Okay, I admit that I've only just started these essays and I've already blatantly lied to you. Not only did I not post my first one over the weekend like I promised, I'm also doing a bait and switch on the topic. Instead of talking about the development path between console and PC UI first, there's something that came up in conversation today that I'd rather devote the first entry to, and its position on my list is 2b (because it kind of dovetails into a couple of other points I had made earlier on my list). Here's the tenet:
Giving the player all information at all times is not only not advantageous, but actively damaging to the game experience.
It's a subpoint on my list because it dovetails into a larger point, which is that a UI's job is to present only the information you need when you actually need it, and that information shouldn't crowd your screen at any other time.
Gears of War, both one and two, by Epic Games serve as a fantastic example of this point. In terms of UI the screen has practically nothing on it -- and very frequently has actually nothing on it -- and elements only fade in when you need the information. Even your weapon and ammo information will fade out if you're walking through an area of the world where you won't be experiencing any combat. There's no minimap at all. (And thank God for that -- I'll save my minimap rant for another essay.) The UI for Gears is so minimal that you'd probably forget it even had one, giving you an unfettered view to the actual game and helping to break down that barrier to full immersion that a UI can so often be.
At the other end of the spectrum is the example of a game I once worked on (a past project that will remain anonymous so as to cover my ass) in which the designers and programmers insisted on putting everything you could possibly want to know at all times in the game's HUD, all visible at once. The weapon information was required to be up at all times, along with your secondary weapon information, and a request was even made of me to put five concentric directional indicators around the crosshair icon right in the center of the screen with large timers for the bombs you had to disarm, and these went with the three grenade indicators that were already added despite my protests that rotated around the central crosshair, rendering the entire central area of the screen -- a rather important area in a shooter -- completely unusable when it came to seeing the actual game. There was a minimap chock full of ten or more different icons, one of which even told you which direction a person you could sneak up on was facing so that in case you were around the corner and couldn't actually see them you wouldn't accidentally sneak up on them if they were facing you. (Now tell me, what's the point of a stealth mechanic if you're just going to give the player all of the information they need to bypass the actual stealthing?)
Too. Much. Information.
As a UI designer I frequently encounter heavy resistance when I try to strip a UI down and make it lean and mean and contextually visible, and this is because there's a switch that tends to happen in these game designers when they go from players to designers -- they forget how to look at a game through a player's eyes and instead view it through the eyes of a designer. As designers, they want to give the player all the tools they think the player will need to enjoy playing the game, and they erroneously think that giving them lots of information at all times is helpful when in fact it can create confusion and clutter, rendering the experience far less enjoyable. Who wants to view the game world through a visible area the size of a postage stamp?
The wonderful side effect of going minimal and contextually visible is that when you hide the vast majority of your UI and you show only what the player needs when they need it, you change the level of importance of that information drastically -- what would have been lost in a sea of other UI elements on the screen (or what would have had to be made artificially larger, brighter, and thus more annoying) now becomes the singular focus, the most important thing the player needs to know right now. You automatically draw attention to something without having to do any work to set it apart from ten other pieces of information vying for the player's attention. And after all, which would you rather do: make one item visible on the screen, or have to add multiple layers of attention-grabbing art that takes up space and requires you to have to shuffle the rest of your UI jigsaw pieces just to fit it into your "640 by 480 minus the safe area and oh yeah how's it gonna look on the PC" UI?
You're likely saying to yourself, "it's all well and good to say that Gears did this, but they're a simple shooter." It's a fair point, but while I don't work for Epic and don't have any insight into their UI and game design process, I'm pretty sure that the simplicity of Gears' gameplay is not the reason for the simplicity of its UI -- it's because they made smart decisions about the flow of their gameplay and how many things would be thrown at the player at one time.
Take the lack of a minimap, for example. Minimaps, while very useful and often necessary for some games and genres (I recently had to admit that a minimap has to be in Demigod, the game I'm currently working on, and since we've put it in I've found it invaluable), are sometimes thrown into games, in my opinion, as a lazy design solution. Instead of structuring the gamplay so that the player wouldn't have to be forced to sort out which allies are where and also how much ammo he's got and also who's stealing what on the playfield, a minimap is thrown in as a way to just sort of vomit all of the information onto the screen at once (sorry about that metaphor) and let the player sort it all out.
Instead of a minimap to tell you where your allies are and where your threats are, Gears does two things: it lets you bring up a very, very simple directional indicator with the press of a button that shows you where your fellow Gears are, and it pops up a simple, small Y button with an eye icon that you can press -- only if you choose to -- to drag your camera to the single most important piece of information you need to know right now, which is sometimes a very large and recent threat or a door you need to blow up. Again, they give you an indicator of only the most important thing you need to know right now, and they don't have to do anything special to make it stand out against the noise of a UI because it's the only thing on the screen. The player doesn't need to know more than that because they're going to actually look at the game world for their information, not a UI that's blocking most of it.
And that's really the key: the game world needs to provide the majority of game information, not the UI. The UI is merely a helper for the few things we can't convey via gameplay. When I've tried on past projects to do something so simple as to hide the weapon information when you don't need it I've been told, "but I might need to know how many clips I have left before I get into my next firefight." Apparently you don't need to in Gears, and that wasn't a simple UI decision: observance of the gameplay flow shows that they carefully structure the gameplay so that you're never caught in a situation in which you don't have that information when you need it.
It can be done, and it should be done. We don't play UI, we play games. The more sophisticated our games and our technology to make them gets, the more we can let the game do the talking rather than the UI wall we're forced to construct in the meantime. And until the day a game can be made with no UI, the good UI designer -- and the game designers he or she works with -- should always be thinking, "how can this UI be reduced even further?"