Off With Their HUDs!: Rethinking the Heads-Up Display in Console Game Design

This article takes a critical eye to heads-up displays (HUDs) in video games and proposes ways they can be improved and, in some cases, eliminated all together, in order to make games more immersive and accessible to the casual gamer.

Heads-up displays, or HUDs for short, have been an integral part of video game design since the industry's infancy. Currently, however, three factors are working to shift the console game player away from a reliance on HUDs. This has created a challenge for developers: how do you convey necessary information to the player without utilizing a traditional HUD?

First, it's important to answer the question, “What is a HUD?” A HUD is simply a collection of persistent onscreen elements whose purpose is to indicate player status. HUD elements can be used to show, among many other things, how much health the player has, in which direction the player is heading, or where the player ranks in a race. This makes the HUD an invaluable method of conveying information to the player during a game. It is an accepted shorthand, a direct pipeline from the developer to the end-user. So what would make console developers suddenly rethink the necessity of such a seemingly essential and time-honored technique as the HUD? Here are three compelling reasons.

High-definition televisions.

It is only recently that console developers have begun to address the hi-def revolution taking place in living rooms around the globe. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, over 12 million high-definition televisions (HDTVs) were sold in the United States between 1998 and 2004, and the market continues to grow rapidly; research firm Strategy Analytics has predicted HDTVs in almost 30 million American homes by 2008. With the advent of a new generation of consoles, developers are finally taking advantage of the ultra-sharp screen resolutions and theater quality sound offered by these increasingly common home entertainment systems. However, millions of high-definition televisions have an Achilles heel that can hinder developers as well: burn-in. Burn-in can occur on different types of phosphor-based HDTVs, including plasma and traditional rear-projection units; it is caused by persistent onscreen elements that, over time, create a ghost image on the screen even after they are no longer shown. Hmm… persistent onscreen elements? Like a HUD? The short answer is yes—traditional HUDs can pose a risk to many who play console games for extended periods of time on their HDTVs. Although some newer types of HDTVs are not prone to burn-in, these are generally more expensive and often have shortcomings of their own. In addition, while the dangers posed by burn-in may be less frequent or severe than many consumers believe, this doesn't stop the consumer from worrying; many an HDTV owner has had a marathon gaming experience effectively ruined by the nagging concern that the health bar at the top of the screen might never go away after the game is done.

Peter Jackson's King Kong by Ubisoft offers a HUD-less, cinematic level of player immersion.

Immersive gameplay.

For many years, game developers have spoken of the goal of achieving a cinema-quality experience in a video game. One of the key ingredients for such an experience is the successful immersion of the player into the game world. Just as a filmmaker doesn't want a viewer to stop and think, “This is only a movie,” a game developer should strive to avoid moments that cause a gamer to think, “This is just a game.”

How, then, does a developer avoid such moments? Increasingly sophisticated home theater systems have helped create a sense of immersion for those that have them. More detailed graphics and more refined storytelling techniques can also draw a player into a rich and complex game world. However, nothing screams “this is just a game” louder than an old-fashioned HUD. It is not a part of the game world; it is an artificial overlay that is efficient, but often distracts the player from the environment in which he or she is immersed.

The rise of the casual gamer.

As video games attempt to reach new audiences beyond the core gamer market, developers are realizing the need to simplify interface design. While hardcore gamers might not be intimidated by numerous status bars and gauges onscreen, a casual gamer is much more likely to feel overwhelmed. Gamers looking for a “pick up and play” experience are not inclined to spend time figuring out what all those bars and gauges are for. The simpler and more intuitive the interface, the more accessible the game can be to non-traditional gamers.

Together, these three factors are prompting a sea change in how and when HUDs are used in video games, especially those developed for console systems. (This shift is also noticeable in certain types of PC games, and many of the games used as examples herein are also available for the PC platform. The discussion here focuses on console design due to the added problems of console-specific issues such as burn-in.) Peter Jackson's King Kong by Ubisoft (Xbox 360) is a perfect example of things to come: the game features essentially no HUD elements, and offers a level of immersion comparable to the film that shares its name.

In Doom 3, some weapons show an ammunition count directly on the weapon model.

How to Go HUD-less

How, then, does one convey player status information without a HUD? There are many techniques that can be utilized to reduce dependency on HUD elements, or to reduce the intrusiveness or potential screen damage from necessary HUD elements. A survey of recent games illustrates a number of these techniques, though in most cases the solutions are applied redundantly, partially or only within certain contexts; a well-planned and comprehensive interface design that addresses these concerns during preliminary design stages can lead to a more consistent and successful end result.

Decide what you need… and what you don't.

Many elements found on a typical HUD are there not out of necessity, but out of convention; they represent a sort of “info overkill” that, for the vast majority of players, has no impact on gameplay at all. For every piece of information you offer the player, ask, “Is this information essential to the game experience?” In doing so, you might find that you don't need to bombard the player with quite as much data as you once thought you did.

Call of Duty 2 (Xbox 360) provides a good example of eliminating one type of unnecessary information. Although the game does feature some elaborate HUD elements, it's also notable for what it doesn't feature: a visible health meter. It seems illogical for a first-person shooter to not include a health meter of some sort; and yet, the game plays beautifully, relying on a very simple and intuitive visual cue that warns the player when health is dangerously low: the screen periphery turns red and pulses. It doesn't take long for a player to realize that this means, “Take cover and give yourself a few seconds to heal, or you're going to die.” This not only removes unnecessary onscreen information, but also creates a much deeper sense of immersion in the game world.

At the same time, however, Call of Duty 2 features an indicator that lets the player know if he or she is standing, crouching or crawling. While this sort of indicator might have been valuable back when camera height was the only differentiating factor between the different stances (as in, say, the original Half-Life ), more intuitive visual cues offered in a game like Call of Duty 2 have rendered this sort of indicator essentially redundant. Even if it were not redundant, though, it is still unnecessarily distracting; with a HUD element such as this, it is well worth the time and asset investment to…

Take it off the HUD and put it into the game.

The most immersive way to present necessary player information is to incorporate it directly into the game environment. In a racing game such as Project Gotham Racing 3 (Xbox 360), the “in-car” view during a race allows for an entirely immersive experience that also incorporates player information (such as speed) directly into the environment via the car dashboard. This solution is not effective for players who prefer a different camera view, but it does show a proof of concept: many important HUD elements can be seamlessly integrated into the game world to enhance player immersion.

Project Gotham Racing 3 offers an “in-car” view that incorporates player information directly into the dashboard.

In Doom 3 (Xbox), while a player's weapon ammunition count generally shows up as an overlay in the lower right corner of the screen, weapons like the chaingun include the ammunition count as a readout directly on the weapon model. When designing a futuristic FPS, there's no reason why a developer couldn't just put an ammo count display directly on every weapon model from the get-go.

In a third-person game, player health and/or damage indication can be shown in ways other than through a health meter. In many survival horror games like Eternal Darkness (Gamecube), player health—both physical and mental—is clearly reflected in the player-character model's onscreen appearance and movements. This can be accomplished through texture, animation, and even camera work. These indicators may not seem initially to be as precise as a counter or bar, but if players are given enough distinctive indicators, the process can become intuitive very quickly.

Sound it out.

Another way to convey player status info is through audio cues. This is an often underutilized method that can either reinforce a visual cue or offer a unique message that is not easily shown visually. For example, in Halo (Xbox), when a player's armor loses shield protection, an audio warning reinforces the flashing visual cue of the health status bar. This allows a player to know he or she is in imminent danger without having to refer to the HUD. In Project: Snowblind (PlayStation 2), if a player dawdles instead of advancing toward the location of an objective, non-player characters offer spoken dialogue that encourages the player toward the objective. This information could be conveyed in a far less subtle way—and indeed, a visual objective guide is available if the player wishes to turn it on—but these simple audio cues allow the player to remain fully immersed in the world the developers have worked so hard to create.

Deus Ex: Invisible War gives players control over the opacity of the heads-up display.

When you absolutely, positively must have a HUD

For many games, it may not be practical to eliminate all HUD elements entirely. In such instances, there are still ways to maintain immersion and simplicity while still providing important information to the player.

Since HUD elements are meant to convey player status information, one simple solution is to only show an element when the player status changes. For example, a health indicator does not generally need to be shown unless the player is either gaining or losing health. The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (Xbox) uses just such a health meter, to great effect. By the same token, God of War (PlayStation 2) features a HUD that disappears when the player is not near an enemy or performing an attack move.

Give the power to the player.

Another solution is to allow the player to control the appearance of the HUD. In Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal (PlayStation 2) , certain HUD elements disappear when player status is static; however, the player can temporarily call up these elements by simply clicking the left thumbstick if they are needed. In Deus Ex: Invisible War (Xbox), players are also given unique control over the HUD: through a sub-menu accessible during gameplay, a player can adjust the opacity of the HUD to his or her liking. This not only allows the player to decide how conspicuous the HUD is, but also gives HDTV gamers control over their own destiny when it comes to burn-in.

Kameo: Elements of Power utilizes a uniquely themed reticle that adds to immersion and resists burn-in.

Cut the static.

The HUD elements that pose the most risk of burn-in are those that seldom change, such as graphical borders. These static elements also offer the least benefit to the player, since they are generally decorative and do not contain information relevant to the game. Find ways to eliminate such elements or make them dynamic; Champions: Return to Arms (PlayStation 2), like many earlier games utilizing the Snowblind engine, offers a good example of how a typically static element like a level map can be made into a persistent yet ever-changing overlay. Cycling colors or animated textures can also invigorate a lifeless HUD while decreasing the threat of burn-in.

“Theme” isn't just about music.

One important thing to remember for necessary HUD elements is this: the more the HUD is themed to the game world, the less intrusive it will appear. This goes beyond superficial visual appearance; instead of just asking “What font looks the most science fiction-y?” ask instead “Based on the world we've designed, what is the best way to convey this necessary information to the player?” In Kameo: Elements of Power (Xbox 360), when a player assumes the role of Chilla and throws ice spears, some sort of reticle or guide is necessary for the player to properly aim the spears. The developers, instead of just utilizing a generic reticle overlay, came up with a cleverly themed solution that not only adds to player immersion, but also happens to eliminate any risk of burn-in: a reticle-shaped overlay that looks like a buildup of clear ice on the screen; it is visible only because it refracts the visible game world through it, and not because it contains static elements.

Metroid Prime uses themed touches, like this reflection of Samus's face, to incorporate the HUD into the game world.

Metroid Prime (Gamecube) also offers an excellent example of a fully themed HUD. Admittedly, it's a bit of cheat: the entire HUD can be explained away as the readout on the inside of Samus Aran's helmet. However, the developers embraced the theme and made it actually feel like a part of the environment—right down to the reflection of Samus's face that appears on the inside of the helmet during bright explosions.

The games mentioned above offer numerous examples to show how player status information can be presented in ways that are immersive and innovative. There are countless other solutions; in fact, the more specific a solution is to a particular game, the greater the odds that the developer is offering the player a one-of-a-kind gaming experience. As developers continue to challenge themselves to achieve more sophisticated levels of immersion and intuitive gameplay in their creations, they will no doubt devise equally sophisticated and unique ways to communicate critical information to the player.



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