Level with Me is a recurring interview series that focuses on demystifying the various roles in the video game industry and equipping the reader with resources to start working towards that job.
Persona 5 is one of the first video gaming experiences where I truly appreciated a game’s UI/UX design. The punchy pop-punk motifs with a dash of ransom-note typography would earn ample idle time spent at the menu screens during my playthrough. As I stared at gunshop owner's shop screen for the umpteenth time, I was struck with the realization that I couldn’t conjure up a single famous UI/UX designer in the games industry.
It could be my ignorance — I don't doubt it — but, I felt there was a lack of recognition for this aspect of game development. Sure, I've seen my share of Gamasutra pieces lamenting or praising a game's UI, but there really isn't a household name in UI/UX games work on the level of a Nobuo Uematsu, Amy Hennig, or Tim Schaefer. At various Vancouver indie meet-ups, I've certainly met plenty of talented UI/UX designers in games.
To learn more about this job, I interviewed Tomoko Kawabe who does colourful and dazzling UI/UX work for Kestrel Games.
Please explain who you are and what you do, and how did you get your job?
Hi, I’m Tomo. I’m one-third of Kestrel Games — an indie games startup based in London, UK, but the majority of us are based here in Vancouver.
My background is in UI/UX, so I mainly work on that part of development, but since we are a small studio of three, there are no strict boundaries. We collaborate on game design, marketing work, visual effects, etc.
I studied at VFS’ then-called New Media program, and was lucky enough to get into the industry by starting at Electronic Arts. After building up the expertise on FIFA franchise games, I moved on to Action Pants Inc. (later on acquired by Ubisoft). I also did various contract work ranging from working with Zynga to a local marketing agency.
Two years ago, a good friend from Ubisoft, her brother, and me started Kestrel Games together.
What is UI and UX for gaming?
“The best supporting actor!” I say this because I consider the gameplay as lead actor, and the lead actor cannot exist without the supporting actor, especially the best one.
What does a regular day of work look like?
I like starting my day early. Mainly because I can concentrate a lot in the morning hours, and I also like having the evening doing things away from the computer.
Mornings are used mostly for catching up with data, communication, dealing with marketing related things, etc. By 8 am, I’m usually checking our Slack channels, Trello boards and emails, and reviewing what I’ll be working on that day. Communication is key — especially when the team isn’t working in the same space at the same time.
Afternoons are mainly for more production work. We are all on Slack throughout the day so whenever somebody needs anything, or we have to discuss anything, we are available. We also make conference calls when necessary.
Please share an article/book/video/website that helped you a lot in your job in the industry.
This is something my art director shared with me in my previous workplace. It shows the evolution of UI for Hearthstone and the process of it. It also shows that UI/UX is not just menus and buttons, but is closely tied together with the mood and the design of the game.
What do you think has changed about UI/UX work for games since you star
As platforms and user input/interactions diversify, UI/UX work has also had to adjust to them. When I started in the industry, we only had to think about two types of user interactions; consoles with controllers and desktops with keyboard & mouse.
For console UI, toggle-able menus/items where each option is highlight-able, for example, are necessary, while on PC, a mouse can select things on the screen more freely.
Then Nintendo Wii came out where user interaction is done with a wand which isn’t a super precise way of selecting things, compared to the former two platforms, so we had to adjust the size of the buttons.
Xbox Kinect has a completely different way of interaction as we had to think about full body ergonomy and the user’s physical ability (we don’t want to tire people out by making them put their hands above their shoulder line all the time when using the menu, etc) on top of basic UI/UX practice.
For the mobile platform, we need to consider how people interact with a touchscreen. You cannot have a button too small or multiple buttons too close to each other. For instance, a touch of the finger could trigger something other than what the user wants. The screen space is limited as well, so the menu system needs to be scaleable.
Now with VR, you can imagine how different the UI/UX would be compared to anything we had before.
How do you to design tutorial/tips screen that players don’t skip?
The most ideal situation is that your game is so intuitive that you don’t need a tutorial at all. But I know it’s not easy especially when a game is more complicated.
I also like having tips and tutorials when I’m already playing a game. Games can start out very simple and easy where the user can learn about the controls etc.
And the less text the better! People typically don’t read all the text. I feel that visual cues are more important than text. Glow effects and animated elements are powerful tools.
UI/UX elements are often ignored in major discussions about a game. The last time I really heard the gaming media excited about a game’s UI/UX was Persona 5. That said, how important is it for your work in a game to stand out?
In my opinion, Persona 5’s UI was very innovative, but more importantly, it matched the mood of the game. I feel that UI has to represent, match and complement the game itself. So if someone compliments my UI, I’ll consider that a good job as a team, putting together a game under one unified direction. It’s certainly nice when your work is noticed, but it’s only possible when the game as a package is a success. To me, UI should fit seamlessly into the game.
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, a game developed by Ubisoft, really looks like a Nintendo-made game until you see the game's text which looks a little more generic. Seeing this made me appreciate how Nintendo carefully matches the typography with the game’s spirit.
How hard is it matching a game’s typography to a game’s spirit, especially in an unestablished, new IP?
Typography/fonts decisions come from aesthetics and practicality. Aesthetics would be similar to what you mentioned — something that carries and matches the spirit of the game. Practicality means considering legibility, text count in a given space, localization possibilities, etc.
The more we refine the direction on a game’s mood, visual style, design and gameplay, the easier it becomes to narrow down the choice of typography/fonts. So far, it hasn’t been hard making decisions on typography.
I guess we’ve been doing a good job refining the direction!
It’s easy to name musicians, artists, or writers who create games. It’s a little harder to do that with UI/UX workers. Do you have any heroes/games that UI/UX people should know?
I always come back to Monument Valley - I love its minimalistic yet creative look and how everything matches together so tightly.
Was it harder or easier than expected to find a job in your field?
I feel that there are more diverse opportunities in UI/UX positions nowadays compared to when I started in the industry. Several years ago when mobile game development became popular, there was an increased demand for UI/UX people.
And now with VR games gaining popularity, UI/UX designers have even more options to choose from. It’s definitely an exciting time.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.