The User Interface (UI) is a critical component of any digital product, whether a website, mobile app, or game. It must be inviting and intuitive, and sometimes what is necessary goes beyond functionality. As an immersive experience, games need to create an ambience for the player. Disco Elysium does a wonderful job of this, combining pastel backdrop and soft atmospheric music. But we are here to talk about our UI… and not games I’m currently playing.
The old UI was basic, but served its purpose. Buttons were generated by bespoke code at runtime, rendered on screen with absolute values, such as position, width and height. The problem was this doesn’t scale for different monitor resolutions. But now we are hurtling towards the end of the core development phase, and need something better. We also have no art assets for the menus at this time, as the team are focused on other jobs. So my task was to prepare the UI for being ‘skinned’ later with some colourful images and animations.
This task was divided into three phases: research (as always), the menu system (pre-game) and the GUI (in-game). Usually in software development the design and development of a UI would be delegated to a dedicated technical artist who has specialist knowledge. Richard has me, without specialist knowledge.
Before creating any designs, I browsed the UI’s of games I’ve played, as well as other games in the RTS genre. I researched a lot of start screens and tried to spot the differences between the good and the bad. After some digging (and over fifty open Chrome tabs) it started to become obvious which ones simply worked and which ones didn’t.
Classic and modern RTS games have significant differences: modern games like Northgard adopt minimalism, showing information only when necessary, while older games make panels of information permanent fixtures. We wanted to make the menus as minimalist as possible, much like Northgard or Disco Elysium. Just simple and pretty menus which allow the player effortless interaction.
We wanted to make sure that everything would be accessible exactly where the player expects. Eventually we’ll enable the player to move these elements, such as the minimap, to wherever their heart so desires, affording a personalised UI experience. But for now we must establish a generic layout, such as an actions interface positioned at the bottom of the screen. This space will dynamically populate with actions, based upon the player’s selection. I also added unit counters along the top, so that at a glance players know how many of each unit type they possess.
All of the objects shown were created using Unity’s UI tools. It took a few tutorials before I understood the different components. For example, my first attempt at the dynamic action panel involved programmatically creating and moving buttons. After some irritation with that not working, I came across Unity’s “GridLayoutGroup” component, which unsurprisingly did what I wanted. One caveat though, it did not change the size of child elements (i.e. action buttons) to fit the space provided. So a small custom script was needed to supplement this component.
This task did not require a perfect, final, or even pretty UI, as we have begun an iterative process, to refine the design until it performs without issue. For now, the foundations have been laid, making future work much easier.