Ryan Van Rooyen
Senior UI Engineer
What is your position at IllFonic?
I am a Senior UI Engineer and I've been here for over 2 years now.
What does UI stand for, and what does it mean in layman's terms?
UI stands for User Interface. UI simply refers to how computers are designed to interact with people. In the context of games, UI refers both to how players might interact with a game using some kind of controller or keyboard, but equally as important is how the game is designed to communicate its information back to players.
How did you find yourself in UI? Did you start in a different area (ex. Graphic Design), or was it your specialty from the beginning?
I started my career outside of the games industry in a more general programming role.
Early on in my career, I spent a fairly even mix of my time doing backend/server-side development, firmware development, and UI design/development. Over the first few years, I found myself gravitating towards UI work. I realized that I really enjoyed trying to help find ways to simplify and make software easier and more helpful for people to use.
As I started to focus more on UI work, I spent more and more of my time working alongside Graphic Designers. I found that I enjoyed learning about the visual design aspects of UI work just as much as I enjoyed the technical programming work.
What was your experience with UI before IllFonic?
For the first 9 years of my career, I worked in the Live Events industry.
More specifically, I helped build the UI systems used to control and interact with some of the giant displays that you see at sports stadiums, concert venues, and some of the custom displays you see in places like Times Square and Las Vegas. Basically, when you're at a sports game or concert, I helped design the software that the people in the control rooms at those venues use to dynamically change what's playing. For example, when a team first comes out at the start of a game and the displays change to announce the players in a cinematic way while showing off different player stats.
After working in the Live Events industry, for the next 4 years I worked on systems for gathering and analyzing real time data of the traffic and active signals at intersections to improve traffic flow in cities. I helped design and build the UI of the systems for analyzing and viewing that information. Part of that work was to provide real time traffic signal data directly to vehicles to improve the accuracy and safety of autonomous vehicles.
As appreciative as I am for those previous experiences, my passion was always to make games. IllFonic was a company that was on my radar for a while. As soon as I saw that they had a position open for a UI Engineer, I applied and didn't look back.
What was it like breaking into the gaming industry and learning a new form of UI design/programming?
It definitely had its learning curves at first and it was a lot of work, but mostly it was exciting and fun. Working in game development has been a dream job of mine ever since I got into programming.
I've loved games since I was a little kid. I was always interested in how they were made, but it still somehow never occurred to me while growing up that making games was an actual career you could get into.
When I went to college I realized how much I enjoyed programming. As soon as I started learning programming basics, I wanted to figure out how to make my own games. Back then, there weren't very many free tools available, so I started making simple 2D games from scratch. Years later, once Unity and Unreal became free to use, I immediately started learning as much as I could about using those engines and making 3D games.
A lot of my weekends and evenings after work while at my previous jobs I would work on my own games and try to learn more about the fundamentals of game development. I think all those years of tinkering and learning in my spare time helped immensely with my transition into the industry. There was still a lot to learn, but I was already familiar with the basics of a lot of tools we use here at IllFonic. Luckily on the UI side, even though some of the tools may be different from other industries, the core UI design principles and best practices still apply.
Do you look at videogames differently since working in UI, whether before or after joining IllFonic? If so, how?
Once I started at IllFonic, I think my perspective on any games I play started to shift. I may have been familiar with the basics of game development before joining the industry, but seeing the work it takes from everyone on the team to actually ship a title is a whole other thing.
I already had a huge respect for what goes into game development, but getting to be a part of it and seeing it first hand grew that respect tenfold. Specifically on UI, now that my full time job is working in games, it's definitely changed how I see the UI choices in the games I play.
A lot of my day is thinking about different ways we can go about organizing and showing information to players. So now when I play a game, I get easily distracted with the little details of how other titles have approached their UI design choices. I'm pretty sure I'm a very frustrating and boring person to watch play a game, and I would be a horrible streamer. It's not uncommon for me to boot up a game I want to play, then get sidetracked for over 20 mins simply navigating a couple of menus back and forth on repeat because I was intrigued on how a game decided to set up some particular flow in their menus.
What do you like to see in a game UI and why? Do you have a favorite genre or game that has a look and/or experience that pleases and/or impresses you?
Simplicity is always key.
A game that can express its gameplay systems and options in concise ways is critically important. If a game can do that and design its UI art in consistent and aesthetically pleasing ways that's a huge plus.
I don't think I have a favorite genre as you can create very different UI designs and systems between games in the same genre. I don't know if I have a particular favorite game, but a game that stood out to me in the last couple years was Hades. The UI art in Hades was amazing.
Beyond overall simplicity, a big area of UI work that I love to see and that multiple games have impressed me with lately is accessibility. The games industry has recently started to make noticeable improvements in providing accessibility options to players. From Microsoft's and now Sony's new adaptive controller to titles that are providing more and more mobility, vision, and hearing related accessibility options. Any time I see a game that builds in meaningful accessibility options always impresses me and I greatly appreciate.
What has been one of the biggest challenges since taking this position?
Early on, one of the biggest challenges for me joining the industry was simply adjusting to how iterative the process of game development can be.
You can build something that works well, but at the end of the day if it doesn't feel good to use or isn't as easy to understand for the player as you had initially hoped, you have to be willing to go back and redesign things until it does. That is also true of other UI work, but with games it can happen much more frequently as you continually playtest and provide feedback to try and make the game more fun to play.
If an underlying gameplay system evolves or changes during development there's a good chance the UI that represents those systems needs to be changed or potentially completely redesigned. For example, on Arcadegeddon we revisited and reworked the game's customization menus multiple times. Over the course of development, we expanded the number of cosmetic options available to the player by letting them individually customize the player's top, bottom, gauntlet, and added additional facial options. Adding those options required us to rethink how we structured the overall menu's layout and how you navigate from one cosmetic category to the next.
Arcadegeddon's weapons customization menu is a similar example. As gameplay systems evolved, the ability to unlock, level up, and equip starter weapons became a core aspect of the player's progression. As that particular progression became more important, we realized our existing weapons menu didn't sufficiently express the details of that system to the player. We ended up going back and designing a whole new menu from scratch to better inform the player of their weapon progression and to simplify equipping their current weapon loadout, which is the menu that you see in the game today.
What resources and/or practices do you use to keep up with the evolving needs of gamers relative to UI?
One of the most important resources is simply playing different games and keeping up with how current games are solving common UI problems for players.
One part of creating UI systems that feel simple to use is leveraging existing player expectations. Sometimes those are common expectations set by other games in a similar genre, and other times those expectations are ones you create within your game, which is why consistency is so important. A very basic example would be if a FPS game had its default primary shoot button not on a controller's right trigger. It might be technically just as simple to shoot in that game, but a lot of players may find it confusing and difficult to retrain their muscle memory.
Besides playing different games, one online resource that can be helpful to explore a wide variety of UI systems in existing games is the Game UI Database website. It's a website that has categorized screen shots of many different games to provide UI references for UI designers and to help inspire UI designers on their own designs.
What is the first videogame you ever played?
When I was very young, about 3 years old, my two older sisters got a NES console for Christmas. My first video game memories were of watching my sisters play the original Super Mario Bros. I can't remember which game was the very first I played once I was old enough to convince my sisters to let me try their console. I'm pretty sure it was a close tie between Mario, Excitebike, and Duck Hunt as playing those 3 games stand out equally in my mind today.
What is the most recent game (not working on) that you played and loved?
A game I recently finished and loved was a game called Tunic.
It's an action-adventure game with a structure similar to The Legend of Zelda series, mixing in some Soulslike elements with a couple of its own unique takes on the genre. It has a great art style, the combat is fun, and it has some very creative puzzles discovering new areas utilizing its fixed camera perspective.
The most interesting aspect of the game to me though, is that it drops you into its world and doesn't explain what's going on or how its gameplay systems work. You discover information about the game by finding torn out pages of its digital instruction manual out of order. As you slowly piece together parts of the manual you learn new secrets about the game. The art of its digital manual is done beautifully, and it hit a certain level of nostalgia for me. It reminded me of the physical games I bought and loved as a child that used to come with illustrated instruction manuals in the game's case.