No Man’s Sky has captivated me with its vast alien landscapes and desolate exploration, but its user interface leaves a lot to be desired. I struggled to navigate the game early on as the game bombards you with dense panels of cacophonous typography.
I’m frustrated with many of the UI design patterns in the game, which often distract from the fun of space exploration. Browsing recent threads on the No Man’s Sky subreddit confirm that many of these complaints are common among players.
This article seeks to provide some constructive criticism for the game’s user interface and identify some of the UX problems present. When crafting a design system, it’s important to keep these things in mind!
It’s your destiny
Between the game’s sci-fi setting and its use of a joystick-guided cursor, it’s impossible to not compare No Man’s Sky to Destiny, a game that made managing a virtual inventory on a controller feel surprisingly easy.
No Man’s Sky feels like Destiny’s kid brother—trying really hard to be just like him but not quite old enough to pull off that leather jacket.
A big part of that tonal difference is in the typography. The type in No Man’s Sky feels a little more generic compared to Destiny’s clean elegance. There’s often less breathing room around the text and a lack of alignment between related UI elements.
No Man’s Sky primarily uses Roboto, a Google font that any Android user is probably familiar with. Its secondary typeface is a modified version of Manfred Klein’s Geo Sans Light. It is interesting that both of these are free for commercial use!
This is one of the first screens you see at the beginning of the game. Look at how many different typographic styles are present on this screen alone, and how almost none of the text aligns with the others. The use of excessive centered text makes all of the UI harder to read and feels more chaotic.
I attempted a quick redesign to show how this could be improved. I changed all of the text to be left-aligned (alignment creates order!), rewrote some of the copy to make it more concise, and increased the height of the red warning bar. The resulting screen is much easier to read and more immediate:
Centered text is also used for all of the narrative moments in the game. Setting full paragraphs this way creates an irregular ragged edge on the left and right. Our eyes have to work harder when moving from one line to the next because the beginning of each line isn’t consistent. This is why almost all text you read (in English) is aligned to the left!
The NPC interaction screens have the same problem, but also introduce a secondary typeface which is set a little too small to read comfortably on a TV screen (even if it is mostly alien gibberish).
Again, the readability of this screen could be significantly improved by simply left-aligning the text. Look at the difference that makes:
The interface also relies heavily on ALL CAPS text, which is generally harder to read than upper-and-lowercase. There’s no visual differentiation between each milestone category (“Setting Out”, “Lonesome”) and the related description (“Travelled 7,294u”, “Met 0 Aliens”).
This screen could be improved by differentiating the milestone categories from the description. In this case, I made the categories bold and changed the descriptions to be upper-and-lowercase instead of all caps. The result is much easier to read:
Learn your periodic table
Like most survival games, No Man’s Sky has its own system of consumable items that the player uses to craft items and maintain equipment. Over time, you learn that Carbon is used to recharge your suit and weapons, while Thamium-9 is used as fuel for your ship’s Pulse Drive, for example.
These elements are also used when crafting useful items and tech add-ons for your gear (via blueprints). Inspecting an element in your inventory provides a generic description of how it’s used but there’s no indication of which blueprints are used by that element.
Instead, you have to look at each individual blueprint to know which elements/items and how many are required.
This is a fairly minor complaint but it’s a missed opportunity to aid the player in a subtle way. Likewise, there are objects in the world that require a crafted item (like a Bypass Chip) in order to use them.
Even if I have all of the materials handy to craft that item, I still have to go into my inventory, manually craft it, and then interact with the object. It’d be great if there was an option to craft the necessary item on the fly when interacting with these objects!
Good luck finding your way around
At its core No Man’s Sky is a game about exploring, which means that it’s also a game about getting lost. There’s always a waypoint on the HUD for your ship so you can’t get too lost, but the game doesn’t do much to aid your navigation.
Using your scanner you can reveal (temporarily) where nearby elements are. You can also spot question mark icons that could be one of a few different things, like a crashed ship, monolith, or a trading post. Once you arrive at one of those points, they persist in your HUD, providing a point of reference to continued exploration. But there’s not actually a map of any planetary surfaces.
Sadly, activating a beacon is the closest thing you ever get. The camera quickly flies up to show you the surrounding area and then zooms back in, adding a few nearby waypoints to your HUD.
But there’s no way to refer to that satellite view of your local terrain, and no way to set a waypoint to a point of interest. Heck, there’s not even a proper compass with cardinal directions!
Perhaps this is intentional, as it requires the player to learn the worlds and use their internal sense of direction to find their way. But in a world where hyperspace travel is possible, that seems like a cop out.
Minecraft, like No Man’s Sky, throws you into an unfamiliar, procedurally-generated landscape, but even there you can craft a map that fills itself in as you explore.
Off planet navigation isn’t much easier. There is a system map for planning hyperspace jumps, but it’s clumsy to navigate and, again, there’s no way to mark systems of interest to travel to later.
No Man’s Sky incentivises players by celebrating “milestones” periodically for things like: traveling X distance on foot, learning X new words, meeting X number of aliens. That’s fine, but whenever you meet a new milestone, you see this screen:
It completely interrupts whatever you’re doing, taking over the screen for several seconds with cinematic bars and an all caps reminder of your accomplishment. During this time you can’t enter any menus, pause the game, or even toggle the mode on your multitool.
If you’re on a planet with an extreme climate and your life support is about to give out, you could easily die while the game celebrates your accomplishments because you couldn’t recharge your suit in time.
Other games have solved this by showing milestones as a minor UI elements that pops in from a corner and doesn’t interrupt the gameplay.
Enjoy the view
For a game that emphasizes the variety and beauty of its landscapes, it’s baffling that a photo mode isn’t part of the experience. Currently, the HUD can only be disabled in the PC version, and even then you have to dig through the menus to disable it.
First, you have to navigate to the Graphics tab, and then press and hold on one of the arrows to toggle the “Show HUD” option to Off, then press and hold on Apply to save your changes. And then do it all over again to turn the HUD back on!
It’s frustrating when you find a beautiful vista but your screenshot is cluttered with distant waypoints and pop-up reminders of what you’re “supposed” to do next. Being able to show/hide the HUD at the push of an (assignable) button would encourage players to share their finds, and make crafting your next desktop wallpaper much easier.
Dark Souls 2 and Dark Souls 3 both included an “Auto” HUD option, which would hide the HUD after a few seconds of inactivity. This made it really easy to capture beautiful HUD-free screenshots during my playthroughs, and made the game feel more immersive.
Credit where it’s due
No Man’s Sky was built by a small team. But its credits screen looks like a complete afterthought! This is what the game’s credits look like (accessible through the Options menu):
This screen doesn’t scroll or move in any way, and yet this is how they chose to present their team? The text is tiny, there’s almost no content hierarchy and it’s not using the space effectively to present this information.
N++, a game built by an even smaller team at Metanet Software, has thoughtfully-designed credits that also take up a single screen but use color, scale, and alignment to create a clear hierarchy of information.
Here are some other strange UX patterns that I’ve noticed while playing the game:
- The game gives you a “LIFE SUPPORT LOW” warning when it reaches 75%, 50%, and 25%. For most players, 75% wouldn’t be considered “low” and this creates unnecessary urgency.
- The game encourages you to upload your plant and animal discoveries, but there’s no option to batch upload all of them at once! Instead, you have to tediously select each individual species and hold a button to upload it.
- The PC version allows controls to be rebound, but the PS4 version doesn’t! This presents accessibility problems for many players, and an inconvenience for others. (EDIT: It is possible to set custom button configurations on the PS4 but it changes the buttons for all games! Per-game custom button configuration isn’t possible yet, so it can be tedious if you’re playing anything in addition to No Man’s Sky)
- By default, the game makes the player click the right stick (R3) in order to sprint. This is a non-standard control scheme (most games use L3) which is frustrating if your instinct is to click the left stick (as mine is).
- The option to Quit the game is buried under the Options menu, an unexpected location that many players may have trouble finding.
- When looting various bins and containers in the world, there’s no option to evaluate the contents and keep/reject the items. The items inside either pop straight into your exosuit inventory or you get a blaring INVENTORY FULL error message. Games like Fallout 4 tell you what is inside a given container and allow the player to decide whether they want to pick them up.
Despite its flaws, I’m eager to continue exploring the huge virtual universe. I’m hopeful that Hello Games will continue to update and support the game, hopefully addressing many of the UX problems that are present now. In the meantime, I’ll be expanding my knowledge of the Gek and scanning every plant and animal I find.