Yesterday we looked at what types of backgrounds might be applicable to game UI design. Today we'll talk about the three main roles that the UI designer or artist might play in the game industry.
Types of Jobs: The UI Designer, the UI Artist, and the Hybrid
Every game development company has their own process for developing UI and there isn't one specific template you can try to fit into to become a game UI designer. Some companies have entire teams to handle their UI -- BioWare's credits list several UI designers for Mass Effect, a game with obviously huge UI requirements. Other companies have such minimal UI that they may not even employ a full-time UI artist, instead choosing to contract their UI work out or to pull an artist and a programmer together to make a UI team. And other companies may have UI designers that serve as a kind of service provider for the whole company, providing UI design services for all the games the company is working on rather than being attached to one specific project, and possibly additional services such as graphic design and user experience design for marketing and promotional materials.
But most companies need some kind of full-time UI designer or artist; let's take a look at the three main types of game UI developers.
The UI Artist
The UI Artist is someone whose focus is almost entirely on the look and art style of the UI. He or she may have little to no involvement in the bigger picture of the UI -- the overall flow, the user experience, or how the UI integrates with the game's design concepts. The UI Artist usually has very strong art or graphic design skills and is usually not expected to have any technical skills in scripting or coding. When a company has a UI artist on board, the more technical aspects of the UI are usually handled by a programmer or other technical artist, while a game designer tends to the flow of the UI and its integration with the game design. On some teams the UI Artist is paired with a UI Designer, who creates the map and flow of the UI while the artist creates the look and feel. The UI Artist with strong art skills is essential for art-heavy UI in games like RPGs.
The UI Designer
The UI Designer typically has a more top-level role in the design of a game's UI. Rather than creating art mock ups and UI art assets, he or she usually creates sketches and wireframes that map out the flow of the UI and how it will integrate with the core game design. The UI Designer will likely produce rough working prototypes of UI screens and transitions, but he or she will probably leave the final aesthetic design up to the UI Artist or the art lead. On some teams the role of UI Designer is played by a game designer. Some game companies look for UX (User Experience) Designers to handle the role of both the UI designer and the user experience designer. Depending on the tech structure of the project, the UI Designer may not need to do any actual scripting or programming, and instead may create sketches and wireframes that a programming team will turn into working UI. A UI Designer that can do basic scripting or coding, however, is likely able to work without depending on others to get rough prototypes of UI into the game for testing.
The Hybrid is, as you guessed, a combination of both The Artist and the Designer. The Hybrid UI Designer needs to function in both roles. First he or she will create rough sketches, wireframes, and working prototypes of large-scale UI maps and flow. Next he or she will create rough working UI screens in the game for testing and work purposes (since some game concepts require UI elements to fully function, even if those elements are roughed in). And finally, The Hybrid UI Designer will work with the art lead to determine the final aesthetic style of the UI and create the raw art assets needed to complete the UI's look and feel. In most cases the Hybrid UI Designer will have both art skills and technical skills but may not be an expert in either area, instead being a switch-hitter who can take the UI most of the way to completion and then allow artists and programmers on the team to bring the UI to its final completion and polish.
These role descriptions are only a rough guideline on the types of UI positions most game companies might employ, and the specifics will vary from company to company and even from project to project within a company. If Company XYZ's first game is a bare-bones shooter and their second game is a large MMO (massive multiplayer online) RPG, the type of UI person they'll need is going to be very different between the two projects. In all cases, The Hybrid UI Designer has the most varied skill set and will likely be the most successful at being able to easily move from project to project despite widely changing UI needs.