“Game design is unique because you’re often working with concepts that tend to be very outside the UX box of tools. At no point would a traditional UX designer intentionally try to design something that is difficult for a user to do,” says Austin-based Ian Wall. “But you may want a game to be challenging, or aspects of a game to be difficult. You may want elements to reveal themselves; maybe they’re not supposed to be obvious, or the user needs to ‘discover’ them.”

Since launching Beholder, a UX/UI game studio, with Nick Slough earlier this year, Wall has become a master at inhabiting this creative “grey space,” and building singularly immersive experiences for gamers. We talked with him about the trials of (way) early Photoshop, the importance of graphic design basics, and the ultra-weird potential of VR.

What drew you to UX/UI design, and how did you get your start?

I started playing games in the early 80s, when they were still being sold on floppy disks; I had friends with computers and would spend a lot of time at their houses. When I was six or seven my parents got me a Nintendo–which was the first console I owned–and later on when we got a 486 PC, I got into X-Wing and Doom. As soon as I had access to the Doom II editor I got a copy of CorelDRAW and began making maps and learning graphic arts programs, which I taught myself to use.

When I was around 13, I was working at a video game rental shop, essentially volunteering for playtime. It was fantastic.

My first “real” job was doing IT, but I began spending a lot of time in the marketing department. A friend introduced me to Photoshop 2.0; it was before layers, when everything had to be done in channels with single save selection. It was miserable. When 3.0 was released–the first version that introduced layers–that was a breath of fresh air. It was like: “Oh, I can do all kinds of stuff now!” I really sunk my teeth into that. During that time i was also learning HTML and how to deal with different graphic formats.

During the first dot-com boom, I shifted into web design and PowerPoint presentations for start-ups (which were everywhere). I was still involved in games, and had been working on some Quake II mods with people online which was fun.

When the dot-com stuff petered out, I took a QA position at Interplay; basically getting paid minimum wage to play games and write bug reports. This gave me insight into game development from the more professional side of things.

I did work as a UI designer (on Everquest at 989 Studios); I did work as a character artist, and taught myself to model in 3D; I did work as a senior artist; I cofounded a computer storage company; I did work at Blizzard Entertainment, where I met Nick Slough; and in April of this year, we launched Beholder.

How do you get into the mindset of your users, and/or potential users?

I think the top three would be:

  1. Play lots of games yourself. You’ll run into use-cases that are problematic, or really brilliant; good stuff to remember either way.
  2. Watch your friends play games. Invite them over to play new titles; they’re going to run into things that are frustrating, or things that they don’t understand. Watch them squirm, and take note of how they react.
  3. Go onto YouTube or Twitch and watch people stream games. People who are livestreaming tend to be very vocal when they run into problems. Once you’ve had enough experience you can kind of gauge how reasonable their complaints are (or, whether they’re just complaining to complain); then you can try to imagine how you’d solve their issues.

What was your process like creating The Gobstoppers–an app you designed during an AdobeLive stream–and how did Adobe XD help you make it happen?

We had a six-hour livestream scheduled over the course of three days to demonstrate the development of a mock game design for something we called The Gobstoppers. The whole idea for the game is that the Gob is attacking Halloween Town. Users play as a bunch of kids using costumes imbued with superpowers to stop the Gob; get the candy back; and save Halloween.

We wanted to represent that process as accurately as possible–just as if we were working for a client, or at a studio–so people could really see how things go from start to finish–but there was no way we could fit everything into six hours, so we did a ton of prep to create all the assets and content we’d need. The week before the event, we came up with the concept; I wrote a quick one-page brief to simulate a typical scope of work; we built assets like 3D modeled characters and an environment with a distinct style, look, and feel; we made a logo; we sorted out all the mechanics that we needed to represent in the interface. Everything had a low-poly vibe based on our character models.

How does Adobe Creative Cloud fit into your creative process?

Photoshop and Adobe XD are our go-to apps. We use PS for art, icons, logos, graphic design, cutting out and exporting game-ready assets–all that kind of stuff. And we love Adobe XD for game development; it’s like a whiteboard on steroids, in terms of ideation and iteration.

When we used Adobe XD during our livestream, we got a lot of questions from people about why we were working in grayscale; the reason is that we always focus on functionality first. Introducing things like color and images takes time, and also stops you from thinking about functionality and flow; all of a sudden you’re thinking about art, not game design. We want those early conversations to be very focused.

 Gobstoppers in Adobe XD
Gobstoppers in Adobe XD.
 Gobstoppers in Photoshop
Gobstoppers in Photoshop.

What’s the most challenging part of being a game designer? Most fun?

The Most challenging is working around technical problems and limitations. Sometimes there’s something you want to do and you just can’t accomplish it because of some logistical hurdle, or there’s not enough time to do the elegant solution so you have to settle for something less sexy.

The most fun is watching people react to stuff you’ve made. When you put things in place for a user and see them successfully follow that trail to its conclusion–and be elated by that success–is very gratifying. Another aspect that’s super gratifying is seeing other games copying my work. I find no greater pride than when I see games emulate a UI I created. It’s very validating.

What excites you most about the future of UX/UI design—both in terms of creating it, and engaging with it?

Virtual reality is really cool, and in its infancy as a medium and an industry and a market. Between VR and Altered Reality, it makes me wonder how long 2D UI design is going to be a job. Not in a scared way–in an excited way, because it means that something else that’s more interesting has supplanted it. Imagine living in a world where you have contact lenses that are also gaming consoles, playing with holographic projections wherever we want, fully immersed in 360º craziness. It will completely, radically change the way we deal with interactive content.

It’s impossible to predict the future though because i think it’s going to be weirder than we imagine. Most of my rambling thoughts or ideas pale in comparison to what the reality is going to be.

What bit(s) of wisdom can you share with creative folks who are interested in becoming UX/UI designers?

Follow your passion.

Always stay curious.

Get a really solid grasp on graphic design basics: concept and form, how to employ color theory, how to compose a nice graphic layout. These will become the most foundational, important parts of your toolkit.

Study game theory, and play a ton of games. Get to know the the guts, and what makes them tick. There’s so many free game engines out there now that you can dabble in; buy some cheap assets and cobble together a demo. Do small things so you have a broad understanding of how these pieces fit together.

Game designers are bridging the gap between code and emotion. It’s challenging, but so rewarding.

Whose UX/UI work do you look at and go: “WOW”?

Dino Ignacio is a game pioneer, notable for his exceptional use of diegetic user interface design with the seminal title Dead Space.

Territory has put out some fantastic work–most recently the futuristic user interface design presented in Blade Runner 2049.

John Underkoffler has built amazing UIs including the gestural interface used in the film Minority Report. it will be interesting to see what he does with some of the emergent technology like virtual reality and augmented reality.

Best tunes for getting into a creative flow?

It really depends on the mood I’m in. Some favorite bands to work to include: Caribou, Little People, NIN, Portugal. The Man, Infected Mushroom, Clinic, and Ghost.

Follow Ian on: LinkedIn, Behance, Twitter