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More often than not, 2D and 3D games markup interactive NPCs (and objects) with the exclamation mark symbol. Typically yellow. But of course, sometimes it's an "i" or a small cloud, or other interaction-appropriate symbols of well standing out colors. Could be even vibrant or animated. The goal is clear - to indicate what can should be interacted and what not.

I'm adding such feature to my RTS game and I'm wondering what is this symbol/element usually called?

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P.S. Somewhat similar to What is the name for the little numbers that appear over characters' heads when they lose health?

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2 Answers 2

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Disclaimer

There is no canonical name as far as I'm aware. So, instead I will provide terms that I hope will be useful for you.

And while I cannot provide a definitive source these terms, I do not claim to have come up with them, instead that I have picked them from assets, tools, and other developers.

So, feel free to take my answer as hearsay. In fact, I invite you to search the terms and decide if you will use them for yourself.

In that order of ideas, I shall point out that "Dialogue Marker" has other meanings aside from the one I give below, including the icon used to indicate that you must press a button to advance a dialogue.

Also, if you search the terms "Quest Marker" will give you mostly icons and models, similarly "Status Marker" will yield status tokens for tabletop games, but for the other look for tools that use them, since they don't yield many visual results.


Overhead Marker vs Quest Marker

The most general term for some visual element floating above the head of a character is Overhead Icon, although I prefer Overhead Marker because the other related terms are also called Markers.

However, even more popular is the term is Quest Marker, but they are not limited to be over the head of characters (they might mark places or items too, and might appear in maps or other navigation aids). Also you might want to place other things over the head of characters that are unrelated to quests.

So there is overlap between Overhead Marker and Quest Marker.


Other kinds of Markers

Aside from Quest Marker, these are the related terms that I can find:

  • Overhead Marker: An icon floating above the head of a character. In general.
  • Status Marker: visual elements either floating above the head of a character or below its feet, which tells you something about the current status of said character. These also include nameplates (floating text), health bars, status effect icons, and active selection indicators. And yes, I'm counting The Sim's Plumbob as an example.
  • Dialogue Marker: An icon floating above the head of a character, that tells you that the character has something to say. A common example is an speech balloon icon. Sometimes an information icon (an "i") or interrogation if they give you instructions about an active quest. And some games also have a dedicated icon for shops. Plus the popular exclamation mark for quest givers (which is a Quest Marker too).
  • Interaction Marker: An icon floating above the head of a character or above an item to indicate that an special interaction is available.
  • Waypoint Marker: An icon that might appear in maps or other navigation aids, and also on the terrain, to indicate a location for the player to reach. *Usually an arrow or map pin icon.

So a particular Dialogue Marker, Interaction Marker, or Waypoint Marker, could also be Quest Marker if it is indicating something that is part of a quest.

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The general category is context-sensitive user interface. In Scott Roger's book "Level Up" he calls them context-sensitive prompts:

an icon or symbol that appears when the player is next to an object or character with which it interacts.

The ! symbol is sometimes referred to as a pling in slang (Commonwealth Hackish) and with respect to use in video game UI:

In massively multiplayer online (MMO) games such as World of Warcraft, an exclamation mark hovering over a character's head is often used to indicate that they are offering a quest for the player to complete.

Scott Rogers also use the term pling stating that they used plings and pling variants as:

emoticons that told the player when they couldn't do an action as well as when they could

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    \$\begingroup\$ For the record, "pling" came from Acorn Computers. It's how they referred to the ! character in RISC OS. \$\endgroup\$
    – Basic
    May 2, 2023 at 16:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Wouldn't the first definition mean that an exclamation mark over the NPCs head would only be a "context-sensitive" prompt if it only appears when the player is within interaction range and disappears when the player is not? \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    May 3, 2023 at 9:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Philipp Yes, strictly speaking that seems to be what the first definition implies. FWIW, I have the 1st edition & I'm not sure if that section was revised in later editions. Based on the more common use, I would reword it to "near" instead of next to; i.e. an NPC at a distance that supports the context of (approaching for) conversation has a ! whereas an NPC at a greater distance doesn't. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pikalek
    May 3, 2023 at 20:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ In most of the games I've played those markers were not "context-sensitive", they were more of a "point of interest" kind of thing (visible from all distances, not changing dynamically to context, etc. Most of the context-sensitivity I can recall was "marker is new" (bright yellow) vs "marker was clicked once, quest taken, reward collected" (grey and dissapear). \$\endgroup\$
    – Kromster
    May 4, 2023 at 4:38

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