Sacrificing for Immersion: User Interfaces

It seems like more and more video games are taking elements that used to be simple parts of the user interface and turning them into elaborate 3-D interfaces. This causes me to question whether or not designers’ and programmers’ time would be better spent elsewhere Let me explain what I mean.

An example of what I am talking about can be seen in Assassin’s Creed 2 and it’s armor and weapons systems. In the game, your character owns an estate called the Monteriggioni Villa. This serves as a home base and as you accomplish more in the game, the villa displays some of your accomplishments and can be upgraded with money you earn throughout the game. The Villa also has a weapon room which houses all of the weapons you own; the same goes for your armor. Whenever you want you can go to rooms and swap items from the displays. The issue that I have with this is “Is all of that necessary?”. I could just as easily play the game where I could swap items from an inventory by pressing pause or an inventory button and scrolling through what I own. Certainly having the rooms gives some eye candy and perhaps a sense of accomplishment, but how much effort had to be poured into making it. How much better could other aspects of the game been if time was not devoted to that. If you play the game all the way through, you realize that the villa is essentially pointless. It does not really matter if you upgrade it or use it at all because there are other ways to earn money.

Another example of this  is in the upcoming Fable III. In this developer diary, Peter Molyneux proclaims “I want dressing rooms where I can change my clothes. I want armories where I can craft my weapons.” Really, is this what players want? A simple 2-D user interface could easily suffice for things like this. So I guess the real question is how much of a trade-off is it. Is it worth putting in the time and resources to make these 3-D interfaces for what is hopefully better immersion?

As a last example that I came across recently is the artisan system in Diablo 3, but it seems to fit the game much more than the previous examples I have given. The following video shows how the system works. The reason why I think this fits much better is that the system is used as part of the mechanics. If they did not put they system in this way, they would have had to implement a crafting system that the characters are responsible for. In this way, the artisan system give the player more freedom and also fits much more intuitively with the lore and feel of the game. Its not just something that looks good, it has a functional purpose as well. This system also mixed the use of the 2-D and 3-D user interface in order to be efficient and effective.

Lastly, I attended a talk by Clint Hocking at the NYU Game Center and one of the things he mentioned was how much time and effort was put into a single interface element in Far Cry 2. He said the interface for the map took up a lot of time and money and probably was not worth it.

In big budget games, we can be talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars spent trying to make user-interfaces for an attempt at increased mmersion, when a simple solution may have sufficed. I am not necessarily asserting that changing user interfaces from 2-D to 3-D is a bad thing. Merely, I am trying to point out that there should be some real reasons for doing it other than nice visuals and the hope that it is more immersive. It is possible to have good immersion and engagement without going 3-D.

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About Jonathan Frye

Ph.D. student at NYU. Game researcher. Game Design/Usability/Theory nerd. Research focus on psychology of players. RA for Games for Learning Institute. View all posts by Jonathan Frye

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