games and a game career, visit The Game Prodigy for a free 29-page eBook.
Article Update Log
- 10/23/2013 - Added another Papers, Please screenshot to make point clearer