Why are games so compelling? Even ordinary chores such as cooking, fishing, and waiting on tables have been turned into fun games played for hours at a time. I enjoy playing games, and I’ve discovered many insights into human behavior that has helped me become a better designer.
These tips have helped make my designs more engaging, enjoyable, and easier to use.
Tip 1: Use sound and timing to heighten emotions
Opening treasure chests in Zelda is always an exciting experience. What could be a straightforward interaction, becomes magical with the accompaniment of lights and music. Also notice the easing in of the animation which builds the tension and anticipation as must wait to see your reward. My favorite examples are in dark rooms which are briefly filled with the light of discovering your new treasure.
Use: For less-frequent interactions that you want to highlight. To heighten the emotions around meaningful tasks.
Don’t use: For frequent interactions, or actions that need to be completed quickly. You don’t want to draw focus away from users completing their goals.
Tip 2: Make it easy to find the right tool when users need it
Dishonored 2 has many tools and different approaches to use stealth or force finish the game. Fortunately, they kindly let us customize our tool kit to fit different play styles. WE get to select our four favorite tools for each of the direction buttons, and WE can hide the tools we never use in the main menu. This simplifies the experience, and prevents errors — I for one, hate pulling out a gun when I’m trying to be sneaky.
Use: For products with many options that will be used in different ways by different people.
Don’t use: For few options, or only one workflow. If you want every person to complete the experience in the same way.
Tip 3: Provide methods for novice and advanced users
Novice and advanced users have very different needs and game speeds, and both need to be accommodated for a game to be successful. Age of Empires is an older building/strategy game, but I love how it works for both groups of gamers. New players can use the buttons in the bottom menu, and advanced players can use hotkeys to efficiently carry out campaigns. Bonus: Only the applicable action buttons are shown based on what you have selected.
Use: When new users need clear and visible tools, and experienced users want more speed, options, or control.
Don’t use: For products that are not used frequently.
Tip 4: Use visuals & environmental cues to show changes
Visuals can help communicate information faster than numbers alone. In Overwatch, the character Zarya can charge her gun for more power which is shown by a brighter glow and thicker beam. This is a easy and fun way for other players to know to stay out of her way.
Use: For quickly comparing numbers or options. As a cue for people on what might be coming up. For transforming actions to be more enjoyable.
Don’t use: If it is distracting from the main goals of the experience.
Tip 5: Make it easy to find the next step
Humans have finite memory and attention, and games augment this with markers and reminders of what your next steps are. In Overwatch, arrows point the way to the objective you’re trying to capture, and objectives that move are outlined to help you find your way back. Other games use lights, mission logs, or other visual cues to guide you.
Use: For guiding users along a flow. For first time or infrequent users. When you have a good idea of what users are trying to accomplish.
Don’t use: For times the user has no set direction, such as using a design program.
Tip 6: But also encourage exploration
Joy comes from creativity and exploration. Horizon Zero Dawn has a beautiful world to discover with side quests and rare resources that encourage going beyond the main story paths. Exploration is also rewarded with beautiful vistas and fun realizations. All of this contributes to a rich and inspiring experience.
Use: For adding to the enjoyment and flexibility of a an experience. For keeping people engaged for more time.
Don’t use: For workflows that must be done the same way. For time-sensitive actions.
Tip 7: Then let people enjoy their progress
Help people reminisce about their accomplishments and they’ll feel happier and be more likely to come back. Zelda has a traditional quests check list, along with a fun photo album and the Hero’s Path to show what you’ve achieved.
Use: For milestone actions or accomplishments people want to review or remember at a later date. For reinforcing progress. Can be used to show what is left to do.
Don’t use: For frequent, common interactions.
Tip 8: Let them express their personality
People build better connections when they add their unique personality to something. A fun part of many games is expressing yourself through names, icons, avatars, etc. It’s also a good idea to allow for future changes, as people grow and moods change.
Use: For helping people feel more involved with the experience and each other. For quickly differentiating between multiple people.
Don’t use: If it might cause unwanted bias or for anonymous users.
Tip 9: Be forgiving of mistakes
The best thing about games is if you make a mistake or outright fail, you can always go back and try again. Many games including Dishonored and Zelda allow saving at any point as well as autosaving for you at transition points. This encourages exploration and ease of mind since you know you can always go back.
Use: For encouraging exploration. In places people are likely to make mistakes, or mistakes would have a dire impact.
Don’t use: When measuring scores. If it will slow down or distract from the experience.
As a designer, I’m always learning from the world around me, and I hope this article inspires you to learn from your passions as well! How has playing games helped you?
Horizon Zero Dawn, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Dishonored 2, Age of Empires, Fifa 18, Mario Kart 8, Overwatch, Final Fantasy XIV
Visuals from the following and myself