Interview: Brooke Condolora, Brain&Brain

Brooke Condolora is a game designer, artist, animator, and one half of Brain&Brain, an independent studio currently working on Burly Men at Sea. She shared her thoughts on design, game UI, sources of inspiration, and the challenges of licensing type for games.

How did you start working on games?

The short story is that one day my husband David and I realized we could make games together, and we’re now three years in and working on our second. At the time, I was a freelance graphic designer and web developer, but even that circles back to games. I had always loved to draw, and in junior high, I was really into Pokémon. I met a graphic designer around that time and discovered that drawing with computers was an actual career. So I drew a few Pokémon in MS Paint, with a mouse, and decided then that I’d do it for a living. I did explore other options during college, but ultimately came back to graphic design and started freelancing while still in school. That expanded into web development, which I also really enjoy. I feel fortunate in that I now get to do both for my own projects.

Have you noticed any trends in game UI/UX over the last few years?

The most obvious has been the move toward a cleaner and more minimal UI. When we started developing our first game, this was already pretty common in apps but didn’t yet have much presence in games. Mobile games seemed to pick it up first, and now we’re seeing the trend across all platforms and genres. I like it, in general, though as a trend it’s gotten some well-deserved criticism. Mimicking a trend on a surface level rather than designing for usability is just bad practice.

What is critical to successful game UI to you?

As a player, I don’t want to think about the UI. It should be there when I need it and get out of my way when I don’t. It should provide the least amount of information in the simplest way. And it should feel as if it belongs, visually, in that specific game. As a designer, what’s critical to me is that I accomplish all of the above in an aesthetically pleasing way, without compromise. (No pressure.)

Where do you see the greatest room for improvement in game UI today?

I think games often try to provide too much information to the player, which leads to either a cluttered UI or a deceptively minimal one that is terrible to navigate. There seems to be a divorce between game design and UI design, when they should go hand in hand.

What are some games that have particularly memorable interfaces for you (and why)?

Kentucky Route Zero is top of the list. It always seems to show up somewhere in my answers to questions, because it’s such a well-crafted game. The visual style is refreshing, the dialogue system has a great feel, and I love little details like the horseshoe cursor click and the tire in map view. They do a solid job of distilling elements to their essence.

Kentucky Route Zero (2013)

Kentucky Route Zero (2013)

I also appreciated the elegant simplicity of Monument Valley’s UI, especially in the story interludes between levels.

Are there any games you’ve given up on because the UI was too cumbersome/hard to use?

I don’t think I’ve given up on a game for UI reasons, probably because I don’t gravitate toward games with bad design in the first place. The worst I’ve experienced have been games ported to a different platform that don’t properly rethink the controls for that new experience.

What have been your sources of inspiration when working on Burly Men at Sea (games and beyond)?

The design of the game draws a lot of influence from books. The icons in our narrative scenes are a nod to typographic marks like the hedera, and the layout and stylized storytelling method was inspired by Saul Bass’s Henri’s Walk to Paris. The art style is influenced by modern Scandinavian illustration: artists like Sanna Annukka, Lotta Nieminen, Darling Clementine, and Polkka Jam. Other sources of inspiration came from all over: Scandinavian folklore, short stories by O. Henry and Poe, even Star Trek.

Henri's Walk To Paris by Saul Bass

Henri’s Walk To Paris by Saul Bass

What was your creative exploration process like when developing the game’s illustration style and tone?

I had a pretty good idea of the illustration style from the beginning, since I knew the story would have a Scandinavian setting, but I did a lot of research. Early on, I wanted to actually hand-print the in-game art to capture the organic feel of modern Scandinavian illustration, but that was sort of a crazy dream that we’re saving for another time. I also tried a more pattern-driven direction that was too busy for backgrounds but makes an appearance in the map. bmas_wavepattern I also looked to photos of Norwegian fishing villages for color reference, where the reds and yellows are naturally derived from fish oil paints. The rest of the palette developed around those two colors. I used rough color sketches to work out final colors for the village scene, which then served as a key for the rest of the game. bmas_villagecolorsketches As for the tone of the game, we wanted to create something that feels like a folktale read from an illustrated storybook. That directed both the writing and art style.

Have you found any significant limitations while using Sketch to generate the game’s assets?

The only real limitation I’ve come across is that it can be very buggy, which has been a long-term issue and one I hope to see handled better in the future. But I’ve been using it for almost four years and haven’t yet missed Illustrator, which was also buggy and cost far more. We’re using all SVG assets in the game, even for frame-by-frame animation, so I’m able to do everything inside Sketch. David writes plugins to automate some of my common tasks, which adds up to a lot of time saved over the course of a year.

What typeface(s) are you using in the game and how did you select them? Were there licensing challenges that restricted that decision?

Great question! Font licensing for games is a huge challenge and one that I’ve wanted to address. We chose to license Adelle Light and Adelle Light Italic from TypeTogether, which complements the storybook feel of the game and is optimized for screen rendering. But we also chose it because TypeTogether has the only reasonable licensing terms we could find. bmas03 Most of the major font distributors and foundries offer “app licensing” at 10–200x the price of a desktop license per style, per platform, per year. None of this even approaches affordable for an indie budget. Our game requires two styles and will be released on at least three platforms, so we were looking at something like $4000/year minimum to display dialogue. We considered settling for free Google Fonts but weren’t thrilled by the options, so it was a relief to come across TypeTogether, who offer a reasonably priced perpetual license for unlimited platforms. Font licensing for games is still new territory for everyone, so hopefully we’ll see improvements. I’d love to see tiered pricing based on company revenue, like what House Industries is doing for logo usage, or at least a distinction between game licensing and app licensing.

How have you tested the interface and design of the game throughout the development process?

Mostly, we’ve watched over a lot of shoulders. Other developers have been kind enough to playtest and offer feedback along the way, and we’ve also demoed the game at several festivals. We note where players struggle and try to understand why. Usually, it’s just an oversight on our part, but sometimes players don’t behave as we predict. In those cases, we work backward and sometimes redesign a scene around player tendencies. bmas02

Have there been any unexpected challenges in developing a game simultaneously for touch and mouse input?

Definitely. One thing we didn’t initially consider is that our primary mechanic works through clicking and dragging, but PC gamers don’t instinctively play like that. So even though we designed it for mouse input first, it’s actually more intuitive with touch. There’s also the challenge of making sure the player gets a satisfying experience with or without a cursor. I don’t say “identical” experience, because it’s like designing a responsive website. Input doesn’t need to work the same for both experiences, but it should work well for both.

What do you hope that players will get out of their time with Burly Men at Sea?

Our story explores the idea of adventure, not as some unattainable journey for hero types, but as the sort of experience anyone has by trying something out of the ordinary. We call it “quiet adventure.” So we hope first that players enjoy the game, but if it also inspires a real adventure: even better. — Thanks to Brooke Condolora for sharing her insight. Be sure to follow her on Twitter and keep an eye out for Burly Men at Sea coming soon from Brain&Brain!