An Interview with Louise McLennan, Designer of Elite: Dangerous

Innovating UX Practice

Inspirations from software engineering

A column by Peter Hornsby
September 7, 2015

Frontier Developments released Elite: Dangerous in December 2014, after a successful Kickstarter campaign. For this game, they further developed the concepts of trading and combat that were part of the original version of Elite, which Acornsoft released in 1984. However, Elite: Dangerous offers both a massively multiplayer, persistent world of online play, as well as single-player gaming. The game’s user experience evolves many of the same designs and concepts that the original game introduced, and many of its current players are part of the older demographic who played the original game. But it also presented some unique design challenges to Louise McLennan, Senior UX Designer at Frontier Developments. She has kindly agreed to this interview, in which we’ll discuss these design challenges and how Frontier addressed them.

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Peter: Louise, thanks for agreeing to this interview! How did you get started in design?

Louise: I started off creating art assets for Flash games when I was a teenager. We actually managed to release one game! I was studying at the time and got an internship at Disney Interactive Studios for a year, working with their publishing team on PC, console, and mobile game titles—developing visual assets for a mix of action titles and construction games. As an intern, I got feedback on every part of the game—from the scripts to the game design, to graphics, to art direction. But interns also gave feedback to the studios that we were working with. It was a bit more relaxed for us, as interns, than for everyone else!

Peter: Had you played Elite: Dangerous yourself at all before you came to Frontier?

Louise: I hadn’t played Elite, but I’d heard about it through Kickstarter, and I’d watched some of the videos. It seemed pretty cool.

Peter: What motivated you to apply for the job at Frontier, and what state was Elite: Dangerous in at the time?

Louise: I was playing Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 at the time and just thought, I’ll apply to Frontier! When I joined Frontier, Elite: Dangerous was in a very embryonic stage, so I initially worked on Zoo Tycoon. Around that time, the ships like the Sidewinder existed, but not much else. Space was there, and you could fly around a bit, but that was all. I was working with the Head of User Interface, and he laid out the cockpit and side panels. That was the starting point from where everything else evolved.

Peter: How does the UX/UI function work with the rest of the team?

Louise: At the moment, I do all of the UX and the UI art, working with five programmers. The Head of User Interface is also a programmer and does a bit of the UX design. I’d done a course, which was basically Flash development, so a mix of programming and visual design, with some HCI—though not much. When I started working on Elite: Dangerous, there was no one else who was going to have time to do the UX design, so I started working on it and really enjoyed it. From there, it just became the thing I really wanted to do.

What will usually happen is that we’ll get a document from Design, which will set out what they’re expecting from the user interface. I’ll talk it through with them and start working on the wireframes—usually in Illustrator and Axure. I’ll then run those past the interested stakeholders. Once the stakeholders have approved the wireframes, I’ll hand them over to the programmers, who do the implementation in Scaleform.

Peter: Being old enough now to have played the original Elite in 1984, I noted that there are a lot of similarities between the current ship’s dashboard and the original version—things like the radar display and side panels. Was there a conscious decision to keep that continuity in design all the way through?

Louise: Yes, definitely. That came from David Braben, [CEO of Frontier Developments and co-developer of Elite,] at the start of the project. He wanted it to truly be an Elite game, not just some space game, and the user interface is where you can really see that influence.

Peter: What has been your favorite part of the user interface to work on?

Louise: I think easily my favorite part of the user interface to make has been the galaxy map. It gave us a chance to take a much more visual, interactive approach that really took advantage of the technology.

Peter: It’s a beautiful piece of design—the way you can move around in it, zooming in and out, rotating the whole thing. (See Figure 1.) Was this also a development challenge?

Figure 1Elite Dangerous galaxy map

Louise: Oh, yes. I’m not too knowledgeable about the C side of coding, but we made a prototype in Flash and that helped us to define the interactions before we implemented them in the game. We could also iterate more quickly. It was much easier to do that in Flash than in the game itself.

Peter: There are some things that the game doesn’t allow you to do, for which players have found workarounds. For instance, because you can’t bookmark planets, some players buy ships there, so the planets are highlighted on the map. Were these conscious design decisions?

Louise: There are decisions that we’ve made to restrict players a little bit and make them think a bit more. We’re focused on new features right now, but in the future, we’ll probably come back and make those little tweaks that people have been talking about on the forums. I do read the forums quite a lot. It’s not always possible to make all the changes people want. One of the things I’m very proud of from working on the game was the design of Wings. [This is a feature that lets players cooperate and fly, fight, and trade together.] I also redesigned the communications, which I think was only partially successful. We can improve this further. Letting people wing up, the responses we had from the testers and players were really positive. In an online game, making the experience of playing with other people more immersive is a really important step, helping people to share experiences. Particularly in a game like Elite: Dangerous, traveling alone in space can be incredibly lonely!

Peter: One of the things I most enjoy about the game, as a UX designer, is the progressive disclosure element—the way there is a lot more depth and complexity in the way the user controls flying the ships. As players become more skillful, they can make it harder for themselves and get more precise control over the ship’s behavior—for instance, by turning off flight assist.

Louise: The number of controls is kind of ridiculous! When I originally designed the control scheme, there were far fewer controls. Elite has a very unique audience of people who are willing to invest lots of time and buy special hardware to play the game, which is quite unique. That sort of player loves customizability and having so many options appeals to them.

Peter: Do you think there’s a difficult trade-off between designing for the players who essentially want the game to be challenging and new players who want to get into it for the first time?

Louise: Yes, that has been one of the biggest challenges from the start. One of the things that made that easier—and it’s kind of a strange thing to say—is that we’ve had to design so many different control schemes from the start. You’ve got keyboard and mouse devices; Oculus Rift; the X-Box-type controller, and HOTAS controllers like the Thrustmaster. Designing something that can work with all those types of controllers means you can’t make it overly complicated. So there have always been trade-offs to make it work on all these different platforms, and that, in turn, helps to make it more intuitive.

Peter: Do you use personas at all to make sure everyone on the team has a common understanding of your target gamer types?

Louise: We don’t use personas or anything like that, but the Design team has a really good understanding of the types of users they are designing for—and they are gamers themselves. Sometimes they’ll create really dense features, then they’ll talk to me. At least, if I can understand it, I figure that most other players will be able to understand it!

Peter: Have you played the game yourself at all now?

Louise: I have played it from time to time. Though, usually, I end up getting stuck on some trade route, going back and forward, and needing to study the maps to find better routes! I’ve played enough to get past the Sidewinder. I think that’s quite important!

Peter: With a game of this scale, with the open play and solo play, all online, you must have a huge amount of data available to you about player behaviors. Do you make use of this in the design?

Louise: There’s a lot more I’d like to do with the data that we have. It’s just a question of having the time!

Peter: It must help you understand how some of the new features are playing out—for instance, Powerplay?

Louise: Yes, Powerplay is very interesting. We weren’t sure what to expect once people were actually using it. It was very difficult to test. The way people have been using it, it’s been great to see what they think. I really like how people are working to undermine other factions. Powerplay was a very interface-heavy feature. It was an interesting challenge to make a game within a game.

Peter: The story behind the game is something that is becoming much stronger. Is that a key element in helping to draw new and existing players into the game?

Louise: At the core, it’s about the experience of being a pilot, and the story is tangential to that. We did a Galnet update recently and that brought out the story much more.

Peter: What’s next for the user experience of Elite: Dangerous? Can you tell us anything about the planetary landings feature? (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2Elite Dangerous planetary landings

Louise: I think there are a lot of tweaks we can do to make the whole experience better. There are a lot of minor things that would improve the quality of life for players. I don’t want to be too specific, in case they don’t happen! I can’t talk about planetary landings, unfortunately. We showed some things at GamesCon though, and I’m pretty excited about it. It’ll add an exciting new dimension to the game.

Peter: Thank you, Louise! 

Director at Edgerton Riley

Reading, Berkshire, UK

Peter HornsbyPeter has been actively involved in Web design and development since 1993, working in the defense and telecommunications industries; designing a number of interactive, Web-based systems; and advising on usability. He has also worked in education, in both industry and academia, designing and delivering both classroom-based and online training. Peter is a Director at Edgerton Riley, which provides UX consultancy and research to technology firms. Peter has a PhD in software component reuse and a Bachelors degree in human factors, both from Loughborough University, in Leicestershire, UK. He has presented at international conferences and written about reuse, eLearning, and organizational design.  Read More

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