Winning Game UX Formula: Unite Usability and Engageability

The Acagamic Tip Tuesday #54

Player analyzing their gameplay experience for ultimate enjoyment. Player analyzing their gameplay experience.

Two key concepts are pivotal in determining a game’s success: usability and engageability. Usability includes controls, user interface, and accessibility. However, engageability attracts players by motivating, inspiring, and holding their attention throughout the game. Making an exceptional game that draws in players’ attention and is fun and smooth requires finding the right blend of easy-to-use and engaging features. In this newsletter issue, we’ll examine these two concepts, understand their basics, and discuss why UX design in games needs balance.

Making an exceptional game that draws in players’ attention and is fun and smooth requires finding the right blend of easy-to-use and engaging features.

Usability: Functionality and Understanding

Usability, as defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO 9241-11), refers to the “extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use.” Usability in game UX design means making the game easy to comprehend and play so players can fully immerse themselves. Beyond the ISO standard, games must address five critical usability factors:

  1. Clear and intuitive user interface (UI): A good UI makes menus, in-game settings, and critical information easy to use. “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt”’s UI clearly displays important information such the player’s health, minimap, and active quests, allowing players to rapidly understand their state and goals.

  2. Effective controls and input methods: Controls and input methods should be intuitive and responsive. The “Super Mario” series offers straightforward controls for jumping, running, and attacking, as well as enough depth for advanced gameplay.

  3. Signs and feedback that guide players: Signs and feedback are crucial for guiding players through the game, providing understanding of mechanics and a sense of progression. In “Dark Souls,” bonfires act as checkpoints and safe zones, offering visual cues for navigation and feedback for reaching milestones.

  4. Accessibility and inclusiveness: Customizable controls, colourblind settings, and difficulty levels make games accessible to all players. “The Last of Us Part II” establishes a high bar for accessibility, offering several options to suit different needs and make the game fun for everyone.

  5. Consistent design language: Consistent design helps players naturally understand the game’s mechanics, aesthetics, and aural cues. The “Legend of Zelda” series uses a sound effect and visual cue to indicate when secrets are found or puzzles are completed.

Playtesting and user research are crucial to improving usability. Game designers can discover faults, optimize the user experience, and appeal to a large audience by getting input from a diverse range of players. This iterative approach creates a fun, accessible game for a successful and engaging gaming experience.

Engageability: Motivation and Emotion

Providing an emotionally fulfilling and motivating experience is what makes a game engaging. Engaging games immerse and entertain players. Engageability involves:

  1. Meaningful goals and rewards: Goals and rewards should motivate players to progress, complete challenges, and explore the game environment. In “Red Dead Redemption 2,” players are motivated to finish objectives and side quests by both the in-game prizes and the complex narrative and character development.

  2. Intrinsically motivating gameplay (competence, autonomy, relatedness): Games should provide intrinsically motivating gameplay by addressing players’ core psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” is an excellent example, as players are free to explore a vast open world (autonomy), develop their character’s skills and abilities (competence), and form relationships with in-game characters through quests and dialogue (relatedness).

  3. Emotional engagement through storytelling, characters, and aesthetics: Players need emotional engagement to stay motivated. Storytelling, characters, and aesthetics can provoke a wide spectrum of emotions, connecting players to the game world. “The Last of Us” is known for its emotive storytelling, with dramatic narrative arcs and nuanced characters that make players care about the game.

  4. Flow state: balancing challenge and skill: Players must balance challenge and skill to reach a flow state. Games should gradually rise in difficulty to help players improve while challenging them. “Celeste” offers increasingly demanding platforming tasks while giving players the tools and opportunities to master the game principles.

Player feedback and analytics help optimize engageability by letting game developers tweak the experience depending on real-world player data. Developers may boost game engagement by tracking measures like player retention, completion rates, and in-game behaviour.

Balancing Usability and Engageability

Games succeed when usability and engageability are balanced. Usability makes the game easy to use, but engageability keeps players motivated. Creating a compelling game requires equilibrium between these two qualities. These three methods can help balance usability and engagement during development:

  1. Iterative design process: Refining usability and engageability requires iterative design. Based on user input and playtesting data, developers can test and refine various game elements over numerous cycles. For example, Epic Games has tweaked gameplay mechanics, UI features, and in-game events in “Fortnite” based on player input to improve usability and engagement.

  2. Integrating user research throughout development: User research during the development process provides constant feedback, allowing designers to discover and address usability and engageability issues. Developers can acquire design insights via usability tests, focus groups, and polls. Blizzard Entertainment used player feedback to improve character balance, map design, and game modes in “Overwatch,” balancing usability and engageability.

  3. Collaboration between design, development, and research teams: A strong collaboration between design, development, and research teams is vital to achieving the ideal balance between Usability and Engageability. These interdisciplinary teams should work together to share insights, evaluate design decisions, and iterate on game elements.

Developers create immersive, entertaining experiences that keep players coming back by using an iterative design process, integrating user research throughout development, and fostering collaboration between the design, development, and research teams.

Balancing Usability and Engageability for the Best Player Experience

Balancing usability and engageability is essential to create a captivating and enjoyable player experiences. As game designers, developers, and researchers, it is our responsibility to ensure the player experience remains at the forefront of our decision-making process, enabling us to create games that captivate players and leave a lasting impact.

Lennart Nacke, PhD
Lennart Nacke, PhD

Hey there, I am a Professor and the Research Director of the HCI Games Group at the University of Waterloo in Canada. I am a world-leading expert on what makes games engaging and how we can use them to improve products, systems, and services. My research is widely discussed and recognized by the New Yorker, Forbes, MIT Technology Review, CTV News, New Scientist, The Daily Mail, PC Gamer Magazine, and elsewhere. I have edited a textbook on Games User Research and authored hundreds of academic articles in gamification, user experience research, human-computer interaction, and game design.