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.