Designing Arcade Interfaces

I’ve unwittingly been researching arcade interfaces since the first arcade game I’ve ever played (Outrun, maybe?) because I often judge games on how “arcadey” they feel – and the interface plays a huge role in this. I’ve put together some thoughts on what makes a great arcade interface.

Anti-UX?

A good User Experience (UX) is often viewed as making things as easy as possible to use. Let’s pretend that’s true for a second; that would mean arcade interfaces invariably achieve the opposite: a chaotic mess.

UX is often associated with designing a service, “make it as easy as possible to buy X product”. But arcades aren’t about service, but rather an experience. A bat-shit crazy user experience. It’s not about making it easy. It’s about having a great experience.

So while the following may sound bizarre if you’ve ever brushed over UX in any form, but it all adds up to a good arcade user experience.

1/4

Remember playing Street Fighter 2 on your SNES/Mega Drive after playing the arcade version? Didn’t it feel like a mini version?

The arcade version packed an extra punch that the consoles just couldn’t handle. The sprites alone were about 50% bigger:

Left: Arcade version of Ryu. Right: Snes version of Ryu.

Part of this feeling came from arcades naturally being on larger screens, but everything was also beefier. It’s a feeling that is definitely associated with the arcade experience.

Is there such a thing as too big? These games disagree:

  • Marvel Super Heroes:
    Giant “Round 1″ text scrolls past the screen at the beginning of each match.
  • Daytona USA:
    Dayonta USA is another great example. Choosing your transmission could be two simple buttons. But why not make each option half of the screen?
  • Street Fighter 3:
    Only a handful of characters in the original Street Fighter 3, but the screen is still filled.
    (I’ll take Ryu with a side order of Super Art #2 please.)

2/4

I know it’s not the intention but when I see an epilepsy warning at the beginning of a game, I get excited.

I’m not just talking strobing lights though. Flashing objects in the interface are used to grab your attention such as a selected item or a notification.

In terms of visual effects, it’s the oldest one in the books to get your attention. But the common use of it across arcade games makes it a prerequisite for the interface.

You might think it’s an excess, but when it has to compete with all the other visual noise, it’s the best way to jump out.

However more importantly it adds excitement. Quite often a flashing interface is combined with a time limit – the flashing panics you and adds to the quick pace of arcade games. Sound like a bad thing? Hell no! See how Marvel vs Capcom use it to create a crazy intro:

Marvel vs Capcom:
Intro sequence (Arcade) has enough to get you excited… or give you a seizure.

3/4

Some of the examples here may not be the prettiest things you’ve ever seen but they all undoubtedly have character that matches the flavour of the game. The interface should compliment the game itself.

Games that follow current generic design trends do not feel unique, and will age quickly:

Tokyo Jungle:
Great game, but it has an uninspired interface that could be from any game.

I can’t give specific tips on the specifics of showing “character” in the interface, as it is really down the individual game. This could include typography, colours or a stylistic theme to name a few. However here are some great examples:

  • Daytona USA:
    Daytona is, looking at it from a purely aesthetic point of view, pretty damn ugly. But I love it all. It emphasises the feeling of dirty nascar racing, with the over the top American chunky type, garish patterns and brash colours.
  • Street Fighter 4:
    Street Fighter 4 has a brush stroke theme throughout the game, from the in game art and across the interface.
  • Marvel Super Heroes:
    A Marvel Comic theme is running throughout the interface. I especially like how it integrates the comic book world into the interface, such as the character portraits on the buildings.
  • Sonic the Fighters:
    This uses the familiar Sonic-theme throughout. It’s also a GREAT GAME. Seriously people, Sonic mixed with Virtua Fighter, what’s not to like?
  • AfterBurner Climax:
    Tacky metallic movie-like interfaces are used… and it’s perfect for it. Feels like it’s right out of a cheesy American film.

4/4

Going in fresh to a new arcade game is exciting. If you’ve never seen the game before, you’re probably going to waste that credit trying to figure out how to play the game. Same goes for the interface!

  • What’s the difference between this and that?
  • Why is everything trying to get my attention?
  • Is that actually important?

Seriously, this wall of confusion is a good thing; it’s part of the experience. Specifically, how fast-paced arcade games can be. The speed of an arcade game is likely a result of wanting to get as many people playing it as quickly as possible, but it adds to adrenalin filled pace.

KOF 2001:
How to play instructions

King of Fighters games immediately throw instructions at you as soon as you start. Good luck understanding them. Do you need to know all of it? Nope. You can get by initially, but with more experience you’ll get it.

Another fantastic WTF example is Persona 4 Arena. Not my kind of fighting game but this one was 100% confusion, and I enjoyed it for that. Everything in this game fights for your attention:

Hover over the numbers for a description

  1. The askew angles make everything feel uneasy, adding to the chaos.

  2. Huge character portraits flash across the screen

  3. Chunky, contrasting fonts! Since when did fighting games care about singular hits??

  4. There’s a ton of information. Do you really need to know all of it?

  5. What the hell is a “Spunky dragon with deadly legs”?

It all sounds negative but this adds to the arcade experience.

Sometimes even a part of a game that should make sense can still confuse the hell out of you. Want to select a character? Good luck figuring this out on your first go:

Street Fighter Alpha 3:
What’s your favourite ism? Skepticism?

Don’t think, feel

After designing clean interfaces, it’s hard to switch off that kind of thinking. Instead, you really have to feel your way around the interface using the above tips. Think about what the inner kid wants, what gives you that excited giddy feeling?

It’s easy to fall back onto interface trends, but in doing so you miss a great opportunity to make an arcade game (or any game) reach it’s potential.

The interface plays a big role in the immersion of the game. Obviously there are other key factors, like audio and… uh, the game itself, but without the crazy interface you can’t have the whole experience.

Design your interface as an experience itself.

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