GameDev Thoughts: A Look At User Experience Design

Back before UX designers were considered “separate” from other types of designers, all UX design was done by those same designers that were actually designing the game. Some of these designers inherently knew what they were doing, but others simply couldn’t grasp the concept regardless of how hard they tried. As it turns out, UX design is incredibly important to every game and having that job laid upon those who should be spending time coming up with mechanics rather than their presentation will just turn out poor. Before we go on, it’s important to know what “user experience” actually is. Simply put, the UX is how the players learn necessary mechanics and how that information is conveyed to them. A game with poor UX design will often feel clunky and detached, but a game with great UX design will feel very smooth and connected.

Now that that’s out of the way, UX designers require three vital pieces of information in order to do their job correctly: The game’s audience, the game’s design overall, and the game’s planned platforms. Knowing your game’s audience is important as you often can’t have your designs speak equally to young kids and older adults; both groups look at things differently and focus on different things, so you have to consider that. In terms of knowing how the game is designed overall, without that, you can’t possibly think that you can simplify the experience without knowing how that impacts the game! Finally, knowing the game’s platforms is important as something like mobile vs. PC involves a very different set of UX design elements. For example, buttons on a mobile screen must be easily tapped and also not cause your hands to get in the way, and buttons on a PC can often be smaller and out of the way to allow your game to use the entire screen effectively.

While the method to “fix” any UX problems will vary, it’s important to find those solutions regardless. Even the simplest of UX improvements can drastically improve a game. For example, you might be familiar with the little circular shadows that are often below your characters in games. This little circle, despite literally just being a circle on the ground, is critical in lots of games. For platformers especially, that circle gives players a much better sense of depth perception than they would otherwise have. Imagine playing Super Mario 64 without that little circle below Mario; when you jumped into the air, you’d have almost no idea of where exactly you were going to land, and you might mistime jumps simply because you weren’t certain of how close to the edge you were. It’s up to UX designers to find ingenious solutions like the drop shadow that will make the players’ experience not one of frustration, but rather an enjoyable one.

Unfortunately, there are cases where some UX problems are simply unfixable, and this comes down to a problem with the design of a mechanic rather than elements of the user experience. When this situation arises, you have to go about performing the most difficult task a designer has to go through: telling the designers to change their design. UX designers have to make sure that designer ideas can be converted into something understandable by the players, and even if it involves informing your other designers to change some mechanic, it has to be done. After all, even if the idea is incredible, if it can’t be presented effectively it’ll be brushed aside by players if it distracts or confuses players.

Important Takeaways: UX design is critical in making a game play well for your players. Before dedicated user experience designers, this job fell on game designer or artists and only a fraction were capable of effectively creating it. This just doesn’t work as UX designers require lots of information that a specialized designer won’t have, particularly in the other elements of the game’s design besides their specialty. A UX designer should always know the game’s target audience, every piece of its design, and it’s planned platforms. Elements will be designed differently based on the varying views of kids vs. adults and a myriad of other factors, so knowing the plan is critical. If a UX designer doesn’t know about every part of the game, they risk some of their designs becoming worse due to incompatibilities. Finally, menu elements will often be designed much differently depending on platform, e.g. mobile vs. PC, so that is something to consider as well. UX designers need to go about finding the best solutions possible for the pieces of game design at hand; one ingenious example is the small circular shadow below characters that silently helps with depth perception and is in almost every game in some form or another nowadays. There will be cases in which the UX can’t be easily remedied with a quick fix, and this may require key gameplay mechanics to be redesigned as a whole.

GameDev Protips: How To Use Strategic Uncertainty To Design A Better Game

Strategic uncertainty is at the core of any good strategy game, and a strategy game without it is more appropriately called a pure puzzle game. This is the term for the events or circumstances in gameplay (that vary) that require the player to adapt their strategy to overcome it. As mentioned before, if there is no strategic uncertainty in a strategy game’s gameplay, then there will be an optimal strategy that can be “solved” and utilized consistently. Now, what else should we be considering with this concept?

First, you should ensure that you’re introducing strategic uncertainty, to begin with, and know how to introduce it if you haven’t already. As previously mentioned, a strategy game is simply a puzzle if there is no strategic uncertainty, so how can we convert a puzzle into a strategy game if we’ve already gone down that road? One move that’s almost universally a good idea is to have at least some of your AI players become capable of using bold or abnormal moves. Even if their moves are technically “bad,” a curveball play from the AI can force the player to adapt and remedy the problem of a predictable AI. Once that’s done with, you can consider adding some one-off events that occur occasionally. These walk a very fine line, as if you create something that can destroy strategies, you risk losing players. As a result, these events should generally be positive events that may nudge a player towards a different playstyle or negative events that can be responded to without completely destroying their work. An example of the former would be providing extra ways for a military ruler to negotiate peacefully with other players, and an example of the latter would be forcing the player to decide how to deal with an environmental disaster, be it through improving eco-habits, abandoning the environment altogether, or some other plan of action.

Next, make sure any strategic uncertainty included in your game is careful balanced towards the end. There’s a good chance you’re familiar with the “victory march” towards the end of strategy games such as Civilization. You’ve gotten ahead of your opponents and it’s just a matter of time before you win due to cascading advantages. This occurs because of a lack of strategic uncertainty in the late game. Most minor events introduced at this stage can simply be ignored by a winning player, and any major uncertainties that get introduced have a good chance of frustrating the player and causing them to quit if you crash their previously working strategy into a brick wall. While the methods to deal with this will vary, if you notice that your game has a victory march at the end, make sure your uncertainties are having enough of an effect.

Finally, it’s important to distinguish uncertainty from randomness. Uncertainty is simply related to the player not knowing what’s coming up next, such as having unknown information about surrounding land or army formations. Randomness, while capable of being called uncertainty, cannot be planned for. Even in the case of uncertainty, you can build a strategy that can adapt to the circumstances, but randomness may result in something entirely off point that contradicts any reasonable deduction you could make. It’s a case of playing dice with chess instead of chess with dice; one has strategy elements in it that a player can abuse, but the other, while still having some strategy elements in it, relies heavily on luck, meaning players are at the will of their rolls.

Important Takeaways: Strategic uncertainty is critical for any strategy game, as one without it is better termed a puzzle game. If you aren’t forced to adapt your plans, optimal strategies will be abused once they’re found. Always make sure you’re introducing strategic uncertainty, be it through your AI or through gameplay. In addition, pay careful attention to strategic uncertainty in the endgame, as the biggest reason for the “victory march” in the endgame is strategic uncertainty being too weak to influence a winning player’s decision making. Finally, make sure you’re not confusing uncertainty with randomness. While uncertainty can be introduced through randomness, randomness often can’t be planned for as it’ll defy any reasonable conclusions that can be made from the information that you have; you’re not being strategic if you just get lucky, but you’re being strategic if you can manipulate your chances of getting that same reward.

GameDev Protips: Five Simple Techniques That Will Legitimately Skyrocket Your Productivity

There can be a huge difference between being busy and being productive, so how can we shift our business into productivity? Here are a few techniques that will assist the effort to do so, but keep in mind that these won’t be catch-alls; if one doesn’t work for you personally, try something else.

First off, try using the Pomodoro technique. The concept is simple, really, and is something you’ve likely seen before in some fashion. The concept is to simply break your work day into specific time boxes, whilst throwing in breaks between each of those blocks. The traditional approach is to work for 25 minutes with 5-minute breaks, repeat a few times, then have a longer break, but anything goes as long as it fits your schedule. The key here is to be disciplined to not cheat the system; it won’t do you any good if you just say “I’ll wait 5 more minutes” or “I’ll just play one more game” every time your break is about to end.

Secondly, consider making a S.M.A.R.T. to-do list. What does S.M.A.R.T. stand? It stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-related. For example, you may have a list item that says “Finish creating and implementing the weapon shot sound effect before noon.” This is good. Saying “make some progress on the next weapon” is not quite.

Third, use a streaking system. This is a system you often see in mobile games today, most recognizable in the form of a daily login bonus that becomes better the longer you go without breaking the streak. The idea is to simply come up with a goal, mark a date on the calendar that you wish to have this goal realized, then use the chain of days between now and that date to motivate you. It sounds silly, but for whatever reason, we seem to find these streaks to be easier to follow and even satisfying to follow, as you’ve probably noticed from those previously mentioned login bonuses. Try it out!

Fourth, use the power of triaging to get things done. This technique is intended to give you something you can focus on and thus effectively spend your time. The technique, summarized briefly, is to collect what has your attention, process what it means, put it where it belongs, review it frequently, and finally, simply do whatever needs to be done. Creating and continually re-evaluating a todo list, sorting by priority and time sensitivity is a great way to make sure that more important tasks get done first, followed by less time-sensitive ones.

Finally, you can look towards creating a truly actionable list by breaking down large tasks into chunks. The idea is that for every interaction, you should be assigning an action. For example, if you’re working on a game, for every potential task you might need to get to finish the game, you should be making a list of actions you will need to take to actually pursue those tasks. Having a list of things to do that you can simply start doing at any given point will definitely help motivate your will to work; if you just need to follow your list, you don’t have to bother with the stress of figuring out what needs to be done that can often shut down your productivity before you’ve even started.

In the end, there is no perfect technique to instantly boost your productivity, but the above are certainly strong possibilities. If they aren’t working for you, try to view them more as frameworks and then you can add your own twists to the frameworks. Once you find something that works, it’s just a matter of sticking to it and iterating on the process.

Important Takeaways: There are lots of techniques that can be used to boost a developer’s productivity. Pomodoro techniques help you avoid burning out on the work that you’re doing. S.M.A.R.T. to-do lists make sure that you have very clearly defined goals that are easy to follow, thus making it easier to start being productive. Breaking down large tasks into smaller chunks is great as well, and is something to focus on which will catalyze your productivity. There is no perfect productivity technique, however, so if none of these work, use them as frameworks and twist them in your own way until they do. Once you’ve found a working technique, you just have to stick with it and you’ll see the results!

GameDev Protips: Five Simple Techniques That Will Legitimately Skyrocket Your Productivity

There can be a huge difference between being busy and being productive, so how can we shift our business into productivity? Here are a few techniques that will assist the effort to do so, but keep in mind that these won’t be catch-alls; if one doesn’t work for you personally, try something else.

First off, try using the Pomodoro technique. The concept is simple, really, and is something you’ve likely seen before in some fashion. The concept is to simply break your work day into specific time boxes, whilst throwing in breaks between each of those blocks. The traditional approach is to work for 25 minutes with 5-minute breaks, repeat a few times, then have a longer break, but anything goes as long as it fits your schedule. The key here is to be disciplined to not cheat the system; it won’t do you any good if you just say “I’ll wait 5 more minutes” or “I’ll just play one more game” every time your break is about to end.

Secondly, consider making a S.M.A.R.T. to-do list. What does S.M.A.R.T. stand? It stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-related. For example, you may have a list item that says “Finish creating and implementing the weapon shot sound effect before noon.” This is good. Saying “make some progress on the next weapon” is not quite.

Third, use a streaking system. This is a system you often see in mobile games today, most recognizable in the form of a daily login bonus that becomes better the longer you go without breaking the streak. The idea is to simply come up with a goal, mark a date on the calendar that you wish to have this goal realized, then use the chain of days between now and that date to motivate you. It sounds silly, but for whatever reason, we seem to find these streaks to be easier to follow and even satisfying to follow, as you’ve probably noticed from those previously mentioned login bonuses. Try it out!

Fourth, use the power of triaging to get things done. This technique is intended to give you something you can focus on and thus effectively spend your time. The technique, summarized briefly, is to collect what has your attention, process what it means, put it where it belongs, review it frequently, and finally, simply do whatever needs to be done. Creating and continually re-evaluating a todo list, sorting by priority and time sensitivity is a great way to make sure that more important tasks get done first, followed by less time-sensitive ones.

Finally, you can look towards creating a truly actionable list by breaking down large tasks into chunks. The idea is that for every interaction, you should be assigning an action. For example, if you’re working on a game, for every potential task you might need to get to finish the game, you should be making a list of actions you will need to take to actually pursue those tasks. Having a list of things to do that you can simply start doing at any given point will definitely help motivate your will to work; if you just need to follow your list, you don’t have to bother with the stress of figuring out what needs to be done that can often shut down your productivity before you’ve even started.

In the end, there is no perfect technique to instantly boost your productivity, but the above is certainly strong possibilities. If they aren’t working for you, try to view them more as frameworks and then you can add your own twists to the frameworks. Once you find something that works, it’s just a matter of sticking to it and iterating on the process.

Important Takeaways: There are lots of techniques that can be used to boost a developer’s productivity. Pomodoro techniques help you avoid burning out on the work that you’re doing. S.M.A.R.T. to-do lists make sure that you have very clearly defined goals that are easy to follow, thus making it easier to start being productive. Breaking down large tasks into smaller chunks is great as well, and is something to focus on which will catalyze your productivity. There is no perfect productivity technique, however, so if none of these work, use them as frameworks and twist them in your own way until they do. Once you’ve found a working technique, you just have to stick with it and you’ll see the results!

GameDev Protips: How To Break Into The Games Industry Without A Recruiter

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to have a billion connections or need to speak to a recruiter of any kind in order to actually break into the game industry. Most of the time, it’s simply a display of your worth through self-motivated work. Of course, a recruiter can help speed up the process, but here are some ways to skip that step and jump straight into making your games.

The first tip is to make games, or show that you know how to make a game. While that might sound like we’re skipping everything in between, it truly is one of the most important things you can do to be hired in the games industry. Even if you complete all of your coursework with perfect grades or manage to graduate with the degrees you need, it won’t matter if you have nothing to show for it in between that proves your worth. Make sure that you’re building up a portfolio that will actually mean something to the people hiring you; degrees might look good, but if you don’t actually appear to be worthy of the degree your employers will simply dismiss them. On a similar note, don’t try to provide an excuse for yourself as to why you can’t make a valid portfolio; most people making excuses will then go to watch television or play games of their own, meaning that they obviously could’ve fit it into their schedule and are simply too lazy to do so.

Secondly, reach out to the people around you. This is a surprisingly rare tactic, despite the fact that it should be something that comes naturally. At your school, or the forums you browse, or anything of the sort, there’s always going to be people at least interested in what you’re doing if they’re not experienced in what you’re looking to do. Just find a few people that click with you and start working on a small project together. After all, the best way to show people that you can make games is to make games.

Honestly, even if you’re not the kind of person to connect with others around you, you should still be looking to make things whenever you can. The more experience you gain, the better, and you’ll show your drive to do what you want to do, which looks good to employers. The most important thing is to at least try. Make some demos, list some concepts, make your animations function; do whatever you can to make something that proves your competence. The progress you make will only foster your desire to make even more progress. The kicker, however, is that you should never give up on these small little projects. Too many people throw away good things because of a tiny roadblock that takes more than a few minutes to fix, or because they’ve found something else they are apparently interested in. There’s a lot of value in finishing things and getting used to how difficult the final stretch of any development cycle is. If you don’t actually finish anything, you won’t learn how worthwhile your extra effort actually is, or be able to plan for it in the future.

There’s no way that you’ll learn to make games without actually trying to make them, and you’ll appear the same to your employers: as someone who can’t make games. The effort and dedication that even simply trying shows is far superior to any kind of merit or academic record, although those aren’t necessarily insignificant. After all, there’s always going to be a few places that’ll judge you immediately based off of that Stanford degree.

The hardest part of your development will always be motivating yourself to finish, so finishing a small project is much more significant than having itty-bitty bits of progress on a massive project, tech demos, or portfolio works. This isn’t to say that these are bad things, but any portfolio without a finished game to show will be at a severe disadvantage. Personally though, I think having at least one finished, polished project, regardless of its platform or format, will trump any other advantage. Even if it’s just a little Tetris clone, it’s a game that you have built from the ground up that is functional and proves your worth.

The final tip is to mentally prepare yourself for actually getting into a development position. The process isn’t just a matter of having a good resume. Oftentimes, the interviews will last for multiple days and ask several exhausting questions. Are you a programmer? What have you shipped? What was your final project as a college student? Have you worked in a collaborative programming environment before? Do you know how to write clean, concise, documented code? If you’re an artist, how does your portfolio look? Do you have a sufficient understanding of the tools you’re using? Can you take direction well? Are you capable of giving constructive feedback? What type of designer are you?

Unfortunately, these are only the easy questions. Even after that, you still often have to manage to demonstrate problem-solving abilities in front of potential coworkers. If not that, a designer might have to talk about their work in the same kind of environment. Even if that’s not the case, a modern interview procedure is to check for grouping compatibility with your potential teammates. Even if you’re not a people-person, if you can’t communicate with your peers effectively, you may lose your chance at the job you would be perfect for.

Important Takeaways: It isn’t necessary to find a recruiter in order to break into the games industry. For the most part, although recruiters speed up the process, you just need to build up experience through making and finishing projects and put those projects into your portfolio to prove your competence. Whether you tackle these challenges solo or with a friend, you have to make sure you’re not making a bunch of little tech demos or anything of the sort. Get something that’s finished and polished out there, as that’s the trump card for determining your viability as a developer. Even after you look good on paper, you have to manage the interviews as well. These will often last for multiple days and test various aspects that are important in the position, such as showing your capability to work with peers or proving that you can clean up your code. While recruiters certainly shorten the process, you can just as easily break into the industry through hard work alone.

GameDev Protips: How To Effectively Combine Multiple Genres In Game Development

Combining different genres together can either be a massive benefit to a game or something that will doom the game. The latter case usually arises as developers blindly try mixing genres they like into one big mess, and it ends up just not being well-executed. There are a few things that should be kept in mind if you do plan on going this route, and they are mentioned below.

The key thing that should be considered when combining genres is if the combination enhances the core of your game or not. Every game is trying to deliver some kind of experience on a basic level. If you mix genres together that cannot effectively deliver that core, your game will suffer massively as a result. One of the most common examples of this is implementing a levelling system into a game where the levelling doesn’t enhance your experience in any way, and either is intended to extend playtime (which is not a consumer-friendly practice), or it’s a carryover from other successful games which simply doesn’t fit in the game in question.

If you truly believe that mixing genres together will enhance your experience, there are a few questions to consider in choosing those genres. You should ask yourself what genres have similar elements and can be used to enhance your game’s core. Taking a look at Plants vs. Zombies and its minigames, you can see that although the main game and some of the mini games are radically different, they both often reinforce the core of problem-solving that Plants vs. Zombies focuses on. If two genres have “interchangeable” mechanics like that, but can still deliver on your experience’s core, it’s likely fine to use the secondary genre. Next, you should look for genres that complement weaknesses in another genre. This could include mixing puzzle games, which are all about having the player overcome some challenge, with traditional RPGs, which have strong narratives but can have a lack of challenge in their battle sequences, which are already somewhat puzzle-y. The point is that you want to create a genre mixture that’s stronger than the sum of its parts and not just haphazardly combining genres that conflict with one another.

Combining genres is often a risky endeavor. If you’re trying something innovative, you won’t really know if your end product will even be successful or not due to the lack of a frame of reference. If you end up combining genres and it doesn’t work out, that game will be doomed from the start and your limited resources will have been wasted. To avoid this, make sure that you know exactly why you’re trying to combine your genres. If you’re looking to combine genres just because it sounds cool in theory, you’re going to make a mistake eventually. You need to really analyze if the genres complement each other and not just jump in blindly if you want to have a chance of success.

Important Takeaways: The process of combining genres can completely ruin a game if performed by an unprepared developer. There are a few things that should always be considered when looking to combine genres. First, make sure that the genres you’re looking to combine actually complement the core of your game. If they don’t, your game will feel clunky and will suffer as a result. Next, see if there are any genres that share similar mechanics that tie into your game effectively. Even if the two genres play much differently in practice, if they both focus on a single principle, such as problem-solving, they’ll combine nicely regardless.

Finally, look to see if there are genres that complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. This could include mixing puzzle games with traditional RPGs. These games have strong stories but relatively straightforward gameplay, and puzzle games often have little to no story but are often quite difficult to play “perfectly.” As you can see, they cover each other’s bases and make for a good genre combination, demonstrated by Puzzle Quest. Combining genres is risky, as a mistake early on is costly to the end product. Make sure you know why you want to combine your genres to avoid mistakes as much as possible.