More important than story, sound, and even gameplay, user experience (UX) is often overlooked in games that get it right. Games that get it wrong aren't spoken of, or if they are, never in good terms. In this article we will learn why UX is the most important part of game design, and how cognitive load will guide our future UX development to let our game systems, story, and sound shine through!
UX designers translate the game itself into a form that players can digest. To do this we must understand the goals of the game's design, and achieve union between the game and the player via the interface and hardware. For example, if the game mechanic we wish to convey is first-person shooting, we must first ask which control method the player will use. If our player is using a mouse, we are best served with a naive approach, where movement of the mouse corresponds to aim since the mouse is a high-precision pointing device. However, the same game on a touch screen will require quite a bit more assistance: aim assist to eliminate small errors caused by the width of the user's finger, the layout of touch zones, dead zones, how much of the screen can be covered by the user's hand, how we expect the user to hold the device, and many other small nuances make first person shooter design a challenging UX task.
You can imagine that if touchscreen controls are done poorly, the first person shooter will likely perform poorly on mobile. Why, specifically? Because in this case, the cognitive load for the player to perform the central mechanic, aiming and firing a gun, is high on mobile because of a lack of feedback and precision in the controls compared to a mouse. Touch screens don't click like a mouse, and your finger covers many screen pixels whereas a mouse pointer only covers a single pixel. Furthermore, starting and stopping motion on a finger is much less precise at small distances compared to a mouse because the size of the touch area obscures fine movements on the capacitive surface.
Cognitive load refers to the amount of mental effort required to perform a task. Just like when you perform a physical task such as carrying a heavy object, you become tired if you perform many mental tasks each having significant cognitive load.
Good UX design decreases the cognitive load required to interact with the game. This is our primary guideline.
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To decrease the player's cognitive load, we must first understand three things in detail: our player, the game mechanics we wish to convey to them, and the hardware we must use to interface with the player.
First, we start with the player. How old are they? What skill level do they have in our type of game, overall? Think also about constraints that are common to all players, such as the number of fingers that can be positioned in a given area of screen space or how many levels deep should our menus be? (Never more than 2!)
Next, think about what we want the game to accomplish in the context of the player. What are it's mechanics, and what is the easiest way for our player to interact with those mechanics? For example, in a real-time strategy game should the player select units individually, or select entire squads of units all at once? If You wish to decrease the cognitive load undertaken by the player, you will need ways of reducing the burden of unit selection in a game with hundreds of units on the field.
Finally, how does the hardware factor into the way we translate the game mechanics into something that the user can interact with and experience fully? This is the one area where you are least likely to have any influence. For example if you're deploying to iOS, then you have a very limited set of options when it comes to actually obtaining input from the player.
So that covers the general challenge of UX design and simply being aware of these will give you an edge over the competition, especially the importance of cognitive load which I can't stress enough. But I also thought it would be helpful to share one or two of my own insights from my experience as a game developer.
When designing a graphical user interface we are designing a graphic element first and foremost, so we must examine the fundamentals of graphic design in the context of the user. They are:
We wish to guide the player's eye, and also we wish to position elements based on how often they are needed. There are also various conventions that we should be aware of when developing a certain type of game.
We want to balance the placement of UI elements so that there isn't too much crowding, and the player gets relevant information at a single glance. This is why we find different elements commonly grouped together in the corners. Placing UI elements in the corners by category keeps them out of the way of each other so that they don't have to be mentally sorted by the player. We also want to practice repetition by making different menus similar to each other in as many ways as we find practical. This allows the player to navigate more menus comfortably than they would normally be able to. We wish to create a contrast between primary and secondary elements that shows dominance, and arrange and size our elements so that they form a hierarchy. The player will naturally scan the top levels of the hierarchy before proceeding to finer detail areas of the UI.
It is smart to position the player's health and ammo near the crosshair in a shooting game because it requires less effort for them to perform the repetitive task of checking it in an already mentally-demanding situation. The purpose is always the same: reduce cognitive load so that the player can engage fully with the game.
If you do your job well as a UX designer, the player will never notice your work. They will be too busy leveling up or buying in-game purchases to notice how nice the menus are. And that's how it should be!
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