Playability in Game Design
Part 1: Quality of Life
Recently, I wrote a piece about accessibility vs playability. The article spurred many discussions, but as I was thinking about those conversations, I realized that many people still haven’t grasped the difference between the two concepts. Admittedly, playability can be difficult to easily define; it’s best done through clear examples. I presented several in the original article, but ultimately I decided it would make sense to put together a series of pieces solely focused on playability. So, in this multi-part series, I’m going to take a closer look at the major elements behind playability. In this piece, I’m starting with a concept you may have heard of before — “quality of life” features.
What does “quality of life” refer to?
Quality of life (or “QoL”) elements cover a broad range of features that are designed to make games easier to play without changing the gameplay itself. What makes a QoL feature difficult to pin down is that unless you know what you’re looking for, they can be tricky to spot. In fact, many QoL are arguably “invisible” to the player — and deliberately so. Developers often uncover the need for these features through extensive play testing, where friction points are discovered and can be addressed.
As a game designer, you’re looking for any areas in your game that are frustrating players or keeping them from enjoying the core gameplay loop. It’s a bit like being forced to do a bunch of paperwork just prior to an enjoyable event. Hunting for any pain points in your design — especially if players are actually quitting at certain points without progressing — is really your first stop.
Of course, there is a spectrum of experience here. Not all frustrating experiences will cause players to outright quit the game. However, players may encounter game components that they find confusing — features like tooltips, dynamic UIs, and improved tutorials and onboarding are examples of potential solutions to these problems (depending, of course, on the problem you’re trying to solve).
It’s important to reiterate that I’m not talking about changing — or adding anything — to the gameplay itself. This is really about removing barriers to enable players to enjoy that core gameplay loop with minimal friction. Ultimately, anything that allows the player to more easily focus on actually playing and enjoying the game could be considered a “quality of life” feature — though I know that’s not a satisfying or easily-digestible way to define the term.
One place you can look for a wealth of great examples is the modding community.
Modding to reduce friction
There’s a much broader conversation to be had around modding culture; needless to say, it’s too extensive to delve into here. But as you likely already know, people have been modifying games for as long as games have existed — especially computer games, which lend themselves to this kind of intervention in a way that console games don’t. Games that ship with SDKs (software development kits) — and especially those with Steam Workshop support — deliberately facilitate a wide range of community modding.
I would tend to classify game mods across three groupings: Quality of Life, Partial Conversion, and Full Conversion. Partial conversion mods are those that take what already exists in the game and uses those assets to create new content (new assets may also be added on top of this). This might result in new quests being added to games like Skyrim, new missions in Half-Life, extra clothing options, and so on. Additional unique buildings in titles like Cities Skylines is another example.
Full conversion refers to a mod that takes a game and creates an entirely new game out of the original assets; in the most extreme examples, the modded game might exist in an entirely different genre to the original one. Due to the enormous work that goes into this, full conversion mods are rare; I can’t think of any good examples off the top of my head (feel free to post your favorites in the comments).
Quality of Life mods are far-reaching and diverse. They vary greatly depending on the game they are built for. In the screenshot above, I’ve referenced the famous DSfix mod for Dark Souls — of course, that’s a unique case, and not every QoL mod goes so far.
Typically, QoL mods for PC games fall into two groups:
- Mods made for expert players, designed to cut out elements they don’t like or could be improved (removing the opening splash screens in games is a popular one).
- Mods made to make the game easier to learn and play for people who aren’t experts.
You can look at any Steam game that has an associated workshop and you’ll find QoL mods for almost every aspect of that game. Both XCOM 2 and Grim Dawn had numerous mods built for them, and in both cases, popular mods were eventually adopted by the original design game and incorporated into the official game.
In XCOM 2’s case, the mod in question enabled players to see previews of targets on the UI. And in Grim Dawn, a new search bar exists enabling you to find shops or specific attributes. Even in these cases, where the original developers incorporated community mods into the official game, there are still mods out there that the respective communities see as must-haves, but they haven’t yet been adopted by the developers.
And although I’m not personally a fan of the game, I know that many people have used modded UIs and other elements in World of Warcraft for years to make the game easier to play.
That last example actually raises a slightly touchy point when it comes to mods and QoL features.
Improving on original designs
Some time ago, I wrote an article about personalization features in games and I said that no matter how many options a designer adds, it’ll never be enough — the same can be said for QoL features. Sometimes, QoL features and mods can purposely conflict with the developer’s actual design intentions.
In Payday 2, for example, one of the more annoying things to keep track of during play was the number of times you could answer a pager before the alarms would go off during a stealth mission. A mod was built that provides more information about what’s going on, including the number of pagers left, how long the assault wave is going to last, and more. Although these mods were very popular — with many expert players swearing by them — they were never officially added to the game by the developers. The developers felt that these mods provided too much information to the player, and went against the spirit of the design.
There are other risks associated with modding, too — not least of which being the controversy around modding any kind of competitive game. If a mod can legitimately provide a competitive advantage, developers must be very careful with allowing that, especially in ranked modes.
As the developer, you need to be conscious of intent vs practice. if something — a mod — has become so popular or widespread that players consider it a requirement to enjoy the game (or to get the most out of it), then you may want to consider adding it to the game. And, in general, if your community has found a way to make your game easier to play and enjoy, then this at least warrants an investigation to understand what problems the community identified as requiring solutions.
A final point — and one that is important for everyone to understand — is the difference between supporting mods versus the base/core experience. From a development standpoint, you can’t — and really shouldn’t — rely on fans and modders to fix core issues in your game.
Likewise, I see it as unfair to rate a game based on the mods it receives (that is to say, reviews of a game shouldn’t consider whether the mods are good or bad). My own view is that a mod should only be considered in the context of a review if the developer has decided to incorporate it into the base game.
Perhaps the standout exception here is the DSfix mod, simply because Bandai Namco officially list it as a recommended feature for Dark Souls on Steam.
I hope you enjoyed this first part of Playability in Game Design. In the next edition, I’m going to take a look at difficulty and how it can — and can’t — be used to enhance playability.
If you enjoy my work and like talking game design, the Game-Wisdom Discordis open to everyone.