Video Games Deserve Great UX Too!

Zohra Barama
Sep 7, 2017 · 8 min read

Current day video games have come a long way since the days of Pong, but there is still a lot of room for improvement — the User Experience and User Interface is often an afterthought. The UX and UI must be included in all aspects of creating video games in order to create games that are worth playing. This will ensure that there is a deeper level of user engagement to keep users interested and entertained. Once there is a way to drive user engagement and immersion, there has to be a way to get players to come back again and again. That is where usability, gamification, and completion meters are important. All of these can help to create a successful, addictive, and highly rewarding video game experience that will keep gamers playing late into the night.

Wait, what’s the difference between UX and UI?

But first, let’s define User Experience Design and User Interface Design. While there are differences between UX and UI, most people practice a combination of both. It’s hard to do just UX or just UI, which is why the two are sometimes (incorrectly) used interchangeably. UX Design is the process of enhancing customer satisfaction and loyalty by improving the usability, ease of use, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the customer and the product. UI is responsible for the transference of a product’s development, research, content and layout into an attractive, guiding and responsive experience for users. It is also responsible for making sure the user doesn’t notice the interface and that the users don’t get distracted while interacting with a product. One of the best ways to explain UX and UI is to imagine the human body. The bones represent the code that gives the product structure. The organs and muscles represent the UX, giving the product purpose and defining how it works. The skin and cosmetics represent the UI, defining how the product looks and presents itself. Any great product experience must begin with UX followed by UI design. Both are required to create a successful product.

User Engagement and the Zeigarnik Effect

The key to encouraging deeper user engagement is understanding how the user thinks and what gets users fully immersed in an experience. One of the things that UX designers can use to help push user engagement is the Zeigarnik Effect. This is the phenomenon where people tend to remember incomplete actions better than completed actions. Bluma Zeigarnik was a Russian Psychologist who noticed that servers in a restaurant could remember all their unpaid (incomplete) orders, but as soon as an order was paid (completed), they would almost entirely forget them. The belief is that if a task remains interrupted or unfinished, people will remember them better. This is extremely important when it comes to game design and UX for games. In most games, the list of tasks and quests have an icon telling the user that they are not yet finished and need to finish. It always seems like the moment you finish one quest, 2 more take it’s place. The fact that the user has collected 9 out of 10 items can be maddening and will keep the player going until they’ve finished. Most users will be able to recite which quests they have open, but will have some difficulty remembering how many quests they’ve completed or what they were.

Completion Meters

The use of completion meters or quest trackers are great examples of how a designer can keep a user interested and invested. Completeness meters and trackers are an extrinsic motivator that triggers a user’s desire to finish a task and will keep them coming back until they are finished and earn the achievement. Another way the Zeigarnik Effect is evident is in turn based games. The need to take “just one more turn” can feel like completing a task, giving the user the pleasing feeling of finishing something, rather than leaving before the next turn and feeling incomplete. There’s no better feeling than getting one level higher, a few points more powerful, and getting one step closer to the level cap.

Scoring and Ranking

The next tool that UX designers can use is scoring or ranking. This is one of the most popular methods of increasing user engagement because most users care a significant amount about what others think of them. The use of a score creates competition while also increasing engagement. In games like Halo or StarCraft, there is a multi-tiered ranking system that keeps users playing to get to a higher level — this is the Zeigarnik Effect again kicking in with the “one more turn” feeling becoming “one more level”.


The third tool that UX designers can use to increase engagement is gamification. But how does one use gamification within a game? This is where a combination of the Zeigarnik effect and ranking can be useful by offering the user rewards for achieving a new rank — “Congratulations for achieving Rank 20! Your reward is 20 gold coins to be used in the store!” This gives the user a sense of completing a task, while simultaneously opening a new task, the next level. Giving the user a small reward for a completed task creates a new level of addiction that will compel the user to play even more. An even more persuasive way to do this is by adding in a social aspect by creating a leader board where users can see how they rank alongside their friends.

Uninterrupted Immersion

When designing a video game, UX isn’t just for the game mechanics and understanding how users play their games. The User Interface, or UI, must be designed very intentionally. The UI can make or break a game. There must be a compelling story that the UI should match. The game interface is not limited to how the user completes tasks — if the story takes place in space, the UI should be futuristic looking, unlike in some fantasy games where it looks whimsical or older. This is a great example of using the medium to help tell the story by making the interface and other UI elements a part of the story. If the interface is noticeable, it can take away from the experience and break the user out of the game experience. On the other hand, a well-designed interface will help the user become more immersed in the experience and keep them interested longer. A visually appealing game with a great story, along with an interface that helps tell the story but is also functional, will help the user feel like they are in control in the game intensify the emotional connection the user has. This is the best way to keep people immersed and engaged.

UX, UI, and the HUD

Information that is immediately useful to the user should be easy to identify and should not take more than a glace to understand. The HUD (Heads Up Display) is the area on the screen where players can see their character’s vital information. This can include health, ammunition, weapon types, mini-map or radar, and much more. There is no one HUD UI that works for all games, but there are some things that should be consistent across game types. First Person Shooters should predominantly have the health, ammunition, the weapon that is equipped, a mini-map or radar, and depending on the game, a few other things. But the screen shouldn’t be muddled or cramped with information that the user won’t look at for more than 1–3 seconds.

HUD from Halo 5, a FPS

For RPGs (roll playing games) or RTSs (Real Time Strategy) games, the HUD might have more information including hotkey assignments, health, ammunition, chat bar or window, quick menu items, etc. Typically, those types of games have more information on the screen because the user has more time to look at them.

HUD from World of Warcraft on the Left, HUD frmo StarCraft2 on the right.

But is it still Usable?

Above all, a game needs to be usable. If the game isn’t usable, people will not play. No matter how compelling the story is or how beautiful the game is, if the UX isn’t done correctly, the game will seem too easy or too hard and users will quit the game. Once a person stops playing a game, chances are that they will not come back. The visual and auditory cues should be used in a way so that users don’t need extensive explanation in order to figure out how to play the game. Continuity is also important in game UX so that usability isn’t sacrificed for originality. For example, the trigger function for first person shooter games should behave in a similar way across the same platform. Jumping is another example — the button that is usually the trigger button shouldn’t suddenly become the jumping button just because it would make the game more original or creative. Best practices in game UX are not much different from the best practices in app or web UX design.

In conclusion

A great game can only be made with great UX and great design. Using the Zeigarnik effect to increase user engagement will make the game interesting and keep users interested. Scoring and ranking, gamification, completion meters and others are great ways to get users immersed into the story while the UI helps to make the game usable and fun to play. It is essential for designers to keep User Experience best practices in mind when making video games. Only then, is it possible to create an addictive and rewarding video game experience that will keep gamers excited, immersed, and coming back for more.

Design At Your Own Risk

a group of friends writing about UX and design

Zohra Barama

Written by

UX Designer out of Atlanta, GA. I’m an avid gamer and an admirer of good UX and UI. Current game is Destiny 2 on xBox One.

Design At Your Own Risk

a group of friends writing about UX and design

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