As Lead UX Designer at PixelAnt Games and mentor at SWPS University in Warsaw, I’m eager to delve into the player-focused approach within the game development cycle. Validating the games we create with our users is not just crucial; it’s the cornerstone of our craft. Drawing from my experience as a mentor and lecturer at the University of Social Science, and as a Women in Game Dev Ambassador, I passionately emphasize the significance of this validation process
At Pixel and Games, where I work, our focus is on crafting our unique games within the premium double-A segment. We prioritize a rational yet creatively charged approach to development.
From my experience, game creation is an incredible journey—filled with fun, challenges, and immense satisfaction as we craft worlds for players. However, it’s also laden with complexities and stresses due to uncertainties and risks.
Wouldn’t it be valuable to mitigate these risks and approach game development more rationally? I aim to showcase how we can achieve this. We’ll explore the gamer experience within the development process and examine tools that aid in making data-informed decisions, essential for creating exceptional games.
Let’s explore the gamer experience. When we discuss this, it’s crucial to consider the users—the gamers themselves. Here, we have a gamer on the brink of the epic win. It’s an external extraordinary experience, incredibly positive, and unexpected yet anticipated. You can see the sheer focus in their expression—eyebrows furrowed, eyes fixed, thoroughly immersed and enjoying the moment. This captivating image, taken by Phil Toledano, sought to capture the raw emotions of gamers.
Reflecting on this article, I vividly recall encountering this picture years ago during a TED talk by Jane McGonigal, where she spoke about gaming’s potential to enhance our world. That moment was pivotal for me—it sparked the realization that I could merge my background in education and psychology with game development.
To craft an experience that resonates with players, understanding the brain’s underlying processes becomes paramount. In essence, it’s a simplification, but let’s break it down: it begins with perception. We receive inputs—data, visuals, information—which our brains process. This processing leads to learning effects, altering memories in diverse ways for different individuals. The process is heavily influenced by our limited attention spans, our emotions, and the driving force of motivation.
When we perceive something, it undergoes analysis through a complex interplay of emotions, motivation, and attention, resulting in changes within the brain. While we aspire for players to absorb all we present and remember every detail, this seldom occurs. Hence, understanding the factors influencing how people perceive our games becomes crucial. Attention, a limited resource, plays a critical role in this cycle. Emotions and motivation also significantly influence how we perceive and process information. We aim for players to learn and remember everything we present, but realistically, that’s seldom the case. Understanding what affects how people perceive our games becomes crucial here.
Consider this scenario: driving a car, trying to squeeze into a narrow parking slot, conversing with someone next to you, and possibly even attempting to type (not recommended!). It’s evident that juggling too much simultaneously can impede task completion. Similarly, inundating gamers with too much information or stimuli can lead to failure or overwhelm in their gaming experience.
GAME DEVELOPMENT PROCESS
Let’s delve into the game development process and explore four key phases. Although various approaches exist, for the purpose of this discussion, let’s narrow our focus to these four phases:
- Planning Phase: This initial phase involves crucial decision-making regarding the type of game we aim to create.
- Pre-Production Phase: Here, we lay the groundwork, crafting core mechanics, conceptual art, and ideally, comprehensive game design documentation.
- Production Phase: This is where the magic happens. We bring everything together, constructing vertical and horizontal slices.
- Launch: Releasing the game.
Given that we operate within a highly intricate environment, it’s likely that you all engage in an iteration model. Here’s the typical flow: we generate ideas, create prototypes, validate them through playtests, evaluate the results, and make decisions. These decisions involve what to implement, alter, or discard. Our collective aim is to create exceptional games that captivate players. Throughout the production process, we continuously question our choices and strategies to ensure we deliver outstanding gaming experiences. Some of the essential questions are:
- Do players comprehend the game rules and core mechanics effectively?
- Are the game controls user-friendly and intuitive?
- Does the game elicit intended emotions?
- Is the pacing, balance, and challenge level as intended?
- Does the game effectively motivate players toward desired actions?
Answering these questions determines the gaming experience—whether it’s perceived as positive or negative. An amazing experience for players means they’ll feel connected to game characters, believe their actions have meaningful impacts, experience a sense of achievement, and get fully immersed in the game’s world.
Throughout the development journey, we consistently ask these pivotal questions. Moreover, I’m excited to share some tools that aid in finding these answers and enhancing the overall gaming experience.
When considering the planning or discovery phase, we delve into crucial aspects. We inquire about our core users, our primary audience. We analyze existing games in the market that we may compete with and determine our budget and timeline for the game’s creation. The tools I’m about to share aid in answering these pivotal questions—defining the audience and analyzing competitors. These aspects are foundational for shaping the game we aim to create.
Moving into the pre-production phase, we craft essential elements like core mechanics, playable prototypes, and conceptual art. While these may not yet be fully implemented, they lay the groundwork for the game’s story. Gathering feedback from players during this phase is invaluable, especially when dealing with crucial elements fundamental to your game—such as core mechanics or narrative direction.
It’s crucial to validate these elements early on. Putting something subpar into production can be a costly mistake, as altering it later might be challenging or impractical. Thus, gathering everything we’ve created in pre-production and infusing it with magic is where the transformation occurs. We sculpt an experience, a world.
And during the production phase, once a substantial chunk or the entirety of the game is formed, validating it with players becomes paramount. Do they experience what we intended? Are they motivated? Do they feel the intended emotions? Is the game enjoyable? These are critical questions we seek answers to.
Intense communication from the marketing team kicks off the launch phase. Validating if players’ expectations align with what we’ve created is crucial here. Any disparities could lead to player disappointment. Additionally, the telemetry data post-launch becomes our eyes into players’ interactions with the game. It unveils how players navigate the game, where they encounter challenges, what choices they make, and when they decide to disengage. This data is instrumental for designers, guiding their decisions based on player behavior.
UX TOOLS IN PRACTICE:
Let’s begin with defining our audience, a crucial step considering the diversity among players. Understanding their motivations, preferences, and gaming habits is key because players often expect different elements from what we want and we anticipate. By comprehending who they are, what they enjoy, and the games they prefer, we can segment our players and tailor specific features and messaging to target them effectively.
Here, I’d like to introduce a player profile generated by Quantic Foundry—a platform providing data from over 1 million players, an exceptional resource for insights.
It’s equally essential to understand the games this specific audience engages with and the types they avoid. This data helps us discern the core mechanics needed in our game and aids in crafting targeted marketing communications. When defining an audience, consider creating up to three profiles of primary personas. Attempting to cater to more individual’s motivations can be challenging, especially if their preferences vary significantly. For instance, introducing intricate mechanics to a casual gaming audience might not be ideal and could disrupt their experience. Therefore, it’s crucial to tread carefully, especially when targeting diverse audiences with contrasting gaming preferences.
Let’s discuss some intriguing figures from VG Insights, a platform I find particularly compelling for its numerical insights.. In 2021 alone, a staggering 11,000 games were released. Among these, a striking 27% struggled to sell even 100 copies, painting a daunting picture of the market landscape. Surprisingly, only around 8% of the games released during that year managed to sell over 10,000 copies. Delving deeper, it’s eye-opening to note that a mere 10% of Steam developers have earned more than $100,000 in gross revenue.
These statistics shed light on the vast expanse of the market—a realm filled with numerous competing games. In such a crowded space, it becomes imperative for us to strive to make our game stand out and excel. How can we achieve this distinction?
Utilizing data not only helps in understanding your competition but also serves as a wellspring of inspiration. Our in-house tool, crafted by our incredible developers, facilitates this process. I’m eager to share a few screens displaying results from the filters I applied.
These results encompass games released between 2017 and 2022, falling within the price range of $9 to $30 and owned by at least 50,000 users. Within our database of 50,000 games, these filters yield significant insights. The data is derived from Steam, providing a comprehensive view of game trends and performances.
Single-player games emerge as the most popular and tend to perform well in sales. Alongside them, action-adventure and strategy games also exhibit strong sales figures. Conversely, genres like hardcore and puzzle games seem to struggle in terms of sales. In our charts, the cooler colors signify weaker performance, while warmer tones indicate stronger sales.
This information becomes instrumental when we make decisions regarding core mechanics, thematic direction, or genre preferences for our game development. For a deeper analysis, suppose we narrow down our selection to games with a Sci-Fi tag. By doing so, we uncover complementary tags associated with Sci-Fi games, such as adventure, action, single-player, and multiplayer. Notably, we can also identify areas that may not perform as strongly within the Sci-Fi genre.
This data empowers us to make informed decisions, guiding our choices regarding themes, mechanics, and game elements. Leveraging this knowledge enables us to approach game creation in a more methodical and informed manner.
Now, let’s delve into the world of playtests. I find this part particularly engaging, and I hope you’ll enjoy it too. We’re going to focus on a specific moment—footage from Dying Light. 2 This clip showcases someone’s attempt at climbing the tallest building.
Usability playtests serve a specific purpose in game development. We deploy them to assess particular mechanics or prototypes within the game. We want to assess the learnability, understandability, easiness to use of specific features. Participants receive specific tasks, like in this instance where the goal is to climb the tallest building. Our observation spans across various elements: the number of attempts, the time taken, and the mechanics employed. We observe stamina management, infection control, platform usage, and the tools utilized, such as the grappling hook.
As we witness this skilled player in action, it’s important to note that their proficiency might not be reflective of everyone’s abilities. That’s the essence of usability playtests—to observe, gather insights, and make decisions. For instance, if the stamina management seems too challenging, or if certain mechanics need tweaking, we take note. Once we’ve identified an effective setup, it can be replicated across the game. Especially when parkour is integral, testing it early proves invaluable.
Usability playtests cater to core mechanics, specific quests, and even UI controls. They entail assigning very particular tasks to players for assessment and refinement
Now, let’s dive into the realm of experience playtests, a crucial phase during production. Once we’ve established that our parkour elements meet our standards, we replicate and integrate them throughout the game. Here’s where the magic happens! As you watch the video below, notice how familiar mechanics come together to craft a complete experience. The player navigates through combat, striving to achieve objectives, invoking various emotions—paced movements, intense running, and moments of triumph, like leveling up.
This phase revolves around validating the player’s emotions and motivation throughout the gameplay journey. It’s not just about enjoying the game for a brief 30 minutes; it’s about sustaining that motivation for hours. We aim to gauge if players remain engaged for extended periods—three, four, five hours and longer. We keenly observe and listen to our players if there are points where boredom sets in or moments that compel players to stop. It’s a meticulous examination of the entire experience.
Through these tests, we gain insights that shape our decisions. A move or sequence that resonates positively might find its way into multiple parts of the game. Conversely, if certain elements evoke boredom or frustration, we should be ready to remove or rework them entirely.
Telemetry data becomes critical upon the game’s launch. Without it, we miss out on opportunities to fine-tune and understand player interactions. Various metrics are available: gameplay metrics aid in balancing—identifying player choices, deaths, engagement duration, and return frequency. Monetization metrics analyze the game’s financial performance. Social metrics gauge player interactions—whether they engage in chats or collaborate on content creation. Additionally, technical metrics are valuable beyond QA, helping detect crashes, optimize loading times, and track platform usage.
Integrating playtests into our roadmap isn’t a simple task. It’s resource-intensive—requiring time, financial investment, and manpower. Yet, the pivotal question emerges: Can we afford not to utilize it? This decision is crucial.
Allow me to outline how I propose structuring the playtesting process. Beginning with the planning phase, you can gather information about your audience and your competition; you can run appeal testing to verify if your early concepts meet your core audience expectations. Then during the pre-production phase, you can run a couple of usability/prototype playtests, depending on the most crucial mechanics you designed for your game. During the production phase, periodic playthroughs offer continual feedback, ensuring rapid adjustments based on players’ input. At the game’s launch, telemetry data analyses become crucial to give you visibility of your players’ actions.
Establishing an optimal playtest schedule takes work. Designating milestones, conducting playtests during mid-milestones, analyzing results, incorporating feedback into the backlog, and running subsequent tests ensure a continuous improvement loop. Stabilizing the build for external playtests, free of bugs, is essential but time-consuming. Despite the cost and resource implications, the benefits significantly outweigh the investment.
In conclusion, the gamer experience is a pivotal aspect of game development. There are essential tools that can help us make data-informed decisions, steering us towards creating truly remarkable games.