Cased 2015 winner: Destiny user interface

Filed Under: Inspiration Tags: Competition , Case study , Cased
Client
Bungie
Project Title
Destiny user interface
Duration
September 2010–September 2014
Description

After 10 years developing the Halo games exclusively for Xbox, we were tasked to create a UI for a new game, Destiny. For the first time ever, we needed to ship a title simultaneously on four major platforms. The interface had to support a dense investment system, social gathering and matching, a large number of 3D assets, and seven languages.

When people think of sci-fi interfaces they think of cool hues and noisy bits of tech. We took a less expected route and leaned on Swiss typefaces, minimal footprint, and clean form factors. To accentuate the story’s fantasy aspects, we gave the map a look reminiscent of old mariner cartography. The disparity between the two styles is harmonized as subtle facets of each approach permeate each other throughout the game.

While common on PC, console games rarely employ cursors. Utilizing a cursor allowed us to hide data on tooltips to free up screen real estate, eased the browsing of dense inventories, and allowed our 3D assets to visually impact the user.

Throughout development we had regular trials of the interface with UX studies and our solutions tested very well. The gaming press wrote articles on the UI, which was unprecedented, and one journalist went so far as to call it, “the best part of Destiny.”

Project brief

The video game Destiny was created by Bungie for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One. While our design philosophy is “We make the game that we want to play,” the intended audience is gamers interested in first-person shooters and role-playing games. Our contribution to the project was the user interface. The role of the Destiny UI is to allow players to begin the activities of their choice, see their statistics, and equip the items they acquire during game play.

We had three goals for the project’s design: create the best-in-class console game UI; create an intuitive interface; blend modern, sophisticated design aesthetics and principles (information hierarchy, usability, clarity) with an “ancient star-map of the distant future” narrative flavor.

Having come off of the successful run of the Halo franchise, we predicted that many of our fans of that series would also purchase Destiny. We anticipated wooing gamers from the RPG and MMO game genres as well.

Background

The market for console games such as Destiny is highly competitive and saturated. Since Bungie is a AAA game studio with a rich legacy of hit games, players had very high expectations for this new property, so the UI for the game needed to hit the high bar that players have come to expect from our studio.

Copies were anticipated to sell in the millions on each of the four platforms for which we developed the game. These copies would be sold through retail stores as well as digital downloads.

Budget

Development budget: More than $50,000
This project is: An in-house, ongoing relationship
Production/execution budget: More than $100,000
Source of funding: Funded internally

Strategy

Our approach was informed and initiated by the design goals from within the UI team, as well as from the other design disciplines at the studio. As our own clients, we set a project scope that we felt was achievable in the timeframe we had.

The only external influences on the UI design came from the respective console makers. Each of the game platforms had a series of certification requirements that we needed to conform to in order for the game to be playable on that console. While we were able to lean on years of experience shipping console titles, this was the first one we’d done that shipped on more than one platform.

Once the various design teams at Bungie gave us more detailed feature specs, our design goals became clearer. We began to more fully understand what activities we needed to give the player access to, what information they needed to see, and what kinds of interactions the players would have with each other in an online environment.

Research

Destiny’s design had us doing unheard of things for a console game. Therefore, much of our research had to come from a variety of non-game sources rather than looking strictly at the UI for other console games. But we were still often able to see how other games were able to solve similar problems and learn from both their triumphs and mistakes. Essentially, we knew we needed to throw out convention and design a console UI from the ground up.

A wonderful resource we have is an internal user-research team. This team brings in participants to try out the game, provide feedback, and help us identify problem areas that may confuse the player. We also have an internal site where our co-workers can leave feedback about the game. Unlike focus groups where the players tell us what they want, we use the feedback as a tool to discover the root of the issues. Internal feedback and external user research is an important part of our continuous design process. With each cycle and iteration, we draw closer to a design where problems decrease in severity or disappear entirely.

Design solution

Traditionally, console UI is navigated using a directional pad, but it quickly became clear that this would not suffice for Destiny—players would wear out their thumbs mashing this over and over to get through all the items in their inventory. To solve this, we adopted a freely moving cursor as a means of navigation through the UI, allowing players to traverse dense inventories and maps that aren’t grid-aligned. This control was without known precedent in console games. We took the risk, invested time and research, and ended up quite happy with the solution.

Sci-fi interfaces in movies, games, and other media typically employ the common conventions of blocky typefaces, 45-degree angles, cool colors, and techy bits and blips. Visually, we chose to go a different direction, turning to clean Swiss design and typography, tech manuals from the ’60s, and ancient cartography. These influences combined to create a sense of mystery, exploration, and clarity.

Challenges

As the game design for Destiny began to solidify, we realized that players would have an extensive inventory of items that they would need to quickly navigate to get detailed stats and look for gear with which to equip their character. This challenge was compounded by the fact that the game is played with a console controller, which doesn’t handle dense groupings of selectable objects as elegantly as a mouse and pointer on a PC.

Our user interfaces have a history of setting trends that other games and platform interfaces have both embraced and lifted outright. The most predominant was the establishment of the party system with an in-game friend roster in Halo 2 that today is the status quo in online multiplayer games. There is an inherent pressure to continue inciting design trends in game UI. Risk-taking and innovating in order to simplify the user tasks constantly factors in as we go through the design process.

Effectiveness

The reception of our co-workers and the press was extremely positive. Several articles written on various game sites talked about the Destiny interface, using the terms innovative, beautiful, and “hipster-slick.” On top of that, many of us received tweets from other interface designers in the industry, complimenting us on our work. Most importantly, though, according to the online forums, our fans seem to be quite happy with it.

Destiny has become a worldwide phenomenon with more than 20 million unique users. Activision, our publisher, announced that Destiny is the biggest selling new property in video game history. The impact on popular culture has been significant, including cosplay, 3D printed objects from the game, fan art, comics, and tattoos. Some of these have even been specific to the UI, UI iconography, and UI experiences.

In the end, we took one of the most complicated, dense, and feature-heavy console games in recent history and created an intuitive, simple, and beautiful UI to support it. Getting there was not straightforward, and sometimes we had to iterate more than we would have liked, but the final product is one we look back on with a sense of pride and accomplishment when we play it regularly in our own living rooms.

Additional information

Bungie did something incredible with Destiny’s user interface, Geek.com

Take The Time To Appreciate A Game’s...Buttons And Menus, Kotaku

What to steal: From Destiny’s UI, Mike Bithell

Destiny’s Interface Is a Miracle of Modern Design, Softpedia

Revui: Destiny Alpha, Youtube video

Player creations, Bungie

Comments from the Jury

“As the mother of a 10-year-old, I find it delightfully refreshing to see a game interface with attention to nuanced typography and sophisticated design detail. Hallelujah.”—Sara Frisk

“The execution of this is astounding. How the character changes, how the interface works, how nothing gets in the way of great imagery… overall I wanted in—this coming from a person who can’t stand video games or anything remotely similar.”—Bryony Gomez-Palacio