Hunt and Peck?

Earlier this year Greg Wilson in Gamasutra wrote "Off With Their HUDs!:  Rethinking the Heads-Up Display in Console Game Design."  He suggested that the game industry is evolving away from the Heads-Up-Display (HUD) and moving towards incorporating information directly into the game environment...

One claim is that "many important HUD elements can be seamlessly integrated into the game world to enhance player immersion..."

The examples in this article are console games - especially first-person shooter and racing games.  These genres seem most prone to emphasize formulaic interfaces featuring HUD designs that contain components that (in Wilson's words) " are there not out of necessity, but out of convention..."  (ref also discussion on the Guardian Unlimited).  I suspect, however, a case could be made that user-interface convention and design legacy ripple through all categories of virtual world interfaces.

One take on the trend of embedding more information within the world was documented by Alice a long time ago (re: Peter Molyneux's The Movies, emphasis added):

Look at this game: no HUD...  Left button is pickup, right button is interrogate. That’s it... We use AI to try to guess what you’re doing by where your cursor is. As you rollover the actors, the information pops up contextually.. pick up an actor, and this ‘stream of consciousness’ points out the most sensible things to do... Let the player experiment.

A few thoughts here.  Perhaps moving the user interface into the environment will help overcome the feeling of a cockpit.  But too, is there a small irony as virtual worlds mimic pervasive-computing (emphasizing decentralized interfaces) with a recursive twist:  to interact with this world requires an interface, and to interface with the world requires interaction?

One benefit of decentralizing control into the virtual world may be that it can help counter amongst some casual players the problem Joel Spolsky once described as learned helplessness (emphasis added):

...User Interface (UI)  is important because it affects the feelings, the emotions, and the mood of your users. If the UI is wrong and the user feels like they can't control your software, they literally won't be happy and they'll blame it on your software...

Will closely locating the actions and choices available to the players with the objects in the virtual world help a player to feel more in control and more immersed, or will it instead bring a new dimension to hunt and peck?


Comments on Hunt and Peck?:

Mark Wallace says:

This is interesting, in part because Second Life recently *added* the capability for users to create HUDs in the world, and people have created a number of very interesting ones that seem at first glance to be quite useful. That said, SL isn't on the same track as most other VWs in terms of gameplay -- i.e., it's not a game -- so I'm not sure whether the lessons point to the same places. But in terms of making a virtual world more useful and robust, the SL HUDs seems to be making inroads.

Of course, as Spolsky points out, the HUD in itself (or any other UI) isn't enough. A bad HUD will make people just as unhappy as a bad Hunt n Peck experience.

Posted Mar 18, 2006 2:03:45 PM | link

John Bilodeau says:

I can definitely agree that the HUD takes away from immersion (just comparing B&W {no HUD} to B&W2 {HUD}) But I'm drawing a blank on how this would work in the MMO's I have seen. Considering all the functions of the buttons I'm used to, I can't imagine how they'd be integrated.

Are there some example out there of search functions, character screens, inventory, etc... that have been integrated into the landscape?

Posted Mar 19, 2006 8:15:09 AM | link

Nate says:

> I can't imagine how they'd be integrated.

A simple example might be the group monitor, which I'd guess in WoW (fairly typical example) occupies 10-20% of screen real-estate: what if you had to *look* at each individual party member and assuming a set of visual cues to communicate their state. "Joe is unsteady on foot there- low on mana." etc. Greg, i believe, cited the case of blood spattering in an FPS to communicate health...

More broadly you may 'interrogate objects' - mouse-over to fathom state etc.

Posted Mar 19, 2006 9:02:35 AM | link

Alex Wreschnig says:

Just because -some- HUDs are bad (and cause new players to exhibit learned helplessness) does not mean that -all- HUDs should be replaced with data in the environment. HUDs have a tendancy to show "exact" information, which in many ways can be more useful than the approximate information that you might get from watching blood spatter or parts fall off of your race car.

I've always had the impression that you should know the rules of the conventional UI before you start "breaking" them. I'm not saying that trying other methods of displaying data is a -bad- thing, but rather that the developers who are most inclined to experiment with the UI are exactly the developers who would already -have- good UIs. If a game has a bad HUD, who's to say that the developer wouldn't have implemented the environmental displays just as terribly -- or worse, because there are no set conventions on how to do it, yet?

Posted Mar 19, 2006 3:11:31 PM | link

Brask Mumei says:

Of course, Black and White #1 was an unplayable pile of rubbish thanks to the lack of HUD or hotkeys to perform the most elementary of tasks. I understand hotkeys were patched in later to deal with most of the frustration, but it was too late for my enjoyment. The combat interface was particularly deplorable - move by clicking the ground, attack by clicking the enemy, yet whether the pixel was ground or enemy changed frame to frame as the camera danced around the combatants. Couple with any video lag, add in the idea of building a stack of the commands (so one is left unable to cancel obviuosly a mis-click), and you have a recipe for disaster.

Black and White was a game where the majority of the difficulty was suffering through a painfully crippled interface, created not out of a desire to increase immersion, but out of a idealogical purge of all on-screen buttons. And don't get me going about how there was no way to break out of in-game cut-scenes.

I agree with Alex: Understand *why* the HUD is there before you go ripping it out. One thing I liked about Doom 3 was how the ammo-left was actually displayed on the weapon itself rather than requiring space in the HUD.

Posted Mar 19, 2006 5:06:08 PM | link

Prokofy Neva says:

HUDs make you lose your sense of immersion. It's one more thing to fiddle with. I'm not following how this is making the game easier, even in that non-game-but-play thinger called Second Life.

Yet the Sheeple (Satchmo Prototype) says when a client found SL not "usable," he went back to the drawing board to make a glitzier HUD.
http://blogs.electricsheepcompany.com/chris/?p=15

Go know. I'm not getting this. Um, I guess I'm exhibited "learned helplessness" meh.

Posted Mar 19, 2006 8:05:50 PM | link

John Bilodeau says:

"what if you had to *look* at each individual party member and assuming a set of visual cues to communicate their state. "Joe is unsteady on foot there- low on mana." etc. Greg, i believe, cited the case of blood spattering in an FPS to communicate health..."

Do you think this would be accurate enough for a healer class in a party to judge who to heal & when? Perhaps a more detailed readout would be available to healers as part of their specialized knowledge... hmmm.

Posted Mar 20, 2006 8:25:10 AM | link

Louis Duhon says:

How is ones own health (in a combat centric game such as WoW or FPS games) relayed back to the player without some type of HUD? In the real world we have sensations which relay all sorts of useful information which we can then react on, many of these sensations are today unreachable within a computer or console game. I don't believe that blood-splatters, slowed walking, etc are really enough of an indicator of health to get away from merely frustrating the player. I've played some games that tried these things, they are very frustrating! Even games which have no HUD unless you bring one up are difficult to guage just when you need to use that healing herb or potion or med-pack.

So while for interfacing with in-game objects and even inventory should be able to be done without a HUD, I think there does need to be something as an indicator of basic health/mana/etc since we cannot interface those with their real-world equivilants.

Posted Mar 20, 2006 9:49:00 AM | link

says:

There seem to me to be three types of HUD clutter in MMOGs, with different properties in respect to level of immersion:

1. Personal I/O data. Bars to keep track of your health and stats, buttons to push to initiate actions.

2. Tactical combat data. All manner of information about those around you, what they condition is, what they are up to, and where they are. This helps you remain aware of your team more effectively, in the absence of conventional voice communication between humans.

3. Windowed interaction dialogues and sub-games. When you trade or browse the market, most MMOGs collapse down from 3D into a windowed system probably more efficiently implemented in a web browser. Browsing the AH in WoW, scanning the markets in EVE, organising your possessions...


I don't think (1) is that important to immersion. For output, data has to be output somehow, so let it be shown on the screen the easiest way. For input there are plenty of UI options for reducing the real-estate taken by prompts of the possible actions executable. In the simplest case, learn the short-cut keys and you may lose much of the HUD clutter.

The people who concentrate on (2), the tactical data, are really focussed on a different type of game, and I think the challenge for them is to process all the tactical data as quickly and effectively as possible. I suspect their immersion is already broken through the playing of this meta-game. When a real life general views the actions of his troops via spy satellite, is it really real for him? Would it help or not if individual troops had head cams or heart monitors? I could venture that immersion for those involved in tactical games is about seeing the consequences of their actions, not about the presentation of the data.

I believe the most important immersion breaking category is (3). If the dynamic data relating to items, possessions etc. in the game is always presented in 2D and the mainly static world in 3D, it exaggerates for me a sensation of division between the sub-games which may make up an MMO. Ok, so we may not know a lot about efficient integration of a complex interface (say to a stock market) into 3D, but at least a few dynamic components to the 3D environment would help. Examples:

1. You can see the stock levels of merchants with limited quantity items (WoW here) by looking at the table next to them

2. At a market or auction house selected items or expiring offers are displayed dynamically. Or a running ticker could be incorporated.

3. EVE Online at one stage showed the faces of the most villainous pirate of the day, together with the bounty, in between ads on 3D bill-boards.


My top-level point is I think time spent improving HUDs would be better spent trying to integrate at least part of complex multi-layer menu systems into 3D environments, rather than spent trying to come up with an ingenious way to represent one tiny integer (health, mana, money, whatever...) in an entirely visual manner.

Posted Mar 20, 2006 10:34:38 AM | link

Mike Bond says:

oops that wasn't supposed to be anonymous

Posted Mar 20, 2006 10:35:21 AM | link

Bart Stewart says:

Seems like yet another example of game vs. world -- or, as I think of it, concrete vs. abstract.

Those who are focused on playing a game will prefer to see the numbers and exercise direct control over them. They want world information to be made tacit and explicit. They like HUDs.

Those who want to live in virtual worlds don't want to see the numbers, which break the world-illusion. They're more interested in influence than control, and are comfortable with indirect and cumulative effects. They don't hate HUDs, but don't miss them as long as it's still possible to interact deeply with the world.

I'm also reminded of the old editor-of-choice holy wars. The concrete types prefer editors that are WYSIWYG; the abstract folks (who once dominated computer interface design) prefer YAFIYGI -- You Asked For It, You Got It.

Thus from the days of YAFIYGI editors with slim-to-no interface but a great depth of interface capabilities (vi, emacs, and the glorious TECO), as more concrete types of people started using computers we started seeing editors with HUDs (WordStar, WordPerfect, Word for Windows).

Based on this, a MMOG that eschewed HUDs would probably feel more retro than advanced. I wouldn't expect it to appeal to the number-and-control-loving hardcore gamer, but a virtual world designed to have a serious proportion of "world" to "game" might be able to make a go of a HUDless interface.

--Bart

Posted Mar 20, 2006 11:45:14 AM | link

Keith says:

There is no doubt that HUDs hurt immersion in these games but it seems there are three big benefits to them which largely explain why they are both valuable and dominant.

1) They are a substitute for information people would get in r/l in other ways, such as personal health, detailed visual cues about others' health and so forth. There is simply not a way for players to get the precision of data they need any other way because of limitations in modeling and texturing precision to tell the players visually. This is also why players in MMOs need labels over their heads--a few pixels on the screen doesn't give anyone the recognition depth they need to identify players on the screen by sight alone.

2) They are linked to limitations of the input devices. A large part of the HUD in games like WoW is taken up by nothing more than shortcut buttons to perform other functions, with icons as mnemonics and tooltips to tell you what to click when. In a r/l situation, you would cast a spell by simply doing it, but in WoW you must press '7'. The artificial nature of the '7' link with the spell must be backed up visually by the artificial visual representation of the spell as the icon or competence in the game because a memorization exercise.

3) They are easier and more efficient to write than immersive interfaces. I'm thinking of merchant or auction UIs here, where strictly speaking, the designers could implement an immersive bazaar with inspectable items laid out on mats or shelves and merchants who audibly explained what each item was as you clicked "Inspect" instead of presenting an item detail info window. However, doing a window with a listbox accomplishes the same gameplay goal as the immersive version for 1/20th the effort and is a better investment because it doesn't represent the core gameplay of the game. The fact that it is more efficient (and thus less annoying) for a player to sift through large quantities of items for sale and find the best price or the best fit item is a side benefit to development efficiency.

Limitations on the graphical accuracy of the environment, on the clumsiness of our keyboard/mouse input mechanisms and on the allocation of scarce development resources mean that ever more elaborate HUDs are with us to stay. Experiments in alternatives will probably also always persist but it would be shocking to see HUDless displays become mainstream until these fundamental limitations are somehow lifted.

-Keith

Posted Mar 20, 2006 2:15:40 PM | link

Michael Chui says:

HUDs make you lose your sense of immersion.

Because seeing an avatar on the screen is that much more immersive... how?

Posted Mar 20, 2006 6:12:13 PM | link

Thabor says:

A simple example might be the group monitor, which I'd guess in WoW (fairly typical example) occupies 10-20% of screen real-estate: what if you had to *look* at each individual party member and assuming a set of visual cues to communicate their state. "Joe is unsteady on foot there- low on mana." etc. Greg, i believe, cited the case of blood spattering in an FPS to communicate health...

You'd have to significantly change the nature of current games for that to be viable. The biggest weakness of most HUDs in current games is the amount of time it takes to look away from the action and interrogate them. Healers at the high end of a game like WoW either automate, or spend all their time watching the health display.

Go to the WoW addons database and gather some information on the most popular UI mods, and I believe you will find most of them add instrumentation or cues..


The artificial nature of the '7' link with the spell must be backed up visually by the artificial visual representation of the spell as the icon or competence in the game because a memorization exercise.

Competence in the game is already a memorization exercise. The visual represention is relevant to remind me which character I am playing, and useful for "slow" keys which can be actived by mouse (anything above 4, possibly 5 depending on the size of your hands)..


The fact that it is more efficient (and thus less annoying) for a player to sift through large quantities of items for sale and find the best price or the best fit item is a side benefit to development efficiency.

Huh?? I guess I've alway been misled, but I've always considered efficeny to the user to be more central to UI than the convience of not creating "immersive environments". You're welcome to pile all the junk of the shelves you want, but if I have to look through it manually I'm probably going to a different game.


Limitations on the graphical accuracy of the environment, on the clumsiness of our keyboard/mouse input mechanisms and on the allocation of scarce development resources mean that ever more elaborate HUDs are with us to stay.

It goes beyond just that. HUDs are about conveying critical information in an efficient way. They are generally useful both tactically an strategically. Unless you can find a way to make lack of accessable information benefical you'll still have them. Particularly in PvP where superior information may provided a competitive advantage.

Posted Mar 20, 2006 7:09:17 PM | link

illovich says:

As long as a game's play depends largely on statistical data (most MMORPGs and RPGs in general), you won't be able to get away from the HUD as it's probably the most efficient way to make the unbelievable amount of information needed to make good decisions available.

So, the answer to the question "How is ones own health (in a combat centric game such as WoW or FPS games) relayed back to the player without some type of HUD?" is that, at least as far as WoW goes, the loss of the HUD would be a huge step backwards in terms of playability.

It's a question of initial design -- if the designer wants to eliminate the HUD, then the designer needs to make it obvious to the healer that someone needs a heal some other way. It's a question not of stripping the HUD out of the games we know, but rather making games differently so a HUD is not necessary.

Of course, believing either path is the right one for every game is wrong thinking.

Posted Mar 21, 2006 10:03:05 AM | link

Prokofy Neva says:

Because seeing an avatar on the screen is that much more immersive... how?

1. The HUDs come up and block out the view of the world in front of you -- the other avatars and the people and the chat and everything else. They block the screen literally, or at least in part, forcing you to either remove your attention from the world, or divide your attention.

2. To get the HUD interface, you have to stop your flow of normal interactions like merely mouse-clicking, which you do unconsciously with your hand, or reading, which you do with your eye, and deliberately right-click on your avatar, pull up a HUD option out of a pie chart, and then fool around with that HUD and its picky requirements for setting up, interacting, etc. It's just one more damn thing.

3. An avatar is a user-friendly-looking humanoid form. He disappears from your mind's eye as you involve in the world. The HUD flat 2-D interface is a chart or graph or button or flow of numbers or set of dinky little icons. Why bother? You had enough to do just immersing and getting past the avatar's back put in your face.

4. I can see from the useful distinction between WYSIWYG and YAFIYGI that the tekkie YAFIYGI crowd is not going to be persuaded of the value of working for the WYSIWYG-values crowd until, well, it's part of their actual RL job to get customers or something.

Posted Mar 21, 2006 3:14:25 PM | link

Alex Wreschnig says:

Sure, removing the HUD might work with something as limited as Myst, but I don't think that with our current input devices we could make a virtual world both immersive and playable if it involves non-visual data.

I mean, try handling chat without a HUD. Or, how about a combination of chat and a person's appearance/status/profile information? Pulling the camera out allows you to remove the chat from the UI and place it above people's heads, if you so desired; but it reduces visual detail and requires you to add status information to the HUD. Pulling the camera in closer, to a tight 3rd-person or a 1st person view, allows you to more easily display status information through avatars' appearance, but it means you probably have to add chat to the HUD.

I mean, that's a very easy problem to have. Given that centralized voice chat is nearly impossible to get reliable bandwidth for, how would you cut the HUD out of the interface in a situation like this?

    2. To get the HUD interface, you have to stop your flow of normal interactions like merely mouse-clicking, which you do unconsciously with your hand, or reading, which you do with your eye, and deliberately right-click on your avatar, pull up a HUD option out of a pie chart, and then fool around with that HUD and its picky requirements for setting up, interacting, etc. It's just one more damn thing.

All HUDs aren't bad HUDs. You seem to be hinting at a deeper design issue, like illovich above noted.

Posted Mar 22, 2006 2:03:14 AM | link

Noahsam says:

What if we're asking this question in reverse? It seems far more probable to me that HUDs will ingratiate themselves to our real lives instead of being removed from our virtual ones... we're already toying with technology that places LCD images on contact lenses and the like... perhaps, as technological UI evolves into our actual bodies and physical interactions, it will no longer seem so discrepant.

It could be that life with a HUD is just BETTER than a life without...

Posted Mar 23, 2006 6:18:00 PM | link