Armchair VGUX: No Man’s Sky

Exploring strange, new worlds — with a strange, new interface

When Super Jump Magazine put out the call for new writers, I was quick to put my hand up. I’ve always enjoyed trying to mix my love for games with my professional interest in UI/UX design, and Super Jump seemed like a great place for me to explore that.

It’s a very natural instinct for all of us to play the role of ‘armchair designer’ when interacting with a product — after all, we’re the consumer. We know what we want.

This is equally true for games, and as a UX designer by trade, I’m constantly finding myself thinking about what games could have done differently in their interface and systems. Sometimes games get it so, so right; Dead Space is a great example of this. And, sometimes, they get it…less right.

Often, my own ideas aren’t much better than what the game already shipped with — after all, the development team has experience and knowledge that we, as consumers, simply aren’t going to have. That being said, I happen to like my own dumb ideas, so why not share them with the world?

So, with that in mind, I hope you’ll enjoy ‘Armchair VGUX’, a series of articles exploring some zany, fun, and maybe even good ideas to enhance the UX of various video games.

While these articles will hopefully have some interesting and insightful analysis, they’re predominantly an excuse for me to have fun mocking up other people’s UI designs. You can expect a lot of pretty screenshots and unrealistic, but hopefully entertaining, mock UI’s.

It’s important to note that the point of this series isn’t to put down the design work that these teams have done — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. I’m hoping that by deconstructing these interfaces, we’ll discover the challenges that the designers faced when putting together the game. This is a series about empathy.

To start this series, I thought we’d begin with a game I fell in love with earlier this year, but’s definitely due for some UI love: No Man’s Sky.

A huge part of No Man’s Sky’s early gameplay loop is built around the theme of discovery — you’re an adventurer, hurtling blindly through an infinite universe hoping to discover exotic locations, creatures, and riches. Or, at the very least, a planet that won’t kill you (you won’t find one, by the way).

The current galaxy map, as of No Man’s Sky NEXT.

The navigation experience used to move between star systems is built around this idea, as it gives very little information to the player. Often, you’re forced to simply ‘guess’ where to travel to next, hoping that the resource or planet type you’re searching for might happen to be there.

In the latter stages of No Man’s Sky, however, the game becomes less about discovery and more about mastery of it’s various systems. The player’s objective becomes less about simply finding safety and more about searching for specific resources or planet types.

I wanted to explore what a navigation UI might look like if it was designed from the ground up for experienced players in the mid- to late-game. They need more information, more quickly, and aren’t as interested in blindly sling-shotting around the galaxy.

The core control mechanism on the map screen is to move between star systems with the left stick/mouse. This is fine when the destination doesn’t really matter — the control mechanism doesn’t need to be precise if the outcome doesn’t either.

For my mockup though, I went with a list view. This is a common pattern for maps that list locations, because it allows logically sorted data that’s easily understood by the user. I sorted the systems by proximity to the players location, as that tends to be the primary limitation when travelling in the game.

I feel this is a much more effective mechanism for travel, but certainly takes away from the sense of mysterious wonder that the current view gives.

As a completely unrelated sidenote, No Man’s Sky’s inventory management is a huge pain in the butt. Half way through designing the map systems, I took a quick detour to try and alleviate some of those issues.

The Inventory UI as of No Man’s Sky: NEXT

Items are placed randomly and haphazardly in a grid, with no logic or correlation. There’s no easy way to consolidate stacks of the same material, nor any clear way of finding an item you’re looking for. What’s worse is that you might have up to five inventories to manage: your backpack, starship, exocraft, freighter, and home base storage. Finding that specific item across those five inventories is a serious needle-in-a-haystack problem.

Here’s some easy changes I think would make a big difference:

  • Stacks are now combined, so instead of two stacks of 250 carbon, you’ve got one big stack of 500 carbon. It gives the UI a bit more of a Resident Evil 5 vibe, and also breaks up the monotonous grid.
  • Items are put into basic categories: Equipment, Resources, Parts, etc.
  • I added a search bar to quickly find items, and a crafting queue that could be used to create complex items more efficiently.

Thanks for reading

I hope you enjoyed this first attempt at this new series. I’m looking forward to really diving deep into some video game UX and creating some cool prototypes that explore new possibilities.

If you liked this series, please comment below and let me know what games you’d like to see featured, or what ideas you have for improving the UI of a game!