How to Make an Interface that Do Not Distract Players

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An art of non-distractive interface in game development

One of the main principles of video game development is to not distract the player from the process. Distracting means that the player loses concentration, misses his opportunity and loses.

Attention! Bad interface and pop-ups below!

If the player is seriously involved in gameplay he will force himself to not notice the distracting elements. If he is still distracted and lost, he will blame the game and developers for doing that. Imagine that you are fighting one of the hardest bosses in your gaming experience, just got used to his pattern of attacks and got into mindless flow. And then BAM and a pop up window appears saying “You can use that consumable to restore your health!”. Such distraction from a gameplay flow will lead in another failed try.

How to measure involvement and distraction

Game designers say that there are 4 stages of involvement and each stage is described by the gamer’s pose. If the gamer leans forward to the screen and holds his controller tightly, he is involved. If he leans back and sometimes pauses the game to scroll Facebook, he isn’t involved in the game.

There are also two intermediate phases of involvement: ready to learn and not ready to.

By combining these phases we can highlity 4 different states of the player:

  • involved, not ready to learn — the player don’t want anything in the interface to distract him from the gameplay;
  • involved, ready to learn — the player wants to see more information which will enrich their current gameplay;
  • uninvolved but ready to learn — the player don’t want to play at the time but still wants to know more about the game: read items descriptions, talk to NPCs, play minigames;
  • uninvolved and not ready to learn — the player shuts down the game.

playe involved scale

The player’s phase depends on current gameplay. During boss fights the players are fully busy and not ready to learn, during the “lets visit the merchant and upgrade my weapon” the players are relaxed and can read about skills, upgrades and lore.

How to control the distraction

The interface must correspond with what is happening on the screen: to show the player only the amount of information he can perceive at the moment. For example, in fast platformer games like Mario or Sonic the only interface the player sees is the amount of tries left. And in slow strategy games there are tons of parameters and buttons.

So the faster the gameplay is, the less information the players need. The game designer can show any information less detailed or even completely hide it out of the screen.

For example, every weapon in Action RPG has parameters like damage, damage type, attack speed, weight, enchantments and others. The player will need it in the inventory screen to decide which weapon to bear.

inventory interface in game

After the player has chosen his weapon and got in combat he doesn’t need to see said specifications. He still sees what his character has in hands — that’s enough. If the game designer will show the weapon’s characteristics directly in the fight the player will get distracted and angry. During the fight he doesn’t care that his axe deals 10-24 cleave damage, he wants to hit that ugly ogre.

small interface in game

The same goes with any numbers. Why will the game need to display a health bar as a number and not an actual bar? There is no reason. But there is reason to show the number for ammo, grenades and medpacks left — because this is vital for the player.

The rule of distraction is very simple: less numbers — faster understanding.

How to make the interface less distractive

We learned that we can swap health percentage with red bar, but what to do next? Follow these steps:

  1. Decide what data the player will need in every major game cycle.
  2. Decide their importance: will it be important to the player if the particular number is 3 or 4?
  3. If the difference is important, then show it with numbers. For example, ammo count or special ability countdown.
  4. If the difference is not so important, show it with graphics. You can display the parameter change by changing the color of its icon, with radial indicator, bars, etc.

Remember, that numbers are less important in single player games because any mistake can be fixed by restarting the level. In multiplayer 1% attack speed difference can cost you a victory, so you better know everything.

How to implement parameters in interface

Above we talked about what to show during the gameplay. But how to be with displaying data in menus and with menus at all?

Many games have only one menu where you can open settings or exit the game. But in every game with inventory and quests there must be at least two menus: one for settings and one for inventory managing. Actually, there must be three menus: settings, quick inventory and full inventory.

Quick inventory is an interface which overlays the gameplay. By opening the quick inventory the player can calmly choose or use needed items without hitting random buttons while trying to survive in the game.

To help the players not to lose focus and involvement, game developers sometimes slow the game while the quick inventory is opened. The player can still breath out and use the items, but be aware of what the enemies are doing. And, of course, the quick inventory must be more informative than the main interface, and less informative than the full menu.

A reason to hide interface

Some games allow the player to turn off the interface: health bar, objective’s markers, compass and so on. It is useful for horror games and some action adventures. In typical horror the player does not have weapons or any inventory, so why does he need an interface? And in action adventures there are mandatory exploration moments where nobody attacks the player. Developers can disable the interface for these moments to let the player enjoy the view.

Another reason to hide interface during gameplay is to help the player focus on important tasks. For example, sniper rifle shooting or running from danger. In the 2000’s a typical sniper scope was a mishmash of moving colorful objects and the player couldn’t understand where the crosshair was. But in modern games scopes have only required a minimum: a dot to aim and a ladder to calculate elevation.

Example of using this all in games

In Horizon Zero Down the interface fades out when Alloy is out of danger.

The game is getting slower while the player looks through the inventory.

The main inventory is very detailed and shows all the numbers needed.

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