Information versus noise
How important is the UI, or User Interface? Well, extremely. It is the way the game communicates and provides important information to players. Effective UIs provide only information that is crucial to players and leave out information that might be irrelevant. For instance, racing games, most of the time shows the speed at which the car is moving, sometimes the gear at which the player is and sometimes a mini map to indicate when and where the player would need to turn.
Now depending on what type of game you are within a genre, you provide more, or less information. Thus, Mario Kart does not have the same UI as Gran Turismo, one is a casual, kid friendly racing game, while the other is a more mature, simulator, racing game. Mario Kart does not need to show the player the gear a which the car is at, but must show the items which the player is holding for instance.
Game developers always try to identify what is noise and what is important. Some games thrive in providing as much information as possible, allowing players to choose which information they would like to see. Multiplayer action games usually have hundreds of things happening at once, and it is sometimes hard for developers to identify what each player would like to see.
Is it important for them to know the name of the player next to them? Or would they rather not have that tag above enemies’ head? When you hit an enemy player, would you like to know exactly how much damage was dealt? Or do you already know how much it does and the numbers floating around just seem messy and noisy?
What is the best way?
In terms of UI there is no right or wrong answer. But knowing your player base and adapting to your genre/type of game is necessary. Now even within a same type of game you might have different graphics and animations, and adapting your UI to that specific audience is also important.
Games like World of Warcraft took this to the extreme, or rather allowed the players to do so. With the help of addons players can customize what they see and don’t see, move it around, change colors, etc. Looking at some players screens might seem like a complete mess, but that player likes to receive that much information, and does not consider that as being noise. If you go to the other extreme, games like Limbo or some Horror games have little to no UI. Putting emphasis on the story, immersion and making it feel like you are playing a movie.
Is there an algorithm that perfectly designs UI for any given game or genre? No. But this is often one of the most overlooked components in any given game. It might seem futile to play around with the UI, but providing players with the right information at the right time is a key part in helping them understand what they need to do and how they should react to any given situation.
Now how does this apply to VR?
Unlike computer or console games, VR requires the UI to move around as the player does, and when he looks around, the UI needs to follow. But does it really? A static UI would mean that if the player looked left or right, the bullet count would always show at the bottom right corner of the screen. But it does not have to be that way.
Let’s get back to information versus noise. In virtual reality, this is a bit harder to figure out. If you place things such as life, bullet count or score at the bottom corners, you would sometimes require the player to look away from the action to see the UI. If you place things more to the center of the screen rather than at the bottom the player would see it with ease, but it might block the action, turning information into noise at crucial times.
Where do you find the balance? It is hard enough to identify what to show and what no to show the player, now you must figure out where to place to make it comfortable and work well with the game. One secret is understanding what the player is doing in the virtual reality game. Is it a shooter? Then the player will always have a gun at hand.
Now most of the time, the player will look where he shoots. If he looks away, he might be scouting the area around him. It would be smart to be able to have a clear vision when you are simply looking around the room and an effective UI (bullet count, charges, grenades) when you are shooting or in action. What if the UI is attached to the gun? This would in turn allow players to look around when they are scouting the area without having bullet and score UI, block the sight, while allowing them to have an effective UI in action.
This sort of creative thinking is what will set the tone for virtual reality games. Having a smart and effective UI in virtual reality is even more important than in other sort of games. You are essentially a robot, think about the way Iron Man or the Terminator sees the world. This is the next step. Smart, VR UIs.
Most games we see today in virtual reality are solely focused on immersion and experience. It’s more than just action, but rather immersive action. Having less information pop-up could be an option. But the key is to place the UI where it is needed, allowing players to experience the content, with as little noise as possible, all while providing crucial amounts of information.