UI design for games has traditionally been under-appreciated and overlooked, yet a hugely vital part for many games. Luckily, this is changing! As I've been making interfaces for games for quite some time now, I've noticed that there is not exactly a plethora of resources out there about what exactly a game UI artist does and who might be good for the role. I want to change that! I'm going to share some thoughts about what I see the Game UI Designer role as and who might make a great fit for this career. And to give you an idea of where I'm coming from, I've been making games (UI mostly) for the past decade, across all sorts of platforms (console, mobile, browser) and have had a direct hand in hiring over the years.
Before getting started, I want to clear up some potential confusion. When looking through job listings you may notice some discrepancies across job titles... UI Artist, UI Designer, UI/UX Artist, etc.! What's the difference? Is there a difference? We'll take a look at that in a moment, but I'm going to simply refer to the role as UI Designer from this point on.
So if you are interested in the above, read more below!
A short intro
Let's start with a general definition of a UI Designer. I think the short description below, written by my former boss Rob Mouck, does a great job of giving you an overview of the role:
“A User Interface Designer, designs, builds and implements all aspects of a game's graphic interface. From initial user flow diagrams and wireframe prototypes to final, in-game layout designs, interactive and graphical components, transition animations and effects with a focus on quality, innovation, integration and ease of use.” - Rob Mouck
Now there are a few caveats to take note of; not all companies expect the same thing from their UI designers. The size of the studio may affect some of the responsibilities, UI and UX can be explicitly separated, and sometimes, companies might not even know what they want (or can expect) from their UI Designer.
As a UI Designer you are making fun things like health bars, attack buttons, icons, and menu screens! But it is much more than just that, you are responsible for the usability of those items as well. Taking care to break down any barriers between the player and the game.
The strongest UI professionals will cover the bases of UI creation, from prototyping solutions (wireframes, user flows), art creation (pre-vis, assets, animation, etc) and the implementation of assets. All the while, working closely with Game Designers, Engineers, and Artists throughout the project. At the core of it, UI Designers are problem solvers, balancing the needs of many while maintaining a vision for the interface.
What is UI vs UX
You will hear the terms UI and UX used quite often when working with interfaces. It is important to note that these terms have two separate meanings (and people often get them wrong). I'm going to offer a really short explanation, but check out this article if you want a more in depth explanation.
UI (User Interface), in simplest form, typically refers to the visuals of an interface. Think of it as the style, color palette, texture, etc. I like to say it's the layer of paint the the player sees when they look at the interface of your game.
UX (User Experience), refers to how the player interacts with the interface and how enjoyable that interaction may be. For example, does the player know where to click / navigate? Do they receive the correct amount of feedback for a particular action? All this assists in how intuitive and pleasing the minutiae of the interface is.
Armed with the info above, let's dig into some of the things that you might be doing as a UI Designer, this way you can get an idea of what actually is expected. Below is a list (in no specific order) of some tasks I could find myself doing on any particular day.
- Create User Flows
- Wireframe Screens
- Gather References
- Explore UI Style (Casual, Flat, Physical, Match Existing, Etc)
- Prototype Interactions
- Create Buttons, Widgets, Icons
- Prep UI Artwork
- Import & Setup UI Assets (Unity, Unreal, Scaleform, Etc)
- Animate UI Assets (Flash, After Effects, In-Engine)
- Documenting Workflows
- Choose & Edit Typography
Tools & Technology
In regards to tools, I find that Photoshop and Illustrator are my go-to applications of choice. Of course this depends on the specific project and the given style of the interface that I'm working on. At the end of the day, there are loads of tools that enable you to do a job. It's about choosing the right one for the task at hand and how you use them to efficiently reach your goals.
- Adobe Creative Suite (Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash, After Effects)
- Modeling Software (3DS Max, Maya, Etc)
- Game Engines (Unity, Unreal, Etc)
- Prototyping (Axure, Adobe Experience Design, Etc)
I realize this is a large list of applications that I have. I would suggest being very fluent with several key ones (Let's say Photoshop, 3DS Max, and Unity) while being knowledgable about the others. As they say, knowledge is power.
UI Designer Traits
I'd like to mention some of the qualities that I think make a great and versatile UI Designer. As you can probably tell by now, creating interfaces for games is a multi-layered endeavor. I think it is fair to say that interface creation is a lot more than just painting a pretty picture, you'll end up needing a mix of both soft and hard skills to be successful.
It takes the right balance of artistic ability, technical knowhow, and the ability to visualize complex information. Some of the qualities I would often look for in UI candidates would be their ability to critically think, how they solve problems, how well they communicate, and how organized they are. These of course are all in addition to their artistic ability and technical proficiency.
Still Interested? Good!
I'll wrap up with some suggestions on how to prepare to break into the game industry as a UI Designer. It's not exactly a walk in the park, but, I would suggest a few things:
- Study your art fundamentals (formal education is recommended)
- Courses in graphic design, industrial design, psychology and 3D modeling will give you a good range
- Create a (polished, online) portfolio that shows your range as a UI Designer
- Bonus points for showing the "thinking" behind your decisions, I love seeing wireframes and notation on designs
- Adding motion to your work is great
- Network, network, network!
Not every path is the same. For example, I studied Game Art and Design at a private art school and got a good sampling of drawing, graphic design, animation and 3D as part of the program. Luckily, I landed my first role as a 3D generalist and gravitated towards UI soon thereafter (keep in mind I had a small background in graphic design, creating websites and logos for various clients which helped me transition too).
On a final note, many of the tools are out there for anyone to be able to make quality, real world production interfaces for very little. You can download a copy of Unity right now and without much assistance (if any) and put together a functional UI in no time! This knowledge will easily give you a leg up in the crowded space of games!
Hey, you've made it to the end! Thanks for staying with me the whole way. In the future, I'd like to continue sharing some insights on UI. I think next I'll jump into what my process is when it comes to making UI. So stay tuned for that! And of course if you have any comments / corrections / critiques, please drop me a line!