Developer Blog: Interface Design

Written by Mode 7

August 6, 2010 | 10:24

Tags: #behind-the-scenes #dev-blog #developer-blog #frozen-synapse #game-design #interface #paul-taylor

Companies: #mode-7

I’m going to step out of my chronology of Frozen Synapse this week and talk briefly about what’s going on around here at the moment.

One of the major difficulties with the game is giving the player a vast amount of control over his units while still retaining a clear and clean interface: it’s something we’ve struggled with throughout development.

Our first real stab at tidying up the game came when we took it to the University of Reading for some focus testing. We had a batch of brilliant (and very patient) Computer Science students play the game for a few hours while we watched and talked to them about the problems they were having. It was encouraging that they all rated the game very highly, but there’s nothing like observing someone struggling to make a unit do something to bring home the fact that you need to make some changes!
Developer Blog: Interface Design
Playtesting Frozen Synapse with students at Reading University

One of the best things you can ever do when developing a game is get a bunch of complete newbies in a room together and watch their behaviour. You will see some jaw-droppingly ludicrous behaviour. It will bring home to you just how terrible you are at designing interfaces...

After Reading, we made quite a lot of changes, most notably to the aiming system in the game. Originally, you had to click where you wanted to aim and issue an aim order, which would then appear on your plan. Sounds intuitive, right? It was actually completely the opposite: every single other order in the game was issued when you wanted to perform it and placed accordingly on your plan. If you teach a user a specific behaviour, you can’t then expect them to violate that behaviour just to issue one specific command.

We introduced something called the “aim handle”, a token which is dragged out from each waypoint, which made it much clearer when your unit was going to start aiming. It’s still not perfect, but it has gone a long way to improving the situation.

With all of those changes behind us, it’s hard to go back to something like the UI and do another pass on it, but this is exactly what has to be done. Even the size of icons is vitally important in a GUI - you have to make things as simple to interact with as possible.

It’s a very tough learning curve but we hope that by having high standards and listening to players we can eventually arrive at the best possible interface for the game.

Developer Blog: Interface Design
The 'aim handle' which was eventually introduced

Anyway, time for some Q&A from last week...

Question: What is your educational background? i.e. What (if any) degree(s) do you have? – Cabe6403

Answer: I have an English Literature degree - handy I know! Ian has a Computer Science degree - how conventional.

Question: I'd be interested to know how you make the choice between flashiness and function when it comes to the UI (and graphics) - obviously you need it to be functional, but at the same time, especially as an indie game, I would imagine a degree of flashiness is required to attract interest from players? – Sifter3000

Answer: I think flashiness is best kept away from the UI to be honest - we wanted the game to look great in motion, but then for it to be very clear what you’re doing when you’re giving orders. We’re still working on that! Actually, this is one area where it’s good to take cues from other games - animating UI elements was something we just saw a lot in AAA games and went, “We’ll have that!” It was pretty simple to do but actually makes a lot of difference.

I’m still really surprised when I see things like big red text with no background in an ugly font in big budget games though - UI work can be pretty draining and I think sometimes certain elements get added in and then left to fester!

Question: Do you have a dev log for the game? I’d like to subscribe. – BennyJH

Answer: There are two places you can go for info - one is our blog, VisitingTheVillage and the other is our ModDB page.

If you have any more questions or comments, be sure to sling them in the comments below!

Paul Taylor is the Joint Managing Director of Mode 7 Games, makers of Frozen Synapse, an upcoming PC strategy game.
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