One of the challenges of video games is how to model the information that we humans take for granted in the real world. We rely on a suite of senses and access to information IRL that we probably cannot easily replicate in a game simply because games cannot hope to offer the width and bredth of opportunities we enjoy on this side of the screen. That’s why user interfaces are so important in video games. They are designed to give feedback about the game world, point us in the right direction, and ensure that we’re kept up to date on our progress. UI can be presented either as in-your-face (think Super Mario Bros. or most every arcade game) or in more subtle ways (Skyrim or Fallout, et al.).
Star Citizen, with it’s lean into simulation, has chosen a more diegetic approach. Certain HUD elements aren’t visible to the player unless they are wearing a helmet. The MOBIGlass, a holographic wrist-mounted computer, provides a character with their management interfaces — missions, status, maps, inventory, and so on. When in the cockpit of a ship, screens called MFDs (multi-function displays) provide info on the shields, the hull, emissions, targeting, and more. The interfaces in Star Citizen are modeled after real-world projections of what a far-future information system might look like.
In this CitizenCon segment, David “Bone” Gill drives the talk about what CIG is doing to update the interfaces and player feedback in the game.
The UI has gone through several iterations over the years, with some highlights from the personal UI (within the helmet of the character) shown above, and it continues to evolve with a focus on presenting the most important information when it needs to be known.
While this might not seem like a post-worthy topic, long-time Star Citizen players understand that the current UI is both complicated and lacking in many quality of life features. When the helmet visor is paired with an in-cockpit setup, the UI is chaotic.
Simon Bursey, Senior Lead UI/UX Designer, took us through a video demo of the new visor UI.
The new UI is a lot cleaner than the current edition. When a new mission is assigned, it appears in the upper right corner. We also get immediate notifications in the upper-center segment. The old objective marker has been updated to a yellow diamond with an arrow pointing us in the proper direction. We also get a compass which is something we have while flying, but not currently when on foot.
A lot of the elements will be contextual. In this scene, the character is approaching their mission objective, which happens to be a leaking reactor. In the lower left we see two new icons: REM and REM/S. The first indicates how much radiation the character has taken on, and the second is the relative rate of emission in the area. On the lower right, we get some hotkey reminders for how to draw a weapon, how to throw items (usually grenades), and how to activate our consumables (medipens and the like). Note that the display icons won’t always be present; they appear when the situation calls for them, and there will be other icons displayed in different circumstances.
In the above image, we see that when the military multi-tool is equipped, the lower-right corner receives new elements showing the charge of the tool, as well as an icon for throwable items (grenades). The third slot, for consumables, is currently empty.
One of the new additions to the visor is the ability to scan. There are two modes: quick scan and charged scan. Quick scans will identify and provide info on anything within range and line of sight. Charged scan can detect more around the character, but it will increase the detect-ability of the character through the emissions of the ping. The character’s EM, IR, and sound emissions are displayed beneath the compass at the top.
The new visor UI is a lot cleaner than the current iteration, and the context switching allows for players to get on the relevant information that they need without additional data cluttering up the screen.
The revisions to the MOBIGlass are some of the most exciting presented. The MOBI is the go-to center for information management, and while the current iteration is OK, the updates to the system bring it more in-line with visor updates, fix up a lot of shortcomings we have come to work around, and has been designed to be modular for the player’s benefit.
The MOBIGlass was only shown briefly, but it makes a comeback later on. Note that it was mentioned that the above configuration is the specialized UEE military layout created for Squadron 42. The Star Citizen edition will be different, but probably not radically so.
Probably the most reviled aspect of the current UI is the starmap. It currently is only useful for displaying the Stanton system (the only system) and it has some pretty irritating bugs and behaviors that sometimes makes getting around the system far more difficult than it should be. The odd thing is, there is no other map anywhere for anything in the game. This can make the urban centers like Area 18 and Lorville difficult for new players to get around (and I’ll tell you, it’s difficult for seasoned players as well).
Zane Bien, Sr. Principal UI-Tech Developer, led a segment on how mapping is going to work in the future.
SCbSC, we don’t just get a map handed to us when we enter an area. There are a few ways to get our bearings, and the first example was to approach a map kiosk and download the layout of the facility from the terminal.
The mapping system is a “live” system that takes information about the facility as it’s designed, removes all non-essential props, changes the shaders to make it look more “blueprint-y”, and presents it as an interactive display that a player can pan and rotate through, change floors, and even see certain activity such as moving trams and the open/closed state of doors. This is not a static map as CIG uses procedural generation techniques to create their facilities, meaning it would be painful to have to hand-design maps for every single location on every single planet or moon in every single system in the game.
As stated, we don’t just get maps of the areas we’re in. It’s also not expected that we’ll be memorizing the entire layout of an area by staring at a kiosk screen. If we find a mapping terminal in a facility, we will be able to download that map data to our MOBIGlass so we can take it with us. When we do this, we also get a minimap in the upper-left corner of the visor.
If we enter a facility which doesn’t have a map terminal, we will build our map as we go through active and passive scanning. Pinging the area will reveal points of interest including NPCs. The MOBI version of the map can be interacted with the same way we could with the kiosk version.
We can also place markers on our maps.
This is of massive significance for a few reasons. The most obvious is that we can place markers to remind ourselves of the location of POI that we might want to return to. More importantly, though, is that map markers are sharable and sellable. We can trade them with other players. The implications of this are huge as it ties directly into the “exploration” gameplay loop. The use of custom markers is available for facility maps, maps of planets and landscapes, and maps made of deep space.
Objectives, mission-based or personal, can also have routes plotted. This will be displayed on both the full MOBIGlass map and the minimap, and will recalculate if we end up taking a wrong turn somewhere. It will also take into account stairs, lifts, doors, trams, and changes between floors.
Maps will also seamlessly transition between our current facility or ground space into any ship we might climb aboard.
Using the mouse wheel, no matter where our character is physically, we can zoom in or out from or to the galactic scale.
The mic was handed off to Dr. Emily Hanson, Programmer III for UI, who continued talking about the map at solar-system scale and beyond.
The star map has a massive amount of improvements. Double clicking on a location will focus on that location. We can drop pins as we saw with the facility maps. At certain scale, markers will merge to keep things simple, and if the player marker is involved, it will be the marker displayed so we always know where we are.
If we know where we want to go, but aren’t entirely sure where that location is, we can use the new outliner to display all known locations in a system. The outliner remembers your last three selected locations, and will offer the ability to type in a desired location to filter the list.
I am assuming that if we want to navigate to a distant location (for quantum travel), we would select the destination and choose “Set Route” as we would if we were trying to reach a POI on foot.
I have a love/hate relationship with UI. As an application developer, I am forced to create UI/UX all the time, and while I have been doing it for decades now, I’m not all that great at it. The few times I have tried game development, it was at the point where I had to build a UI that I usually ended up quitting the project in part because I had to build a UI. However, I appreciate a well done UI, and I think that when its done poorly, people notice, but when it’s done correctly, people tend to take it for granted.
Star Citizen’s current UI is not as good as it could be and has a lot of issues, especially the star map, which cause a lot of headaches. These new versions are a massive leap forward and personally, I think they operate exactly as one might expect they should. This should allow the UI to “just work”, surfacing info when its needed but shelving it when its not, and by providing tools and options that preempt questions like “how do I do X” and “I wish I could do Y”.