How to design engaging game UX in five different ways (TATT#29)

the acagamic tip tuesday Sep 06, 2022
A screenshot of skinning deer hide in the game Skyrim. The player is shown in front of a skinning rack. A yellow arrows points out:

In today's issue, I'll show you how to design engagement in video games so you can create a more engaging UX for your game under development.

The benefits of designing an engaging experience go beyond video game design, and we can apply them to create strong customer loyalty in applications and create more satisfied product users.

Unfortunately, UX researchers are mostly unaware of these issues, and even some game designers are not familiar with all of them. Marketers would benefit from this knowledge because it would enable them to restructure existing user journeys into more engaging ones.

Engagement is key in game design: Engaged people will spend more time with your product. 5 game design principles help you create compelling products.

Engaged people will spend more time with your product. Game design principles help you create compelling products.

Many people not in game development do not care about designing engaging products because they believe in functionality over immersion. Even game developers can struggle to make a game engaging:

  • The world they design is mundane and just not exciting.
  • Their game is full of too many wild ideas that are hard to believe when put together.
  • Their game feels stagnant. Players do many tasks without seeing their skills and stats improve.
  • The game provides only a few achievements, if any, to players and not many moments they can proudly tell their friends about.
  • The game is just too damn hard.

It does not have to be this way. You can address these problems by using the following five powerful game design techniques that result in solid user engagement—even if you're not building a game.

Here are 5 powerful game design techniques that help you build more engaging games:

1) Use fantasy to trigger player imagination

Players look towards games to escape. The more you open the door to a deviant world, the more your players will embrace doing things out of the ordinary.

Let's take one of the most common dynamics in games, the ability to die, which is by default deviant from real life. The opportunity to start something when you fail or to simply try a different solution in the same scenario differs from real life. This is something we crave. Starting over.

Other examples are the common hunting, skinning, and crafting mechanics in many modern video games. They allow us to interact with our environment and build new and valuable things. We would probably never be able to skin a boar and make leather armour in real life, but in video games, this can be appealing to try out.

2) Use immersion to engage players in the game world

Crafting a compelling story, theme, or environment is one of the most powerful things you can do in video games. Immersion works best if we are creating the fantasy mechanics discussed in the point above.

A common mistake is to assume that a 3D game is, by default, immersive. The liveliness of the world has not much to do with the rendering techniques and comes down to creating believable surroundings that a player can dive into. Build a world into which we crave to escape and disconnect.

3) Design progression so that players always visibly level up

The most common game UX design mistake is not providing enough feedback about how a player is progressing in the game world or application or system you are building.

Feedback and progression go hand-in-hand in games. While feedback is generally UX common sense for many people, this feedback needs to relate to player improvement for the game to become engaging.

Of course, this implies that you are attaching lots of data to your player or user as they are interacting with your game or application. The benefit of tracking this data and making it visible to the player is that they will always want to return to the interactions in the applications to see how they can improve.

4) Consider using reward schedules ethically to foster achievement

Unfortunately, many gamification UX designs and customer loyalty programs focus solely on reward schedules. Things like customer rankings or tiers, player abilities, better weapons, and access to new areas or story parts are all common ways that games reward players.

Rewards can be a powerful external motivator to play, specifically when paid out in random or semi-random schedules (based on completion ratios or set time-in-game). However, when they are not tied to a meaningful player achievement, they will quickly lose their value to players.

It is important to always consider rewards within the big picture of player progress to ensure they are meaningful junction points on the player journey.

5) Design for fairness and flow by keeping player skills and challenges in balance

One of the most talked about player experiences is Flow, a psychological concept from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I have written several papers on the topic) that is complex to assess but, in its most scaled-down version, is about the skill-challenge balance in game design.

Good game design allows players to incrementally get better at the challenges the game throws at them. Games do this through increasing player statistics and teaching players the right interaction patterns for their challenges.

For example, any boss fight (Castles) in a Mario game can be solved by figuring out the boss enemy attack pattern and timing the attacks accordingly.

That's it. Five techniques that will immediately improve the UX of your game or application when applying them.

UX Research App of the Week: Notably

Notably is a user research platform to collect, analyze, and share user research. From my first experience, it feels very close to Dovetail, which we featured in an earlier edition of the newsletter. It lets your upload observations and transcribe video and audio data. Their analysis feature is novel, more like how you would do it in a room with other researcher together on sticky notes, creating an affinity map, but here it's all online. The insights are similar to what other UX repositories offer, but quite useful to quickly create an insight link to a team instead of putting together a report. Pricing structure is similar to Dovetail with slightly less options and a higher entry price ($25/month) after the free tier. I wish they would have an affiliate program.

Games Research Find of the Week

This is a short paper that investigates breathing exercise games used in pneumonia rehabilitation. They created a game, Bubble Breather, that uses the microphone and speaker of phones or laptop computers to sense breathing via ultrasound. They created the game for two specific therapy types: breath stacking, where people inhale in succession with short pauses to create fuller breaths, and Positive Expiratory Pressure (PEP) Therapy, where people exhale forcefully against resistance (this increases airway pressure expelling fluids).

The bubble breather game looks a lot like Kirby (but the character is called Bubs), where bubbles are collected and paintings are created (two mini games for each therapy).

Ideas that stick out:

  • Game can be easily controlled with no special equipment (ultrasound through the microphone).
  • The mini games seem like a fun alternative to the two therapy types.
  • They plan to provide outcome measures on adherence for clinicians to support understandings of patient progress.

Read the full study: Aaron Tabor, Reyhan Pradantyo, Book Sadprasid, Max V. Birk, Erik Scheme, and Scott Bateman. 2020. Bubble Breather - A Breathing Exercise Game to Support Pneumonia Rehabilitation and Recovery. In Extended Abstracts of the 2020 Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play (CHI PLAY '20). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 86–90. 

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