How Video Games Take UX Beyond Gamification
Clever use of UX principles and UI heuristics are driving the next-generation of design thinking
During a time when the time spent on video games has reached record breaking heights, due to excessive time indoors, gamification has more of a place now than ever before.
Gamification is a process originally derived from video games, where reward systems are built into software, with a sole purpose of ensuring player retention and engagement by rewarding players with micro-interactions and gold stars. If we use a project management platform as an example, upon selecting the ‘completed task button’ a purpose built, short interaction/animation is triggered — scientifically designed to release a micro dose of endorphins.
But how do video games specifically utilise UX techniques which can be used as inspiration?
Well, upon recent completion of the main campaign in Horizon Zero Dawn on PS4, I took note of how a well developed AAA video game demonstrates good UX driven practices/models, which allows a seamless focus on the gameplay itself. Great job Guerrilla Games!
I made note of key features that successfully tap into the heuristics and principles of UX and UI.
Usability via Recognition over recall
Early on, the player is taught that botany plays a huge role in the game. The player is encouraged to collect flowers via in game tutorials, whilst roaming the open world. Flowers are used for crafting provisions. However, the red flowers are consumed by protagonist, Aloy, upon collection. The red flowers help the player to regain health. An obvious colour choice, but why is it obvious? It is obvious because humans are conditioned from a young age to memorise red, the universal colour for health.
The use of colour is pervasive in video games.
Apart from dressing characters in darker tones to indicate evil, in Horizon Zero Dawn, the player is also taught to instinctively look for contrasting colours during an initial tutorial process. A dash of yellow on a grey wall indicates an interactive element. It’s subtle enough to blend into the 3D Decor, yet noticeable enough to draw player attention. The recognition of colour ensures good usability. The balance of colour to indicator, succeeds in forcing the player to memorise a pattern of colours, allowing fluid gameplay through usability of interactive elements within the open world.
Accessibility via Help and Documentation
Accessibility is clearly at the forefront of navigating the UI/ menu. Players can easily access resources by pressing their controller’s touchpad. On press, a full screen menu is activated. Within it, there are horizontal categories — skills/ inventory/ crafting/ map/ quests, and notebook. Each category is paired with vertical sub categories. The purpose of the menu is to allow modification to suit the players style of play.
Is the player a prowler, a brave, or a forager? To ensure one’s understanding of each weapon/ skill upgrade, there is a space within the UI (usually on the right hand side of screen) dedicated to video snippets, documenting an in-game scenario of how each item performs. This is a perfect solution to the problem of educating players to the plethora of accessible modifications. The video placement ensures the player attention is always on the form (skill/ weapon) followed by the function (snippet preview).
Value via Player Control and Freedom
Horizon Zero Dawn is an open world style game. The freedom in roaming the open world is a bi-product of the stories key objective — to save the world from evil takeover by Ancient Machines. Quest progress, runs the setting gamut, ranging — snow, desert to jungle. Aloy endures battles with majestic machines of prey, fighting them off using trip casters, traps, bows, arrows and primary weapon of choice — the staff. The player makes full use of the free-roam aspect climbing cliff drop offs with parkour-esque agility. Visual cues help the freedom of play by navigating direction through — For example — deliberately designed, eroded paths. Adding value as Aloy uncovers hidden ruins circa 2060.
Underneath the hood of the beautifully designed game are game mechanics. Game mechanics drive player actions. Each battle connection, each player movement while climbing a cliff face is individually produced, to enhance the player’s overall freedom of movement — driving home the open world style. Each player movement is communicated to the controller with dynamic vibrations, executed so well in Horizon Zero Dawn, that the player falls victim to exploring the beautiful open world, instead of focusing on the target objective. This win-win scenario adds value to the player experience, as the more playtime the player has, the more the player can memorise in-game controls.
Credibility via Diagnosing and Recovering from Errors
Games are one big problem just waiting to be solved.
The core problem is split into hundreds of mini-problems (a la kanban methodology). The game is littered with collectibles and rare items hidden at various points throughout the open-world. To access one of the seldom seen objects, the player is forced to decode a set of 4, wall mounted, digital combination locks, situated next to a door. Graffiti’d on the door face is a list of 4 numbers.
The onus is on the player, to utilise their critical thinking and diagnose the problem into 2 parts: 1) solving what sequence actually means and, 2) how to implement the sequence to obtain a reward. For example how would the player interpret a pattern of 1200, 1500, 1600, 2200? It is 24 hour time. This forces the player to tap into one of their brain’s cognitive motor skills — procedural knowledge — the recognition of patterns vs recalling specific data. The player would sequentially marry the rotating locks up, with the angle resembling each timestamp. Credible due to it’s value of social impact, forcing players to learn something they may not already know.
Findability via Consistency and Standards
Within the weapons inventory is a 1/4 split circle, split into top/ bottom/ left/ right segments. Each segment is a weapon slot. The positioning of each slot in the full screen menu, directly correlates to the player’s in game weapon dial. The action of assigning a weapon to each slot, forms a mental model, which the player subconsciously memorises.
Due to consistency between the resources and in-game menus, the player’s experience is enhanced. On-the-fly weapon changes can be made in-battle. This is because our brains require less cognitive load when ‘mental mapping’ through consistent models. As a use case example, maybe Player X has an affinity for left positioning over the ‘top/ bottom/ right positioned slots’ therefore they would assign their main weapon to the ‘left slot’. As we go deeper into a world where tech is further becoming an extension of our body, the degree to which we can personalise our tech, is paramount.
This begs the question…
Other than a reward system, what else can the software/tech/design industry learn from immersive video games like Horizon Zero Dawn? On the surface it appears that our/next generation are wasting away their brains by playing video games; this is definitely not the case. We have learned the future of UX is in the hands of a generation that is subconsciously studying neurological thought process through critical thinking; building mental models and procedural knowledge. Players continuously draw upon cognitive function to navigate through games, developing familiar feel for good UX practices. Practices that will be relevant more than ever, when we are faced with finely tuned virtual/augmented reality norms in the years to come.