I recently was looking for a new job. While searching I came across loads of open roles for UX designers. 10 years ago, that job title pretty much did not exist. Now everyone wants to hire UX designers.
UX, or User eXperience, has become a big thing. A buzz word. Lots of research goes into it. A lot of software (and hardware) developers have entire test labs, ensuring their latest product meets the latest UX standards. And a lot of this research has delivered some great results which can be felt (experienced) in everyday life.
Just have a look at some of the examples here. Hell, have a look at your own gadgets, websites you use, software you work with. You can find great (and not so great) UX everywhere. It was arguably Apple’s massive leap in UX for smartphones with gave them the edge, and still does to some degree.
But even before UX became fashionable and an actual discipline in game development in it’s own right, our users still had an experience and we developers still wanted that experience to be good.
For the most part it was down to game, level and UI designers to do their job right. Intuition, experience and the ability to look at a product from the outside, as a new user might, were the key marks of a good designer and often lead to great user experience in games.
User Experience is hugely important in games, just like with other products out there. We have huge competition and the market is saturated with games our customers can choose from. If gamers have a bad experience, particularly early on in a game, they are less likely to stay with the game, recommend it or purchase additional content. They won’t ever champion your game and become an enthusiast.
Some of the key considerations when designing a the UX and UI of a game:
– Ease of use: a new player should be able to pick up the controller and just get on with the game. There should be no barrier between the player and the game. Any new things a player might learn for a specific title have to be introduced in a natural, non-intrusive way. Do not confuse ease of use with easy gameplay. A game can be easy to get to grips with, understand and control, but can still be hard to play!
– Readability: Every element in the games UI needs to make sense and, at a glance, convey all important information to the player when they need it most. Icons, abstractions and text need to make sense. If players have to pause to look up what something means, or even guess, that’s bad. It gets worse if anything to do with second to second gameplay (the immediate game moment) can’t be interpreted at a glance (such as health, ammo, stealth status etc.).
– Help the player to project: Once a player is in the game and understands what is going on, they need to understand what it is they can/should/must achieve in the near and far future. Being able to project where they can be in 10, 15, 20 hours of gameplay, allows the player to form a plan, to keep engaging with the game even when not playing it. If a player can see that with a little more time they can get a new upgrade and maybe a few hours down the road they can get a brand new weapon, they will make plans while at school or work on how best to achieve that. Keep those things hidden or obscure and players will switch off from your game when they switch off the console.
– Give feedback: if a player is doing something wrong, or could be doing something better, make use of the information the game has collected and present it to the player in a way that helps them get better at the game (without being condescending). Don’t overload the player though. Constant pop-ups with feedback and information, particularly during core gameplay loops, is confusing, distracting and the player will have no time to absorb.
– Celebrate player actions: This goes beyond the “Achievement Unlocked” moment. Whenever players achieve or accomplish something, this should be celebrated and reinforced – it has to become a memorable moment, which also serves as learning experience. Something players remember as having done well, they can apply further in the game again. It will stick with them. And of course games are largely there to entertain us, and make us feel good, and celebrating special moments in the game reinforce that. Again, don’t overuse this or it become meaningless.
No game ever gets everything spot on. It’s hard to do. Not even Apple, who are (as much as I hate to admit it) amazing at UX, get everything right. UX is an area where improvement can always be achieved.
However there are some clear examples, even in this day and age, where UX is done in a less than ideal way, and I think we can learn from these examples. With that in mind I am going to talk about Mad Max, and open world game recently released by Warner Brothers.
Ease of Use:
If there is one thing which is crucial, particularly in the console market, it is the ease with which players can pick up a game and just get stuck in. The first 10 to 15 minutes of a game often determine whether a consumer sticks with the product. First impressions count and they last. If the initial impression is a bad one, players will be less likely to overlook smaller issues later on and are far more likely to stop playing a game, perhaps even returning it to the store. If the first 15 minutes are an amazing experience and players feel masterful straight away, they get the game and how it’s played, they are far more likely to ignore issues later or, or even not notice them at all. They are also more likely to praise the game on social media, promoting sales (rather than contributing to second hand sales).
Let’s leave aside that the first 10 minutes of Mad Max are actually made up of cut scenes and don’t present any gameplay at all (which I feel is a missed opportunity). But when you finally get to play the game for the first time, it is anything but easy to use.
The game completely throws out existing standards of controller mapping and instead opts for a radically new layout and I am not entirely sure why. Sure, the game has a few mechanics on top of, say, a standard shooter, but after looking at it in detail I could not see anything that really stood out which warranted why some of these atrocious button mapping choices were made. Even considering that the game essentially has an on-foot and a driving mode, the button mapping is weird, cumbersome to learn and leads to many issues during gameplay.
Even if the buttons would make sense and be easy to use, which they do not and are not, presenting the player with a non-standard button mapping for a console title only serves one thing: creating a barrier to entry.
Rather than picking up the controller and immediately feeling like you are in control of Max, you struggle to get to grips with the buttons while (important) content in the world is lost to you. The player is put on the back foot of the learning curve straight away.
Example: firing your shotgun is default mapped to “B” on an xbox controller, while the triggers are used for sprinting and jumping.
It’s as if the driving controls were designed and set in stone and the on-foot controls shoehorned on top. In game where bullets are rare (and require a 3 second canned animation, button hold) firing your gun by accident because muscle and brain reflex make you press B for different things in combat, that’s bad.
Whether this poor decision is down to the UX designers being inexperienced, wanting to do something different or simply being too close to the project (and thus “used” to the controls to a point where it ceased to be a problem), is neither here nor there. The end result is something that delivers a poor experience. Players actively have to spend time to learn the controls.
When it comes to button mapping, I feel it’s ok to copy what other games, in particular mass market games, do. To a degree I think it’s a must do. Players are used to standard controls for certain games and it is this knowledge which greatly lowers the entry barrier to the games we make. And the more we can lower the basic entry barrier, the more gamers can enjoy our games – and that’s what it’s all about. We make games for others, not just for us.
Now whatever the reason really was, or perhaps it was a mix of reasons, the controller layout for Mad Max is simply horrible. There is no other way to describe it.
This is another key point at which Mad Max falls flat on.
From the actual on-screen HUD to the large map, the game is incredibly hard to read at times and it asks the player to learn and memorize a lot of things. Not only that, but in an attempt to cram as much content as possible into the game world (something which was not always commented on favourably in the reviews), the map becomes overly cluttered and it actually takes time and effort to read it. In an attempt to show just how much gameplay the game packs, it also leaves not much to be discovered IMO, which is one of the great aspects of open world games – going into the unknown!
Because the HUD has to display quite a few things, particularly when driving (Health, Water, Ammo, Boosts, Car Health, mini-map, level of currently selected weapon etc.), it was separated out into 2 sections. These are on opposing sides of the screen – bottom left for health and minimap, bottom right for ammo, weapons and car status. This is fine when playing on a PC monitor, but try playing this on a 46’’ or bigger TV and you will find our head going left to right to try and gather information. A more elegant solution would have been to combine health, ammo, weapons etc. in one and have the minimap (which is something players need the least during fast action paced gameplay) and plonk it in a top corner. That way players could have scanned up and down (shorter distance) rather than left to right.
The main map is simply cluttered. Too many icons, many of them looking similar, needing the player to hover over them to identify what they do. Getting info at a glance is an almost impossible task for new or casual players.A very simple thing would have been to not populate the map with all loot/scrap locations and leave those on the minimap only, and only when close by. This reduces clutter and encourages exploratory driving, rather than just driving to a location, looting and picking the next location.
The other big issue when it comes to readability in Mad Max is the upgrade screen, both for Max and the car. The car upgrade screen is incredibly convoluted. The game gives the player a lot of choice, but those choices come at a cost. That cost is time and usability.
Some icons are understandable, others are not at all. It takes several steps to get to the upgrade you might want, and when you get there you find out that you don’t have enough scrap or, even worse, that “You need to continue the story mission to get the upgrade!” – Which you see a LOT when you first get into car upgrades.
The last part is an interesting one. In theory showing the players all the upgrades they can get is good, as players are able to project where they eventually. But artificially blocking access through storyline missions, and showing this to players, can be quite demoralizing, particularly if players have no way of telling how long it will take to complete the story mission. Players don’t know if they can get an upgrade in 10 minutes or 10 hours.
Additionally many people play open world games to have fun, for the sandbox part, not for the story. So if they can see, right from the start, that they can’t get the majority of upgrades unless they do the story, they are immediately negatively affected. Particularly if they can also see that actually have enough currency to get the upgrade already. In short: Mad Max forces players to consume content, which, IMO, is the exact opposite of what an open world game should do. It is strange game design to say the least.
When it comes to the upgrade screen, the game could learn a lot from the likes of CSR Racing, where a player is immediately notified when he has enough cash to buy an upgrade and, at one click, is brought to the right screen to purchase it. It is a smooth experience that also highlights when a player as achieved something! 2 birds one stone.
These are the things I noticed in the first 2 hours of play. To be honest now, I did not play beyond this and have since given my copy away, with no intention to return. Which is a shame really because the game looks stunning, has a decent story and some great characters. But the frustration I felt in trying to control the game and trying to get information I needed simply was too great to make it enjoyable to continue. Which is just as well, as I probably would have gotten frustrated at the repetition of the mechanics and content as well.
A quick final note regarding the other 2 points I mentioned above, Feedback and Celebration:
I cannot actively remember the game giving me any feedback when I did something wrong. I often used the wrong buttons, blocked too late or could not land a heavy blow. Beyond the initial tutorial messages, the game never told me what I could do better, or which upgrade I should get to get better. I could have missed those, or they could have come later, but that is also kind of the point – I did not experience them when I needed them.
The celebration on the other hand I can remember. Far too much. I constantly got pop ups telling me how awesome I was, even when all I did was take out the 10th scarecrow with my car, which was trivial by then. Celebration became meaningless to me.
In summary then, Mad Max feels very much like a dated game when it comes to user experience. A game where trying to be unique and different with controls backfired in my opinion. It feels like in an attempt to cram it full of content little attention was paid on how to communicate content to the player in a meaningful, easy to understand and elegant manner. Under the hood there are some great moments in the game but Mad Max is a perfect example of a game that hides all that awesomeness behind an entry barrier that, I feel, will prove too high for a wider audience.