What Product Design Can Learn from Video Games
I still vividly remember the experience of getting a new video game as a kid. Before I’d even start playing, I would thoroughly read the manuel to understand the controls and (often times) the items in the game. And once I started playing, I was all in. My surroundings disappeared as I was wandered about an enchanted world. Whether it was fighting evil in a dystopian future, racing on a track while leaving banana peels behind, or competing against other players in a battle royale, my singular focus was the game. And let me tell you — I enjoyed every minute of it.
I know that I’m not alone in the way I felt. There are so many of us who have experienced the joy of playing video games as children. But when it comes to designing other kinds of products, such as web or mobile apps that aren’t strictly game-related, it’s often difficult to get the product’s user to feel that kind of joy.
While you may not be able to exactly replicate those feelings, there are many elements from video games that we can observe, learn from, and use when designing a product.
Let’s pretend that we’re designing a product in the voice of designing a video game so that you can see the similarities. While reading along, ask yourself if you’ve been thinking about these things while designing your own product, whether it’s a video game or not.
Setting the Scene
The player (aka the user) has just entered the game. He starts off by creating his character. This begs the question: who is he? What does he do for a living? How old is he? What is his purpose?
It’s important to know who your user is and what their goals are. This will become your target audience.
The player finalizes creating his character and moves forward. Now it’s time to set the scene. The player enters into a world of your creation. Where are they? Are they indoors at a restaurant? Are they traveling in a foreign country? Are they commuting to work? Are they in a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested world?
Try to figure out where your users are when they’re reaching for your product.
An unknown character enters the scene (let’s say this is you). The player doesn’t know who you are, but he strikes up a conversation anyways. He starts asking you questions. “Who are you? Why are you here?” Surely it wasn’t an accident that you’re together right now. No, it had to be designed that way.
Let the user know who you are and what you do. There are many ways to do this, such as by putting your purpose in your product’s name.
|| You need to keep in mind your vision so that when you’re making tough decisions, you can look back and remember what you wanted to become.
Oh wow! After hearing your background, the player tells you he was just having a problem that he thinks you could help with.
You know it’s not fate that you were introduced to this specific user. You were introduced because you knew your target audience and thus were able to get an audience? with them.
You need to get to the bottom of the problem before agreeing to help. You start asking your own questions. “What is the problem? Why are you having this problem? When did the problem start? What do they expect from you if you were to help them?”
You should be asking these questions to your users directly on top of using surveys and comments online. From my experience, you will always find out something you didn’t expect when you talk to your target audience in-person.
As it turns out, you’re confident that you can help them out. You let him know what you can do, when and where you can do it, and exactly how you can do it. And with that, you both embark on a long journey.
Once again, be very clear on what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. It will keep you from getting distracted from your goals in the future.
You’re on the journey, and it comes time for the player to need your help. As the trusty sidekick, it’s your job to help them learn the controls of the game.
Now, you don’t want to overwhelm them. As a beginner, they just need to know the basics first. If the player needs to smash NEXT twenty times while you’re giving the instructions in order to make their very first move, then he’s bound to get confused or, even worse, quit entirely.
You can tell how intuitive a product is by how much explanation it requires. Don’t overshare the details or tell the user what an advanced user would need to know at this point. Just keep it simple.
Now that the player is equipped with the basics, you both continue on your journey. However, there are times when the player seems to get stuck trying to do the same thing over and over again without getting the results he wants. After two or three tries of doing the same thing, you decide to give a little hint. You don’t make the conversation too long, but you give a small, friendly piece of advice.
Once again, keep it simple. If it seems that the user wants more help, you give them the option to ask further questions. If not, just let them end the conversation.
Hmm… that issue seems to have arisen with many players in the past. Maybe this means you should change something in this part of the game?
As a product designer, you want ALL parts of the game to feel intuitive. If you repeatedly see users making mistakes in a particular location, that means you’re doing something wrong.
Some time has passed now, and the player has improved rapidly in his skills. He now has veteran status. As a seasoned player, he wants to know all the features and controls available to him.
Because you didn’t want to overbear him towards the beginning of the game, you kept these things to yourself until the moment he was ready. Now that he’s come to you searching for these things, it’s time to disclose the features and controls that would make him an advanced player.
These are the advanced features and controls, so it can get complicated for the user. Be sure to show him examples of how what they’re trying to achieve is done, or maybe how previous users have handled it. Sometimes visual examples beat written or verbal explanations.
Always remember: your purpose is to make the player feel special.
Tell the player from time to time that he’s doing a great job. Let him know that he’s always welcomed back. Congratulate him when he does something impressive.
Encourage the user so that they always feel like your product wants them to return — which you do.
Perhaps letting the player customize his profile or character will make the game feel more personal? How about letting him add his own profile picture, or change the colors on his profile? If the game involves playing a character, what about letting the player choose the look for outfits? He might even be willing to purchase these things if it lets him stand out from the crowd.
Every user is unique, so let the user customize things to fit their personal tastes.
Good behavior and special achievements deserve some type of award or recognition. Can you give the player a badge for setting a goal and achieving it? Giving something towards the very beginning for getting through the basics could help immerse the player more quickly.
Giving a user a prize for doing a certain action leads to more of that kind of behavior.
People love to socialize. Bringing the player’s friends and family into the game can make the game world and the real world feel connected. That’s why you should always make it easy for the player to invite the people he knows. And if possible, let him socialize inside the game with them. Let him reach out to them whenever he wants.
Recommending friends and family is far cheaper than paid advertising. The user and their friends or family members are more likely to join and stay with your product if they learn about it from someone they know.
A great game can build a great community, and vice versa. The culture that sprouts from the community is not completely out of your control. You have plenty of say in what can and cannot be said. Send the players a little message on what’s expected of them when interacting with other players from time to time (but not too often). If they do or say something they’re not supposed to, be sure to give them a warning and a reminder of what’s allowed and what isn’t.
You want a happy and healthy culture, and so does the community. Think ahead of time what you want this culture to look and feel like.
You also have a say in what should or shouldn’t be said. Recognition is something players often strive for, so try rewarding their good attitude by giving them more recognition. Something as simple as receiving a “like” or, “Keep it up!” can make the player feel happy.
When a user is uplifted by other users, they often reciprocate the favor.
You’ve probably realized by now that there is a lot that goes into designing things. Whether it’s a video game or a mobile app, there’s so much you have to take into account to make what you’re designing fun, engaging, and memorable.
Once you’ve become involved in the designing process yourself, it makes you really appreciate the greats like Shigeru Miyamoto, the designer of Mario.
I wrote this article in the hopes that you can learn from some of the elements of great video game design for the next thing you create, even if it isn’t a video game. By taking a methodical approach of defining these elements and breaking them down, the task of creating a new product will become a little more manageable.
And if you are designing something right now, remember this — it’s yours to design. It’s like creating your own world. You have the freedom and creativity to design and inspire; to create that next generation of players or users that are totally and completely immersed in your creation. Maybe one day they’ll look back and say, “I’ll always remember those times. I enjoyed every minute of it.”