Tyler Doak is an artist, game designer, and founder of Culture Attack! He released Aces Wild in 2013 and is currently working on Citadel Deep. He shared his thoughts on successful game UI, aesthetic trends, sources of inspiration, and detailed his design process.
How did you start working on games?
I was about to graduate and an Artist friend of mine asked me what we’re gonna do with our Art Degrees. I told her I had no idea but would love to work in games. But it seemed like more of a dream than a realistic goal. She gave me an irritated look and told me to just go do it! So I did that very evening!
I had some characters I’d been working on and I started with RPG maker because I thought it would be easier. I worked on a game called Beyond the Veil for about a year and a half, but my heart wasn’t in it. I had been doing sketches for a game while at my day job that I actually wanted to work on.
So I abandoned Beyond the Veil and started working on Aces Wild. I learned a lot working with RPG maker. Many hard lessons about planning making games you actually want to play.
I also dipped my toes a bit into programming by just hacking existing stuff. With Aces Wild I wanted to learn everything I could, so I started from scratch and XNA was a good way to do that since it was free and had tons of tutorials.
Have you noticed any trends in game UI/UX over the last few years?
A couple of things. One is how UI stuff gets smaller and smaller. I can understand the reasoning, but I really don’t like it. I also know that part of the reason has to do with platform requirement being away from the edges of screens and stuff.
The other thing is using simple white font over really simple backgrounds—like darkened game scenes or transparent boxes. This one bothers me because it’s really safe. It can look nice, but doesn’t play into the theming very well. Just kinda uninspired. Reminds me of how a lot of recent websites are made like this. Huge fullscreen image with text over it.
What is critical to successful game UI to you?
Feels good to interact with, easy to get around in, and ideally it doesn’t become what you’re watching. I’ve played the first few hours of Lightning Returns and I love the system, but so much of it is staring at the UI. I think the aesthetics of it are pretty cool. And I also enjoy how it gives a lot of info in a way that isn’t always necessary—as in sometimes you may forget something and then it’s there to remind you. But why even have all these cool characters and outfits if you’re staring at the UI the whole time?
As for non-menu stuff I think conveying information while also bolstering feedback loops is important. Secret of Mana did this well. The value of the numbers go up to show you getting stronger, but then their size eventually gets bigger too.
In Aces Wild I shake the health bar when you take damage. Something about this makes it kinda scary. Like the damage is more direct on you the player, not just the character.
Where do you see the greatest room for improvement in game UI today?
I think theming can go a long way. Even if it’s just matching the aesthetic, feel or setting of the game. Again, so many games use a very nice, safe look. It’s just boring. I think usability, many of them are pretty good, but that simple design often makes navigating really muddy and they have all these smooth transitions that take just a bit too long that really bother me. I like snappiness.
I also think a lot about conventions. I like the idea of designers trying new things—like life bars NOT at the top left—but at the same time, those conventions can be nice so players can use previous knowledge. No insight here, just something I think about a lot.
What are some games that have particularly memorable interfaces for you?
Square has some of the best menus around. Across a bunch of games. Sphere grid (Final Fantasy X) is really interesting compared to like Skyrim constellations. They’re similar, but I think the sphere grid is better.
One of my favorites is Parasite Eve. Really really simple stuff, but the aesthetic and sound effects and the snappiness of the menus made me feel like I was Aya modding her gun. Metal Gear has some great menus as well. Really similar to Parasite Eve.
I love all the old and new Final Fantasy games. You spend so much time in the menus and on the surface they seem boring, but I always enjoy navigating with them.
Additionally, I think their in Battle UI is really nice. I see a lot of people arguing over whether you should life bars or numbers and NEVER BOTH. But I like having both. The numbers give you a sense of progression and the bars let you get a quick glance/general state.
What were your influences/sources of inspiration when designing Aces Wild?
Kirby Super Star was one of the biggest. It’s just a great feeling 2D game. Lots of style. And of course God Hand and fighting games in general. I didn’t play a lot of Treasure games before making Aces Wild, but I get compared fairly to them a lot. I’d bet the Bangai-O and Mischief Makers came through in that regard.
I also attribute manic shooters to a lot of my design sense. Specifically games like Dodonpachi, ESPRade and ESPGaluda. They have such strong base mechanics that just feel great when you’re doing them. I always aspire for that arcadey feedback loop.
I’d say my UI probably got inspiration from those same places. But I really liked to push how much I could give info and just good gamefeel when the UI updated info (sparkles, shakes, color changes, etc). I think it’s easy to make info and game feel work in concert with the UI, but many games don’t do it. But I know a lot of games like to push away from the VIDEOGAME aesthetic. And I think that’s ok too, just not my style.
What was your creative process like when developing the game’s style and tone?
I think Aces Wild was a bit of a failure overall in the Art Direction department. I do like my gameplay UI though! I didn’t have a good world sense when I started so the game changed a TON over the course of development.
It was going to take place outside in the woods and going up a mountain to get a scroll from a ninja temple. Ironically, my very first sketches ended up being what the world turned out as. Specifically the Rooftops stage, which is also my favorite.
Again, I play a lot of fighting games and watch a lot of Shonen Anime. Pretty straightforward, over-the-top action. I hope to give it more of an identity if I do a sequel.
What tools did you use to make Aces Wild and did they pose any challenges when implementing UI?
I developed my own engine using XNA and just made everything in Photoshop. No real challenge with the Gameplay UI, but doing menus and end of level display stuff was hard. They’re all really hacky. Despite having a lot of experience with RPG Maker (which has GREAT menu integration) my menus are awful.
What typeface(s) are you using in the game and how did you select them? Were there licensing challenges that restricted that decision?
I mainly used Acknowledge, which is seen in a lot of stuff like Super Meat Boy. I don’t blame a lot of Indie Games for using it. It’s so sharp and stylish and matches a lot of game types. I stylized it more and used a sprite font so I could have some flashy effects on them. I had flat and shaded versions. The flat versions also served as a way to produce some effects over the standard shaded version.
I also used ARB 08 Extreme Roman for the Rank numerals. I’m also using this font in my next game, Citadel Deep.
I got permission from the creators to use them. It just took an email. The second time they requested I donate at least $5 so I did!
How did you test the UI throughout the design process?
Nothing exciting here. Just whether or not I enjoyed the look of it mostly. There was a lot of going back and forth with how the Health and Wild bars actually looked and what colors to use. A lot of fine tuning happened here. Certain colors and patterns were too busy. I also added tiny labels to everything because players didn’t always know what each thing was.
One of the main mechanics, Wild, wasn’t introduced until late in development even though it was one of the very first ideas (before I officially started working on it). This was a mistake. Implement stuff right away so that everything can work in concert. The same thing with the scoring system. This was the last thing implemented even though I wanted it from the beginning. It really shows. Maybe the UI is ok, but I know the dark truth!
But because of this overhauls kept happening because new info needed to be displayed.
The hitsparks and other character effects progressed a lot as the game developed as well. I used them to convey how strong your attack was, how much wild you have, etc. They feed into the feedback loop well too.
The damage numbers are a point of discussion for many lol. A lot of people really didn’t like them, but it’s both your damage and score so I like both. Plus they were fun to animate and make flashy.
One of the very last things I added was a flashing effect to attacks especially projectiles. It was one of the most important changes. It made the game tangibly more fun. There’s a reason games from Sunset Riders to Metal Slug to Dodonpachi have fluorescent flashing bullets. Seeing that information is so important.
How are you approaching the UI in your next game? Were there any big lessons learned from Aces Wild?
Implement as soon as possible! That way mechanically and UI functionality wise everything will grow together.
My current in-development game, Citadel Deep, has a much different tone than Aces Wild. Still stylish action, but it’s not as cutesy/Shonen-ey so I have to keep that in mind. The Aces Wild UI sort just played into my default style, but I have to try harder this time. There’s also much more information that needs to be displayed as well as navigating menus to customize your character.
I’m focusing a lot on getting that feel from Parasite Eve for menus and to avoid the problems in Lightning Returns for combat UI. I’m doing my best to convey information in world space as well so you’re not looking away from the player character or enemy combatants as much as possible. I hope to really capture the feel of the game in the menus and displays without being overwrought. They currently have a long way to go.