Heads Up Display (HUD) example in video game

Designing a HUD That Works for Your Game


There are many different components that make up a video game, and they all work together to create the final product. One of those components, the heads-up display (HUD), has been an essential part of video games since the beginning. HUDs are constantly progressing and changing along with the gaming industry. After reading this article, you'll have a better understanding of the type of HUD you should use for your game and where you may be able to exclude the HUD altogether. 

The HUD is what's displayed on the screen while the player is in the game. This shouldn't be confused with the user interface (UI), which can include all the different menus and interactive elements within the game. They often go hand in hand when game design is done well. HUD elements could include a mini-map in the corner, a health bar, and a variety of other items to aid the player. The HUD is there to present the player with important information while not being distracting. 

A great example of a heads up display is in the Halo series. The HUD is designed to give the appearance that the player is looking through the Spartan's visor. The HUD shows health information, ammo count, radar, and weapon type. While the HUD has changed slightly throughout the Halo series, it still maintains a similar style so players familiar with the Halo universe will be comfortable no matter which Halo game they're playing. 

A great HUD design should go virtually unnoticed by the player and should never be a hindrance to the gameplay. Some games will even give the user the ability to edit their HUD to fit their needs. World of Tanks gives players extensive control over their HUD. User customization allows the prominence of the HUD to fit to a wider variety of player tastes, experience, and preferences. 

The HUD may also change depending on gameplay. For instance, if you're playing hardcore mode in Call of Duty the HUD will be simplified quite a bit to provide more of a challenge and a realistic experience. 

Since the HUD is being displayed throughout gameplay, you want it designed to be easily seen in any lighting or environmental changes the player is likely to encounter.

Have the Right HUD for the Job

The kind of HUD design you choose for your game depends on the type and style of game you have, and how realistic of an experience you want to provide to the player. You should also have an understanding of how much information needs to be presented to the player. 

Going back to Halo as an example, the HUD displays everything the player will need to know; nothing is left to question. However, this type of design might not be great for every game. For instance, in Tomb Raider the HUD is very minimal and only displays what is absolutely necessary, and what is necessary can change depending on the actions you take. You won't see the HUD for the weapons until you hit the directional arrow to switch your weapon. 

This type of HUD design fits with Tomb Raider’s style, because it's a puzzle-adventure game that wants to immerse the player in the experience. The HUD for Halo works because it's a fast-paced sci-fi shooter that has to display information at all times in order to properly aid the player. Imagine if Tomb Raider featured a HUD with the same design style like Halo's or vice versa. That wouldn't really fit.

traditional HUD Heads Up Display on a first person shooter game

Keep the HUD in Check

A very important thing to remember when designing a game HUD is it should never overpower the screen or become a distraction.  When implementing the HUD into your game, you may need to take a step back and ensure that it's enhancing the experience and not hindering the gameplay. Think about whether or not the player will really need all those features, and if they will really help the player. 

For instance, if you're creating a first-person shooter, do you really need to display the gun the player is holding in the lower right corner of the screen when they're probably perfectly aware of what weapon they have? Take a look at Grand Theft Auto 5. They were able to provide a HUD that could display everything the player would need and not clog the screen. 

A lot of the Grand Theft Auto 5 HUD is only displayed when the player needs it. For example, when switching weapons the player holds down a button on the controller that brings up a new HUD for picking a weapon. The HUD quickly disappears once the player makes their choice. This allows the screen to stay free from distracting elements, but also provides everything the player needs when they need it.

subtle HUD Heads Up Display option for game development

Go Beyond the Traditional HUD

Many games are moving further away from the traditional HUD. They're leaning more toward a cinematic experience, because game development companies want the player to forget they're actually playing a game. They want them to feel completely immersed in the experience, and nothing takes the player out of the experience like a static HUD displaying a wealth of information. 

Dead Space is one example that aims for a truly immersive experience, where the game character must interact with the world to get information that is typically displayed on the HUD for the player in other games. Certain crucial information is nearly always visible, but in a more organic nature.

As games progress, you can see different ways a traditional HUD is traded for more interactive cues. For instance, instead of displaying a health meter on the screen, audio cues are used to give hints to the player that they're running low on health or getting tired. HUDs don’t need to rely solely on visual elements. This isn't to say that you shouldn't use any type of HUD. Depending on your game, think of ways you can implement different elements to take the place of a traditional HUD and give the player a more immersive experience. 

HUD in Mobile Gaming

No discussion on HUD design is complete without addressing the exploding mobile gaming industry. There are 2.2 billion mobile gamers worldwide, and 56% of them play more than 10 times per week. By 2021, the mobile gaming is projected to dominate all other gaming sectors.

With advancements like unlimited data plans, faster processing speeds, and higher quality graphics, more engaging mobile gameplay is becoming available to a growing user base of smartphone owners. Games like the mobile ports of Fortnight and PUBG rely as much on HUD as console or desktop games. 

HUD design for mobile games require special consideration, because these games are played on screens that are both small and different in size and shape from each other. This requires useful gameplay information to be clearly displayed in a small, limited space. It also means that designers must be highly selective about what information to include. The unique constraints for mobile games creates an even more delicate balance between displaying enough information to enhance gameplay, but not too much that it distracts on a small screen, or not enough that players get frustrated. 

Creating a HUD that will fit into the gameplay and style of your game is essential. While a feature-rich HUD may be great for some games, a simplistic HUD can be just as effective for others. It all depends on the player experience you want. When you're ready to create the heads-up display for your next game, make sure you're designing the HUD to enhance the player's experience and never to give the player an overload of information. Ideally, you want a HUD that stops feeling like a HUD, and instead becomes a diegetic interface that feels like a natural part of the game world. 

To learn more about video game HUD design, check out these game development tutorials.