5 Things That UX Design Should Learn from the Gaming Industry

Jerzy Bartoszewicz
Jun 18, 2019 · 8 min read

Maintaining the interest of gamers is extremely difficult, but game developers have many tricks up their sleeves. What can we learn from them?

Video games are now the biggest and fastest-growing branch of the entertainment industry. Gaming events such as E3 organized every year in Los Angeles USA draw the attention of the media, consumers, and investors from around the world. Hollywood stars are becoming more and more involved in the production of new games. A perfect example is Keanu Reeves who will appear in the game Cyberpunk 2077, upcoming new hit from the CD Projekt Red, creators of the popular The Witcher series.

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Cyberpunk 2077 is the hottest topic in the gaming industry now

Besides, over the last few years, video games turned more into providing entertainment in the form of services. They are not just autonomous creations of culture such as books or films anymore. The process of their creation has also been improved and the importance of many aspects, such as User Experience design, has grown.

This is because maintaining the interest of the players is more difficult than in the case of application software or websites. Gamers expect positive and fun experiences, and if they do not receive them, they move to another game. A hungry man determined to order his favorite pizza online is willing to go through a difficult process because in the end he will be rewarded with a meal. In the case of gaming, the process must be a reward in itself.

Therefore, as a User Experience designer, a gamer and video game journalist with over 10 years of experience, I decided to prepare a list of best aspects in which digital product design should be inspired by game dev.

1. Colors and Symbols in the Service of Readability

During the gameplay of many games, users are bombarded with information. If the gameplay is fast and requires instant decision making, e.g. in multiplayer titles, the key is to make sure that the player immediately knows what they’re dealing with in the gameplay moment. In the iconic e-sport Real-Time Strategy game Starcraft, published in 1998, the colors of units we command leave no doubt as to which player they belong to, even if the same factions are fighting each other. It’s very important because dozens of moving small objects can be found on the screen at the same time.

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Starcraft: Remastered (2017) with the clear color difference between fighting factions

In Quake 3 from 1999 during the team competitions, opponents are marked in red and the allies in blue. Interestingly, the opposite team sees it in the same way from their perspective. Red is associated with danger and that’s why it’s the color of our enemies. Usage of blue and red to mark fighting teams is popular in games to this day, for example in Team Fortress 2. On the other hand, in the popular game Overwatch, the characters wear colorful clothes and armor, but the nameplates above their heads are marked with blue and red.

Overwatch (2016) with the visible color difference between allies and enemies

In the production of video games, the use of universal symbols known to players is also popular. If we encounter red barrels in the shooter, we can be sure that they can be blown up. Question marks visible on maps in open-world games mean that an adventure or treasure is waiting for us in a given location. Exclamation marks over non-player characters mean that they have a task for us to do. The already mentioned colors are also used to mark individual resources of the hero — life points are always red, magical energy is blue, and the stamina is green. Thanks to these universal symbols, a player starting a new game can quickly enjoy the gameplay.

When creating interfaces for digital products, we often struggle to invent something new. We experiment with icons to get that unique visual effect, although users may be used to what they already know. Search for “filters” icon on any of the download platforms to see that there are several different symbols for this function. There are many cases like this. We also opt-out of clear color markings to preserve the visual consistency of the interfaces, e.g. when the customer wants to focus on the color of his brand. But somewhere in this, thinking about the user needs is lost. It’s worth looking into video games and letting the user feel confident as the e-sportsman feels when he is commanding his army in Starcraft.

2. Less is More

If we look at old games such as System Shock from 1994, we will discover that most of the screen is occupied by the interface. It was a way to save the computing power of players’ PCs. More interface means less space on the screen where objects have to be rendered. Gradually over the years, the interfaces in games have become more and more minimalistic. Today they don’t obscure the beauty of virtual worlds created by the developers.

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Days Gone (2019) — button for refuel and fuel level displayed above motorcycle

This is currently very popular, especially in open-world games. In the recently released Days Gone interface elements are shown contextually on environmental objects — for example, the fuel level at the motorcycle’s side when filling it. In futuristic first-person shooters, magazine capacity is often visualized on the weapon itself. In the post-apocalyptic Metro series, based on the best-selling books by Dmitry Glukhovsky, the player uses a hand-held watch to check how much time is left before he should replace the filter in his gas mask. This makes games far more immersive.

Even Role Playing Games go into similar minimalism. After the premiere of the iconic Skyrim, there were opinions that modern UI with font Futura do not match fantasy setting. However, the simplicity and readability of this interface improved what it was created for, which is browsing and matching equipment of the character.

While designing applications or websites, we often think that all information is important. With the fear of losing the user, we enlarge the buttons and pull out all the options on top. However, often less means more. For example, if 80% of bank clients use their apps to check account balance, see transaction history and make a domestic transfer, we should leave these three options on the dashboard and hide the rest in the menu. It is said that if everything on the design is important, nothing is important.

» If you want to know how we saved a lot of time and money on developing apps for the hottest card game of the year, check out the article

3. Collecting Feedback from Users

The community of players is very visible in social media and can have quite a big impact on developers. For example, after a wave of criticism Electronic Arts decided to change the end of its space trilogy Mass Effect. They also rebuilt the microtransactions system in the online shooter Star Wars Battlefront 2 after players criticized it.

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Simple star rating feedback in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (2013)

To avoid such situations, game producers often collect feedback from users earlier. Blizzard provides Overwatch and World of Warcraft updates to test before they appear live on the servers. Beta tests before releases of games are popular. Ubisoft went even a step further with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag where they introduced a simple system allowing players to evaluate story missions. Nintendo allows its clients to evaluate the information published on the Switch console news tab. Steam which is the largest digital distribution platform for games has its rating system also. Most game publishers still also make use of traditional internet forums where they collect feedback.

Video games producers collect feedback from their community in different ways. This allows them to better plan updates of current titles and create better games in the future. Sometimes a simple satisfaction survey can bring great insights. We should remember that when we design digital products.

4. Adding Functions Which Users Want

One of the most important information from this year’s E3 is the release date of the first episode of the long-awaited Final Fantasy VII remake. In January very good remake of Resident Evil 2 was released. And Blizzard Entertainment releases World of Warcraft Classic this year, which is a slightly streamlined version of the basic release of legendary MMORPG. Soon, we should also get Shenmue 3 — a famous adventure game that fans have been waiting for over a dozen years, and which eventually was financed on Kickstarter.

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Resident Evil 2 (2019) is a remake which fans wanted to see

In all of these cases, game developers and publishers did exactly what the players asked for. In some way, it could be another malicious attempt to earning money through nostalgia, but the most important thing is user satisfaction. The excellent reviews and number of copies sold of Resident Evil 2 remake leave no doubts in this case. And that’s because action-focused Resident Evil 6 left fans with a huge hunger for the horror atmosphere. And in this case, negative feedback from users contributed to the change for the better.

When creating digital products, you should start with the users’ needs. The basis is good research at the start of the project, knowledge of market realities, building proto-personas and personas. Just give people what they need and they will love your product.

5. Giving Users Control

In most video games it is possible to configure the interface to your needs. Even in the mentioned old classic Final Fantasy VII, which came out in 1997 on the PSX console, it was possible to change the color of windows in the menu, the speed of displaying text in dialogues, or the system in which the game counts time during battles.

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Heavy modded World of Warcraft UI

Currently, games allow much more, even in the case of shooters such as Overwatch, where we can, for example, change the look crosshair. MMORPG games are the most complex in terms of interface configuration because they rely heavily on the UI. In World of Warcraft, there is even a system of addons written in Lua language, which enables a total remodeling of the interface. There are hundreds of such addons and the whole community of authors centered around them. Similarly, large configuration options give other online games, such as Star Wars of The Old Republic. Enabling the UI to adapt to specific needs increases the comfort of players and encourages them to stay with the game longer.

Two of Jakob Nielsen’s heuristics say about providing flexibility and efficiency and giving control to users. This fits what game developers do with allowing gamers to configure in-game UI. It is worth remembering when designing applications to give more advanced users the ability to customize them to their needs. You can not overdo it, so as not to cause paralysis of choice, however, some of the choices are much better than no choice at all.

This closes the first five good practices that product design should take as inspiration from game dev. I think at least that much comes to my mind, so see you later!


Design, Development, User Interface and User Experience…

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