My name is Johannes Koski and I’m the UI/UX Director of Returnal here at Housemarque. My role in the project has been both taking part in the design and overseeing and supporting the work done by the team. I’ve had the privilege to work with a diverse multi-disciplinary group of amazing designers, artists, programmers, and audio specialists. We’ve just launched a game that has been my ultimate dream project since I was a little kid, so I’m super excited to be able to share something about our game’s UX!
The goal of a game’s UI is pretty straightforward: it guides the player and supports the game. In other words it gives the player all the necessary information and tools they need to understand and enjoy the game’s mechanics and at the same time it supports the game’s artistic core and storytelling with aesthetic means. In practice this unravels to hundreds of hours of planning, user interface design, concepting, usability studies, artistic choices, motion design, audio development, optimization, programming, player onboarding, and tutorial design to name a few areas.
Our core design principle is “gameplay first”. When designing the overall UX, one of our main goals was to remove all possible distractions from the second-to-second gameplay. We wanted to keep all the menus as clean and as minimal as possible. We even made the decision to not have a title screen or main menu at all and take the player always directly to the action.
We spent a considerable amount of time finessing all the HUD communications so that the player is always aware of critical gameplay information during intense bullet hell combat. We iterated a lot to find the perfect animation timings, intuitive color coding systems, and optimal information hierarchy to support various gameplay scenarios, etc.
The most crucial information needs to be communicated at the player’s immediate visual focus point — in and near the reticle. Some critical guidance can be shown diegetically in and around the player character model and the actual game world. The content that is not essential for second-to-second survival can be shown in the periphery of the HUD.
Then we have the most important scenarios like near-death, low-health situations, where we throw everything we have at the player’s senses: HUD visor glass cracks and digital glitch animations, threatening vignettes, flashing warning icons, diegetic warning lights in player’s space suit, game world post-processing, health gauge color coding, player character animation, voice-over, VFX, emergency audio signals, and engaging haptic feedback.
The 3D map
We’re especially happy how our unique 3D map and HUD minimap turned out. There’s a lot of verticality in our levels so a compass or a traditional 2D map wasn’t enough. It was challenging to create a map system for randomly generated levels that was precise, looked good stylistically and wouldn’t cause a performance hit. The map will be very helpful for both player guidance and planning combat flow.
Audio and haptics
We’re using a wide variety of 3D Audio,