Defining Game UX
User experience (UX) design, as a discipline, has seen substantial growth in the last two decades. More and more companies are hiring for such roles, with the discipline becoming more specialized and even splitting into user research, information architecture, interaction design and more.
UX consequently made its way into the video game industry and it’s importance is slowly showing. Most people, however, fail to understand what UX is and the role it plays in a game design and development environment.
First, what is user experience design?
User experience design is described by different people in different ways, although most times they mean roughly the same thing.
The name, on a surface level, is self explanatory — design that pertains to the experience a user has when using a product or service.
The discipline hold its roots in the academic discipline of human-computer interaction (HCI) and can be described as the applied practice of the learnings from HCI. This definition is the one I prescribe to, despite the simple and self-explanatory one being the easiest to understand for the average person.
The reasoning for that is that it specifies a few things the generally open-ended definition leaves to desire considering it can easily be confused with product design or industrial design. Firstly, it is that it is an applied practice, meaning that although research and studies are conducted, the goal is to use the findings to get to an end result. Secondly, it clarifies that it is within the realm of interaction with computers and technology. Although user experience designers often love to say that its inclusive of all product design, that is not what UX is. However, most products today are to some level a computer considering the surge of smart products. Lastly, it places UX somewhere in between a creative and technical discipline.
Shifting to Game UX
The self-explanatory definition of UX design would have made understanding game UX particularly hard. Video games are experiential from every single angle; players (or users) experience games (the products or now often even considered services) as created by the developers. With that perspective, game design and game UX would be synonymous, which is not the case. Both game design and game UX aim to design for the player’s experience but very different parts of that experience. There is also the belief that UI design for video games is game UX. While UI design is a large part of game UX, it consists of more than that.
Then, what IS game UX?
In game development, the way the game functions is designed by game designers. They create the set of rules around which the game works. Within that rule set, game designers then create the mechanisms through which the user can interact with the game.
It may seem like I’m avoiding getting to the point, but understanding all that above is crucial to understanding what game UX is because it explains what it isn’t.
Game UX takes those rules and mechanics and consequently creates the framework around which the user interacts with them. The goal here is to create clear communication about how the game works, despite how complex the mechanics may be. Examples could be something as simple as what button on a controller makes sense for a certain move to something more complex such as creating an effective inventory management user interface.
There is a belief game UX neuters a game’s difficult. Although understandable, this perspective is misguided. Game UX is about making something complex easy to understand. Something hard doesn’t need to be harder because it wasn’t explained well.
Think of it like this: astrophysics is wildly complicated but imagine getting taught by a teacher who can’t explain its concepts well. The subject was already hard enough but now the teacher just further inhibits your learning.
To write this piece, I had to read a lot about what Game UX is from the perspective of others who were more acquainted with the subject matter largely because they had actual jobs in Game UX. This post could have just been links to those posts because they brilliantly explain what Game UX is in different yet similar ways. However, I chose to write this because not only did I want to test my understanding of what I had read, I wanted to start this series by making sure we, the writer and the reader, were on the same page moving forward. These further (and likely better) readings should help solidify your understanding of the subject matter.