Game UX Case Study: STEEP’s Onboarding

Nonokolli
8 min readOct 23, 2023

For people who enjoy winter sports, STEEP offers a unique gaming experience with its breathtaking scenery. However, it has received a mix of positive and negatives reviews according to SteamSpy statistics. As I played it through, I also find its onboarding process not as intuitive. Therefore, I decided to put on a UX lens and explore how Steep’s onboarding stage could be better designed and enhanced.

Introduction:

STEEP was released on December 2, 2016, developed by Ubisoft Annecy and features a variety of winter sports, including skiing, snowboarding, paragliding, and wingsuit flying. It attracts a good number of players with its trick system for higher-level techniques, support of multi-player interaction and an open-world setting.

Mastering the techniques is fun, but if it gets too complicated or frustrating before reaching that level, then players might not stay. Thus, ONBOARDING IS KEY, as it gives out a first impression on this game and teaches players with all necessary skills to progress.

Design Process:

During my playthrough, I had some frictions with the onboarding process. One is caused by not able to restart (back to starting point) nor press exit when in the first tutorial, that I had to walk all the way back up, which took around 10 minutes just pressing the button. This gave me a lot of frustration. Afterwards with the following onboarding process, I noticed the visual information not as in their simplest format, which calls on attention to be diverged across different portion of the screen.

Yet, these are my first impressions.

In order to do a fair and comprehensive UX examination, I need to put out a more objective lens to do the review, which started with setting a actionable agenda with the following design methodology.

1) Plan:

The planning stage include defining the project scope, research method, and deciding on the timelines and selected tools. For this project, I spent around one and a half month for the full research and design process.

The research method is game playthrough, mechanism analysis, player journey map, and UI/UX inspection — observation, rating, and report compilation based on 10 Usability Heuristics applied to Video Games from Nielsen Norman Group. I used Miro for heuristic evaluation. Wireframing, designing and prototyping were created using Figma, Adobe Photoshop, and Illustrator.

The scope of this project focuses on STEEP’s onboarding stage, and specifically, the goals are:

  1. To create excitement and curiosity.
  2. To teach the player the rules and mechanics of the game.
  3. To reinforce the player’s learning and encourage continueoues engagement.
Three different stages of player onboarding process

2) Research:

In order to create an ideal game UX experience, I need to clarify who the target audience are and what are they trying to achieve through a game like STEEP. This would help me to know what are the functionality the design requires and what type of UI components to employ.

Using Bartle’s Player Type, I categorized players into two main personas, ACHIEVER and EXPLORER. To be more specific, the Achiever type of players can be further divided into two type: Serious Gamer and Extreme Sports Enthusiast. Both of them share the same trait, which is to challenge themselves, conquer the game and master new technique and tricks. For them, a clear, consistent, and convenient trick/point system is appreciated. They also prefer a wide range of techniques that they can learn and master along the way.

Another audience type is the Casual Player, who enjoys the leisure and relaxation promoted by beautiful scenery, and uninterrupted time. They prefer less stressful tasks, minimalistic design, reduced cognitive load and easy navigations.

Acknowledging those two main type of players, we can know that the main purpose of onboarding is to:

  1. Demonstrate beautiful scenery and experience that player can unlock in the future. Build expectation and emotional connection.
  2. Create easy-to-use, not cognitively demanding user interface with simple and minimalistic instructions.
  3. Introduce players to tricks and controls of each sport type, map, trick system and inventory that they can start with and able to depart from for personal exploration.
Player personas built from Bartle’s Player Type

Current player journey map starts with a video introduction to present the stunning views. It then onboards players through a series of tutorials from wingsuit to snowboard techniques, with introduction to map, binocular and social system (race). It ends with a few more practices and then ends with more tasks for players to explore.

Player journey map from introduction towards the next stage

3) Analysis:

To conduct the UX analysis, I followed Jakob Nielsen’s 10 heuristics applying to Video Games when re-doing the onboarding process. I played through it by myself, also watch other player playing and observed their behaviors. I recorded the place when frictions took place, made observation notes, and marked on a 5-point Likert scale to calculate a final mark.

  • Visibility of system status (80.0/100)
  • Match between system and the real world (88.6)
  • User control and freedom (76.0)
  • Consistency and standards (86.3)
  • Error prevention (100.0)
  • Recognition rather than recall (90.0)
  • Flexibility and efficiency of use (93.3)
  • Aesthetic and minimalist design (90.9)
  • Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors (88.0)
  • Help and documentation (92.0)
Heuristic Evaluation Snapshot

Key problems that I note down include 1) not satisfying minimum workload, and 2) lack of consistency and navigational clarity.

  1. Example on the left: The onboarding section is the first time when player get familiar with the game mechanism, controls, and game flow. Letting them both performing an action while reading instructions on the side bar is calling on too much attention span. Players have to look at multiple sections of an interaction which make it difficult to focus and maneuver, straying away from minimalistic design.
  2. Example on the right: UI icons being used in the Mountain View page is not clear and intuitive. Too much arrows — pointing to different directions were used. I found it difficult to understand what do they mean and what is the difference. There are also too many repetitive information on this page. For example, my last ride appears twice (left bottom corner and also in the center), zoom in/out controls appears twice (right center and right bottom). These information might be useful, but chaotic.
Heuristic evaluation results

4) Design:

After planning, researching and analyzing, I began my final stage — re-designing the UX and UI. I started of with striping the details away and studying the skeleton structure underneath — the information architecture.

Instead of a directed flow of user onboarding, I recommend to give player the option to choose which sports they want to master by rotating the sportswheel. This has two benefits: 1) learn the sportswheel by operating it, 2) user freedom and control in completing the onboarding process.

Recommendation 2 is to set a minor reward after each stage of completion to showcase the progress, and giving out incentives — extrinsic motivation for player to continue.

Recommendation 3 is to teach skiing specifically, not just snowboarding at the beginning. For example, player can be required to change sport to ski, thus familiar themselves with forward/backward movement. When the initial onboarding focuses on snowboard, player would have a tendency to stay with the sport and reluctant to switch later.

Player Journey Map — before and after

Following the player journey map, I mapped the section of user interface into frames, suggesting objective to be placed on the left hand side; point system and play status on the left bottom; instructions in the central vision zone; and other information including player level, notifications, reminder of control keys be placed on the right hand side.

This follows the Gestalt Principles of Design: Proximity. Categorizing system status, instruction — direct guidance, and secondary information — contextual knowledge into different zones would allow a more intuitive user understanding and quicker grasp of the interface.

Prototype

After rapid wireframing and prototyping, I created the final prototypes based on research insights, evaluation results, and design guidelines. Sample prototype design are included in the following section:

Conclusion

By using design methodology and UX approaches including persona construction, player journey mapping, usability study — observation, heuristic analysis, report analysis, I gained insights into what are the places that caused the frictions in STEEP’s onboarding. Based on the research insights and feedback, I redesigned the information architecture of player journey. This informs the final prototype design through exploring the ergonomics of a best viewing experience. The final prototypes are designed to showcase recommendation points.

However, there are certain limitations with this case study. The evaluation is not carried out with a group of participants, thus the result might fail to generalize across different demographics and player audience. For a more in-depth UX research, players from target audience group should be selected to join the test and be observed by UX researchers. In addition, the gaming interface did not cover all platforms: PlayStation, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, Amazon Luna. Thus the design is not comprehensive enough to showcase the optimal experience across platforms.

Nonetheless, this case study shows some of my insights and suggestions towards STEEP and similar open-world sports video game design. This is an invaluable experience for me to go through the process and largely deepened my knowledge towards the game user experience of this genre. Hope it would be helpful for peer researchers and designers.

References:

Steep — SteamSpy — All the data and stats about Steam games

Video Game Design and User Experience (Video) (nngroup.com)

Heuristic Evaluation for Games: Usability Principles for Video Game Design

What are the Gestalt Principles? — updated 2023 | IxDF (interaction-design.org)

The Gamer’s Brain, Part 2: UX of Onboarding and Player Engagement (GDC16) — Celia Hodent

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