Ella Romanos & Martin Darby on why UX design can make or break your game

Why good user experience design in games is no longer a luxury

[Ella Romanos is the CEO of Remode and former programmer and UX designer. Martin Darby is the CCO of Remode and the company’s game director and designer. www.remodestudios.com]

It used to be simple. In the 1980s, most games were played on arcade machines or early iterations of consoles. The game mechanics and the design were straightforward out of necessity – the limited graphics and computing power wouldn’t allow for much else.

From 1990s onwards, game play shifted to PCs and games became more complicated, like The Sims, Command & Conquer and Dune II, encouraging deep engagement from the player. Over the last few years, things became even more complex as players moved online and genres such as MMOs evolved.

While hardcore PC and console gamers remain enthusiasts who are likely to dedicate themselves to a game, newer platforms online and on mobile are more available to casual gamers, who want quick access, convenience, and as little upfront commitment as possible before being able to enjoy and feel rewarded by their experience. For these gamers, user experience (UX) design will make or break a game, and while all games can benefit from better UX design, this is particularly the case with UI heavy genres like MMOs, sims, strategy games and social games.

What is UX and why is it important?

UX design is neither game design nor UI design. It’s a separate but intrinsically linked role, because it holds UI and game design together, providing the glue for the game you are making. It should be the starting point for any game design, and the blueprint from which everything else is created. Just as you would get an architect, not a builder to design your building, so a UX designer is comparable to an architect, creating a user journey for the player. And just like the most effective architectural planning, the best UX design is the one where the user doesn’t even notice it, removing any friction between the player and the fun they’re having with the game.

The challenge of UX design is that simplicity is complicated. UX design involves several steps, the key ones being:

  1. Defining project goals and user needs
  2. Functional specification (key feature breakdown)
  3. Interaction design (user flow diagrams)
  4. Interface design (wireframes)
  5. Visual design (created by a 2D/UI artist, from the wireframes)

Most of the research and processes for UX have been developed outside of the games industry, primarily in web and software development. Having come from a web background, we brought these processes to our game development process naturally, not quite realising that it wasn’t the norm in our industry. We still use web UX books and resources to train our staff, as there is very little about UX design directly related to games.

There are now companies like Player Research, who offer brilliant user research services and playtesting. The work that they do supports and enhances your UX design process, but does not replace it. If you can afford to hire a company like Player Research, we highly recommend it, having worked with them ourselves, but this article focuses on the UX process that you can implement in your own studio.

Effective UX design: what you need to know

1. UX design takes a different mindset, and skillset, to game design. That is not to say a game designer cannot be a UX designer, but being good at game design does not necessarily equate to being good at UX design. UX design is definitive; it produces a blueprint from which to develop the game system. By comparison game design is open-ended and requires iteration as it evolves over the development process. Therefore, UX design should be treated as a separate task to game design, but they need to work closely together to complement and strengthen each other.

2. UX design is not something you bolt on to a good game idea, or do as an afterthought after you do your game design, or create some user flows or wireframes to add into your game design document. It’s a fundamental way of approaching your entire design and production pipeline that starts right from the initial game idea and follows through to release.

3. A UX design process should make your game design documentation better. There is always debate about GDDs being relevant or not. The way we approach game design is to think of the document being made up of two things:

  • The user flows, which come from the UX designer
  • The rule set, which comes from the game designer

The user flows provide the fundamental basis for our GDDs, the rule set is created around that. You can then move onto more detail, like wireframes from the UX designer, which leads into the visual design of the UI (from your UI artist). Creating a GDD this way allows for the rule set to be broadly designed, but allows for iteration and changes during the development process, whilst have a structure to work from that keeps the game focused, reducing risk of scope creep and major flaws in the overall game design.

4. A good UX designer needs to have a certain set of skills and what we refer to as “systems thinking” – an ability to map out complex systems in their head. He or she is the sort of person who uses every day things and gets frustrated if the user experience isn’t quite perfect, whether it’s the fact that light switches are not aesthetic, or that doors that need to be pushed have handles. Your UX designer needs to not just have an extreme attention to detail but also be driven to find the simplest solution to each problem.

5. This brings us to the final point and that is programmers vs UX designers. In one sense, programmers can make great UX designers, and this is how Ella moved into UX design. They can actually be a better fit for the role than game designers, because they have the same problem solving and attention to detail traits. However, there is a natural conflict between what is best for the user, and what is the easiest way to code, which can only be solved if you have two separate entities working from and representing each point of view. The way we approach this is to never allow the same person to program and do UX design on a project, even if they have the ability to do both.

Further reading:

The Elements of User Experience Design – Jesse J Garrett

The Inmates are Running the Asylum – Alan Cooper

The Design of Everyday Things – Donald Norman

How the Mind Works – Steven Pinker

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