The evolution of video games
The video game industry is almost akin to a living, breathing planet, complete with various geographical locations, fantastic landscapes, heroes and villains, law & lawlessness, and now unsurprisingly even its own currency system as evident from what is called blockchain gaming or crypto gaming. In case we’ve roused your curiosity, here’s a list of the top crypto games for now that you can play to make some cool earnings in cryptocurrency.
When you think about it though, it’s one heck of a time that we live in today. I remember the first ever video game I played as a teen in the summer of 1992 and being completely blown away by the entire experience. It was Contra, an extremely popular 8-bit run and gun shooting video game from the late 80s.
Developed and published by legendary Japanese entertainment and video game company Konami, Contra was my first brush with the limitless boundaries that one could push their virtual avatar to. From being granted multiple lives (almost makes you feel invincible) to various levels of firepower, an assistive commando (sidekick more like) for a backup to being able to somersault onto buildings, it was an immersive experience like no other.
As basic as it was, Contra was the first in a long line of video games - action, sports, RPG and strategy - that set the ball rolling for me over the years. Mario series to Crash Bandicoot, Street Fighter to Mortal Kombat, FIFA series to Tony Hawk’s series, SimCity to Age of Empires, every game had its unique appeal with one factor in common - user experience that got better with subsequent releases.
Surely, it goes without saying that’s pretty much the one factor that rules over the rest when it comes to the success of a game, isn’t it? Read any game review and you’ll know what I mean. Even gaming accessories like VR headsets, wireless controllers and motion sensing devices were introduced to enhance a gamer’s user experience.
So, how do these aspects - features or accessories - influence gamers in making their purchase decisions? But, more importantly, what is the role of UX in game design?
For that, we’d like to take a closer look at some games that we believe stood out in the crowd so we can understand the factors that amplify their user experience. But, before we get into that, we thought we should give you an inkling of how far this industry has come so far.
How big is the video game industry really?
Gaming is on the rise and it's not just the video games. Gaming accessories and in-game purchases have also become more popular among gamers, with some devices being used for boardgames as well. The global market is projected to grow by 31% every year through 2025, reaching a whopping $268 billion dollars annually - that’s an increase of almost 80%. It peaked to $155.89 billion in 2020.
The USA will remain top dog in terms of market share worldwide just a tad below China, even though Asia has seen much faster growth rates recently due largely (though not exclusively) to the fact that they offer greater opportunities when purchasing digital goods inside their gaming apps or platforms rather than buying individual items within those same environments where monetization mechanisms like subscriptions don't exist yet.
Here are some more interesting facts about the world of video gaming that you probably didn’t know about:
- As of September 2021, there are an astounding 3.24 billion gamers around the world. That’s more than the entire population of China and India combined, feverishly tapping away on their controllers/keyboards in the name of entertainment.
- Whatever the reason (achievement or social), but female gamers have suddenly made their presence known - 41% of all US gamers and 40-45% of all gamers in Asia in 2020 to be precise. That number in the US has grown to 45% in 2021 incidentally.
A slew of gaming-friendly smartphones and high-speed internet have made this feat possible.
- According to a Statista survey, 38% of gamers in the US belonged in the age group of 18-34 in 2021, followed by 20% who were 18 years of age.
- Gamers in the 55-64 age group have increased their numbers by 32% from 2018 to 2021. Also, 24% of those that are grandparents and parents consider playing video games with their relatives “family time”.
- At least 49 million gamers in the US suffer from some form of disability, as per AbleGamers, a non-profit that helps gamers with disability through peer counseling and assistance with hardware and software challenges. They also train game developers in building accessible games.
Which reminds me (and this is my favorite part), Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller is one such innovation that lets disabled gamers customize their controllers to an arrangement that’s most comfortable for them. Way to go!
- There are now 2.2 billion mobile gamers around the world, with 203 million of them alone in the US. Not just that, the average gamer spends 24 minutes per day playing mobile games while a core gamer spends 142 minutes.
Game developers have their work cut out for them
One of the biggest challenges that a game designer faces is creating both a delightful and memorable experience for the players. Remember, the goal is to hook them gamers to build enough excitement for follow-up versions of the games they’re playing.
In order to be able to offer that experience to gamers, there are certain mistakes that game designers should avoid at all costs:
- Impregnating games with an overbearing amount of features. Overload of features has never done anyone any good, both for the developer as well as the gamers.
On the contrary, it can complicate a game, ruin gameplay and shrink the followers of a gaming company faster than it takes to complete a level.
- Building an interface that is too complicated to grasp or make use of. Remember, not every player is a hardcore gamer who’d land on their feet running when they play your game for the first time.
You want to avoid disappointing results after releasing your game? Hire some professional game testers to be sure you’ve covered all “breakable” areas.
- Failing to ensure that crucial information for gamers aren’t lost during gameplay. This can happen when NPCs (non-player characters) aren’t properly developed.
Almost all games that set players out on a quest have clues dropped along the way through NPCs. Poorly developed NPCs that won’t repeat clues to players that forget it and return to receive it again can be the downfall of a game.
You want to develop a good game? Develop smarter NPCs. Here’s a guide on how to create smarter NPCs.
In other words, the trick is to make games that are comfortably easier to get the hang of, so gamers don’t leave in frustration because they had to spend too much time in learning it. Of course, one of the ways to come around it is to create different levels of the same game by breaking it down to categories such as beginners, moderate and expert.
Despite these obvious challenges though, game developers are drawing in more and more gamers every second into what is clearly one of the fastest growing entertainment sectors today. And even though COVID-19 speed-bumped the planned releases of many games since 2020 (check this list of delayed game releases announced in 2021), the industry just keeps mushrooming every year.
Not just games, even major gaming events were cancelled in 2020 and converted from live attendance events to virtual events in 2021. Even E3, one of the biggest video gaming events in the world was forced to push E3 2021 to a digital-only event, although they promised an in-person E3 2022 in LA, California.
Here’s a complete list of all the gaming events of 2021 (both virtual and in-person) around the globe, most of them already over, some still to take place as scheduled. Take a look at what you missed and what you can still catch up on.
Why is user experience in video games so crucial?
Video games are not just some purposeless form of entertainment anymore, gloriously evolving from a cult culture to a form of learning tool and more. As technology improved, developers took note and began to make the process more user-friendly for gamers who expect positive experiences in order to maintain as well as boost interest levels.
User experience or UX has been described as a discipline that strives at improving the experience of a user with almost anything that they can interact with, starting from a door to an electronic kiosk. UX and UI (user interface) go together where designing an entire system to meet the needs of users through elements like navigation and usability are concerned.
The word "UX" has been thrown around quite often in recent years as more companies have realized that great UIs are vital if you want your business to succeed today. It turns out there's way more than one subdivision of UX when creating something beautiful on screen - from sketching new ideas down with pen & paper to bringing those ideas to life.
Expectations are a fundamental part of how we accept products and services in the real world. These can attached to both cognitive aspects like functional expectations (what does this product/service do?) as well as emotions that stem from our emotional needs for self-fulfilment, which is why it's vital that you train your undivided focus on users when designing any new product or service.
With moving storylines and characters that achieved cult status at the backdrop, video games and their developers face huge expectations from the players. Whether they manage to meet those expectations depends entirely on what they have on offer.
Let’s look at some of the games through which their developers got it just right. After all, we’re all about user experience and we just love exploring diverse areas where this design discipline can be applied to make human lives better.
Developer: Rockstar Studios
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, Google Stadia
Offering extended controls and freedom to players
In-game customization had always been a special privilege for players, one which they simply loved using to its last bit. Being able to change physical features of one’s avatar or what they wear somehow made games seem more interactive to the players, including me.
It was no surprise therefore when the third release in the Red Dead series and a personal favorite of mine, RDR 2 took character customization to a whole new level in this wild west spinner. Arthur Morgan, the unapologetic brooder of a protagonist could change into more than just a shaved or bearded cowboy for a few cents.
Rockstar Games made it possible for players to choose how they wanted their version of Arthur to look like. Just in case you wanted Arthur to look different than a clean shaved hustler or simply adjust his beard/mustache length (which he can do himself in his tent) barbers in most towns can give him various styles for a meager 45 cents.
And if you feel a little more adventurous than that, there are some premium haircut and hairstyling options to choose from, which incidentally also lets you pick his hair color. Of course it’s going to cost you a smooth $45, which is okay as long as Arthur’s purse is fairly heavy from all those looting missions thrown up from time to time.
But if you think that’s all there’s to the customization that RDR 2 players were able to do, you’d be pleasantly surprised. The game developers made it possible for players to even customize Arthur’s outfit, including his shirt, jacket, trousers and boots as well as - wait for it - his horse’s mane and tail style. You heard that right!
I remember choosing dreadlocks for my horse with a braided tail to go when I upgraded from a Tennessee Walker to a Hungarian Halfbred. You can even choose the color of the mane and the tail while at it.
Offering more control and freedom to players doesn’t just add further value to a game, but to the whole gaming experience as well. And that’s the kind of UX that we hold in high esteem when looking at a product from a usability perspective.
Developer: Campo Santo
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Putting the focus on minimalism for better performance
Firewatch is perhaps the perfect example of how a beautiful user interface in a video game should look like. Simple, minimal and equipped with just the right amount of features that a player needs, Firewatch is the game that gamers would go to when they want a game that doesn’t confuse them with TMI or an interface that’s so heavy you literally hear your device churning in mechanical pain.
Stoking the Yellowstone fires of 1988 to virtual life, the game’s storyline centers around a fire lookout named Henry who’s posted at the Shoshone National Forest. Besides bagging a Best Storytelling award among others, Campo Santo blows up this stirringly crafted story on a first-person mode in the most simplistic way possible, making gameplay quite natural.
At a time when most games are becoming more and more interactive, it's rare to find something that is so basic but also fun. Firewatch grants players speech options in order for Henry to be able to speak or type on the keyboard while walking around.
It has an awesome walkie talkie action when trying to send messages back home by selecting which letter/symbol each button corresponds to. Just don't forget how much work goes into every little detail because nothing feels overlooked here.
It’s easy to see why people (ahem…developers) think that a game that offers as much information as possible clicks better with players. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
With so many options and menus on top of your designs for users to explore when they first come into an application or website - without any help from you - it's pretty easy to get lost among everything else they need up there.
With each new interface, developers are able to create immersive worlds. Minimalistic interfaces serve as the perfect canvas for this creativity by hiding all elements that would otherwise take up screen space and ruin immersion in games with too much clutter on them.
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Helping players recover from errors/mistakes
This is one area I can personally relate to. In all my years as an avid gamer, I’ve lost count of how many times I nearly finished a level only to find out that I got lost and can’t make my way back to a saved point right before I got lost - because there wasn’t any.
The resulting scenario - starting the entire level from the beginning. Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy come to mind when you think about games with insufficient or lousy check points / save points.
Enter Dark Souls! The second instalment in the Souls series, Dark Souls has been hailed as one of the best video games ever, thanks to its application of flavor text and labyrinthine level design. Of course, it has also received unfavorable reviews for its game difficulty level that’s almost too hard unless you’re an experienced hand.
Although in all fairness, where the game causes inconvenience for some, it makes up for it with something for which it has been hailed by everyone. If you think that I’m referring to the game's bonfires scattered throughout, you’re absolutely right.
For those who love to take risks and challenge themselves, Dark Souls is an experience like no other. The game’s signature element of the bonfires is so instrumental to its core design that they've become iconic not just for their function but also as a representation in gaming history, as is evident from its later adoption in Bloodborne, Sekiero and the much anticipated upcoming Elden Ring.
These bonfires are the check points where you can “rest” and regain full health, including the healing charges of your "Estus Flask," although at a grim cost. Turns out, it also respawns all the enemies of the Dark Souls world for you to combat again, except for the bosses, mini bosses and friendly NPCs.
Even if the game you’re developing may be a bit too difficult for casual gamers, it would still keep their spirit of adventure alive as long as you offer them enough opportunities to rekindle their chances. So, while you’re fulfilling the appetite of challenge-seeking core gamers, you get to maintain the interest level of casual gamers at the same time.
Released: 2015 (initial release)
Developer: CD Projekt Red
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, Nintendo Switch
Visibility of system status
Borrowing one more of the heuristics from Jakob Nielsen’s 10 principles for interaction design, I’d like to show you how this principle can be applied to video games to benefit the users. And The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt happens to be the perfect example to drive home the point.
Based on the fantasy novel series The Witcher by Polish novelist Andrzej Sapkowski, this is the third instalment in its own series of Witcher games developed by Polish developer CD Projekt Red. The storyline is pretty simple and follows a witcher named Geralt of Rivia, a monster slaying mercenary who’s searching for his adopted daughter Ciri in a world infested with wild creatures.
As an RPG that offers players the freedom to choose how they would play Geralt in the main and side quests, the game puts up gold and experience for them to collect through the quests. With so many quests to follow and rewards to collect, there’s every chance that there could be an information overload if not given out smoothly and timely.
Every feedback or information that a player receives along the way makes it possible for them to be on the right track to complete those missions. So to speak, these information would guide the players with a map, keep them notified on their health status and level progress, remind them of their next objectives, keep them updated with the distance to the next checkpoint and a statistics on their weapon log.
Now, all this are vital information that should be conveniently visible on the HUD (heads-up display) or status bar of the game’s interface for uninterrupted gameplay. From structuring the information visually without crowding up the interface to making it adaptable to the changing background (high contrast), visibility of status goes beyond the archetypical GUI of a video game.
Notice in the image above how the developers of The Witcher 3 did a commendable job out of its HUD, which clearly displays every bit of information (stats mostly) deemed necessary for a player’s mission. All the while, never dropping the ball on the level design or filling up the interface with an on-the-face barrage of alerts.
The text also cleverly adjusts to the background so it doesn’t strain the players' eyes. But most importantly, all these information are immensely helpful to the players who can make informed decisions on their next step based on the current statistics, such as evading a fight because Geralt’s health is too low.
This principle, in our books, goes a long way to show that developers put the users before everything in an attempt to make their product optimally functional and enjoyable. In the area of video games, it becomes even more crucial because of the complexity of its development process as a whole.
Assassin’s Creed Origins
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Stadia
Recognition over recall: Taking the stress away from users
You want to make it easy on the users? Make your products user-friendly. And one of the ways you can achieve that goal is by keeping the necessary elements for a great user experience within their reach instead of expecting them to recall or remember the details.
With a score of 9 out of 10 by IGN, Assassin’s Creed Origins is another favorite of mine whose fantastic gameplay and a whole lot of missions stole most of my daily hours in the initial months after I started playing it. Taking Bayek the Medjay through the vast terrains of Egypt, including catacombs and waterworlds, this absolute adventure ride of a game doesn’t disappoint players one bit.
But what’s most endearing about this game for me is its clever presentation of all the key game elements, such as map, abilities, gear, quests and inventory assorted very neatly available at the touch of a button (menu).
Not just beautifully designed, but cleverly packed and stowed away within reach are all the information and elements that a player needs to know about in order to progress further in the game. Not just that, it also helps players choose between the abilities they need to reinforce first to beat the enemies in their current mission.
Players can even go as far as improving their weapon stock to increase their power for stronger strikes at the enemies, as long as Bayek has enough Drachmas, which incidentally you can earn by selling your loot to an NPC called Reda or taking up side quests from him.
As Jakob Nielsen puts it, humans are limited in their ability to remember every little thing, especially crucial things when they are most needed. With user interfaces like the one that Assassin’s Creed Origins presents, it makes it easier for users to apply minimal cognitive efforts, making it a fun and enjoyable experience instead of a stressful experience.
As UX design agencies, it becomes not just our job, but our ethical responsibility to create designs that improve user experience, while keeping at it to make further improvisations from thereon. In other words, it’s a continuous effort in which we cannot cut corners at any cost.
At 0707, we strive to live and breathe by these usability principles, locking-in on factors that even our clients would generally overlook, all in the name of designing and developing products that users would be thrilled with. So, if you have an idea but not sure how to infuse life into it, just drop in, leave a message and wait for great things to unfold.