How to properly create your own playability heuristics [TATT #36]

the acagamic tip tuesday Oct 25, 2022
A screenshot of Overwatch 2 juxtaposed against the set of gameplay usability heuristics with a new entry in there saying I'm creating my own.

In today's issue 36 of The Acagamic Tip Tuesday, I will show you how to create your own playability heuristics or tune an existing set for your needs. The benefits of tuning or making heuristics are that they will be the best fit for the game you are developing, and they will be more contextualized for your UX research situation.

Creating your own playability heuristics: Many playability heuristic sets are rigid or decontextualized when used as a checklist for player researchers. Characterize, broaden, append, or remove heuristics from existing sets or create a set of your own.

The limitations of playability heuristics are their lack of contextualization for your game project

Defining what playability is and why game developers need to create playable games is essential. Playability is the degree to which a game can be completed within a set timeframe with minimal frustration or wasted time. This can be tricky to measure, but several factors can contribute to it, such as whether controls are responsive and easy to use, if the environment is consistent and logical, and if the mission objectives are clear. By understanding how playability affects players' experience and making sure their games adhere to established standards, game developers can create titles that are more enjoyable for everyone involved.

As a user experience researcher, it is crucial to have a strong understanding of playability heuristics. Heuristics can be used to evaluate different aspects of games, including the ease of learning how to play, how quickly the game progresses, and how challenging the gameplay is.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to playability heuristics. The most important thing is to select the right ones for your project. Some common gameplay heuristics (that I've talked about in another newsletter issue [#33]) include clear goals (i.e., the game provides clear goals or supports player-created goals), balance of gameplay elements (i.e., challenge, strategy, and pace are in balance), or playing style (i.e., the game supports different playing styles).

It is also essential to ensure that your heuristics are measurable and testable. This means that you can measure how well players achieve a goal or complete specific tasks within the game, as well as determine whether it supports a player's playing style.

To select your heuristics, make sure your criteria are specific and tailored to the assessed game. They should also be based on how users interact with the game so that you can get an accurate picture of the player experience. This helps guide your evaluation while ensuring that all game elements are evaluated equally.

Creating playability heuristics to fit your game project

Many playability heuristics are close to universally applicable, but can also be rigid or decontextualized when used as a checklist for player researchers. To properly assess games, UX researchers should have a strong understanding of how to apply them in context because heuristic sets aren't perfect and shouldn't be used to define your entire research approach.

Before using playability heuristics in your project, evaluate the playability requirements of your game against the set you are currently using. The first step in creating your own set of playability heuristics is to gain a thorough understanding of your players - who they are, why they will be playing your game, and how they will be playing it. Use your target audience's needs and wants to create criteria for your playability heuristics.

Creating your own set of playability heuristics begins by identifying the critical elements of a game's design that affect player engagement. These may include controls, graphics/animation, level design/layout, storytelling/narration, audio/visual effects (A/V), pacing, and gameplay mechanics. After assessing the game's individual elements, combine them into a cohesive system to create an understanding of the overall playable experience.

Creating your own playability heuristics helps ensure that your game is enjoyable for players. By carefully considering the needs of your project and evaluating the usability and playability requirements, you can create heuristics that are comprehensive and effective. For example, if your game requires precise timing or twitch skills, you should focus on factors such as accuracy and speed when creating heuristics. Conversely, if your game relies more on the story or narrative elements, you may want to focus on aspects like pacing and storytelling mechanics.

Modifying existing playability heuristics sets

When analyzing requirements for a game, you might use different parameters than for a more generic game. In some cases, you can preserve the heuristic in your evaluation criteria while making a few minor adjustments to make it better fit your game.

  • Characterize your heuristics. You might decide that a specific criterion, if qualified for the context, is appropriate for your design. For example, some player may only enjoy certain playstyles if they've played games from specific genres.

  • Broaden heuristic criteria. Multiple playability criteria might be particularly salient to a specific game. In these situations, it may be appropriate to either expand a particular heuristic to include the core playability targets or divide the heuristic into several parts to address that subject. This was done with the free-to-play heuristics that I linked in an earlier newsletter.

  • Append additional heuristics. After analysing the design and players for your game, you may find that the existing playability requirements don't fully cover everything that's needed. Alternatively, you can decide to preserve a criterion in its current form while also changing another version to address somewhat different criteria. When you encounter a playability issue that existing heuristics don't address, you can create a new criterion.

  • Remove inapplicable heuristics. Sometimes a heuristic criterion isn't effective. It might be preferable to do away with that heuristic and concentrate on more pertinent playability needs.

Toward a tailored heuristics set for your project

Make sure that your set of heuristics are tailored specifically to meet the goals of your project. For example, if you want a challenging but fun game, then make sure that all aspects of gameplay are considered when creating heuristics such as enemy AI difficulty levels and enemy placement within levels. Conversely, if you only care about making games accessible to a wide audience then focusing solely on ease-of-use criteria may be sufficient.

Heuristics show how playable your game is compared to others. By doing this research early, you can make sure your final product meets player expectations and any specific business requirements. You can create a solid and accurate assessment of any given title without compromising assessment speed by selectively applying these guidelines based on individual preferences.

Having your own set of playability heuristics provides significant advantages over using those provided by other sources because they're tailored specifically towards your own player base's needs and preferences without relying on subjective opinion or guesswork from anyone else involved in the gaming industry (including ourselves!). This allows you to not only assess specific games on release day, but also future installments in existing franchises.

Games Research Find of the Week

This paper introduces a new set of criteria that can be applied to usability tests of video games. The heuristics were created to make it easier to spot usability issues in early and working game prototypes. They created the heuristics by examining PC game reviews from a well-known gaming website. The review set includes 18 titles from each of the six main game categories, and it included 108 different games. The study has a caveat: it uses self-report answers, which the authors have yet to confirm match how players actually behave in games.

The 10 game heuristics presented in the paper are:

  1. Provide consistent responses to the user’s actions. Games should react predictably to user input. Basic mechanics like opponent behaviour, character movement, hit detection, and game physics should all be appropriate for the situation the user is in. Input mappings in games should be consistent, so that player actions always result in the desired results.

  2. Allow users to customize video and audio settings, difficulty and game speed. The video, audio, difficulty and game speed settings in games should be customizable to accommodate the needs of all users.

  3. Provide predictable and reasonable behaviour for computer-controlled units. The computer should help the user control their units in a predictable way that doesn't require extra commands. Units should be able to pathfind and behave reasonably in different in-game situations.

  4. Provide unobstructed views that are appropriate for the user’s current actions. Most games provide users with a visual representation, or "view," of the virtual location they're occupying. The game should offer views that allow the user to have a clear view of the area and all visual information tied to the location. Views should also be designed so they're appropriate for the activity the user is carrying out in the game. For example, in a 3D game different camera angles may be needed for jumping sequences, fighting sequences, and small and large rooms.

  5. Allow users to skip non-playable and frequently repeated content. Games should allow users to skip non-playable content, such as audio and video sequences, so that it does not interfere with gameplay.

  6. Provide intuitive and customizable input mappings. To create a playable game, your input mapping must be designed for quick and accurate responses from the user. Mappings should be easy to learn and use, leveraging spatial relationships and other natural pairings. Games should also adopt input conventions that are common in other similar games. Allow users to remap input settings, support standard input devices, and provide shortcuts for expert players.

  7. Provide controls that are easy to manage and that have an appropriate level of sensitivity and responsiveness. The controls for an avatar should be designed for easy user management, responsiveness, and realism.

  8. Provide users with information on game status. Users need to track the current status of their character, objectives, teammates, and enemies to make proper decisions while playing the game.

  9. Provide instructions, training, and help. Users should have access to documentation and interactive training to help them understand game mechanics. When appropriate, default or recommended choices should be provided to simplify complex games. Additional help should also be accessible within the application.

  10. Provide visual representations that are easy to interpret and that minimize the need for micromanagement. Design visual representations to be easy to interpret, uncluttered, and able to help users differentiate important from irrelevant elements. Also, design these representations to minimize the need for micromanagement.

Read the full study: David Pinelle, Nelson Wong, and Tadeusz Stach. 2008. Heuristic evaluation for games: usability principles for video game design. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI '08). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 1453–1462.

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