What Is Games ‘User Experience’ (UX) and How Does It Help?

What is UX?

User Experience (UX) is a particular discipline of design, centred around the psychology of the end-user — or in gamedev’s case, the player — and their behaviours, thinking processes and capabilities. UX is part of a large toolkit used to ensure the experience that you’ve designed is truly reflected in the mind of your player. It applies a true knowledge of players’ behaviours and thinking processes, and couples it with data-collection, an iterative design process, and many types of testing with real players.

UX is where the science of the player meets the art of game design.

Everyone on your gamedev team is a designer, not just those with ‘design’ in their job title. Seemingly small choices made by every one of the team will impact how the game experience manifests in players. A programmer choosing a UI grid layout over a list, or a legal department demanding that players absolutely must scroll to the bottom of the EULA to proceed, or a voiceover artist choosing which words to emphasise in a spoken tutorial prompt. Each small choice could have minimal or monstrous implications on the players’ holistic experience. But we can be detached from the true impact of our choices; there are just so many to make.

UX helps make better games.

Why is UX needed? Can’t we just be more thorough?

It is extremely difficult to remain objective about things we’ve crafted ourselves, or things we’re extremely familiar with. We can easily become oblivious to causes of disparities between the design of our game and real player’s’ actual experience of our game. This can damage our games; the fun that we know exists might not be resolved in our players.

How does UX help the team?

Why might players not ‘find the fun’ in our game?

In crafting a game you’re having to constantly guess how players might think, perceive, learn and react, in order to inform the design of the game and how it communicates itself to players: “I think a player would see that ‘enemy nearby’ feedback and head in the opposite direction”. There are many innocent reasons for these guesses to be wrong, and for the players’ thoughts and actions to undesirably differ to your intent.

  • Designing instructions, prompts and ‘onboarding’ non-expert players to your mechanics is difficult because you’re an expert in the game. There is a risk that players ‘don’t get it’, or tutorials becoming heavy-handed.
  • Designing games suitable for players who aren’t like you (such as children, novice or casual players) risks incorrect assumptions about that audience unduly influencing your design discussions. There is a risk you’re making a game for no one.
  • Because players are unskilled at rationalising and explaining their emotions, and they won’t appreciate the experiential intent for the game, their verbatim reactions risk diluting or misguiding the project’s intent. Focus groups, or asking people “is this fun, would you buy this?” is not the answer.
  • It is hard to appreciate the bigger picture of a game build once the individual features and components start to come together. Justifying saying NO to features or ideas is incredibly difficult without this big picture view, risking feature-creep.
  • Studios can find it hard to balance attention between what the development team consider interesting to make versus what matters most to players, if they lack a confident, player-centric voice in studio leadership.

How can we overcome these issues?

To mitigate these risks we need a someone in the team that:

  • …truly understands how different player audiences perceive, think, and learn
  • …knows means of engaging real players to gather specific, trustworthy feedback
  • …can assess player’s experience with game mechanics both piece-by-piece, and as a holistic whole
  • …can take responsibility for the player-centric process right from the beginning of development
  • Games User Researcher, charged with running playtests and research sessions with real players
  • Data Scientist, who captures player behaviour through game analytics and evaluates for insight
  • UX Leadership, a Director-level voice for player-centrism in process and studio culture

What does UX do, exactly?

UX is both a body of knowledge and a series of formal processes. Each team uses these differently, depending on the core competencies of the studio, the game genre, the development stage, the challenges that define the project, and so on. We’ll go through each development phase in turn to outline the UX tasks, and how they overcome the risks above. No matter what genre, scale or business model — even on live games — the same UX processes apply.

OK, we have an idea!

As a game design pillars crystallize around specific ideas and prototypes, teams need increasingly focused feedback and contributions to the specifics of the project: iteratively informing design choices and then assessing them using playtests and research methods. A focus on up-front iteration and informing prototypes avoids having to double-back later in development.

Your player-base is diverse, dynamic, and dissimilar to you.

Where does player feedback fit in?

Games are complex, and some flaws will slip through into code. The team will likely be too close to the project to see them, so instead we’ll need to leverage real players’ perspective.

By trying to break potential UX issues into layers we can start to explore them in isolation.

But what about emotions? Can we measure those too?

Once smaller pieces of the project come together, teams move onto the bigger questions: is our game fun?

Asking loaded, leading or mal-timed questions can lead to ‘bad data’
Players can lack the language, introspection and experience we take for granted in ourselves; teams shouldn’t rely only on players’ verbatim responses to inform design

A Culture of Informed Iteration

Together, UX Designers, Games User Researchers and Data Scientists work with teams round-and-round the production loop. Each has a particular voice, harmonising to refine implementation of the design intent; they’ll prevent and diagnose flaws, using quantitative and qualitative approaches, bringing together fine detail and big data. Each of their perspectives is required; omitting any one may lead to an uninformed conclusion.

What happens if we don’t bother with UX feedback?

Without actively steering a studio toward this kind of knowledge-seeking and feedback-gathering culture, teams aren’t empowered to seek it themselves. Without a leadership voice calling for these check-ins, they’re eschewed in favour of just getting on with it. This is understandable: the prospect of re-doing hard work, or teams learning that their best work isn’t being experienced-as-intended, isn’t pleasant.

Whom should we make responsible for ‘good UX’?

The short answer is: everyone. Every individual contributor to a project leaves some mark on the experience of the player, be that aurally, visually, mechanically or otherwise. All Developers are creators, and all are responsible for the impact of their work on the players’ experience.

It never feels like the right time to ‘test’ the game, until it is too late…

In Summary

Games User Experience is a discipline of science and design for overcoming the difficulties in making games that deliver on their experiential intent. It uses formalised processes and job roles to discover flaws in a game’s design and its means of communicating itself to the player. UX leverages a body of academic knowledge on designing for humans than spans decades of study, across many domains.

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