When Debug UI Ruins Game Design (and what to do about it)

One of the quintessential hallmarks of a ‘work in progress’ game is debug text. Floating gibberish flickering in the foreground of gameplay, occasionally catching your eye with an <ERROR> or a ‘Missing_Texture’.

Which game was fun? The game design they’d imagined, or the stat-heavy game living inside it?

The Oxymoron of Designing The Placeholder

It’s clear that debug and placeholder UI doesn’t deserve too much thought. Certainly this devteam could have saved a lot of heartache and reviewing of their decision-making if they’d just thought to turn off everyone’s debug readout. Trust me when I say it’s one of those ‘obvious in retrospect’ moments.

Design Ambiguity In

Variable readouts provide an ever-present and exact readout of some game variable that’s otherwise unknowable. It’s typical that placeholder UI is therefore numeric, specific, and persistent:


In contrast, final game UI often trades-off high specificity for rapid legibility: e.g. health bars instead of health numbers. It’ll use approximations of distance, time, or cool-down. And show information only while relevant to decision-making.

Embrace Non-Visual Feedback Early

One of the easiest ways to get information out from ‘behind the curtain’ is to print text to screen. This really biases teams toward visual and alphanumeric presentation of information. Video games are primarily a visual media; a fair amount of the ‘experience of play’ can be defined by what the player looks at on the screen. So it’s important to control which attention-grabbing activities are permitted to be shown.

Start With Less

I propose that it is a greater risk associated with presenting too much information than presenting too little with your early prototype. Especially if most of that information is in text.

Get Everyone On Equal Footing

Like Neo in The Matrix, there are going to be some folks in-studio who can ‘see the code’ as they’re playing, to their benefit during play-sessions. Hopefully your internal play-sessions are including a wide variety of devteam members, including those that are not technically involved with the ins-and-outs of the project.

A Layer of Lies & Illusions

As noted above, debug is meant to be accurate; by definition then it’s also meant to be true. But certainly there is a place for lies and half-truths in displayed information.

Toggle Everything Off

Ensure you’ve got the ability to quickly turn off any technical readouts once you’re seeking feedback on ‘fun’.

Eye-Tracking Can Reveal UI Usage

The ability to see where players are affixing their eyes in real-time is transformative for understanding how players use UI-heavy games. Eye-tracking has even been used to train eSports professionals to manage their attention and minimise ‘poor’ gaze behaviour.

So, Which Was Fun?

Thinking back to the playsessions I’d seen affected by debug text, the team were left with a stark question: Which game was fun? The game design they had imagined, or the stat-heavy game living inside it?

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