I hope you've enjoyed yesterday's live stream, where our Technical Designer David Sláma elaborated on the topic of his recent devblog about weapons, damage, and soldier protection. Today we'll touch upon something entirely different, yet a very inevitable part of game: User Interface (UI).
My name is Petra Ivašková and I'm UX Designer on Project Argo. I joined Bohemia Interactive over a year ago to become part of Arma 3's Sandbox Department, until I shifted over to Project Argo. To describe what my job entails: I translate game system and mechanics into an understandable, effective, and working UI - together with the rest of the UI squad who bring those ideas and designs to life.
If you read the very first Project Argo welcoming devblog, you might have noticed that our game's UI is very experimental, too. This has been the mindset from the very beginning of the UI design process. Since UI contributes to the overall gaming experience, it was essential for us to make it fit to our defined vision and design pillars. Compared to the existing interface of Arma 3, we aimed for something slightly less serious and more playful. Plus the UI should help clearly differentiate Project Argo from Arma 3. Thus, altogether, we took this as an opportunity to try some completely new things, and learn.
Great User Interface design is not just about creating a few visually appealing elements. It's about striving for a great overall user experience. One of Arma 3's biggest strengths relate to its massive sandbox, which can theoretically support unlimited content in the form of mods and addons. And because it's impossible for us to know the number of player-made creations in advance, we've been designing a lot of the Arma 3 'screens' accordingly. However, with Project Argo, this is not the case, which meant that most of Arma 3's existing UI turned out to be unnecessary complex for the purposes of our game. Our primary goal for Project Argo's UI was clear: streamline the process of getting into a match as much as possible. After all, nobody wants to 'play menus', you want to play the game itself. As a result of all of this, we completely re-envisioned some of Arma 3's screens and tailored them to Project Argo, while it also meant simply removing some of the Arma 3 screens. That might sound simple, as if it's just about crossing out a couple of screens from the flowchart and apply some new textures, but this is something which has to be handled with great care, since a lot of features are embedded deeply in Arma's technology and systems.
From Paper To Monitor
The initial brief for the UI was very open: design a HUD (Heads Up Display) for three already existing scenarios, ignore any potential technical constraints, and make it visually distinct from Arma 3. We started by drawing on paper, and our notebook got filled up pretty quickly. The main focus was on the functional elements accompanying the gameplay of each scenario, and look for some common behavior between them. At that time, the scenarios already displayed some basic information in the form of simple text in order to test them. After a few iterations, we settled on a clear direction for the UI: simple rounded progress bars, paired with a bold font, and no unnecessary clutter like backgrounds, strokes, or shadows. This became the general guideline for creating the rest of the UI.
After the formation of the main HUD, we began spreading the Project Argo flavor to other screens in the game. With two contrasting colors representing our two in-game factions, we decided to keep the rest of UI monochromatic instead of looking for the right balance between using orange and turquoise. The rounded corners started to appear here and there. Plus we experimented with the background scene in the menus, going from more colorful artwork at first, to eventually switching to the more 'clean' background that is currently used. However, these were all the more straightforward tasks. We also entered the design of things which were very much unknown to us, such as how spectating should work while waiting to respawn, and the screen which shows the most valuable players, and especially the whole system supporting one of Project Argo's vision pillars, the metagame - which we hope to add to the Open Prototype later.
In the beginning, our ideas seemed to be working well both on paper, and in the interactive prototypes we created. However, so far that was all done outside of the Real Virtuality engine. When our UI scripting magicians joined the team, we realized that the path forward wouldn't be so straightforward. Some of the new features, and the metagame in particular, required newly crafted components. One of the biggest challenges was to make the decision of whether we'd modify existing UI elements or just create a new one, which sometimes happened to be easier. Also, some features which were not needed for Project Argo, didn't want to say goodbye so easily, which often lead us to a compromise. As perhaps naive, crazy, and risky our initial approach to designing might sound, I strongly believe that not thinking within the constraints of the engine really helped us a lot in this early brainstorming phase. Thanks to that we were able to push ourselves forward, and ultimately create what you can now see in the game. However, even despite this, we also have to acknowledge that there are some limits, meaning that there are some parts of the UI that we'd like to change but for the most part will unfortunately have to stay as they are.
As one of our other vision pillars, "Immersion" is very much connected to the in-game HUD. Our original plan was to have a very minimal amount of information on the screen during gameplay, as we felt that would take you out of the virtual world and make you aware that you are sitting in front of the computer. Hence, we started with just very few UI elements, and then we also experimented with having no UI elements at all. However, during our daily playtests, we ourselves experienced that a certain level of UI elements is essential to allow for well-paced gameplay. That's why we gradually started to add in new pieces of information, complemented by a voice-over – all to support the idea of making the game easy to pick up, but hard to master. That said, the intention of achieving a feeling of immersion did make us avoid certain UI elements you might see in other games, such as blinking points appearing above player's characters in case of an enemy hit, or a colorful mini-map.
Nonetheless, after listening to the feedback from players, we're convinced to try out the idea of a completely HUD-free mode again. We've added a special mode for hardcore players to our roadmap for the future. In this mode, which would have very limited HUD elements, you will literally be counting the bullets in your magazine, and the remaining seconds in a round.
Your Voice Matters
In any case, so far it's been quite an adventurous journey for us, and I can tell that the entire UI team learned a lot. The pictures above reveal a lot of our early ideas, and you can see that we iterated a lot, or that some of those ideas were never even implemented. You, the players, already helps us improve much of the UI, and we'd like to thank you for your feedback. After playing a couple of matches in the latest update, you probably noticed that there are still some areas in need of more attention, such as the excessive amount of loading screens or even some of the yet untouched screens like the server browser. This is still a very ongoing process, and gradually but constantly we're taking small steps in the right direction. In the end, we would like to deliver a consistent-looking UI, which lets you get into the match easily, and presents all relevant information in a meaningful way.
With Christmas around the corner, we're still planning a bigger update for next week. In the meantime, we highly appreciate your feedback, which we're already receiving in large amounts on our Feedback Tracker, forums, Twitter, and Facebook - and I would like to once again thank you all for that.
Petra Ivašková (UX Designer)