3 core game design ideas to use in game UX design (TATT#27)

the acagamic tip tuesday Aug 16, 2022
Screenshot from the Shadow of the colossus game. Text saying: Meaning emerges from players encountering challenging contexts

In today's issue, I will break down three aspects of game design for you that will help you create an engaging player experience.

3 core game UX design ideas: When designing a game, focus on context, participants, and meaning.

Knowing the components in a game that you have to design for, allows you to be systematic in your approach to game design. It allows you to bin player feedback into these categories: context, participants and meaning.

Unfortunately, game design is often an unsystematic process or partially disjointed by focusing on one mechanic at a time.

Design your games by creating a context for participants for meaningful engagement.

In the book "Rules of Play," Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman describe game design as exactly this process. The origin of the word design is precisely this: pointing something out, giving meaning to something.

Therefore, in game UX design, we should focus on:

  • Context
  • Participants
  • Meaning

Focusing your game UX design on these three aspects will give your game development approach structure and help you from getting lost in unnecessary details.

Here's a breakdown of the three areas:

Design for context

Context is: the game-related entities that are entirely under a designer's control. It refers to the spaces, objects, stories, and behaviours you encounter in games. This is where you have all the design power. Everything here is malleable.

For example, you can design the environment only to allow players to go within a specific invisible tunnel of action (the game God of War is famous for this). You might show them a gigantic world and background but not let them fall off ledges and keep them to a specific pathway you have chosen.

Context determines player actions to a degree. It is where your second-order design (i.e., design for artifacts driving experience, not designing actual experiences) is most potent.

Design for participants

In games, participants are the players acting upon your game context. For example, via manipulation or exploration. They inhabit your game world to play.

Designing for participants is designing action opportunities in your game that permit participants to take specific actions. It is where you can apply insights from playtesting the best as participants will show you what interactions they were expecting and where they are looking for clues in your game context.

Designing for meaning

Meaning is the effective driver behind our engagement in video games. Designing something meaningful for people will keep them coming back to the game.

In games, we have to design choices for players to create an internal conflict. Do this or do that. Meaningful choices are the foundation of games.

When players take action in your game, meaningful play emerges from the agency that players feel. Meaning here refers to the value of something encountered in a game for the individual player.

Even in real life, meaning is essential because it helps us navigate our world and read the people and the world around us. Our everyday interactions are guided by meaning-making.

UX Research App of the Week: Aurelius

Aurelius is a full-on research repository that helps user researchers create reports. It seems similar to Dovetail (still have to test it thoroughly) regarding tagging and transcription of qualitative data. But the feature list promises to integrate survey results and charts. The price tag is a little steep for indies, with $588 per year for the professional plan.

Games Research Find of the Week

This paper explains why players experience fun tackling game challenges with uncertain success by reducing uncertainty.

They distinguish between external uncertainty (anything designed in the game to generate uncertain states, like dice or random cards), felt uncertainty (where the player consciously feels uncertain), and cognitive uncertainty (how people choose to act when they don't know what outcome is optimal for them). Cognitive uncertainty is often subconscious and can enable felt uncertainty triggered by external uncertainty.

The rest of the paper focuses on a particular type of external uncertainty: outcome uncertainty (over the success relative to a self-set goal of a player over optimal challenges). It breaks down theories of achievement, competence, and effectance, which are the main theoretical explanations for why people play games.

Their research goal is to understand why people seek optimal challenges in games and more importantly to understand the opposite extreme ends of the engagement spectrum of idle games (no challenge) to soulslike games (extreme challenge).

To extend existing theoretical work, the authors discuss predictive processing, a neurocognitive framework of cognitive processes and how they are realized in the human biological system. They use this framework to explain how uncertain success drives popular games:

  1. Uncertain success of balanced challenges (can be found in multiplayer games with matchmaking). Here designers are crafting sequences of environments and obstacles, teaching and then requiring mastery of new game mechanics. Doing better than expected allows players to track their learning progress.
  2. Near-certain failure (in soulslike games with extreme challenges). Repeated failing in these games is temporary and sets low expectations for success, reducing uncertainty about how to win by repetition, making success likelier with each repetition. If error reduction happens faster than expected, the enjoyment is higher.
  3. Near-certain success (in idle games). These games give players the reliable experience of doing better than expected, providing a lift in their mood.

There is more to unpack in this paper as it attempts to unpack a coherent explanation of engagement and enjoyment from uncertain success in video games.

Read the full study: Deterding S, Andersen MM, Kiverstein J and Miller M (2022) Mastering uncertainty: A predictive processing account of enjoying uncertain success in video game play. Front. Psychol. 13:924953. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.924953, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.924953

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