Video games being interactive entertainment sources are showing an ever-growing economic impact on our society and are changing the field of marketing, design, and social best practices for years to come. The Y Generation might become the first “life-gaming” age group with its peers having witnessed the birth and rise of video games and their impact on players’ mechanical, social and mental skills. The gaming industry has been evolving with leaps over the last few years and the AAA titles are built on the solid discovery of Usability and Engage-ability, important factors we have crossed paths with in the world of UX design. In the following lines I will attempt to unveil the secret of building a polished User eXperience in game design and elaborate on their possible real-world applications.
Before we venture any deeper, first we must understand one of the fundamental reasons why people play video games. Studying the psychological drive that makes people play and compete in the digital world can very well be the answer to light up that passion towards a digital or physical product.
Invest in Cognitive Science
A widely accepted approach to understanding the pull of video games is the Self-Determination Theory or SDT for short. Studies show that motivations of players surface in the following areas: Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness. Being a macro theory of human motivation and personality in relation with innate psychological needs and concerns for growth, this theory may very well be applied to non-gaming related applications and complex digital products as well.
Top game devs know their audience like no other sector does, so understanding the pull of video games and the closely connected Self-Determination Theory is pretty important when aiming to go big in the gaming industry. The biggest gaming franchises, apart from a simply richer storyline and more immersive gameplay, have put tremendous effort in studying the human psyche in order to quench the excessive thirst for “power” among gamers.
A sense of Autonomy can be achieved by allowing players to act on their own behalf in their digital runway, wander off the beaten track, personalise a profile and show off their own personality through a plethora of cosmetic items – which is also the main way of financing a couple of the most successful competitive games, such as League of Legends, Fortnite, DotA 2 and Hearthstone. These Free 2 Play (F2P) models use Autonomy as a powerful tool to achieve such feats as acquiring the biggest competitive prize pools for esports in the case of DotA 2, which has grown from 1.6 million dollars to over 30 million in 2019 – a huge jump in the span of 9 years with the help of community in-game purchases. Every year, 25% of in-game purchases during a 90 day period go towards this pool, meaning players have spent 100 millions of dollars yearly on in-game cosmetics.
In F2P games players spend tremendous amounts on in-game content, not only to simply have their character be more original or but also to represent their persona. Many players “dress up” their favorite character and add a sense of competence to it, a feeling of expertise regarding that particular character. No change in the actual knowledge about the game, still a huge boost to competence just at the click of a button and a couple of dollars.
In other games, such as Role-Playing Games like World of Warcraft, Competence comes through progression. Players might not gradually advance mechanically, but levelling up means unlocking new skills and having access to more in-game activities and as such enabling a deeper, more immersive experience. Players look forward to and expect these actions, helped by a visual indicator, the progress bar. Many applications feature such a progress bar with much success, helping to measure users’ expertise in a field used or enabled by aforementioned digital goods.
But what good are such measurements if they can not be presented to our friends and foes? And so we arrive at the third corner of the triangle, Relatedness. There are better ways of forming and reinforcing bonds than bragging and showing off our past achievements, players however often seek acknowledgement of their peers through these channels. Also, in many online games there are different roles that can be filled by players, helping them to solidify their presence and allow them to become a useful part of a mission grander than themselves.
For more complex projects it serves certainly as a great foundation to put some footwork in researching cognitive sciences and using them to a great extent, there are some great tips game designers use though, that can help any design, no matter the size.
Since gaming in general is not a linear activity (such as watching a movie) users can get tired real fast depending on the amount of choices they have to make in any given time. So in order to help with making good choices and being able to use products seamlessly it is of utmost importance for designers to reduce cognitive loads.
Signs and Feedback
Not only does a unified iconography and constant feedback reduce the mental effort necessary to play the game, but it also supports the creation of a compelling gameplay so that the users can enter a state of flow. One of the main appeals of video games is the immersion effect and the biggest challenge in game design is the gameplay itself. It needs to be continuous and have real-time back and forth interactions with the user.
Games are all about the experience after all, interacting with users on the deepest emotional level, giving them feedback about their actions and making them part of the narrative. It is similar to a great book with a well written story and characters, or a movie with a great plot with the only difference being that it makes you, as the user, part of the world and as such makes the whole experience interactive and immersive. This is also exactly why gamification can prove to be such a powerful tool in business and I’m not just talking about the points and virtual cookies that you can collect by achieving milestones.
Feedback in games exists in various ways. A couple of examples would be levelling up in any sort of video game, which comes with a flashy animation and more often than not a sound queue to pair it with. In any sort of game there is feedback on our progress of a goal we are trying to achieve for easy tracking. An audio queue in the competitive esport game DotA 2 gives us feedback on a successful stacking action – which will help to increase the available resources on the map and as such will put our team in a more favourable position. Some professional players I have talked with over the years have admitted not even giving thought to many of the actions they do because of the seamless interaction through proper feedback (and naturally the thousands of invested hours and muscle memory that has developed over the course of time). Feedback is often exaggerated in video games and is called game ‘juice’ by designers – it can really hype up players that are getting acknowledged by the system and as such have particles flying all over the place, screen shakes and other physical interactions more often than not.
The signs used in games are another great addition to player experience. Celia Hodent who is a UX strategist at Epic Games with a background in psychology has shared a great chunk of her experiences from working on the game that has millions of kids under its influence – Fortnite. Proper feedback and signs played an important role in achieving a market dominant position. Just a little change, such as the icon for a weapon (the trap used to look like spikes next to each other and were then formed into something that resembles a bear-trap) in the game or the available ammo has had great effect on the users’ experience and have solidified their perception of knowledge regarding the game.
Feedback about having no mana or resources, needing a certain item for activation, or a certain level, cracking the code, achieving a rampage (defeating 5 players alone)… These can be all translated into real life actions that we aren’t able to do just yet. Just to think of a few, maybe our profile level is not high enough; maybe we don’t have enough currency on the platform; we need to order a starter package first; we have made an order and are awaiting confirmation; we contacted support and are awaiting answer; we have won a prize; we were the fastest to do a certain action in the app or on the website. The list is endless and the more our signs have a meaning to our users and the more our feedback is present in scenarios we expect them to be, the more our users will feel that they are not just browsing a website or using an application but actually having a 2 side conversation… a connection.
Truly Responsive Design
When it comes to responsive design, most people would point at websites that automatically adjust for different screen sizes, reshaping the content in a way, using different letter sizes, imagery, etc. A design that looks good on all screens. If we take a look at how game designers think about Responsive Design, however, we will see the importance of not only the size of the screen but the type of situation users are in.
We can differentiate between leaned in and leaned out interactions, where the former features players with ample time – mostly on a desktop or console immersed in the virtual world, focused on gameplay, while the latter would mean a user on a mobile using public transport or just chilling on a beanbag on a lousy Saturday afternoon watching some video content or playing a less competitive game. But when it comes to these differences, we should note that a number of games can be played from both mobile and desktop and responsiveness truly shines in these cases. The aim is creating a responsive experience.
Browsing a webpage or using a desktop application doesn’t necessarily use a lot of keystrokes in everyday use. With games on the other hand, the mobile counterpart of a desktop or console title can greatly vary in the number of different controls a user has access to due to the simple nature of any mobile interface where you can either drag, swipe or simply tap on the screen in order to connect with elements on it.
Taking a look at the widely popular shooter game, Fortnite, we can see that the Mobile UI shows the layout of controls with a reduced opacity and reduces the size of information such as building resources, the minimap and even health bar. The desktop counterpart has a higher emphasis on both resources and health bar in the middle. Even though they had to reduce space taken up by information, Epic Games did a fantastic job porting their 100 man Battle Royale to a handheld device while keeping the screen decluttered and allowing the players to experience a similar user experience to that on a console or a PC.
Some developers like Blizzard had multiple platforms in mind already on the drawing board. This way they created a successful game with tiny changes in both UX and UI that can be enjoyed both on mobile devices on the go and maybe a longer, stretched out game session on desktop.
Going into the design phase with a clear vision of what platforms we are going to use for our product not only saves time and money but also sets us on a track to success. During the design process it might be interesting to ask ourselves the question: “When and in what context will my users browse my website or application?” The answer to that question might just save us a lot of headache and wasted money by providing a clear picture of how our users would use the product and what they can absorb in that particular state and timeframe.
Closing and Takeaway
As we can see game designers are constantly thinking about the state of their players. What situation will my user be in when using my product – how much time will he or she spend with my game at a certain time? Is my user in front of the computer and does he or she have ample time to be completely immersed or on the go, taking a break from everyday hustle?
Being the user of one’s own product is also really powerful and we know for a fact that the majority of game designers also play games themselves and as such are keen on improving areas that aren’t as intuitive as imagined and have power to do so. Becoming aware of what makes our users tick will help us create products and services that they won’t just use but that will also play a significant role in their lives, help them achieve within or outside our product a goal they’ve set; make their lives easier in any way and so on.
Signs are used in order to create a safe space for users, not letting them accidentally delete their whole collection for example, so we need to be sure that crucial information is displayed and highlighted. Feedback is in place so that users understand where they are, what the state of their progress is and generally to make their time more enjoyable by acknowledging actions they have done.
With game design advancing at this rapid pace we might take some time and think about ways of enhancing user retention at this scale in a market that is constantly evolving but has had the same goal since its inception: let users feel Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness but most importantly: Joy.