Dino Ignacio is the UI lead at Electronic Arts for the Dead Space franchise of games. His work is at an interesting intersection point between fantasy and reality. It has fantastical design elements, and exists in otherworldly environments, but it also needs to be usable, so that players can enjoy the game. Dino took some time to talk about his work and his approach to these problems…
Q: How did you get involved in UI design for games?
I was interested in UI even before I knew what it was called. I remember growing up watching movies like The Last Starfighter, Blade Runner and Star Wars and fixating on the computer screens and the graphics on them. I remember being in first grade vandalizing (read: enhancing) the tree house in the school playground. I drew dials, buttons, screens and gauges on the inside walls to convert it to a rocket ship. Even further back, I remember being excited by elevator buttons and doorbells. I’ve been fascinated by UI for as long as I remember.
In 1994, I got an old 14.4 baud modem from a friend and discovered the Internet. I learned Photoshop, HTML and basic Java and started building websites. I started going to art school majoring in Fine Art Painting but dropped out 3 years later as I got more interested in the web. I created a website called Bert is Evil in 1996 that eventually won the Webby Awards in 1998.
I went back to college, this time studying 3D modeling and animation, and eventually started a career in motion graphics animation. I worked for GameSpot as their motion graphics producer and later helped start an Asian American music channel as its art director. After doing motion graphics for about 4 years, I applied for a job at EA to do UI for an unannounced title.
My demo reel at the time was mostly motion graphics and had a lot of floating elements and kinetic camera work. It was serendipitous that this was exactly what they were looking for. I was hired and eventually found out the game was Dead Space. My motion graphics sensibilities were a great fit for the franchise and I was able to build some really fun and radical approaches to UI.
Q: What do you see as the big differences between fantasy (non-functional), functional (for real-world ui), and game (which is functional within the context of the game) UIs? How does that affect how you approach designing for them?
Much of the amazing Fantasy UI (or FUI as I’ve heard it called) are designed to stimulate and excite the viewer. They’re meant to create a visual spectacle to further the mood and the narrative. They are never meant to be truly functional. FUI is over embellished by design because the perception is that the denser the interface is, the more high tech it must be.
Actual functional UI is the opposite. The main focus is usability and human-computer interaction. Unnecessary embellishments are stripped away for more clarity. There’s a current trend in UI design that is slowly eliminating skeuomorphs and ornamental elements. As cool as it is to see blocks of binary text scrolling over a diagram of a core reactor as arrows flash and numbers count down, this sort of visualization does not really work in a real world situation.
Effective UI is meant to communicate and is burdened by actual rules. All the text on screen needs to be readable and need to fit on screen even when localized to other languages. The colors used need to be discernible by color blind people. The layouts need to be very communicative and clear. Functions need to be mapped to buttons and need to be concise and clear. All this to say… real UI needs to be real.
Game UI is a fusion between the two. There is a definite need to give the design some character and embellishment. It needs to help guide the user into the game but there are also real functional requirements. In a game like Dead Space, we have sci-fi embellishments and ornamentation but above all that we have the functional layer of actual UI.
For example, like most action games, we have an inventory system but we designed it to function diegetically. It works fictionally as the character’s inventory as it lives in the world with him but it also works as the player’s inventory.
One puzzle we have on Dead Space 2 showcases a UI piece that fictionally appeared as a monitor in a surgery machine. Functionally, it was used by the player as a means to gauge if he was doing the puzzle correctly or not…
Game UI is the best of both worlds. We get to add some of the bells and whistles you see in Fantasy UI but also deliver actual interactions you see in functional UI.
Q: What are your design influences and inspirations?
My work is heavily inspired by the motion graphic work of Saul Bass and the design sensibilities of Dieter Rams. I’m a big fan of David Carson and his work in print. I also have a strong affinity for the works of Tibor Kalman.
Dead Space’s UI is specifically inspired by movies like Alien, Blade Runner, Star Wars, Minority Report and Brazil.
Q: Do you have a design process? Does it involve a lot of testing?
I start my design process on paper and quickly graduate to Photoshop, Maya and After Effects mock ups. As soon as I’ve convinced the engineers and my creative director on the vision we attempt to test it in the game engine. I come from a studio that loves to prove things in the game engine as fast as possible. We fail in engine as early as possible and continue to do so until we find a solution that works and is fun.
The UI team here at Visceral Games (the EA Studio responsible for the Dead Space franchise and Dante’s Inferno) is comprised of about 2 to 4 engineers and about 2 to 4 artists. The team tends to grow and shrink as the project moves from pre-production to production. We work very closely with our Creative Director, the Level Design team and our Combat designers. Since a lot of the UI we design in our games tend to be diegetic we also interface a lot with the environment and the animation teams.
Q: Any examples of how you approached some recent design challenges?
The Dead Space inventory system was an attempt to extend the game’s fiction into the resource management mechanic. Most games pulled you out of the experience when you are managing your inventory. You are usually transported into a safe and flat non-diegetic limbo where no one can interact or harm you as you moved your resources around. This was not a viable option for our game. We needed to keep the player engaged in the fiction. We decided that the inventory should not only live in-game, it also shouldn’t pause the game when you are using it. The intention was to maintain the tension and thrill of gameplay at every aspect.
This affected the layout and the design of the inventory. We had to make sure it was legible and manageable in different environments and lighting conditions. In Dead Space 3, where we introduced brighter snow covered areas, we had to re-tune the menu to be readable overlaid on a much brighter environment.
The locator system was born as a band aid to the map system. We had developed a rather intricate and stunning 3D map system in Dead Space 1. It overlaid a holographic map in the game space as you traversed the environment. The problem was that as cool as it looked; it was very hard to use. It did not auto-orient to the direction you were facing and it did not have enough granular detail to be readable. As a last minute fix, we added the locator breadcrumb system which literally drew a line on the ground to the next objective. There were two camps on this on the team. One group felt this would be bad as it would spoon feed the player with an exact path through the game. The other camp felt this was an excellent way to incentivize exploration and discovery. We earned that the latter was true. Designing a system that pointed you to the exact path to the goal allowed the level designers to hide treasures and other challenges in the beta paths.
Q: What’d be your dream project?
I would love to someday make the UI for a car or an actual space craft. I feel that we have figured out some things in game design that can be translated to real world UI. Designing UI for NASA or Tesla would be a dream come true.
Q: Interesting. Why’s that?
A lot of UI is designed to engage the user as a first read. Web or Device UI does not need to compete for your attention. The UI is usually the only experience at hand. This is not true of Game UI. It is constantly competing with the rest of the game for your attention. For a shooters and adventure games; the UI is competing with high energy explosions, artificially intelligent enemy systems, blaring audio and a barrage of other 60 frames per second elements. This makes UIs role in games very unique. It has to be both obvious but unobtrusive. We telegraph a lot of information by using a combination of sound cues, color changes and animation.
I feel Vehicle UI is the same. There is a barrage of real world information that you need to be engaged in when you drive and yet very important information needs to surface above the noise transparently. Like Game UI, Vehicle UI needs to be clear, concise and obvious. It does not have the luxury of Web and Device UI where you can scrutinize information for much longer. It needs to be immediate and to the point.
Another thing we have put a lot of research on in Game UI is button mapping. Game UI is something you need to operate without looking at the buttons. Keeping your eyes on the game is a crucial part of the experience. Looking at the controller to find the buttons is not optimal. We have spent a lot of time understanding gestures and muscle memory. We have learned that the location of buttons or the combination of presses tend to be associated to certain types of action. We have built a language around these associations. I feel that the analog buttons on cars can be treated the same way.
Q: Thank you!
This was fun – thanks.