Applying UX skills to game design

Nathan Verrill of Natron Baxter Applied Gaming provides a wonderful in-depth explanation of how he designed Signtific Lab, a game that facilitates prolific high-quality brainstorming around a central question.  While the project was wholly a game, Nathan’s descriptions of the process steps and deliverables will sound very familiar to any UX designer: mind maps, wireframes, design comps, user testing, analytics, and so on.  His background is in the design of conventional user experiences, and those same core competencies lent themselves well to the design of a successful game.

While they currently reside in different industrial families, user experience design and game design share a common parent in human-computer interaction.  To the extent they differ, there are opportunities for cross-discipline learning.  To the extent that they’re similar, expertise and skills transfer well from one practice to another.  My own experiences applying UX skills to game design provide examples of both.

I designed my first game in 2002, when Unisys started an annual tradition of sending e-cards with embedded games to clients, employees, and partners.  Each year, the in-house Web team would design and develop an original game, taking it from concept to delivery.  Our first idea was for a miniature golf game that fit in with the company’s sponsorship of professional golf tournaments.  While we were excited about the opportunity, none of us had made video games before.  So we applied the same methods and skills that we used in the design of websites, simply because they were the only ways we knew to approach any design problem.

We started by conducting ethnographic research at a miniature golf course.  Now I realize that last sentence reads like it’s meant to be facetious, but this was actually an indispensable step in understanding what makes the real-life game interesting, exciting, frustrating, funny, social, competitive, and worthwhile.  For example, we discovered that the courses were often designed to tempt people who overestimate their own proficiency to attempt difficult putts which, if missed, put the ball much farther away from the hole.  This in turn creates a social dynamic that can reverse the fortunes of beginners who play it safe, and skilled golfers who take greater risks.

Portion of the game wireframe, showing the putting interface

Portion of the game wireframe, showing the putting interface

From there I designed a short wireframe, available here as a PDF.  In some ways this was a traditional document, showing the core functionality while saying very little about the game’s appearance.  But in other ways it was very different.  The document focused on small interactions, as we were developing every interface element from the ground up instead of relying on ready made widgets like those baked into Web browsers.  These were presented as atomic pieces that could be assembled to build a course, much like a pattern library.  I also experimented with ways to show motion over time, and the effects of objects moving relative to one another.

Golf game wireframe, showing some of the obstacles

Wireframe of some of the obstacles players had to face

The finished game, which you can play here, had its strengths and weaknesses.  The visual presentation was fantastic and the level design was really good (owing to the efforts of Todd Horning and Mike Rosario), but it had some important usability and learnability problems (precisely the things that I should have been on top of).  I think the core mistake was in describing the interface elements as individual pieces without showing how they should be put together.  At the time, I reasoned that game design needed broad creative latitude and that the traditional prescriptive wireframe would have been too limiting.  But it turned out that the way the pieces hang together, as with a conventional user interface, is really critical the experience of the game.  For subsequent games in the holiday series my documents actually started to look more and more like Web wireframes.

Do you have examples of games you’ve designed using conventional UX methods?  If so, I’d love to hear from you!


1 comment so far

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jan Jursa, Pete Barry, Mike Archer, carriejill, Chongho Lee and others. Chongho Lee said: RT @IATV: Interesting article: "Applying UX skills to game design" ( […]

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