How to distinguish at-game from in-game frustration (TATT#26)

the acagamic tip tuesday Aug 09, 2022
A screenshot of a frustrated player in a souls game.

In today's issue, I will show you how to distinguish at-game from in-game frustration when identifying player pain points in a video game.

At-game vs. in-game frustration: Motivating frustration encourages players to overcome challenges, a desirable in-game frustration. Disheartening frustration with game difficulty or controls is undesirable at-game frustration.

Many game UX problems come from not being able to understand what exactly causes player frustration. Games have frustration built in. The benefit of knowing what players are frustrated about is the difference between a successful game and a dud.

Unfortunately, many UX and game designers lack a clear understanding of motivating and demotivating player frustration. UX researchers should know: Positive frustration in-game keeps the player engaged. Negative frustration at-game causes players to disengage with the game.

In-game frustration is good, at-game frustration is bad

Of course, it is easy not to make the effort to distinguish between those two types of frustration. The distinction can be challenging at times:

  • Some designers argue frustration is related to enjoyment
  • Players have learned to pay a gamer tax before they can fully enjoy a game
  • Early arcade games were not designed for player completion but were purposefully too difficult to finish
  • Diverse player demographics have given rise to different internal pain point thresholds

Despite all of these, understanding how to distinguish in-game from at-game frustration will reward you with better player experiences.

Here is a step-by-step approach to spotting at-game frustration:

Quality of life features reduce frustration friction

While UX outside of games is concerned with frictionless experiences, we want friction in games. Challenges that players can overcome. It's important to understand that some frustration is part of a game's design.

Whatever prevents a player from experiencing the core gameplay loop is considered unwanted friction. This at-game frustration often comes from game controls not working or not working as intended. Additionally, it can come from unfair gameplay disadvantages making the gameplay feel unfair to a player.

Quality of life features are often related to smooth game controls and user interfaces (UI) operating as they should. Anything that makes players feel competent, allows them to attribute failure to their own actions and not the game's, and matches the challenges to their skills is considered a positive gameplay experience. For example, in-game (i.e., good) frustration is triggered by losing against a boss but knowing why you lost and how to change your behaviour. It is tied to learning.

Focus on pain point clusters to spot negative frustration

Now, that we know what causes good and bad frustration in games. How can we find it? Listen in on player pain points and find clusters. When players don't enjoy something, there is usually something more there. Drill down.

Many UX researchers focus primarily on avoiding at-game frustration using this testing and observation. Investigating controls. Checking game difficulty balancing with player feedback. However, while this yields quick-and-easy results, it is simply your standard user testing approach.

Focus on positive frustration to enhance player experience

A more robust technique is to focus on enhancing good frustration:

  • Are game mechanics clear and intuitive?
  • Do players know what they did wrong?
  • Can they spot and learn contextual game behaviour patterns?

The best way to create games that score highly with players is to focus on the positive, motivating moments where players can learn and improve.

UX Research App of the Week: Lookback

Lookback is an online lab tool for user researchers that work remotely. It can do in-person, remote moderated, and unmoderated research. It's like the standard observation and testing rooms you have in a lab but online. People can observe your testing session and exchange notes with you. You can do things like observation, usability testing, interviews, and remote ethnography.

I've tested it quite a while ago, and while I'm excited to use it again with a new license from a new grant, its worst feature is that it holds your data hostage when you stop paying for a plan. If you did not export videos and notes, it won't let you access them again until you pay the fee again. That's a pretty harsh downside of an otherwise really great user research tool.

Games Research Find of the Week

This paper extends the in-game and at-game frustration concepts from the classic paper from Gilleade and Dix (Using frustration in the design of adaptive videogames) and tests if we can measure frustrations through touch pressure (switched halfway through the experiment to a Microsoft Surface 3 tablet).

Their experiment had 42 people play an infinite runner game they've developed and used in several other papers called City Run in four conditions (2 at-game frustrations: gesture-input lag, gesture recognition fail; two in-game frustrations: easy and hard obstacle frequencies) plus a training session.

An exciting notion they introduce in their results is that how much frustration is not as crucial in determining enjoyment as where that frustration comes from. At-game frustration is indeed less enjoyable than in-game frustration in their experiment. They relate touch pressure intensity to the different frustration types and claim (with caveats) that positive frustration made players press harder than negative frustration.

Read the full study: Matthew K. Miller and Regan L. Mandryk. 2016. Differentiating in-Game Frustration from at-Game Frustration using Touch Pressure. In Proceedings of the 2016 ACM International Conference on Interactive Surfaces and Spaces (ISS '16). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 225–234. 

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