Game Usability
eBook - ePub

Game Usability

Advice from the Experts for Advancing UX Strategy and Practice in Videogames

Katherine Isbister, Celia Hodent, Katherine Isbister, Celia Hodent

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eBook - ePub

Game Usability

Advice from the Experts for Advancing UX Strategy and Practice in Videogames

Katherine Isbister, Celia Hodent, Katherine Isbister, Celia Hodent

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This book introduces the basics in game usability and overall game UX mindset and techniques, as well as looking at current industry best practices and trends. Fully updated for its second edition, it includes practical advice on how to include usability in already tight development timelines, and how to advocate for UX and communicate results to higher-ups effectively.

The book begins with an introduction to UX strategy considerations for games, and to UX design, before moving on to cover core user research and usability techniques as well as how to fit UX practices into the business process. It provides considerations of player differences and offers strategies for inclusion as well as chapters that give platform and context specific advice. With a wealth of new interviews with industry leaders and contributions from the very best in game UX, the book also includes brand new chapters on:

  • Accessibility

  • Mobile Game Usability

  • Data Science

  • Virtual and Augmented Reality

  • Esports

This book will be vital reading for all professional game developers and game UX advocates, as well as those students aspiring to work in game development and game UX.

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CRC Press
Art General

CHAPTER 1 Introduction: What’s New in This Edition and How to Read This Book

Katherine Isbister and Celia Hodent
Thanks for picking up the second edition of Game Usability! A lot has happened since the release of the first edition in 2008. Some who contributed to that first edition (including the prior co-editor, Noah Schaffer) largely moved on to other topics, while the field went through a tremendous period of growth and transformation that is well represented by new contributions to the book. In fact, out of 19 chapters, 12 are entirely new.
Katherine: This is due in large part to Celia’s efforts having joined as an editor of the second edition, bringing her deep expertise and industry ties to gather new chapters that represent the current state of the art, as well as a broader array of voices and perspectives than in the first edition. I’m very proud of how the book has changed to catch up to current times.
Celia: When I received Katherine’s message one afternoon in April 2020 asking me if I’d be interested in co-editing the second edition to Game Usability, I literally had to verify several times if I had understood this correctly. Was the pandemic lockdown gloom starting to play tricks on me? It was such an honor for me that I could not believe it. When I first started in the game industry in 2008, this book was the only one talking about game user experience, at a time when this term was not even commonly used. This book, The Design of Everyday Things (Norman, 2013), and Rules of Play (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004) were the first pillars that allowed me to make my transition from cognitive psychology academia to game design and game development. Even today, I still quote Isbister and Schaffer every time I introduce usability to my masterclass audience: “Making software usable means paying attention to human limits in memory, perception, and attention,” said the introduction. The book not only beautifully introduced game usability to new practitioners such as myself but also clearly emphasized the importance of considering the “overall user experience… including how engaging the experience is,” which paved the way to how I would later break down game UX in my own framework (into usability and engage-ability). Katherine and Noah, along with all the contributors of the first edition, offered the game UX community an immense legacy that I’m grateful for. I hope that my contribution to this second edition is worthy of Katherine’s trust and that this book will be as meaningful to new practitioners as the first edition was to me.
With the broadening of our field comes a lot more to learn, and a greater responsibility to do things well. User experience processes and methodologies have become increasingly trendy in the game industry, which is very exciting for the game UX community. But the new UX popularity has brought some confusion, while misconceptions are not even dispelled yet. Among studios where UX is better accepted, it can still be perceived as being one step in the process (such as a late round of UX research to magically solve all UX issues right before launch), instead of being understood as being the process itself, or more precisely the mindset to establish the process from. UX roles have been flourishing yet aren’t clearly understood or defined, and are sometimes even given to game professionals who do not necessarily have expertise in human factors psychology, human–computer interaction (HCI), design thinking, or user research. Moreover, we are starting to witness the scientific approach getting increasingly dismissed. While we know that we can only do “good enough” science in our fast-paced industry, we won’t be able to overcome our biases as game makers, or identify biases in the data we collect, if we lose sight of why the scientific method exists in the first place. Sometimes conclusions about the merit of a new UX design approach are made without even having any data collected among users! It’s great that UX is becoming popular, but we now need to remind some developers what the core of our strategy is: placing humans at the center of our process and using HCI guidelines, design thinking, and a scientific approach to identify, understand, and solve problems.
More concerningly, UX practitioners are starting to be perceived as some sort of mind-trickers who will maximize player retention and game revenue. The game UX community has managed to get people to listen to and understand why UX is important. We now need to establish more standardized vocabulary and practices, clear out any remaining confusion and misconceptions, and remind everyone that our primary concern is the players, not revenues. And that we care about all users. Accessibility has thankfully finally gained some traction in our industry, thanks to the tireless work of game accessibility advocates, but there’s still a lot to do. Inclusion efforts overall have mostly barely made a blip, and ethics is rarely even brought up. If we want to live up to the promise of offering all gamers the best experience possible while minding their best interests, we now need to focus our efforts on making people understand that a UX strategy entails prioritizing humans over business, or at the very least nurturing an ethical win–win balance between the two.
We are at a very exciting moment for game UX. We get to shape and refine best practices, establish standards, and hopefully advance ethics at the same time as UX maturity in the game industry. This is why efforts have been made in this book to have diverse voices discuss diverse UX topics (although inclusion within the game industry and the UX world still has a long way to go), while striving for better standardization, good practice, and good science.
We aim for this volume to be a solid introduction to the basics in game usability and overall game UX techniques, as well as a look at current industry best practices and trends. Speaking of UX, we changed the subtitle of the book for this edition to bring this important term forward. Part I explains why and introduces UX considerations related to games. It consists of Chapter 2, in which editor Celia Hodent defines current challenges for advancing UX maturity in the game industry, and Chapter 3, with game designer Steve Swink offering insights on usability for game feel. This section also includes interviews with UX designers Anouk Ben-Tchavtchavadze, Mike Mariano, and Laura Taylor on the various challenges of UX design, and an updated interview with creative director Jenova Chen, capturing design lessons he learned throughout his career.
Part II covers core usability techniques. In Chapter 4, Microsoft games user research (GUR) team members introduce RITE (Rapid Iterative Testing and Evaluation), playtesting, TRUE (Tracking Realtime User Experience), flighting, narrative methods, and dial testing, among other key topics and approaches, while describing the evolution of their company’s team over time. Chapter 5 (written by editor Katherine Isbister) gives the reader instructions and advice for trying out a quick user test on their own, to get started in practicing these methods. Chapter 6, by Noah Schaffer, offers guidance on how to conduct heuristic evaluation in games. Jettie Hoonhout dives into think aloud and interviewing techniques in Chapter 7. In Chapter 8, Melissa Boone takes the reader on a journey exploring numerous human biases and what they mean for videogame development. Chapter 9 by Gaelle Arlaut provides a solid introduction to game analytics, and Chapter 10 is a tour of physiological measures, by Regan Mandryk and Madison Klarkowski.
Part III addresses fitting usability and UX into the business process, with Chapter 11, by Heather Chandler, explaining how to integrate UX processes into the production pipeline. This section also gathers several interviews with industry experts who share their thoughts about different organizational challenges: Nana Wallace and Rob Johnson (PlayStation), Joe Florey (PlayStation), Alexandra Perry (Media Molecule), and Tobi Saulnier (1st Playable Productions).
Part IV goes deeply into considerations of player differences and how they impact usability and UX. Topics range from broader considerations of ethics, trust and safety (Chapter 12, by Carlos Figueiredo), accessibility (Chapter 13, by Ian Hamilton), and inclusion (Chapter 14, by Jessica Murrey). It includes many perspectives on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in our workforce, in our designs, and in our processes (with interviews with Tülay Tetiker McNally, Trinidad Hermida, Jessica Zammit, and Kishonna Gray), as well as considerations of players’ motivations (Nick Yee), localization (Roppyaku Tsurum and Kenji Ono), and culturalization (Kate Edwards).
Part V offers chapters that focus on different subareas of games that can benefit from detailed usability and UX advice, ranging from platforms such as mobile (Chapter 15, by Holly Grothues, Andrea Abney, and Ryan Boughter), casual games (Chapter 16, by Nicholas Fortugno), augmented and virtual realities (Chapter 17, by Alexandria Heston), to esports (Chapter 18 by Laura Levy, Sven Charleer, and Taylor Dale Wright), to emerging topics such as artificial intelligence (interview with Erin Drake Kajioka), blockchain (interview with Nicolas Pouard), and metaverses (interview with Phylissa Li).
Part VI includes Chapter 19, by Bridget Hapner and Carly A. Kocurek, which focuses on less well-known but important historical work that has influenced today’s practice of game usability and UX, an interview with Yvonne Rogers concerning the challenges of UX and games from the perspective of an HCI researcher, and, finally, Chapter 20, by editors Katherine and Celia, which provides resources for continuing to learn about all things game usability and UX.
This book assembles the voices of a total of 49 professionals, in an effort to celebrate the richness of perspectives that makes the strength and beauty of our thriving game UX community. It’s an immense pleasure and privilege to have collaborated with all these authors for this second edition, and we warmly thank them for their time and dedication to this project.
We’d like to take a moment to acknowledge those authors who did not carry forward into this edition (George Amaya, John P. Davis, Chuck Harrison, Richard Hazlett, Jun H. Kim, Sauli Laitinen, Nicole Lazzaro, Mie Nørgaard, Bruce Phillips, Eric Schuh, Janus Rau Sørensen, and Chris Swain)—their work has been crucial to laying the foundation for game usability and UX as it exists today. We’d also like to thank Rick Adams of CRC for gently pressuring Katherine to update this book, as well as Will Bateman at CRC for helping the book to the finish line. Katherine would like to thank all the students in her courses at NYU and UCSC for providing a sounding board for what does and doesn’t work in a resource like this, so far as teaching new practitioners.
We hope that you enjoy the book!


  • Norman, D. A. (2013). The Design of Everyday Things, Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Basic Books.
  • Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (Vol. 1). London: MIT Press.

PART I UX and Usability

CHAPTER 2 Advancing Game UX Maturity

Celia Hodent
When I started my career in the videogame industry in 2008, user experience was not a trendy topic. User research and usability were just gaining traction, and the largest studios were conducting regular playtests thanks to the groundbreaking work of games user researchers and UX advocates, yet there were no in-depth discussions of the UX mindset, or what UX strategy meant in game development. UX practices have advanced greatly across the industry since, yet there is still no unified understanding of what UX strategy is or how to develop it (as of 2021). This lack of understanding is illustrated by the regular confusion around how to define different UX roles, or even game UX itself.
When I say “UX,” I am not referring to a specific discipline or role. I mean “having a UX mindset or philosophy,” which broadly speaking consists of considering the experience of the end users (i.e. players) at every step of the game development and publishing processes. It encompasses considering how the target audience will hear about a new game, why they will be interested in playing it, how and where they will buy it, the installation process, the onboarding of the game, the whole experience as players interact with the game, their experience outside of the game (e.g. on social media channels), their interactions with community managers or customer support, etc. The classic definition of UX, as expressed by Don Norman (who coined the term UX in the 1990s) and Jakob Nielsen on their website, says that “‘User experience’ encompasses all aspects of the end user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”1 Per this definition, the user can also be a customer or a player, depending on their current interaction within the game company ecosystem. In this chapter, the terms “UX” and “users” will be used as overarching terms describing all of these perspectives and experiences, and I will use the terms “users” and “players” interchangeably.
Having a UX mindset means minding the entire experience that users will have, in every way they interact with the game and the company, and ensuring that this experienc...

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