Yesterday, we talked about how to get experience you'll need to build good game UI; today I'm going to tell you about my own path into a career in game UI design and then give you a few resources to get you started.
"How Did YOU Do It?"
Right off the bat I'm just going to tell you that my own story of how I got into the game industry and became a UI designer is a poor example to follow only because the path I took is pretty winding and indirect, and huge, overflowing buckets of luck played a big part in the opportunities I was able to take advantage of. But I'll tell you the abridged form of my story anyway since most people ask, and parts of it still help answer the question this article is addressing.
I graduated with my B.S. in astrophysics a long time ago fully intending to go on to my Ph.D., while on the side doing a ton of gaming and game-related writing for GameSpy and other outfits as a freelancer since writing was a hobby of mine. When a bunch of ill-timed hurdles fell into my path I was offered a full-time job at GameSpy to run their biggest site, PlanetQuake. After doing that for about a year I moved up to the role of Action Genre Producer, managing all of the web sites on the network that fell under the action category since first-person shooters were my expertise.
The job didn't directly involve a lot of the qualifications of a UI designer except that I worked with the web designers at GameSpy, picking up a lot of the skills necessary for web design and development along the way. But after about three years at GameSpy I took a job with Activision as their online marketing manager for the "hardcore" titles (aka, first-person shooters like Call of Duty, DOOM, and others). The job involved a little bit more creative work, doing some marketing materials that stretched my pretty much non-existent at-the-time graphic design skills. To this point (and, really, at ANY point) I hadn't had any education in graphic design other than my own interest in web design, learning from colleagues and friends that I felt were good teachers in clean, good, solid web UI design and practicing on my own web site and associated logos and images.
While at Activision I kept trying to teach myself the principles of good graphic design since I had no background in it. In addition to that, in my spare time I created game levels and mods, which helped to translate some of the programming skills I'd learned doing theoretical modeling in astrophysics into game programming. Then I learned that a position for a UI designer was open at Raven Software, a company I'd worked with pretty closely while at GameSpy and Activision, and they were working on a game and tech that I was pretty familiar with: Quake IV.
I had bought DOOM 3 and knew that they would be using that tech for Quake IV, and I also knew that the tools to work with the game came with it. The UI for DOOM 3 used a pretty simple scripting system that I was confident I could pick up. So, pulling some late nights and cramming at every opportunity, in a short amount of time I did the following: I learned the GUI system, I created a small three-story level with the DOOM 3 level editor, I designed a few letters for a theoretical font to represent the Strogg alphabet (the Strogg being the alien enemy in Quake IV), and then created a working elevator GUI using the font that allowed the player to move to and from any floor, and in-between floors the GUI would ripple and flicker with static as if it were being affected by a war-torn electrical system. (For flair I threw a muzak version of "The Girl From Ipanema" into the elevator, Blues Brothers-style. Hey, the Strogg like to relax a little, too, you know.)
This was the centerpiece of my portfolio, meant to show that not only could I do the graphic design of the UI itself but could also take it into the game, hook it up to the scripting system, and then make it actually work. I added other pieces to my portfolio to try and show some capabilities in graphic design even though I knew my skill set there was limited -- theoretical Strogg decal work, and mostly some web design.
I got the job. Looking back, I can honestly say that Raven took a huge chance on me given that my skill set in actual graphic design was really weak, but they had picked me because I showed a strong ability to quickly pick up any technical skill needed to do UI design in their tech. And while at Raven I was grouped with people much stronger in graphic design and art than me, which let me do a lot of learning and growing, something I've continued to do since.
Raven wasn't the start of my game industry career but it was the start of my career as a game UI designer. While at Raven I worked on Quake IV, Wolfenstein, and Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, and after Raven I moved on to Gas Powered Games where I worked on Space Siege and Demigod. And after Gas Powered Games I went to Uber Entertainment where I am today, working on Monday Night Combat and now Super Monday Night Combat.
Bringing It All Together
Making games is hard work no matter how much fun it is to play them, contrary to what many people who haven't made games may think. And game UI is no different. The skills and pointers in this article can get you to a certain point, but being a game UI designer means being able to deal with the incredibly fast pace of game development, having the ability to switch gears on the fly, and being self-motivated enough to obtain a range of skills that aren't readily available from a single college program. But at the end of the day creating good game UI is an accomplishment few people get to say they do, and your fellow game development colleagues will be happy to have you there doing it.
This is a very small list of resources to get you started. From here, look to other games and study their UI, and talk to as many game designers as you can about how they see game UI fitting in with their game design.
The Design of Everyday Things Donald Norman
Several people helped me polish up this article and I'd like to give them a shout of thanks: my husband, Matt; Stacie Scattergood; Josh Sawyer of Obsidian Entertainment, and Ashley Matheson of BioWare.