Thoughts on HUD Design

Posted on 31st Jul 2010 at 15:06 by Joe Martin with 32 comments

Joe Martin
Heads-up displays are, to me, a far more contentious issue than some of the other more bandied-around topics in modern game design. Everyone cries about regenerating health and how many weapons a player can feasibly carry, but HUDs seem a lot closer to the real, underlying complaints these other issues hint at. Instead of worrying about whether players have regenerating health, what about considering if the player should even know how much health they have left?

The issue of how health and ammo should be presented though is only secondary to the far bigger question of if they should be presented at all. Whereabouts do you draw the balance between accessibility and realism? In most shooters there's no logical reason why your character should have an ammo counter in the corner of the screen. It's only there because the player needs that information in order to get the most out of the game. As players we just take that info for granted.

Personally, I don't mind whether the HUD is there or not, not really - it's just common sense that different problems need different solutions. Half-Life without a HUD would be a much worse game than Half-Life with a HUD, while Mirror's Edge would be significantly weakened if it did. Tomb Raider needed to have a health meter on the screen, but Silent Hill needed to not have one. No one approach will suit all games.

Thoughts on HUD Design Thoughts on HUDs
Ze goggles! Zay explain everything!

Instead, what bothers me is the way that some developers seem to follow HUD conventions blindly, lobbing the health meter in the bottom left and the ammo counter in the bottom right without thinking. That approach is fine for something such as Serious Sam, because you need that information to play, but there are plenty of games which claim to reach higher. The developers of BioShock are keen to discuss how they keep players in a first person perspective to increase immersion…but they never explain why your character has an ammo counter on screen.

Not that you can blame them, really. Developers are always being praised for adding new features, but as soon as changes are wrought upon a game's interface then all sorts of nasty words start to be bandied about. Words such as 'unintuitive', 'unwieldy' and 'frustrating' - most of which translate only into 'not what I'm used to.'

Besides, we need information, don’t we? When you’ve got a gun in one hand and a bee-related plasmid in the other then it can be difficult to keep track of your resources. Walking into a fight with only three bullets in your gun might sound interesting the first few times, but if you keep dying because of it then it’ll get old very quickly. As a result, most developers just stick an ammo counter in the corner (because they know that works) and don’t feel a need to explain it (because they know players rarely question it).

Personally, I always question it and I think there are plenty of better solutions than just following the tradition of design. For starters, you can put a clear divide between the HUD and the immersion, like the first FPS games did. Doom, for example, relegated the health and ammo counters to a bar at the bottom of the screen, marking a separation – above the bar is what your character sees, below is what you need to know and the two don’t need to meet.

Thoughts on HUD Design Thoughts on HUDs
Just four bullets? Arse

Most survival horror games have a similar divide, pushing the health and ammo info into an entirely different screen. In Resident Evil you could gauge your overall health quickly by looking at your character, but if you wanted to know how much ammo you had left then you’d better look in your inventory. As a UI solution it made sense to have your character check his pockets in that way, but it also added tension to the action.

Failing that, it’s always possible to explain the UI away simply. Gordon Freeman knows how much ammo he carries because his HEV suit keeps track for him – and kindly administers painkillers when he takes massive injuries. The HUD in most Tom Clancy games too is a central feature – just look at GRAW, for example. All you need to do is give your Player Character a helmet, or integrate the ammo counter into the weapon.

My own favourite solution though is the hybrid system used in the original Condemned: Criminal Origins, which I maintain is one of the single scariest games I’ve played. A melee-focused first person shooter, fights in Condemned were often incredibly fast and very, very brutal. Enemies would charge at you suddenly, proceeding to smack you silly in record time – so you always needed to know how much health you had left.

When it comes to weapons though, things were a little different. Guns were present and powerful, but were rare enough that you were always limited to whatever was left in the clip. Thus, there was no real need for a proper ammo counter. If you wanted to check the ammo supply you had to literally pop the clip out and take a look, which was slow enough to stop you doing it in the middle of a fight. There were plenty of moments in a big brawls where you’d grab a pistol from a fallen foe and, unable to stop and take stock, would turn immediately on remaining enemies. Firearms were powerful enough to make you overconfident, but you usually came crashing down one you realised you’d wasted the only three bullets left.


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capnPedro 31st July 2010, 16:00 Quote
TCE didn't have a usable ammo gauge - you were supposed to count your shots.

In addition, a fast reload lost the remaining rounds in the magazine you pulled. A tactical reload saved them, but was much slower. Tactical reloads could also be disabled server side.
something such as Serious Sam[eurl], because you need that information to play, but there are plenty of games which claim to reach higher. The developers of [eurl=]BioShock are keen
Needs fixing.
Yslen 31st July 2010, 16:49 Quote
My personal favourite has to be trespasser. No HUD, no menus, no inventory. You carry two guns and she tells you how many shots you have left, sometimes inaccurately; "looks like seven" doesn't always mean exactly seven bullets left in your gun.

Health was done with the rather cheekily located "heart tattoo", which filled with red when you got injured.

In combination with actually having to pick stuff up with the crazy arm that had a mind of its own and the dodgy physics, the game was hugely involving (if a little frustrating) with no distractions to remind you that you're actually playing a game. Well... ten years ago. Today the graphics are a bit jarring.
metarinka 31st July 2010, 16:57 Quote
I like hardcore mode in modern warfare 2 because it eliminates most all of the hud. That being said for the average player, not knowing how much ammo you have, who your teammates are etc can be really dangerous.
Aracos 31st July 2010, 17:47 Quote
Skimmed the article but had to comment on this
Condemned: Criminal Origins, which I maintain is one of the single scariest games I’ve played.
Are you serious? Really serious? I'll agree it's a tad scary for the first 2 levels or so but then the only part that scared me afterward was the dead guy (or so you think) in the locker everything else was terrible. It was a complete bore fest, everything was really slow, the story was just bleh, the combat was crap, the AI was terrible, it was supposed to be good at the time but the amount of times I'd get enemies just walk from one side of the screen to the other just to get to a different wall to stay behind was rediculous. The whole games was a completely overhyped and unscary "scary" game I've ever played. Like Fear, was supposed to be this really scary game when in fact once you noticed that you moved from section to section each resulting in either a battle or something to do with alma it just stops being scary after the first hour or so. To me monolith horror games just use completely predictable scare tactics which really fail to scare me. If I wanted to be scared I'd turn to Silent Hill, but never something monolith related.

EDIT: Oh did I forget buggy as well? A quick google finds many people who on the last boss which you fight 3 times find that sometimes after beating him the first time you are unable to pick up any weapons so you are forced to kick him to death, that is a serious bug which should've been fixed. All of that combined just makes me more angry with the game when I played it than actually scared. How can you get into such a terrible game enough to be scared by it?
frontline 31st July 2010, 20:21 Quote
One of the benefits of the Source engine games, particularly Day of Defeat Source, was the ability to use customised HUDs, with the ability to resize, move or remove information on the HUD to suit a player's style/preference.

Wish more games allowed this type of freedom.
Deadpunkdave 31st July 2010, 22:44 Quote
I guess its assumed that the likes of Agent 47 and Commander Shepherd can keep a mental count without any effort after their many years of training, so the information is just given to you.

Also, an article on HUDs without mention of the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System? Wants the new fallout now.
Cogwulf 31st July 2010, 23:05 Quote
An ammo counter isn't much of an issue, with weeks of training a professional soldier would know exactly how many magazines they're carrying and how much is in their gun. A health counter is okay too because people generally know if they're about to die. So a health bar and ammo counter just give the gamer information that their character would know instinctively.
But features like a map on a HUD which shows exactly where your allies and enemies are nearly always kill the realism, especially when in multiplayer games you have to constantly check them to avoid giving your enemies an advantage. Maps like these aren't usually explained and the game would be just as playable and much more immersive without them.
Fizzban 31st July 2010, 23:05 Quote
To be honest, when a HUD is done well I don't even notice it. Sure I can check my health or ammo count, but it is otherwise not detracting from my gaming experience. And even poorly done HUDS I tend to just filter out for the most part, as I suppose I have become almost desensitized to them over the years. A HUD has to be truly awful, to the point of actually getting in the way of game-play, to really be an issue.

I will say that more developers need to give us the option to move and resize the HUD to suit our individual preferences. It's not as though it is hard to do for most games.
Saivert 1st August 2010, 03:14 Quote
I always have some kind of hud regardless. I Use X-Fire which has a in-game overlay system and you can keep a clock (so you know when it is time for bed, gaming all night is not a good idea) and a framerate counter.
Would be cool if the game could just relegate the ammo and health info to XFire so Xfire was responsible for drawing it on the screen. that way you have full customizability of it.

Yes I know Steam has its own in-game system but it doesn't let you keep stuff on screen all the time while playing. Also it has no broadcasting feature or video recording. When Steam gets all that I will ditch XFire.
Flexible_Lorry 1st August 2010, 03:35 Quote
I like immersion and HUDs can really detract from a game for me. It all depends on the game of course. As an example, I love playing the Dark Mod on high difficulty with no light gem, and when Thief 3 came out I customised it so that the HUD became nonintrusive and peripheral. I also remember playing the King Kong game (based on Peter Jackson's film) which practically had no HUD and was stronger for it, the game itself was just above average but had great atmosphere. I absolutely dislike achievement popups, and reminders that someone has logged on or whatever. However I would struggle to play an RPG without a lot of information available. It all depends on what makes the particular game experience.
Shark00n 1st August 2010, 03:41 Quote
I LOVE the HUD on Split Second Velocity, for the kind of racing game it is it's just perfect, I haven't seen a HUD being that incorporated in a game since Metroid Prime
The_Beast 1st August 2010, 03:52 Quote
All shooter games should have the option of a HUD and a option to remove it for the more hardcore players, nothing is worst then not knowing how many rounds you have left before running into an enemy.
Elton 1st August 2010, 05:25 Quote
Interestingly I don't mind HUDs, but whenever a clunky HUD comes to mind it's the original STALKER's, yes it told you everything, but it killed so much of the realism.

That is until the HUD mods came out, then it was awesome.
Dragunover 1st August 2010, 05:49 Quote
iLOL when I hear Call of Duty Modern Warfare (2)'s hardcore modes. Really? just tap the reload key after you're in a safe spot, it's not like it tosses the magazine / takes 5+ seconds to reload... infact some guns don't even take a second.
As far as health - take it as any game without it has - by yelping, bleeding, limping, et cetera.
THE MOST annoying thing to me, has to be overlaying maps, especially with enemy locations. If you can't spot stuff out yourself why let the computer help you? It's unfair no matter which way you dice or slice it...
Dragunover 1st August 2010, 05:50 Quote
Originally Posted by Elton
Interestingly I don't mind HUDs, but whenever a clunky HUD comes to mind it's the original STALKER's, yes it told you everything, but it killed so much of the realism.

That is until the HUD mods came out, then it was awesome.
Yeah, STALKER mods are great for reducing that down to a bare minimum / nothing at all.
Anakha 1st August 2010, 05:52 Quote
I liked the way that "The Getaway" handled it. In that, as you got injured your character got bloodstains on his clothing and started to limp. To "Heal", you found yourself somewhere quiet and out of the firefight, and rested for a moment. That works well in a 3PS, but not in a FPS (For obvious reasons).
Elton 1st August 2010, 06:53 Quote
I actually hate the COD style where everything turns into a jam glasses when you bleed. Rather a particularily fun HUD i used was BLACK's just an ammo counter and a small nonintrusive health bar.

Plus when you got low on health it was even more like a John Woo film on steroids.
fadi299 1st August 2010, 10:49 Quote
I think the Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay deserves a mention here!. For instance, when wielding a gun, your aiming reticle isn't a crosshair drawn in the middle of the screen as in other games, but it's the gun's own laser sight. There is no ammo gauge and your health only appears as a row of simple, white boxes as you're taking damage. You have a limited ability to regenerate your health if you crouch down to avoid further injury for a few moments, which is a good system that encourages a tactical approach to combat and really helps draw you into riddick's world and makes an aleady atmospheric game even more atmospheric....

only mirror's edge comes close...
Yemerich 1st August 2010, 13:08 Quote
There are two horror games that had a interesting hud. First was "Call of Cthulhu: DCotE". It simply didn't have any hud. To check on your char u had to hit some key and a notebook would pop up.

The second was Alone in the dark (the last one). Again no hud. To check your inventory, you need to look down and see your jacket pockets. One side at time. To me, the best inventory idea ever made.

AND, Condemned IS the MOST creepiest game ever! It was buggy, but playing it at night with headphones is REALLY creepy.

If you don't agree, please enlighten us with some more creepy game than that. Some close calls are FEAR and Dark Corners of the Earth.
But again, C:CO is the creepiest!
Veles 1st August 2010, 13:52 Quote
I agree, storm20200 is probably in the minority, everyone I know says the first condemed game is one of the scariest they've played. I didn't like FEAR too much, as he pointed out with condemned, it was either action or horror and it was quite obvious when you were getting each one. Condemned however, I had no such issues, I felt like at any moment around the corner it could be something scary or it could be a crazed guy ready to jump you. I found the apprehension of not knowing what was round the corner quite scary, especially as in my first playthrough, I went through the entire game without firing a single shot and used only melee weapons.

I admit, it's not the best game in the world, but if it were a film, it would be a cult classic, one of those games where if you get it, you absolutely love it, if you don't then you can't see what the fuss is about.
Bloody_Pete 1st August 2010, 15:15 Quote
I liked Frontlines: FOW HUD, as it made you think you were using future tech goggle based HUD, like little triagles appearing around enermies and allies for a second, really helped and is along the likes of tech in devolpement :)
Aracos 1st August 2010, 18:23 Quote
Originally Posted by Yemerich
AND, Condemned IS the MOST creepiest game ever! It was buggy, but playing it at night with headphones is REALLY creepy.

But that's how I played all of it apart from the final level.
The way you guys talk about it is like it's one of those games where you create your own fear but how can you be immersed in a game enough to create fear when it's flaws are staring you in the face for the entire game? Going through that game was a chore, the only reason I continued was because I'm an achievement whore. The last game I found scary was Silent Hill Homecoming because as well as it being a scary game I played it on hard mode meaning that if I ever had to fight something I knew it would be hard because I'd have very little ammo and if they got one over on me my HP would get drained badly. That's where I can understand not knowing when enemies are coming but on Condemned even with Melee only which is how I played it there wasn't any real threat because once you get the hang of the combat it's quite easy so there's no fear in being attacked. I honestly don't know how people could find that scary which is ironic because I'm a complete wuss for scary games or scary films.
DarkFear 1st August 2010, 23:38 Quote
No mention to AvP (first one) when playing as the alien? Health bar at the bottom and that's that. (Not that you'd expect an ammo counter, but still...)
barndoor101 1st August 2010, 23:58 Quote
i used to play a HL mod called Hostile Intent - basically a realism mod with no HUD whatsoever. so no ammo, health, radar or anything, and all aiming using ironsights. it was awesome because it was 2 shots to the chest and you were dead (so you had to be careful), and voice comms was a must so you knew where your teammates were.

having no HUD works for something like this, but it needs to be there for conveniences' sake for other FPS games. otherwise you end up with some crap like Trespasser where you stared at your tits to see how much health you had.
liratheal 2nd August 2010, 07:21 Quote
I prefer having no hud.

Especially for shooters and the like.

Learn to know your weapons, and count your rounds, folks.
GiantStickMan 2nd August 2010, 07:47 Quote
I'm surprised Dead Space hasn't rated a mention, that was a fairly well integrated and explained system. Plus that was a pretty scary game to boot.

I have to disagree on the point about the Resident Evil system though, in the games prior to number 4 you still had to access the inventory to check your ammo, but i thought that really broke the immersion, one second you have a zombie jump out about to rip your face off, then you bring up the menu to check the ammo, the screen changes, the game pauses and you were free to change weapons or reload as you please. 4 & 5 improved on this (and I realise these are the ones the post makes reference too) but you still lose much of the immersion bringing up a clunky menu mid-fight.
paisa666 2nd August 2010, 17:28 Quote
Sometimes this kind of topics are taking just to far...

If i want the ultimate realism on everything (health, amount of damage acording to where i got shot, no hud)

Then damn it, i just gonna grab a gun and go out to rob a bank, then kill the first driver a take his car, that's some hardcore GTA right there.

Or just enlist in the army and BAM, some hardcore Call of Duty !!

My point its, the hud, medkits or regen health system are there for one reason, and that its so we can go RAMBO on our enemies and enjoy the game, WE CAN DO THINGS IN REAL LIFE WOULD BE IMPOSSIBLE. and that's the whole idea of videogames (ofc except for sims, but that's other topic)

But hey, why dont you make your next TOPIC about how awful and unrealistic the recoil its, or what about how silly its running and firing a rifle simultaneously!!
Rycon 2nd August 2010, 21:27 Quote
This Article immediately reminded me of Trespasser as well as the guy who commented above. The game is very old, but back then I thought it was very immersive. You felt very alone, very helpless, and could be gobbled up by raptors that would HUNT you (IE spawn behind you lol). You would find guns but there would never be any good source of ammo, you ended up sneaking through the map listening for faint sounds of raptors on the prowl or fighting each other.. only looking for a way to either way until one died or bypass it all together, knowing that you would run out of ammo well before you could kill them all.

For some reason though that type of immersion never caught on... WHERE'S MY AMMO COUNTER?!?!?!?!
drunkenmaster 3rd August 2010, 08:39 Quote
Not sure i can see your point at all, HUD's in many various games are explained as an actual real thing, like specs with a screen inlaid, or a fancy suit with a screen between you and the real world.

As for Doom "separating" the world you're supposed to see and what you need to know on a bar and essentially being different screens, thats the single most convoluted attempt to explain your personal preference I've seen. Its not a separate screen, its not intentionally separate and info the character wouldn't have, it was just iteration, well, 2 or 3, huds now are iteration 7,682, thats the difference, not intentional separation, but early design.

Likewise Doom didn't pretend you were in a futuristic combat suit with intergrated screen which intentionally keeps track of the information for you.

You also seem to be forgetting the realism thing, in REAL life you aren't just popping in to game for 10mins to a couple hours at a time, maybe with a few different games inbetween, and a job, and kids, and a life. A solider out in Iraq, or a soldier in a distance galaxy in the future or past, whose in the middle of enemy territory can doesn't have these other distractions. He'll remember he has 4 clips, because his life depends on it, after coming back from a long day at work, feeding the kids, taking the dog for a walk, a couple rounds of CS:S or COD, people don't remember. The character hasn't gone anywhere, forgotten anything, the player has.

Its realistic that when hit in real life you could feel, my leg just crumpled under me, it sounded like a cannon, my legs probably gone and I'm dead, a player doesn't see the bullet hit, or feel it, there needs to be a way to see it. Whoopdedoo, Resident evil you can see damage, COD you can't, a health bar,(prefered) or flashing screen is required to have a visual representation of things the actual character in a real life scenario would have.

Hell, in real life a cop experience with his gun would be able to tell an empty gun, from a full gun, based on the feel of the weight. I've only shot a few guns at ranges and I can tell the difference on several guns between loaded and unloaded.

Games AREN'T realistic, and some things will, till body suits, neural interfaces, holodecks, won't ever approach realistic, complaining about the inabilty of a screen to realistically let you know what your situation in, is daft.

Personally I though Condemned, what little I could be bothered playing, was boring, slow, not scary in the slightest(though almost no game/film has ever scared me) and incredibly not realistic, hell, the unrealistic "I can sense DNA/forensic material" ability the character has, to the "I'm in America but can't find a gun, ammo, or hit the local walmart between missions to fill up the gun I just put in my pocket after I found it" stupidity of the cop whose after a serial killer but can't come up with a single way to find ammo, in AMERICA, in the UK that would be realistic, in the states, heck I'd go to the local dealer and buy a gun off him.

Even more so, where do these pyscho's get their guns, and what sane american goes and buys a gun for, $300-3000, but won't buy 100 bullets for $10, but buys a single clip, even though you buy ammo in boxes, which will come in larger quantities, no one buys 15 bullets, so how do these people end up with so little ammo.

Half the game is not realistic, most games are barely realistic, the HUD is the very least of the troubles because at least in the HUD its covering something that quite literally can't be realistic. You can't feel the weight of your gun, you can't remember what you have in the middle of a war in Iraq if you do various other things back in the real world between in game time. The HUD replaces the visual, audio, sensual things a game will never be able to replicate, piss poor writing, design and game mechanics that CAN be fixed to be realistic should bear the brunt of your ire, not the single thing thats more than excuseable.
GiantStickMan 3rd August 2010, 09:28 Quote
I think some might be missing the point. Joe isn't so much arguing that there should be realism, but more that to add to the immersion of a game there needs to be an explanation for why this info appears on the screen. It doesn't have to be realistic, it just needs to be explained, especially when in say, a FPS the game is trying hard to show you the world through the characters eyes.
CardJoe 3rd August 2010, 09:33 Quote
Pretty much. To be clear, I don't really have anything against unexplained HUDs, it just bugs me a bit sometimes.
Unknownsock 5th August 2010, 10:07 Quote
You could also argue in realtime the military(or whoever) does count their bullets so its a projection of that. Although I'm pretty sure our health doesn't have a 100 counter.

Can't say I'm a fan of unique HUDS. Why? because most of the time their crap and i believe this to be quite a delicate.

Although imo Dead Space's UI was brilliant especially the map/inventory.
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