The study paper is called “Influence of head-up displays’ characteristics on user experience in video games” and was published in 2016. It is interesting as it appears to be the first of its kind examining attitudes and experience with HUDs based on player’s experience and game-type, within the same study.
There are people who will argue both for and against the use of HUDs in video games, and it can be difficult for game designers to figure out how much they should display on this overlay. For instance:
“This game designer [Wilson] claimed that HUDs decrease player immersion in the game environment and increase unnecessarily the amount of information to be processed by the player, particularly by a beginner. He suggested integrating all contextual information within the main action area. Elements would be displayed in a “diegetic” way”
(Caroux & Isbister, 66, 2016)
Now from a purely game aesthetic point of view I would be inclined to agree with Wilson. There is always something special about diegetic integration of elements into film or game. However, wanting all information to be diegetic may well be too puritan to most game designers, and potentially even gamers! You see, a video game traditionally only offers its player a 2D view of the world displayed on a screen, and sound to supplement. This is all the feedback we will get throughout a game, which technically results in us having a lot less information to act upon than we would in real life. Nonetheless, in many games you still have to act in ways that approximate real life actions, albeit slightly extrapolated, and therefore the HUD comes in handy. It compensates our lack of senses in the game, so to speak. At least, this is an idea I find helpful when thinking of why HUDs may be good for video games, not bad.
Now, an earlier study actually confirms this to some extent. In “Between the Game System and the Fictional World: A Study of Computer Game Interfaces”, Jørgensen explored the level of acceptance players had towards UI elements in video games. The sum of her study is that most people accepted HUDs, even to the extent where they may be perceived as intrusive, and the basis of this acceptance lies in the information these HUDs offer. Overlays that display information that helps us contextualise our (characters) situation and surrounding are viewed as helpful. Even the intrusive HUD was preferable to a game with no HUD at all. So there is some evidence to back the idea that we need the contextualising information the HUDs offer its players.
NOTE: These are generalising ideas, and should not be viewed as best practice advise for the usefulness of a HUD in all video games. Some games will definitely work fine without a HUD and others will suffer under same conditions.
In the study by Caroux and Isbister, they emphasised the difference in experience between seasoned and novice players concerning usefulness and general utilisation of the HUD. They hypothesised that real-time strategy (RTS) players would find the HUD more useful than the first-person shooter (FPS) players. Moreover, they expected novice players to gaze less frequently at the HUD and also for a shorter duration of time, and also that they would find the HUD less useful compared to seasoned players.
I won’t go into details with the result numbers in this post, however looking at the study in general does bring up one particular concern, namely number of participants. There were only 15 participants and these had to be divided into several groups, which resulted in very few people in each group:
Now, the researchers did supplement their study with a qualitative interview of each participant following play-testing, to add more substance and context to their meagre quantitative data. In fact, it is due to the general correlations between the data and the players own post-hoc perceptions that I view the results as more or less credible. At least to the extent where I believe this area is worth further studying. Moving on to their findings…
The results confirmed the hypothesis that RTS players would find the HUD more useful than FPS players while also looking at the HUD more frequently. However, novice players did not, as was expected, gaze at the HUD less than expert players. On the contrary, they looked at the HUD more often and for slightly longer. This may very well be due to expert players being more accustomed to the HUD which may allow them to process the information faster (they also touch upon this point in the study). I find this interesting for one particular reason. Since this indicates that you actually spend less time looking at the HUD as you gain game experience, it may also mean that you as an experienced player actually don’t perceive or actively think about the HUD as much during a gaming session. This would need some more research I believe, but nonetheless, this also means the HUD is found less intrusive and still useful – As it still offers the information needed in order to play and navigate the game efficiently.
For this reason, while I do believe in integrating certain HUD elements into a game diegetically, such as health bars or directional prompts, I do not believe it to be essential to good game design. In many ways it depends on the aesthetic style of the game. For instance, “Dark Souls” in many ways hails the “good old days” in video games, with its hugely important health bar, stamina bar and high difficulty level. But at the same time the game challenges other HUD conventions, such as the mini-map – There is none! It is all about choices, what information do you wish to give your players? Every choice has an impact on the players experience of the game. Another game I wish to highlight is “Dead Space”. Now, this is a game that has in fact integrated most of its HUD in a diegetic manner. The characters health is displayed on a small bar running up his back on his space suit, and the menu system is displayed in the way that the character would see it, see his inventory for instance. I really enjoy this – it means you are always in the game and never quite safe from alien danger.
I recommend you take a look at the study for further information. I found it enlightening, as it offers a nice variety view of what the use of HUDs can be. So next time you sit down with a game, maybe think on what information is offered and how that impacts your approach and game-play.