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The Interface is a Part of Gameplay

April 15, 2010

Rodin's "The Kiss" from the Gates of Hell

An anonymous game that’s still in development called and asked me to relay this message: the interface is a part of its gameplay. It’s not something you can take for granted. It’s not something you can leave to your lowest level team member. It’s not something you can “pretty up” or deal with later on. It’s critical, and it needs to be on the table from the beginning. It’s the functionality through which we receive the experience. It’s the colors and what they signal. It’s the size of things and their consistency. It is everything your players have already come to know.

It’s so critical that Rodin’s famous The Kiss, pictured, is on his larger work The Gates of Hell because the lovers never connect for all eternity. Their interface is broken. It’s hell.

The interface of a game is an expression of the player’s fingertips into the game’s dynamics. Make those touches as natural and as fulfilling as they can be. Please.

BMW gets it, and we don’t question it. It is the ultimate driving machine. If we have any issue with this thought at all, it’s often because we own a competing brand or think that perhaps super cars like the Ferrari fit the “ultimate” label better. We don’t question the “driving” part, though. After all, that’s what you’re in a car to do.

I’m using this set up, of course, to hammer home this point: the interface is a part of the gameplay in the same way that the steering wheel, the cabin design and the handling of the car are critical to driving. Put that beautiful engine in something that handles poorly or whose cabin is sub-optimally built, and you’ll not enjoy the same experience. In fact, even with a great engine, you might hate it. “I can’t control it,” you’ll say. “It doesn’t work like other cars work.” Put the steering wheel on the other side of the car, and see how long it takes you to relearn what you already know (took me about 2 months).

Seconds before we engage with a game (or a car or whatever), we have a certain expectation about how it’s going to work. To the exact extent that a game doesn’t match these expectations, you give the player confusion, irritation or boredom. If the game is free-to-play, this could be the end of the player altogether. After all, they haven’t spent $60, brought the game home and looked forward to playing it for hours. This player might try to muscle it out, but he or she critiques you on Twitter and on Facebook along the way. In general, designers stick to patterns for a reason: they work. There’s a reason the keys for FPS control have remain unchanged since Wolfenstein 3D. Players already know what to do. Who wants to learn an interface when you could be having fun?

The interface is the gameplay. It is the experience. It is what connects player to technology. I bought the BMW for the Ultimate Driving Experience, and that came only through connection of man to machine, hand to wheel and foot to pedal. The only thing that connects the player to the underlying mechanics of the game is the interface. It is there and only there that the experience of play is made, and through the interface, you will either succeed or fail, be branded clumsy or almost there.

Please, on behalf of players everywhere, I am begging you: believe that your interface is your gameplay, too.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Johnnemann permalink
    April 15, 2010 5:59 pm

    This is a very true article, and I think that anyone who makes games needs to put the interface – both the basic UI and the moment-to-moment controls – near the top of their priority list.

    But I have one small issue with your piece!

    “There’s a reason the keys for FPS control have remain unchanged since Wolfenstein 3D. Players already know what to do.”

    That’s true, in a sense, but I have a couple of problems with this statement.

    First, it assumes that we (or rather, id software) correctly discovered the optimal controls for an FPS on their first try. It’s possible, but it’s much more likely that there’s a better way to do things, or at least enhancements to be made. Keeping something the same because everyone’s used to it is a surefire recipe for stagnation at the local maxima.

    Secondly, people who played Wolfenstein know what to do, but FPS controls are notoriously difficult to approach for anyone who has never played one before. Once a player is used to them, they feel incredibly natural and powerful, but they certainly don’t start out that way. FPS controls on the PC are one of the steepest learning curves in a medium filled with steep curves – consoles don’t do it much better, and in some ways worse.

    • April 15, 2010 6:59 pm

      Interface controls are, of course, iterative. When id designed those controls, they did so knowing that they would be used for all their games. And those games set the standard. In Facebook, we watched the friend ladder emerge similarly, and now it has become standard in games. Interfaces are not static, of course, and evolve over time and with technology.

  2. April 15, 2010 6:53 pm

    Amen. A good game will not be recognized as one unless it’s a good user experience too. To the player, the game is the experience, and the experience is not just the game’s theme or what systems you have going on, but also how responsive the game is to her button presses, or how natural it is to use the inventory screen.

    (See also, Jesper Juul’s paper on “the mythical border” between interface and gameplay:

  3. April 15, 2010 7:59 pm

    Simple but complete article!

    I completely agree with you: we just can’t separate interface from gameplay: even amazing gaming experiences can be destroyed by a poor interface.

    And, when I am working on a project, I always imagine how my target user would see the UI of the game – it helps me on thinking about how to improve the “interface experience”.

  4. April 15, 2010 8:13 pm

    Thanks, Brenda. I’m teaching Interface Design this quarter and a link to this post is going up in 5 minutes. An interesting sidenote: Some of my students equate “complex” interface with “keyboard” and “simple” interface with “controller”. As you can see, articles like this are a big help.

  5. April 15, 2010 8:40 pm

    Good post. I think Sleep is Death’s recent release (at least for pre-orders) has really highlighted what an interface can do. The game is mostly just a toolset, of course, and the vast majority of the game’s design *is* the interface. Jason Rohrer talks about it pretty directly in this article:

    And it’s a point about the game that I think a lot of people have overlooked.

  6. April 15, 2010 11:02 pm

    I’m adding this post to my list of articles to refer to.

  7. April 16, 2010 6:20 am

    Brilliant article, surely you should be designing the interface first and then designing the game back from that. It’s what I do when making an object while programming – Write the client code first (the code which interfaces with the object) and write the back-end to cater for that.

  8. April 17, 2010 8:46 pm

    Or like when people try and stray from the red = health / blue = mana color scheme. *sighs*

    Here’s a great series too:

    (whose had to work on a game whose top level people insisted on making health orange and mana purple)

  9. April 18, 2010 6:52 pm

    By the way, I co-wrote a paper last year with a similar argument: “Easy to Use and Incredibly Difficult: On the Mythical Border between Interface and Gameplay”

  10. yunfei zhu permalink
    April 26, 2010 11:14 pm

    it is a quite good post. i completly agree with your idea about the interface of a game. interface has becomes more and more important. normally, a good looking interface with high quality graphics, high quality audio and have simple, convenience function, will make the player having a good impression. because interface will be the first section to interact with the player, they will give the player the first feeling of the game. for example, the login interface of the world of warcraft, the interface is contrubuted by a snowing background and a Frost Wyrm is extremely lifelike also the background music fill people with enthusiasm. all of those stuff are making people prepareing the battle in the game and encouraging player to join the game as soon as possible. the interface is one of the aspects that people can determine the type of the game. interface of world of warcraft and plant vues zombie is completly different. when player see the interface, they will know the WOW is a online game and maybe a “epic online game”, but they also can recogniza plant vues zombie is a casual game. the interface within the game, such as action bar icon of the skill, they also will influenceing the game strongly. a bad interface may make the player upseting, they do not know how to organize they items, skills, althrough some part of them can be achieved by the function of interface, but it is far from enough. a good interface always can let player have many choice to building as they like, such as make a own style. it is similar to decorating your room. anyway, a good interface make the player feeling they are playing the game, a bad one always make the you feeling the game is playing you.

  11. April 30, 2010 5:49 pm

    You’re very poetic, mademoiselle Braithwaite!

    I do wonder how so many games get shipped with truly diabolical interfaces. How many tools and applications too. In my opinion, the interface is the single reason something is either loved (and remembered for all eternity), or hated (and lost to the mists of time).

    The word itself is key. The interface is what connects the human (the creators of history, fable, story, myth) to the device, game, tool. A poor interface basically makes something subhuman and not worth interacting with.

    Again, I really have no idea why people in general, and developers in specific, don’t put more effort into the interface.

  12. Jiajia SU permalink
    April 30, 2010 7:12 pm

    Thanks Brenda for giving us this great article. I found this article is very helpful for me.

    I completely agree with that “The interface is a part of gameplay”. I think is not only a part of gameplay, but it is a very crucial part. The interface is the screen which is showed along with the game, therefore, to make it simple and useful is very important. For instance, in the board design, the interface is board for all players. The board provides most of information for players. The different composing of the board can make various interesting variations of the game, because the interface of the board is the crucial part of the game. It will decide the background of the game, what resources of it, how to play this game, how to players are connected together, the special elements of the board can also be some kinds of tricky resources. Therefore, the interface is absolutely a crucial part of gameplay.

    The interface can also be the experience of the game. Sometimes, the game style and way of playing it can be told from the game interface. For example, in the FPS game, there are usually health status on the corner which next to the bullets number, the maps on the other cornet and the aiming post in the middle of the interface. These are all traditional interface for FPS. When the players see these kinds of interfaces, they will know the basic rules of the game in somehow.

    On the other hands, changeable interface can provide more enjoyable experiences for players. For example, there are many elements and information inside of WOW, therefore, the UI can be modified. The UI can be imported by users, the user can modify it and make use of it. In this way, the players can have more freedom to play their game and change it in order to provide of opportunities for players to create their own style interfaces which will increase the sense of belonging to this game.

    To sum up, the interface is very important to gameplay for providing attractiveness, awesome features, skeletons and basic rules of the game.

  13. May 2, 2010 5:13 am

    Thanks bbrathwaite. Simple but useful article. The principles are simple; however, lots of the young game developers always ignore it. Though interface, it is the only way that the game players can get in touch with the designers.

    The interface to the customers should be always clear and attractive. For example, people prefer the shops with beautiful window displays. That is the “interface” to their customers. It gives the costumers good impressions that guide them to develop the shop further. So, each day, the first work for sales is placing their newest and best products in front of the windows. For game, the interface has the very similar function. Only beautiful and easy accessed interface can attract their players. The interface of some games is fancy but hard to use, which is like a shop with fantastic window display but without any sign of where the door is. The players may leave it even though they want to go into it at the first thought.

    However, having the similar interface with other games is a safe but not very useful way to attract the player. Without any doubt, having the similar interface with some best sell games cannot be wrong. But, an improved and unique interface is way to make your game outstanding from other games. Only the shops with the best window displays can attract the customers at the first sight, the normal ones have to wait.

    Therefore, interface is the definitely the major part of game play.

  14. taizhang permalink
    May 3, 2010 8:35 am

    As a game design beginner, I believe that this article is useful for me to design game in the future.
    I quit agree with bbrathwaite’s point ‘the interface is a part of its gameplay’. Interface is not only the first step, but also is a critical part for game design process. It includes colors and what they signal. The interface of a game is also an expression of the player’s fingertips into the game’s dynamics. The first impression of good interface is clear and attractive. For example, good engine always output strong power to the car. Of course, good interface are able to attract more people to play it.
    On the other hand, another factor that influences the game interface design is the experience. Interface is a standard to distinguish good designer and bad designer. Good designers who have a rich of design experiences always able to design good interface that who lack of experience. Therefore, experience is also a critical part of game design.
    In addition, technology is also an essential part of game interface design. The only thing that connects the players to the underlying mechanics of the game is the interface. Good design tools will bring good screen effect. It also shortens the workload and reduces the game interface design cycle. In the result of shorten the whole game design cycle.
    Therefore, design good game interface is good beginning for the whole game design process.

  15. Astin permalink
    May 3, 2010 8:21 pm

    The interface is a part of Gameplay. After reading the title, I was thinking the games which I have played so far. Of course, I could even not remember how many games I have played, but one thing I am definitely sure is the interface on a game is getting fancy and nice. Sometimes, I thought that game designer spent a lot of times for interface of game. Of course, it is very nice work. Nice interface is able to make the game attractive and get an interesting to people. However, I think not only focus on interface, but also some interesting factors such as story, items and rules are also important parts.
    This article is quite impressive for me because I have a story. I am taking computer game design subject. And I made a board game with my mates. To be honesty, we spent a lot of times for the game although the game is simple. When we test the game with piece of papers instead of real completed board, I felt that our game is not bad. But, after playing with completed board, I felt that our game is much greater than I thought first time. The board has a very interesting and nice interface. The board makes me feeling more interesting to the game. After that, I realized that the interface is very important component of game. Moreover, I definitely agree with the title “The interface is a part of Gameplay.” Thanks bbrathwaite for giving me an opportunity to have a look nice article.

  16. Hanjie Zhu permalink
    May 5, 2010 2:26 am

    Thanks bbrathwaite to share this article. The interface is a part of gameplay. I quite agree with this point. In my opinion, the game interface is a kind of design. Because a wonderful interface can attract player to join it, and a game which has great interface also can make player enjoy it and gain more support. The trend of today’s game interface is becoming more real, this means create a real enviroment for game and use 3D technology. For example, one of the notable drivers of development has been Nintendo, which has in the last few years has offered the most innovative ways of interacting with games. The DS portable touch screen, and to the motion sensitive WiiMote for Nintendo Wii.

    Another advancement to enhance virtual realism that will surely become mainstream is advanced sensory feedback. Already popular is the use of vibration in controllers that provide simple feedback in all kinds of situations. An example of the next step is the use of force feedback gloves or suits, which allows not only direct control of body and hand movements, but more importantly provides a pressure or electrical feedback to the user, giving them the impression of actually touching and feeling virtual objects.

    I believe in the future, the game controllers might seem to be an easy bet: Games controlled by our minds as we all plug into the Matrix, a virtual world where we feel the heat of the sun on our faces and smell the flowers in the meadows.

    • May 5, 2010 2:55 am

      Noticing a lot of replies to this recently. Are these writings a part of a class assignment?

  17. Yue Xiao permalink
    May 5, 2010 3:40 am

    The interface is a part of gameplay! I absolutely agree with this point of view. I believe that interface design has become more important now. Game design has not only about does a game function play well as well as how fun it is, it has been gradually expanded to become into a design work. Interface is so important because it is the first contact with the player. Just like buying clothes, I will lay much stress on its style and color, then I will consider about the quality of this dress such issues. The game is the same, no matter how fun it is, but the interface design is sucks, I do not even want to try it any more. Everyone knows when they meet strangers, and try to give each other to leave a good impression at first. And the game development trend of today is gradually enhanced interface design. Even some game interface design is perfect, but gaming performance is very general. But the final results are very good, in this way to attract most of the game players. Of course, such as large-scale game Wow of Warcraft, it both has perfect interface design, as well as interesting gameplay experience, I think that is the thing hoped by all players.

  18. CVA permalink
    May 5, 2010 8:01 am

    Touché! This blog entry has some very valid points together with references to cars and others as such. Thus I would agree to the point relating to that of the priority of Interfaces and its importance in gameplay.

    The importance of keeping the player’s experience in mind should never be neglected. In addition to interfaces, there are those that also appeal to the attractiveness of the game which I believe is one of the great selling points of games, whether it is computer games or board games.

    In relation to following patterns, I too believe that designers can never go wrong with this as experiences with such interfaces prove to work well in providing dynamic gameplay. However, I too believe that interfaces are evolving over time with new technology being introduced and thus believe this is when designers need to take into consideration of these changes and put player’s experiences forward in order to come up with interfaces that compliment gameplay together with new technology. One clear example of such would be the Nintendo Wii and its ever popular Wii sports – tennis in particular. The remote in this case would be the interface and would act like the racquet. Of course the physical form and weight is not of a real tennis racquet, however player’s can easily adapt to the gameplay due to experience and the simplicity of the interface.
    In addition to this, player’s certainly have expectations when they play a game, in the case of Wii tennis, player’s expect to play interactively as if it was real tennis.

  19. June 1, 2010 2:32 am

    Hi Brenda. I agree, and would like to add: a clumsy or really bad interface is even worse than stale or repetitive gameplay. Add those two up, and you have the most unforgivable combination: Repetitive gameplay, hampered by a clumsy interface.

    Lots of quests in games are essentially messenger tasks or “FedEx tasks” (like you wrote in one of your level design docs); they are not exactly state of the art in game design anyway, but if the game plays smoothly, they won’t keep most players from enjoying it. I guess taking out the trash isn’t so bad when you can use a super fast elevator to do it and then shoot the trash bag into the dumpster with a catapult. But walking down the stairs from the fourth floor with crutches and a huge trash bag, knowing that there’s 20 more of them waiting in your apartment, is not what most people would consider “fun”.

    Oh, and also I remembered an interesting article on adventure game interface design by Vince Wesselman ( ) – shows that even such a tiny little flaw as choosing and programming mouse cursors wrong can ruin a game.


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