Despite the apparent decline in recent years, Japan’s Gaming industry still produces tons of titles every year including console and mobile games sustaining an industry of almost 9.6 billion dollars annually (Wikipedia). With these numbers the need for designers, engineers and project managers with experience in digital products is very high.
So if you’re looking for work in Japan it could be a good area to consider. We’ve interviewed our friend Alex who works on PC and Console games at the Japanese office of an American AAA games company to get you more information. So read on!
Game UI Designer in Tokyo
AAA Game User Interface Designer
There is a common misconception about this position. Generally speaking, people (sometimes even professionals) tend to consider UI designers, UX designers, product designers, interaction designers as all the same. It’s said, “The position on your business card rarely describes what you actually do.“
The big difference in the games industry is in the product you are building. People who don’t have knowledge of the video game industry might not even think about how different the job is for a UI designer of mobile games compared to a UI designer of AAA games.
In video games (as in movie theaters) immersion is everything. When you lose track of time and forget about the real world because you are too involved in the game would be considered a perfect example of immersion. Video game designers devote their time at work to increase the experience of complete immersion and often they are faced with making difficult choices like providing too little or too much information on the screen. A badly designed game UI can completely ruin the overall gaming experience and the success of a title.
On top of this, the mobile gaming experience is very different to console gaming. In mobile games, UI plays a very important role as it has to work on a small screen. Simply put there is less room and you must use it well.
However, in AAA games, the UI assumes a different role, with full immersion in mind the UI designer may want to give a customizable UI to the users or even the option to deactivate it completely if necessary. Those designers work in close collaboration with level designers, sound fx engineers, and sometimes with concept artists to make sure the UI works across the many parts of the game.
So what does a video game designer do, and what is it like is being an AAA games UI designer in a Japanese company?
To start off — you’ve got to be aware of the scale of these jobs. There are just so many things to keep in mind when you are making the UI for a video game, especially if you’re working on AAA Video games or something with a complex UI like games with detailed skill systems or crafting systems.
Next up — You shouldn’t become too attached to the design in the first year of production; the game may change so many times during the development phase that you can’t afford to get attached to it at this point. A good AAA UI designer should be flexible and always ready to change everything. Which isn’t really that different from other areas of design.
Another important part of the job is to always think about the user and what they need, giving them choices: in a AAA game, the HUD (head-up display) is a critical part of the UI, which some players prefer to be very detailed and others not see it at all. So instead of possibly making something too small, or too flat for other users, some designers will include an option for turning on and off parts of the HUD such as the life bar, the mini-map, enemy information, or indeed in some very immersive games, the entire HUD.
The user always appreciates these functions as it lets them get the experience they want out of the game and to be comfortable when playing, which leads to greater immersion. I imagine for a mobile game it is difficult to introduce this functionality as many times the UI is the game itself. Originality is also crucial. Sometimes it is dangerous to be original, but brilliant ideas usually get recognized.
What’s the necessary skill set for this role? Do you need to learn any featured code language?
You don’t need any coding skills actually, but if you have any, it’s always a plus, and I know that some companies request a little coding knowledge (action script, C++). Even if you don’t actually write or edit any code yourself, if you have some coding experience, it will help you talk with the programmers.
The usual workflow is like this: I create the design and the animation first, then together with the developer we implement everything in the game.
When all the assets work in the way that I want, I can start to brush up the design and change the animations. For this second step, usually, I don’t need any help from the programmers, I can modify the assets as I want, load the new UI files into the project, and when done, I’ll upload everything to the server so everybody can check it. If I want to change something radically, of course, I need to talk to the developers again. We work together all the time.
As you can imagine, I work with Photoshop, Illustrator, and Flash for 80% of the assets, for the remaining 20% we have custom software for the UI that gets implemented in the game engine. We use this software for creating something that is impossible to create with animation software such as Flash.
What’s the difference between a UI designer for mobile and for AAA video games in your opinion?
The entire process is different; the main difference is the number of people involved in every single decision. In an AAA game, the wrong choice does not just affect the UI department but so many people around you.
It is a very different space to be designed in, I don’t want to say that it is much more fun or much more difficult than mobile games, it is just different. Also having a passion for design is not enough, you should love games because is not easy work for a single project for 3 or 4 years without that passion for gaming.
How important is to speak Japanese in your role?
In my case the Japanese language is vital — at my company, they only speak Japanese. If you are lucky, you might be able to work with a programmer who speaks English, but you still have to have enough skills to talk with the other people in the team: sound designers, sound engineers, level designers, planners, art directors, and game directors. The UI department is in the middle; that means UI Designers will have requests from all the other departments. In Japanese.
What do you think are the differences in Japanese and American video game industry? And how about the European Industry?
Probably the main difference is the process by which they create the game. Japanese game companies still think that the UI design must reflect the game’s overall style.
For example let’s look at the UI of the game Destiny, which is considered one of the best UI in the last two generations of consoles. Destiny is a Sci-fi game with a simple, intuitive and easy to use non sci-fi-themed UI, especially when compared to a game like HALO.
What I think is still difficult is to create a product with a unique and straightforward UI in the game industry in Japan. However, I believe that everything is slowly changing in a better direction, especially because my colleagues have started to look at the European and the American game industries for a different point of view. Now the Japanese people want to study and learn from successful games made overseas.
You work for a well-known AAA Game firm. What are the benefits of working in a large company instead an indie one?
Without any doubt, the benefits are that you work with many veterans of the game industry, people who have made the history of Japanese games, and you can learn a lot from them. I’m not talking just about the UI, but more about how to create a game as an entire product.
I think if you know how to build a good video game, you can create a good UI. I’ve never worked in an indie team, so I don’t know the real difference, but I’m pretty sure that is exciting as well.
Creating games is amazing, doesn’t matter if you are working for a small team or a AAA game company, you can learn a lot and have fun every day if you have a good team.