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GAMES UX

Applying Usability Heuristics to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

A UX case study focused on the visibility of status

Maria Meireles
Feb 10 · 9 min read

akob Nielsen, one of the biggest names in the UX world, focused a big part of his career on usability and came up with several usability methods, the most famous one being the heuristic evaluation.

The heuristic evaluation allows us to identify usability issues in software by looking at 10 major points: The Usability Heuristics. This evaluation comprises 10 rules of thumb that dictate the quality of the interaction and usability of interfaces. Since these heuristics are not specific usability guidelines, they can apply to different contexts to improve the UX of any product — like video games.

Why not use this evaluation to explain what they are and how they’re used in video games? Even though the end goal of all video games is to entertain its audience, Nielsen’s heuristic can still find its home in these engaging forms of media.

My goal is to explore the how heuristics can apply to video games by beginning a series of 10 articles using Nielsen’s heuristics to guide me and explain why and how some issues can be improved upon in video games.

What better way to begin this journey with a witcher, a silver sword, and a wolf medallion?

How will the articles be structured?

  1. The game
    A summary of the game.
  2. The heuristic
    An explanation of the heuristic with keys points and general examples.
  3. How the game applies the heuristic
    Exploration of how the game applies the heuristic.
  4. Final thoughts
    Key takeaways of the article.
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The Witcher 3. Source: Getwallpapers.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015) is an action roleplaying game developed and published by CD Projekt RED. Based on The Witcher fantasy book series written by Andrzej Sapkowski (which is absolutely worth a read), the developers reimagined the story of Geralt of Rivia and the fantastical and horrifying world he lives in.

Geralt is a witcher, the name given to itinerant monster slayers for hire. To gain the ability to hunt and kill monsters, they undergo mental and physical mutation at an early age. Few survive this transformation, but those that do spend their lives confronting grisly creatures for coin. In the Witcher 3, Geralt is on the search for Ciri, his adopted daughter who is being hunted by the Wild Hunt.

The Witcher 3 places players in an open fictional fantasy world based on Slavic mythology and culture. In this world, players can find many unique monsters to fight and people to interact with. By taking up contracts and quests, Geralt can win not only gold and experience points but get equipment, weapons and items, and the chance to improve his witcher abilities. How you choose to play Geralt in side quests or in the main story affects the world and the story.

#1: Visibility of System Status

A design should always inform users about what is happening. Users should know the current system status thanks to the design giving feedback within a reasonable amount of time.

Why?
So that users can know the outcome of prior interactions and determine what to do next. Being able to predict interactions creates trust in the product . It makes the user feel like they’re in control.

How?
1. Communicate the current system’s state; all user’s actions should have informed consequences.
2. Give quick feedback to actions.
3.Be transparent and keep the communication open.

Examples:
An example of good visibility of system status applied in real-life is the elevator. If you click to go to specific floor, you usually can see the destination, the current floor you’re on, and sometimes, what direction the elevator is traveling in (up or down).

The more information is missing, the harder it is to decide. Imagine that you have two elevators in front of you, you are on Floor 2 and want to go to Floor 5. One elevator is currently on Floor 5 and going down, the other is on Floor 1 but going up. Which one would you call?

The second one — the elevators gave you the right information to make a better decision. If that information were not available, you would probably call both of them and have hope that at least one would not take long.

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A classic: not only informs about the current floor but also about direction. Source: Waldemar Brandt/Unsplash.

Another good example is online shopping. It’s a personal pet peeve, and it can be very frustrating when the information if the productive is available or when it will be is not there. Imagine you search for a blue shirt, see one on the list, click on the product, see the product page, click to add to cart, proceed to checkout form, and right before paying… the product is not available. You lose trust in the shop and probably will not buy the shirt there anymore.

Information gives users the power to decide what to do next.

The Witcher 3 and Visibility of System Status

The Witcher 3 is a complex RPG open-world game with different sets of information needed. Exactly what information is essential for players to make a decision, how is it organised, and what impact does this information and feedback have on the player?

What information is necessary to understand the current state of the game?

1: To guide players on the world
- Information on current time and weather
- Mini-map with current position centred and info of current objective direction and extra info, like: suggested path + other objectives and checkpoints direction + enemies, possible interactions and quests, etc.
- Distance to the current objective
- Distance to the current waypoint

2: To complete quests and events of the main story
- Active quest and next objectives on the quest

3: To inform the current state of the character stats (and opponent if in combat)
- Level progress (and opponent)
- Health/vitality level (and opponent)
- Toxicity level
- Active sign and sign charge level
- Active buff and timer
- Adrenaline level

4: To develop and control all the character equipment and weapons:
- Current sword
- Hints
- Current additional/quick equipment (and each equipment amount with the max amount if has a limit)

5: Action Log when in combat

How is it organised?

The HUD needs to organise visually all this info and feedback/progress related to it.

The amount of info shown increases in combat, such as: info and feedback about the opponent, about the combat itself with an action log, and extra stats that the players need to fight. Information that is shown changes as the game progresses and with how the character interacts with the world. Not only does the information change immediately (example: if the character gets hit, they lose health), but it also gives the players cues about the level stats and items in use (if they have max or min amount).

So, let’s look at an example of the Witcher 3 HUD. First, when not in combat.

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An explanation of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s HUD when not in combat and without a drawn weapon.
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HUD adapted to combat with info about enemies and instructions adapted to combat. You can also notice how the map shows you the location of all enemies on your area.

The game divides the HUD space with the world info on the top right (with current quest info below), about the character on top left, additional equipment on the bottom left and weapon on the bottom right. The enemies’ stats follow the animation of the enemy since each one has their stats.

The impact of showing this info to the players

1: Info that guides players on the world
Time is counting, and the weather changes, the mini-map is constantly updating info according to the character’s location and the distance to current objective or waypoint changes (if the player changes objectives or location).

Imagine the player is 100 steps away from the current objective. They can only speak to this NPC at night, but it’s currently morning. The player can use this information to change objectives or meditate until nighttime.

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On the top right of the right info about the character surroundings (via minimap and its tags) and current time and weather.

2: Info about active quests and events of the main story
The game provides immediate feedback by updating the list of next objectives as the player progress through the game and in quests. If the player correctly solves a quests’ demand, it will immediately show on the HUD. The player can go to another objective or change to another quest without unnecessary double-check.

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Just bellow the minimap you can see the current quest — it is placed next to the minimap so the players can have context: info about direction, path and distance.

3: Info about the current state of the character stats (and opponent if in combat)
All stats are updated and provide feedback on how players’ actions affect the character. As players explore what the character can do and how it affects the stats, players can make informed decisions and act accordingly. Example: Choosing not to fight due to low health level and, instead, finding a safe place to meditate or buy items to recover health.

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Character stats located on the top left of the screen.

4: Info about characters equipment and weapons
Information about weapons is critical. It not only informs players if they’re carrying sufficient amount of weapons, but allows players to check if they have the right weapon for a specific creature or quest.

The sword differentiation is an excellent example of visual information that helps players make informed decisions. The character can have two types of swords: steel or silver. Humans and animals can be efficiently killed with steel, while monsters with silver. The HUD gives info about the currently wielded sword and the most effective one to fight the current opponent. If the opponent has a red health bar, players should use the steel sword; if the opponent has a silver bar, players should use the silver sword.

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On the bottom of the screen, you have extra info. On the left equipment and on the right instructions and current weapon (if in combat or with a drawn weapon).

5: Action log
Action log can help players understand what is happening if the fight is being visually messy. That can happen when magic or fire is being used. The visual information on the screen can make it harder to read what is happening just by looking at the fight animation.

6: Instructions
The game adapts instructions to the current state of the character. The actions available are present in the instructions area, informing players of what they can do and how they can do it.

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These screenshots were taken before combat, during combat and after combat with a drawn weapon.

Final thoughts

If I can point something to The Witcher 3, it has too much world information on the mini-map. I enjoy exploring and finding things on my own. I would prefer to travel to my next objective while galloping on Roach without the little dots on the mini-map guiding the way.

Games have complex systems that usually demand time to learn. It’s not like an online shop with the same UI patterns where you can jump from one shop to another without the need to learn how anything works. Even if you compare 3 RPG, they all have their extra features and their game design that influence the information needed to be shown and the feedback that informs the players of the consequences of their actions.

It’s essential to understand the game and its goals to show (or not) the info necessary for the player to enjoy the experience and make informed decisions fully.

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