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Interview: Dylan Jones, co-founder of Gamenest

At Game&Type we want to share the perspectives of the people making our games. This is the first in a series of interviews that aim to shed some light on the role of typography and user interface in the video game industry.

Dylan Jones is a game designer and co-founder of Gamenest, a coworking space for indie game developers in San Francisco. We spoke about his design process, the role of good game UI and the challenges of implementing it.

It seems to me that the average gamer is becoming more aware of UI design in their games. Have you noticed this?

We’ve started to hear critical and exceptional response to huge blockbuster hits like Destiny, “Oh the game’s okay, a little repetitive but the UI was incredible” and that’s a mainstream example of that usability and that forgotten-about skill really coming up to the forefront again.

I think unfortunately music and menus really get tossed on to the end of game projects. So, to see that happen was excellent.

How did you get into games?

My father was in film and so I had the privilege of having a video camera when I was very very young. I loved to make these funny little home videos and I remember one time in particular I was making a movie and the bad guy—you know, I was so young—the bad guy has created a ray gun that gives all of the women mustaches and kid stuff like that.

But I remember the most interesting part of that film, I shot two endings. I shot an ending where I, as the good guy, defeated the bad guy and I shot an ending where the bad guy defeated me.

So when I sat down to watch it, I got to that point and said, “Okay, what’s gonna happen? What do you want to happen?” So my humble living room audience got to dictate what the ending was going to be like. And I always thought, even at a really young age, that was the most interesting part of the movie—allowing the audience to pick the ending.

So of course that manifested well into into high school and games and I really got my start in making funky experimental games. Titles like Molleindustria’s Every Day The Same Dream, changed how I saw life. So now here I am I guess, still making those and trying to figure out how to pay bills with games too.

Every Day The Same Dream (2009)

Every Day The Same Dream (2009)

How do you select a typeface? How much is licensing a constraint?

It really depends. I have a small humble background in web and so in college I had the traditional education and the honor to take a typography class and really gain an appreciation of graphic design and apply that to games.

I think, again, that menus and UI—and UX for that matter—are really underappreciated and take a backseat, especially in games. Like, all you do in games is click buttons so it’s absolutely vital that your buttons feel good and that UX is clear and it gets you back into what’s most important and that’s the game.

And so that really dictates itself in every manifestation of a project whether that’s a gamejam game or a commercial release for me. For gamejam games I think the menu is still important, but obviously you probably won’t be be licensing some classy typeface.

When we do licensing for commercial projects, I really enjoy sketching out the UI sooner rather than later. As crazy as it sounds, I like to try and allow the UI to dictate some of the game design to a certain extent. I think your screen real estate and how many buttons you have can dictate, possibly controversially, a lot of the game design itself.

Where do you go to source a typeface?

I’m a huge fan of the Google Web Fonts or Lost Type. For games—you know it depends on the feel—I have no problem using some open font from DaFont or whatever, as long as I think that it fits the need.

It’s important to convey that feel into the UX (and UI for that matter) but also have it extra-usable. It’s all about that feeling and matching the theme of the game.

I’ll license a font if I find one that says “oh that’s exactly what I need for this”. It adds this additional layer over the usability, it has to match those chosen aesthetics that I’m trying to convey.

What are the challenges with implementing custom fonts in Unity?

They don’t make it easy for you but it’s better than what’s been! You have to fight a little bit with Unity but now there are actually tools. First off, the Unity built-in tools are pretty useless if you know anything about typography. But there are people out there who make plugins for Unity that know a lot about typography and that’s what you want to look into.

Textmesh Pro offers everything you could possibly need for a game developer who really cares about type. Everything from micro kerning to line spacing to converting things into vector so that you can resize it.

What game UI do you look up to?

For me, the games I look up to the most in terms of UI are the games that don’t have any. Again, in web and traditional formats it’s much more focused on how it’s set but in terms of game design, UI is always viewed as an additional layer that’s purpose is to deliver information but can be like putting a band-aid on a broken leg.

I think we should strive to create games that express their UI diegetically. And so of course I’m not saying that we don’t need feedback for certain systems here and there but I really admire and respect games like King Kong and FarCry where instead of popping up a minimap your character actually looks down at a diegetic map in the game world.

Far Cry 2’s (2008) in-game map. Image from Killa Penguin.

Far Cry 2’s (2008) in-game map. Image from Killa Penguin.

For me that’s the epitome of really good UX in games because it doesn’t pull you away from any experience and it keeps you in that game world. UI in general, its goal is to get you in the game and if it can keep you there as long as possible it’s succeeded.

It’s all about conveying that visceral feel but still maintaining usability. I really love The Talos Principle because they have this great terminal prompt system and you see the keys typing but what they do is they allow basically just click a multiple choice answer at the bottom of the screen so you may just click on DIR for “directory” or you may just click on gibberish. It’s a very visceral blend of UI and gameplay.

The Talos Principle (2014). Image from Slindenau.

The Talos Principle (2014). Image from Slindenau.

Any games with memorably bad UI?

One of my favorite games, Dead Rising, is also one of the most broken games that I’ve enjoyed.

Dead Rising has a long list of issues but one of them is… it was an early title for the Xbox 360 and this was right when, now we’ve got HD video games—cool!—but they just assumed that everybody was playing in HD so when plugged their Xbox 360 into a standard definition monitor you literally couldn’t read the objective text!

You legitimately could not read where you were supposed to go or what you were supposed to do, players in SD would just follow the arrow and not only was that also kinda broken it was terrible design.

Dead Rising (2006), featuring really small and hard-to-read UI text. Image from Visual Walkthroughs.

Dead Rising (2006), featuring really small and hard-to-read UI text. Image from Visual Walkthroughs.

What are you working on right now?

It’s a really interesting UX problem but I very much want to unite game players from platform to platform. It’s silly that in 2015 we still have to worry about, “Oh, you have an Android phone, you can’t play games with me on my Mac or my Xbox or my PlayStation” and our new project is geared towards tearing those barriers down and allowing friends from anywhere, basically at any time, to play with each other no matter what platform they’re on.

We always wanted to play this game when we were young; that classic turn-based strategy game with spaceship combat. We’re working on that as a multiplayer drop-in cooperative experience across all the platforms which is just the beginning of a huge UI nightmare, let alone supporting touch and mouse together well.

We’re turn-based and along with our fancy server stuff what I’m hoping to do is allow a Twitch streamer to say, “Hey I’m playing this game and it just got really hard. You guys, come in and help me!” and the Twitch streamer posts a link and all of their fans can click on that link. The game loads up in the browser that they’re on, that match, right then and now all those fans warp in with their ships and can join this Twitch streamer. Which means, ideally, the UI in our game works not only well but also consistently if you’re touching a phone or clicking in a browser or PC.

And when I say “all the fans” I’m being sincere. We just did a backend server test and what we’re aiming to do is have 10,000 people in one level all playing the same match. That, plus cross-platform is the definition of a UX catastrophe waiting to happen I’m looking forward to trying to tackle.

How do you wireframe things out?

I have a little bit of a web background in terms of UX so I’ve paid for really expensive wireframing tools but I think my favorite every time is Balsamiq’s because it’s just so—I love how they make all of their draggable and planning items rough line art, like you’ve literally sketched it out.

I find that I get much better feedback from people when it looks like a rough sketch. When it looks like I’ve just thrown it together really quickly somebody doesn’t mind tearing it apart but compared to when I have clean edges and the tiniest amount of font choice in there, people seem more hesitant and they provide more minor feedback.

Thanks to Dylan Jones for sharing his perspective and experience. Be sure to follow him on Twitter and keep an eye out for future projects coming out of Gamenest!