Yesterday we continued our series and discussed the tools that game UI designers and artists use. Today, let's talk about how to get experience when you're outside the industry and interested in getting in.
Whether you're the experienced app developer looking to transition into game UI or the self-taught designer, you'll need to build a portfolio of work that shows you understand what goes into making good game UI. App developers and graphic designers have an edge in that some of their work will naturally cross over into overlapping UI territory, but how do you build a game UI portfolio if you're starting from Square One? You'll need to start working on personal projects, and here we'll talk about what form some of those projects might take.
To make good game UI, you have to play games and really study their UI. By taking your favorite games -- or your least favorite, if you think that poor UI may have contributed to your dislike -- and dissecting the UI, you can show some critical thinking about what goes into making good game UI. If you keep a blog, you might consider writing a case study of a game's UI, detailing what design decisions you felt were smart and which ones you felt weren't so smart, and include some redesign thoughts and sketches along the way.
A cautious note about case studies, however: it's easy to get negative and to sound less like you're offering a view into solving interface problems you encounter and more like you're slagging on another UI designer's work. If you're going to reinterpret someone's UI work or work, do it with respect, and with the knowledge that you weren't on the project and have no idea what technical or other limitations the UI designer was constrained by. I'm guilty of having done a case study or two in my day that focused on being too critical.
Mock UI Designs
Another way to gain skill and show a breadth of design and aesthetic understanding is to create mock UI designs. You can choose to reskin an existing game or design the UI for a game you've created hypothetically. These can be static images of typical front-end UI screens, such as main menus or Options screens, or in-game UI screens such as HUDs or scoreboards. This is a great way to bolster your graphic design skills if this is an area that needs development in your skill set.
Interactive UI Prototypes
You can take the idea of mock UI designs one step further and make them interactive prototypes. Using a program like Flash allows you to create mock front-end screens and show artistic transitions as well as the flow and navigation through a typical game UI. If you've played a game and thought that the designers could have handled a particularly complex UI a little better, this is a way to plan that out and then create it so that someone can interact with it and see your better idea in action. It also allows you to practice some basic scripting skills in Actionscript if you need to develop your coding and scripting skill set.
Small-scale game projects and mods
The logical conclusion to this chain of self-study projects is to create a full application or small game in which the UI is your showcase piece. If you're into mobile development and use iOS you can download the XCode SDK, teach yourself the Objective C programming language, and create an app or small game that features a well-designed UI. But you don't need to develop a full game or app for the iPhone -- you can keep it simple and do it all in Flash. You can even download EpicGames' Unreal Development Kit and have access to virtually the same tech that many game companies use to actually make their games and UI, including the Scaleform UI system, and make a small game. This idea may be the most work-intensive, but it's also the surest way to show many things: that you can learn new tech, and that you can plan a project, begin it, and see it to completion.
If you don't want to go the full-scale project route, you can try your hand at creating a mod (short for "modification"). Many games allow you to make modifications to gameplay, UI, and more and then release them for other players to download and try out. Blizzard's World of Warcraft and Starcraft II are two such examples, and some PC first-person shooters and RPGs provide the tools to do this as well.
What About Game Design Schools Or Programs?
There's been a huge rise in the amount of specialized game design programs at colleges, universities, and schools dedicated to the subject. If you want to become a game UI designer, your question might be, "shouldn't I just enroll in one of these programs?"
You'll find a wide variety of opinion about the usefulness of these specialized game courses, and mine is just that: an opinion. I don't have any direct experience with these programs and have only worked with a small handful of people who've graduated from them. The quality of these programs will vary just as the quality of any degree program will vary between institutions. My experience with colleagues I've enjoyed working with who've been through these programs is that it isn't the program or degree that turned them into game developers -- they were highly motivated to begin with, and they had a love of games and making them that would have manifested regardless of where they got their education or what kind of degree they got. Most of these game developers began making games in their spare time with many of the tools discussed here and learned the most valuable skills simply by making games.
As it relates to game UI design, my advice to anyone asking the question above would be to get a degree in graphic design, and possibly a double major or minor in computer science, because the skills you learn for making good UI go above and beyond games, and they apply to any industry that employs UI designers. And you may find yourself someday wanting to move out of games, so having a broader set of skills that are applicable to other industries can only benefit you.