You’ve probably heard the words “User Experience” thrown around at some point in your game making or playing experience. So what’s the big deal? Doesn’t game design cover player experience? Yes! It does! But game designers are typically focused on specific areas of a game (mechanics, systems, etc) while a UX designer’s expertise focuses on other areas.
A great way to describe the difference is by analyzing all the different types of game designers that out there: narrative, systems, level, content designers, etc. While each designer acknowledges the importance of the others and works alongside each other, each designer invariably has an expertise and different perspectives that are brought into the creation process. A UX designer is no different; our goal is to make sure the features being created actually make sense for the player. While there are many methods to achieve this, things like usability, clarity, contextualization, “feeling”, and fun all factor as ultimate goals in successful UX practices for game creation.
That being said, it can be hard to actually find games with “good UX” out there. So let’s get into what this UX designer thinks you play to sharpen those UX sensibilities!
Released in 2012, Journey brought an interesting discussion to the forefront as to whether can games be art. Or more precisely, can a game (as we knew the term to be at the time) be categorized as an “experience” instead?
From a game design and usability standpoint, Journey embraces a “less is more” mentality that doesn’t negatively affect the game’s “feel”. The game’s whole goal is as simple as reaching the top of the mountain. There is no dialogue but its dense in story. You can play with others but there is no voice options except for a simple “chirp”. The plot itself is completely open to interpretation. But the way the game designers achieved this brilliant game involves a flurry of emotions unlike any game I’ve ever experienced. And it does so by adhering to one of UX’s guiding principles:
Good UX is invisible.
Your health meter is not a clunky, persistent HUD element. Rather, it’s literally your scarf. A piece of your scarf falls off whenever you receive damage. Your scarf becomes longer whenever you gain more health. There’s no persistent map on your screen, but rather the environment and camera angles let you know the direction you should head towards. Did you truly get lost in the middle of the desert? Look for the guiding light at the top of the mountain. Do you need to unlock or acquire something in order to proceed? Those items flash, have a specific color, or move in a specific pattern to let you know you need it. All of these UI elements fall under diegetic design wherein the UI is of the world itself. The player receives all the same feedback needed to progress through the game, but its part of their surroundings and its narrative rather than bar hanging at the top of your screen.
Music is an often-overlooked element when thinking about UX, but Journey‘s soundtrack and sound effects are likely the most important UX elements in the whole game. It completely ties together the experience in a beautiful bow, ready for you to cry over.
If you’re the type to ponder on what games can become, definitely give this one a playthrough.
Pro-tip: Complete the story several times to experience how the UI changes.
2. Persona 5
Disclaimer: I have an intense love/hate relationship with this game. More about that in a bit.
Want to play a game that bleeds personality? Where every screen has been perfectly curated and thought through? Where every single UI element feels like it’s responsive and alive? Like a living comic book? Persona 5 is the one you wanna check out.
This game’s unique UI is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. For a JRPG, it handles contextual information quite well. Animations from state to state tie it together amazingly. Every moment and decision you make through the UI and menus feel special, fresh, and new.
However, there are severe drawbacks to this type of visual system (see my disclaimer). Clarity and recognition are greatly impacted by its sheer busyness. One of UX’s principles is to make sure a user can easily identify what action they need to take in order to complete a task. They also need to be able to quickly recognize how to complete that action again without assistance, which reduces recall and cognitive load. Persona 5 struggles with these cases.
This game is both an example of how far you can push your UI and systems, but also a reminder to make sure those visuals don’t negatively affect your players.
3. Detroit: Become Human
One of the most important tools for a UX designer is not the ability to create complex wireframes, but rather our innate ability to empathize. Without empathy, a UX designer can’t properly do their job. We need to be able to put ourselves in our player’s shoes and advocate for our players in every step of the creation process. And lucky for you – my dear reader – empathy can be a trained like a muscle.
Consider Detroit: Become Human your personal coach. The game itself is set in a future where actual humans live alongside very human-looking androids. So “human” in fact, some are exhibiting signs of actual consciousness. And like most societies real and imagined, fighting for rights isn’t as easy as saying “please”.
In the game you play as several characters, each displaying tell-tale desires to exist and be acknowledged. Like most narrative-based games, you decide what actions these characters take via quick-time events and narrative choices. The way these actions are presented from a UX and UI standpoint are incredibly minimalistic and clean (remember, “less is more”) but also ties into the game’s overall aesthetic. It leverages spatial design; much of the UI is inside the world itself but not necessarily part of it. Therefore most interactions are very contextual to the player’s actions in the world itself.
As a player you know exactly the choice in front of you and you feel like these choices affect you as well. That’s where empathy comes in: if you can identify with a non-existant character and consider what actions would be the best outcome for that character, then you can start doing the same for your players. You’d be taking your first steps into a more conscious UX game making perspective.
Trading card games have a very special place in my heart, with Magic the Gathering being my first love. However, we can’t deny that – up to this point – most digital versions of TCGs have been… uh… lacking.
Enter Hearthstone! This one became a game-changer for anyone thinking of making a card-based game. So much so its UX has become a best practice for the genre (…for now).
The real winning achievement is how it communicates its different states to the player. As someone who has played MTG for years, one of the things that can become daunting is how many actions, statuses, and effects are affecting the field as well as you and your opponents. Hearthstone makes all this information easily accessible, visible, and available to the player at all times.
One learning I would take away from Hearthstone is how important accessibility is when designing. Green and red are clear indications of positive and negative stat effects… unless you’re colorblind. *Womp* When designing both UX and UI, make sure you can clearly recognize status effects regardless of color. Leverage layout, placement, animation, size, shape, and other factors before color. If you absolutely must use color then stick to blues, yellows, whites, and blacks. Simple, small decisions like this can make your game more inclusive to a wider range of players.
5. Toca Boca Games
If you are interested in the game industry, particularly if you want to work in games, I highly suggest looking at games and apps outside your “comfort zone”. There are learnings in every product – both physical and digital – you interact with.
Toca Boca is a company that focuses on children’s games and experiences. While some of their games can lean towards the educational side, many of their products focus on expression and creativity. But one of the things that sets it apart from other children’s games is its normalized approach to diversity and inclusivity.
We, as humans, suffer from cognitive biases. Just as how I explained that empathy is an integral part of being a UX designer, so is calling out biases by default. While the game industry is improving, the fact remains that most interactions in-game are with main characters that are of a specific demeanor or skin-tone. Changing the dialogue around this one percieved “way of being” can be challenging. But experiences like the ones Toca Boca creates makes it clear that there’s more than one type of person or way of being. They found a way to normalize a supposedly contentious topic. If a child’s game can do this in a fun and simple way, why can’t we with our more complex systems, features, and stories?
Now go out there and play some games!