When you're a game developer and someone asks you how to get into the game industry -- which happens about twice a week -- they almost always mean, "How do I become a game designer?" or, "I have lots of ideas for games. How do I get a job where I can get paid for my game ideas?" (Hint: you can't, but that's another article for another time.) The question is almost never framed in the context of a specific position within the game industry, like a programmer or an artist. Most people tend to think of people like me who work in the game industry as having some kind of amorphous job title; in their minds the job description on my business card reads, "plays games all day" . But once in a while I get asked specifically about my job as a user interface designer for games, my qualifications, and how I got here. Every few months I'm asked the question, "how can I --" (or my friend, or my cousin) "-- become a game UI designer?" And I realized recently that it's time I laid out the answer in something I can pull up easily the next time the question comes up.
User interface design for games isn't glorious -- it's one of the less visible cogs in the machinery of making games, unlike programmers, artists, and game designers -- and this is one reason why I'm often surprised I get the question at all. But I'm always happy to get it, because the more qualified people there are going into game UI the better game interfaces will get over time. And if there's any question about the demand for UI designers, I can tell you that every couple of months I'm asked by some of the bigger companies in the industry if I'm interested in a position with them or know someone who's qualified. I'm not looking, since I'm happy where I am (Uber Entertainment, of course), but if the demand is still high by the time you're reading this and you're interested in this path into the game industry, it's a good time to be you. We'll spend the next few days talking about these topics in becoming a game UI designer:
- What Encompasses Game UI Design?
- Who is Qualified? A look at the different paths into game UI design
- Types of Jobs: The UI Designer, the UI Artist, and the Hybrid
- The Tools
- Getting Experience
- About Game Design Schools and Programs
- "How Did YOU Do It?" - Further Resources
What Encompasses Game User Interface Design?
A user interface designer's work is the glue that binds the player's input to actions in the game world; it can also be one of the ways that a player receives feedback from the game. The most common interface that people recognize in games is the Heads Up Display, or HUD. This is the overlay of information that a player sees in most games, and it frequently displays information such as health, ammo for weapons, what weapon is currently in use, and more.
Game UI also encompasses front end menus, such as options screens, server browsers, and other similar screens outside of the actual gameplay.
Who Is Qualified?
The path into game UI design can be approached from many angles. Let's discuss a few of them, going from most experienced to least.
The Web/App UI Developer: This person already has a background in UI design in another field. Since the principles of good UI design are the same no matter what you're designing UI for, such a developer is already halfway there. The web or application UI developer will need to translate his or her knowledge and skills into the world of games. Designing game UI uses the same set of skills and principles as web development and design or application UI design does: the UI needs to be communicative and easy to use. The additional skills the web or app developer will need to acquire are the ability to communicate game design information in an environment that is constantly changing and learning how to present what can frequently be complex game design mechanics in a way that is understandable, informative, and barrier-free. Later on we'll cover ways to practice these skills.
The Graphic Design Degree Holder: There aren't any colleges that offer a degree in game UI design, but there are plenty that offer degrees in graphic design. This is one of the most applicable degrees you can have if you're fresh out of college and want to work in games. Much of UI design requires graphic design skills, so if your education was focused on this, you've already got a foot near the door. If you fall into this category, your next steps should be to work on applying your graphic design skills to game UI and to educate yourself on the tech and tools involved.
The Self-Starter: What if you're not a web developer, app UI developer, or even someone with a degree in design? It's still possible to become a game UI designer -- I'm evidence of that. But you've got more work ahead of you than anyone else. You're probably doing design work on the side (or you should be), and plenty of working graphic designers are self-taught. Making sure you have plenty of work under your belt to show that you've got design chops is going to be the biggest task on your list.
Tomorrow we'll take a look at the three common types of UI jobs in the industry: the UI Designer, the UI Artist, and the Hybrid.