Design principles face-off: UX versus Game Design

As Arya Stark does when she becomes someone else, I’ve been switching faces a lot in a short time: UX designer by day (for my full time job) and game designer by night (for my hobby game project). And unlike Arya, the only thing in my to-kill list is bad design.

And I must say, I’ve been enjoying both roles quite a lot. And as I played them, I realized there are some interesting differences and commonalities I want to share with you now.

What User Experience and Game Design are about

User Experience [UX] is all about user centered design, a philosophy that puts the user at the center of the design and development process of a project. The UX perspective provides a framework to identify opportunities and challenges upfront, thus saving tons of time, money and effort to all stakeholders, while also delivering a product that is a joy to use and feel.

According to UX fathers Donald Norman and Jakob Nielsen:

User experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.

UX is also an interdisciplinary term comprising theoretical and empirical knowledge borrowed from business theory, behavioural economy, computer science, human factors, human-computer interaction, marketing, storytelling, design, psychology, neurology, data science and research.

The three main goals of a UX designer is to provide direction to projects, to meet users needs and business goals, and to deliver pleasant experiences to anyone interacting with the product, service or system.

Whereas Game Design [GD] is all about player centered design, a philosophy that puts the player at the center of the game design and development process.

In the words of Jesse Schell, author of the book The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses:

Game design is the act of deciding what a game should be. (…) Decisions about rules, look and feel, timing, pacing, risk-taking, rewards, punishments, and everything else the player experiences is the responsibility of the game designer.

Good GD encompasses understandings from creativity, psychology, art, technology and business.

Basically players and users delight from the work of a designer who put his effort in creating a pleasant experience for them, as UX and GD borrow principles from the same melting pot called design.

Regardless, I have not yet listened to anybody arguing there are some perks which not only seem unique to GD, but also appear to go in the opposite direction from what UX stands for. How can this be? You may ask. Because you know, there is (and must be) UX design in games. Otherwise we would not find our way around a Zelda dungeon, or wouldn’t notice when the nitrogen tank is nearing depletion in Need for Speed, nor could drop that ulti’ at the right time at the right place in your favorite MOBA, or couldn’t build decks in Hearthstone so easily.

Then, how can UX and Game Design be so different from each other?

Well, here are 4 key differences I’ve spotted along the way:

1. Good game design makes people think (or at least assess their decisions based on muscular memory and impulse control). Challenges are in part responsible for providing fun in games. Players thrive in stressful environments where they go against the clock or are low on resources to accomplish a set of goals. Whereas UX streamlines efforts to reduce or eliminate stressful situations and avoid making people think or guess where they are, what they’re doing or where they should go next.

2. Players are willing to spend more energy and execute more actions in games than users with a product or service. There are two main reasons for this: One reason is that the purpose of playing is to get pleasure from having fun, which means players are prepared to invest more time in having a good time, and such mindset alone diminishes anxiety and aids sustained attention. A second reason is that games are about problem solving, an activity that requires time and cognitive effort to find solutions, which are two vital resources most players happily spend in games but users barely want to waste by interacting with products and services more than necessary.

3. UX improves time efficiency for users while most GD projects focus on retaining players. A product provides as much fun as it’s ease of use, understandability and goal achievement capability, because these attributes save time and effort (and sometimes money) to its users. On the other hand, a game tends to become better the more time players spend on it.

4. Whereas good UX design is invisible, good Game Design is immersive. When an illustrator is using a pixel edition software to create her art, she must be thinking and feeling about her creation and not about the tool she’s using, thus the tool becomes ‘invisible’. This can be achieved by creating a friendly UI that matches that particular user’s mental models. In games however, gameplay mechanics and narrative and overall design must be accompanied by great art and development execution in order to create an immersive experience for the player, where she gets lost in the game world without minding anything else different from having fun.

But as you read at the beginning of this writing, there is actually a middle ground.

4 commonalities between UX and Game Design

Both UX Design and GD are:

1. Content and functionality focused. UX design and GD success metrics revolve around the content and functionality products and games provide. For UX, it would be the number of news a reader typically read in one week on a newspaper, the time viewers spend watching their favorite videos, the amount of money they spend purchasing books online, the times a specific whirling speed was activated on a blender, etc. For GD, it would be the number of players who beat the third boss, the time it took them to learn how to play certain number of characters, their favorite game map, a popular game mechanic, and so on.

2. Aiming for the psychological state of flow. Being in the zone, ecstasy or aesthetic rapture are metaphors used by athletes, religious devotees and artists to describe a sensation defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, as:

A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

It’s easy to see how products, services and games are designed to help us be ‘in the zone’ by providing the same set of goals we agree to.

3. Using positive reinforcement to encourage motivation and retention. Easy gestures, pleasant animations, familiar sounds, or any immediate type of proper feedback or reward are carefully designed to serve as stimuli to keep users and player engaged. For example, a study published in the book Behavioral Neurology & Neuropsychiatry from the Cambridge University Press (edited by Arciniegas, Anderson, Filley and Garcia in 2013) showed the effects of positive reinforcement on people who had the novelty seeking trait in their temperament were placid and euphoric.

4. Creating from and for the unconscious mind. Within the creative process, best ideas tend to come to a designer when she/he is in a relaxed state of mind, such as during a warm bath, sleeping, taking a walk outside, listening to music, etc. These situations work together with a deep understanding of the problems and constraints at hand and the right amount and quality of research to elicit the ‘Aha!’ moment when least expected. And these kind of insights connect with other people’s unconscious mind to evoke mindless responses of enjoyment and ‘this is so obvious, why nobody invented it before?’ thoughts.

That’s it for now, I hope you enjoyed reading. Feel free to leave your comments below and to share it with your peers.

Let fun be your air.

Until the next one!