Hold on – let’s back up a bit. Homefront? What happened to Frontlines 2? Well, there was a sequel in the works actually. The original Frontlines: Fuel of War had solid reviews and the multiplayer section had a lot of fans (including strangely enough Slipknot, who we set up an online event with!) – so why not build on our existing world and fan base..?
The number of successful original IPs (Intellectual Properties) are staggeringly low, and it seemed to us that we had a foothold on the ultra-competitive First-Person Shooter beach. As we began developing Frontlines 2 in earnest, word came down from corporate that we’re going to switch gears and begin a completely new universe (!). More on this later…
Since the original Frontlines had us fighting through the Middle East against the Red Star Alliance (Russian and China), the prevailing idea was to have the next round through occupied America, mostly New York City. Central Park, Brooklyn, JFK International, etc would all be game levels to blast through. I remember some amazing artwork that showed LaGuardia Airport serving as an enemy internment camp. Shown above is one of my many Main Menu prototypes – this one showing the status on various states in contention in real-time in the multiplayer arenas. To the right is one of the dozens of amazing concept art pieces created by good friend Dave Greco.
Goodbye China, Hello North Korea
So how do you sell video games in China if China is the bad guy? Simple: change the antagonist to someone who won’t buy your game anyway. Word came down from Corporate that our Frontlines 2 follow-up will be cancelled, and we’re to rewrite our storyline so the enemy force (who has taken over America) will be… (drum roll…) North Korea. The same North Korea who, at the time of this writing, still can’t even figure out how to keep the lights on. Needless to say, the internet exploded with bad press on how silly and insulting our premise was. And rightly so. Before we even reached our halfway mark, we had a big bulls-eye on us and a whole lotta’ flak.
Video game development is a fluid and dynamic process. Our original intent was to go with our strengths and create a 100% multiplayer experience for the follow-up. The Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises had such a evolved and polished head-start with their phenomenal single-player campaigns, we thought it was in our best interest to compete with our studios bread-and-butter skills: online play. The marketing blitz began and out comes our new teaser trailer!
The Trouble With User Interface
Invariably during production of a video game, we look at the progress with the user interface (UI) totally turned off. If everyone is doing their job right (modelers, lighters, animation, AI), it should look like an interactive movie. The word cinematic is thrown around the studio often, like Games are always trying to live up to its older brother, Movies. As a veteran UI artist now, I’m the first to agree most games look amazing without UI. Take a look at all the screenshots officially released from any studio website- Assassin’s Creed, Battlefield, Call Of Duty- any you can think of. Notice anything? They never, ever show the game with that damn UI nonsense all over the screen:
They all look fantastic. And of course, completely unplayable. Where are you? How much ammo do you have? Are you holding a hammer or a donut? So we smack that minimap radar in the corner and bullet count over there and little messages and health all over the place and it’s no longer a movie… but now you can find that all-important game objective. We’ve tested a ton of ways to make UI contextual. Ammo meters on guns. Holographics in the world.
I remember Dead Space had a great in-game navigational system. For various reasons, these solutions are few and far between. They’re nontraditional (will people get it?), developmentally expensive (is it worth it?), and in the end, just UI (prevalent attitude). A game is only as good as it’s weakest link, and it can be a challenge to assign an army of programmers to User Interface when the AI or Game Engine is looking for code attention.
Play The Game, Not The HUD
During early testing, we discovered an unpleasant trend – gamers tend to play the HUD, not the game. What does this mean? Imagine you’re sitting in your favorite foxhole watching a ridge line and anticipating enemy traffic – are you keeping a keen eye out for rustling bushes? Listening for heavy footfalls? Waiting for the tell-tale silhouette of the enemy soldier? Not likely. We found players scan the horizon with their reticule and blast away anytime the intrusive HUD element pops up showing a Gamertag/Ranking/Red Dot/etc that illustrates this in the enemy!. So you’re in effect not really shooting other combatants – you’re shooting icons and hoping the collateral damage takes out the player too. Effective? Yes. Cinematic? Absolutely not. That’s playing the HUD, not the game. Solutions must be found.
The Three Types Of HUDs
Let’s break down the three types of HUDs you see in video games and motion pictures. The first is the worst, the second is the compromise, the third is ideal.
Type 01: Slap-On HUD. This HUD execution has no correlation to what it is you’re actually looking through. Nothing is animated, whether because of laziness, lack of aptitude and/or prohibitive expense in regards to time or cost. Slap-On HUDs arrive from the fact that User Interface takes a backseat to programming time compared to higher priority elements like Artificial Intelligence. Everything in a game engine needs to be coded, debugged, artistically supported, memory/cpu-friendly and of course, not kill the frame rate. We had plenty of Slap-On in Homefront. Were we lazy or stupid? Just the opposite. We had an amazing art and programming team of… four people. That’s not a big team. You gotta hit the big ticket items first, like a working Main Menu. Check out my UAV drone HUD to the right. Little to zero animation, and inapplicable, random design elements. When time is short, Slap-On HUD to the rescue.
Type 02: Animated Slap-On HUD. This HUD execution is the compromise. It is chock full of design nonsense – graphic elements that are just there to look good, and are usually too small or moving too fast to mean anything to the user. The image to the right I designed for the Heads-Up Display animation is a perfect example of this. The original design was animated, applicable, and very sparse. Near the end of the project, our director gave us three days to see what we could do in creating a SuperHUD – something so visually packed, it would take a month of research if it was also required to make sense. Ninety percent of this design is knocked way back in opacity in the final comp, so it contributes instead of overpowers. What sets this design apart from the simple Slap-On HUD is that this one is at least fully animated. Hi-tech animated elements can forgive a lot – like purpose.
Type 03: Actual HUD. The balance a UI Designer is always conscious of is the divergence of realism vs aesthetic value. I’ve invested enough hours of research to validate what most people suspect: today’s actual military HUDs are really, really boring. They don’t animate like Iron Man’s helmet, because they are the epitome of utilitarian design: it just has to work, and get out of the way. For Hollywood and the latest scifi video game, that will never do.
Check out the Iron Man HUD to the right, created by the amazing Jayse Hansen. This is the pinnacle of HUD design because everything has purpose – it’s beautifully designed and it would actually work if you plugged the technology in behind the helmet. This ideal solution shouldn’t just be confined to movies – in video games, if you can couple artistic and engineering intent with those who truly care for the perfection of the final user experience product, then you’re really on to something.
If you ever doubt the importance of UI, remember this: Our audio guy was in the elevator one day telling us how vitally important his job is to the game. Sure, sound IS very important. A UI team member replied, “Yeah, but you can still play the game with the volume off.” Think about that!
According to the London Daily Sun, Homefront has the privilege to be North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s favorite game! It’s always nice when you can put a smile on the face of one crazy little dictator on the other side of the world. You’re welcome, Kim!
Check out the article here: Crazy Kim Jong-Un planning World War III…from his XBOX
To see a more complete Video Game Design montage reel, check out Compilation Reels.