Better Game UI’s in Less Time

June 10, 2015

Not long ago, user interfaces for games was something left until the very end of the development cycle. A month or so before shipping someone suddenly panicked and screamed: “We need to do the goddamn menu!”, after which a programmer (and if things were really lucky – an artist) were reluctantly assigned the task of “just doing something that works”.

Somewhere along the road things happened and around 2007, when ‘Colin McRae DIRT’ came out, most people in the industry started realizing that properly thought out and well executed UI’s were no longer a luxury but a necessity. Suddenly the need for specialized designers, programmers, and even dedicated producers was a fact.

Today, most AAA-studios have at least a few people working full-time with UI. Having been two of those for a large portion of our careers we’ve come to see the ups and downs of how UI-production is often handled. The following is, what we believe, a very simple way of getting better UI’s done in less time, and with a substantially happier team doing it.

Don’t start too soon.

The average development cycle of a AAA-game is somewhere around the 2-3 year mark. While there are games with highly complex multi-platform UI’s like Battlelog for Battlefield that without hesitation needs a considerable amount of time and people to get right, most games are actually pretty straightforward. What many studios do however, is to hire someone full-time on-site for up to three years working on something that could well have been executed in only a portion time.

The fact is that in most games, there simply isn’t much to design UI for before half of the production is done and the game mechanics and features have settled in. Sure, you can do some rough planning and visual concepts, but for the average title that can be done in a month or two. This misconception leads to one of two potential scenarios. Either the UI team has very little to do for the first half of production, or they start forcing premature designs into the game that will have to be redesigned and re-implemented later on.

A better way of doing this is to accept the fact that most game UI’s aren’t really that complex. There is a menu with settings, perhaps a lobby, a shop and some additional screens, the in-game HUD, and maybe some intro and end credits, but this is by no means a three year effort. If you start too soon you’ll not only waste a considerable amount of time and money, but (even worse) you’ll end up with a team lacking motivation from having to repeatedly redesign and re-implement things that could have been avoided. Don’t start until the game is ready enough to actually design a UI for.

Budget for two.

Another benefit of waiting until around halfway though production before getting started is that, assuming you still have the full budget, you can use this on two people instead of one. The way it’s usually done is that the designer is tasked to work on the UI full-time, whereas the programmer is not. Many times a randomly assigned gameplay-programmer is split between their regular tasks and implementing the UI, which is not optimal neither in terms of time or motivation.

Using half of the budget on hiring a dedicated programmer will not only ensure that there is enough resources for all implementation, tweaking and polish that is necessary to get the desired quality, but also that the entire process is much quicker and more rewarding for everyone involved.

Let them own it.

So, you’re halfway through production and the features and mechanics of the game work as intended. You’ve got a designer and a programmer. Now what? It’s actually quite simple. You leave them to it – letting them do their job.

What many people in the industry fail to realize is that UX- and UI-design is quite a specialized set of skills, very different from what is often falsely grouped together as just “art” or “graphics”. While the majority of 3d-artists, concept artists, and art directors are masters of shape, color and illustration, they often do not have the experience within usability, layout and typography that the UI designer has.

Obviously there needs to be discussions with the game designers regarding what is needed for the game, and with the art director regarding the general intent of style. There might also be initial planning laid out together with producers to set up a realistic schedule to work with, but letting the people with the right knowledge make the important decisions is as critical to a well functioning and good looking UI as letting the programmers actually program the game.

Then of course, you also get the added benefit of ownership, leading to higher motivation, better results, and a generally happier team as a bonus. So go ahead – save some time and money, make some people happier, and ship a game that works and looks better. We’re here to tell you it’s easier than you think.


1. Don’t start too soon. Wait until the game mechanics and feature set have settled in.

2. Budget for two people during half of the project, instead of one person all the way through.

3. Let them own it. Results will be better and everyone will be happier.

Jonas Salvador and Stellan Johansson have worked in-house for EA Dice, Splash Damage, Grin, Starbreeze, and Epic Games, and as external UI & UX consultants for major game developers since 2006. They have worked on UI’s for 15+ games, like Bulletstorm, Syndicate, Battlefield 4, SNOW, and many others.