Five Top Tips For A Great Career In Games UI
Exient’s Lead UI Artist Lionel Wood shares his advice for those with ambitions in the mobile games space…
1. Play lots of mobile games
I’m going to start with something that sounds almost too obvious, but it’s super-important and can’t be ignored: If you want to forge a successful career specialising in UI for mobile games, you need to play lots of mobile games. And not just the games you like – you need to check out all genres, even the ones you may not usually be inclined to play. Because inspiration, new methods and best practice don’t just manifest in our own private gaming rabbit holes. There isn’t a single universal reference for UI in games; techniques and technical possibilities (and limitations!) vary greatly between platforms and genres, so it’s vital to take a holistic view.
Thinking about mobile specifically, there’s just so much variety in how game inputs can be controlled. And within our free-to-play segment there’s a huge meta that is always really UI heavy. This means you need to be prepared to make sacrifices. UI can’t always be aesthetically amazing, because you need to relay a lot of information and create a lot of places for people to interact within limited on-screen real estate.
That doesn’t mean you can’t be creative with UI, it’s just that you need to optimise it within certain environments just like any other platform, whether that’s mobile, console, PC, and even VR. The UI path you may choose to take is also guided by gameplay and even the brand or any IP involved. It’s a great challenge to be presented with, but hugely rewarding when you hit upon a style that works for your game.
2. Build up a great understanding of graphic design
I’ll let you into a secret: I’ve always played and loved games, but I never considered I could work in the games industry. I went to university and completed a graphic design degree, but had other plans on how I would use the qualification after I finished it. I mostly played around with event branding and banner creatives.
But a chance meeting with some folk at Codemasters during my graduation ceremony 10 years ago led to an informal chat, a portfolio review and a job offer for an entry-level UI position.
There followed a very quick learning curve, but my degree in graphic design set me up with the core principles and a good foundation when it came to the fundamentals of design; typography, layout and spacing, colour theory and so on, which all translate fantastically to UI. In fact, after I joined Codemasters I got back in touch with my old lecturers to try and persuade them to add more digital modules to the courses, including UI-specific elements.
My boss here at Exient (Art Director James Roadley-Battin) and I have been working together since my early days at Codemasters almost 10 years ago, and we’ve always really struggled to find people who want to focus specifically on UI – they’re a rare breed! We’re in contact with a few universities that offer games art courses, but they tend to focus primarily on 3D and animation.
Obviously, within that context we can help candidates with game engines and Unity, etc. But a strong understanding of graphic design and some knowledge of UX go a long way when it comes to mobile UI. I just wish there were more specialist UI – and UI for games – courses and modules out there.
3. Learn the art of compromise
This is a really important one: Working in games UI, you need the ability to negotiate and compromise your ideas and solutions when you’re liaising with other disciplines, most notably design. This leads to good decisions based on what on-screen information is the most important; which elements are secondary; and what can be hidden or just shown in context. Often, there’s a requirement to fit everything you need to on one screen. So, as a UI specialist, your problem-solving and soft skills will need to be on point, especially when communicating with your teammates, who will often specialise in other disciplines and ultimately have to execute the ideas you come up with.
The great thing about working at Exient is everything is very collaborative. I wouldn’t think twice about jumping on a quick call with a designer to run through some ideas, or to get some feedback – our thinking often gets elevated by this approach, and we end up with better outcomes as a result. In fact, one thing we try to promote is getting everyone who’s going to be working on game features involved in discussions much earlier in the project than would usually be the case, so no-one gets unexpected surprises down the line or feels like their opportunity to present ideas has already passed.
The process of creating a game shouldn’t all be about getting your head down and religiously following documentation. If you really want to push boundaries in UI and become the best at what you do, you need to have great communication skills, especially within remote or hybrid work set-ups, as many games companies are right now.
4. Design your UI to your worst-case device
This is the biggest practical consideration when it comes to UI for mobile games. By ‘worst case’ I don’t necessarily mean resolution or performance, because visual responsiveness is handled depending on how you set up your canvases in Unity; I mean in terms of thinnest and tallest screens.
At Exient we like to have everything scaled uniformly by height as we make a lot of games in portrait mode, with everything just getting wider based on the device in question. A worst case example for us right now is the iPhone X Series and above, as it uses an odd aspect ratio of 9 across, 19.5 down – kind of like a sideways letterbox. And on the other side of the spectrum you’ve got an iPad with an aspect ratio of 3×4. Don’t even get me started on devices with notches!
Of course, you could just do your UI mock-ups at the iPhone resolution and then start thinking about dynamically scaling everything. But if you can get everything to fit a worst-case scenario, generally you’ll be fine. It just means that everything will have more space and can grow larger on the wider devices.
Ultimately, if you can get everything to fit on the smallest screen, you’ll know it will work on larger screens. However, always be mindful to test these things. One thing I’ve always found really useful – and I still do to this day – is to save my designs down from Photoshop as just an image, and load it into my phone. That’s when you can really see if something’s going to work after staring at it on a big screen for eight hours! Seeing something in context gives you a more accurate representation of the final product, and what scale certain elements are versus each other.
5. Make sure your portfolio is in order
Overall, a great presentation of a portfolio is hugely important, whether you’ve just graduated from university or if you’re already in the games industry. A portfolio piece needs love. There’s nothing more frustrating than looking at a portfolio and saying, “Oh, well, that bit’s amazing, but oh my God, what were they thinking here?”.
It’s perhaps a bit overused nowadays, but as an example those stock images of somebody holding a phone with the game running on it still works for me as a way of showing someone what they can do from a UI and presentation perspective. I also like a diversity in styles as it’s always great to see an ability to work within different themes and genres. That really brings a portfolio to another level, in my opinion.
Spacing is an important one for me – giving elements of a portfolio breathing room will give it more focus and not make everything look cluttered. One thing I would also mention – when we’re looking through potential candidates for artist and UI roles, often what sets them apart from others is a demonstration of the ability to animate. If you can do 2D animation, big bonus points!
Ultimately, unlike a game development project, a portfolio isn’t final. There’s no reason why you can’t look at something that you did at university or the beginning of your career, realise years later that you could have presented it better, and then make the necessary changes. Or even, when submitting your portfolio for a specific role, there’s no harm in omitting certain pieces which may not be as relevant or strong for that particular role.
Resolve to have a look at your portfolio every few months or something – you can constantly keep it polished to reflect your ability level based on the amount of experience you amass as time goes on.