The UX lessons I learned from video games

4 min read
Patrick Stafford
  •  Jan 7, 2019
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Even though websites and games have matured side-by-side over the past few decades, games have a long and detailed history of user experience. Sure, it was scrappy and fairly rudimentary, but the only way you could tell if a game worked was by playtesting it.

As games have developed to function more like services and platforms, instead of simply standalone experiences, UX has become a much more comprehensive part of the development process.

Both major and minor studios are crafting out separate UX departments, and there are entire conferences dedicated to the concept of UX in game design.

With good reason: games are among the most popular medium on the planet, and as e-sports continue to grow, they’re only getting bigger. This space is where you can find a lot of the most exciting work on how people engage with interactive design.

To that end, what can product and web UX designers learn from their counterparts in video games?

As it turns out, a hell of a lot.

UX designers in games are becoming more specialized

In the 1970s and ’80s, when games studios were taking off and many of the best-selling studios were only run by a handful of people, everyone had to jump on board and juggle multiple tasks. You weren’t just a game designer; you might be a developer or even have hardware experience.

Gaming isn’t just an on-screen experience

Now, walk into a semi-professional game studio and, while that cross-pollination exists, you’ll see that most roles have been specialized—including UX. And with that maturation comes a huge amount of knowledge that can’t necessarily be found in web or product design.

Why? Well, because they’re doing two different things. Software and product design is all about removing challenges for the user, while game designers are trying to craft challenges that are engaging and, most of the time, delightful.

In web and product design, crafting an experience is quite linear and binary: you design, iterate, and then, if it works, the user engages with the software with ease. While there are always optimization initiatives, the process is fairly straightforward.

Related: Nintendo Labo and the future of interactive games

But game worlds have so many more variables that UX is an essential part of design. Designers might observe players doing things in ways they didn’t expect to achieve the same, positive results. Or even more exciting—ways that players can interact with each other.

As we all know, some of the best features happen by accident—which is why multi-billion dollar studios like Ubisoft, EA or Nintendo spend a huge amount of money on constant play-testing and UX research.

Through that research, they’ve uncovered principles that any UX researcher in any discipline should follow. Here are just some of the best.

Complete balance, all the time

You’ve probably heard of, you may love it: Starcraft. Within months of its release back in 1998, it became one of the most popular e-sports in the world—in fact, one of the only major e-sports at the time. It essentially set the stage for the market to come.

The publisher, Blizzard, released a sequel in 2010. It quickly became a massive phenomenon too, and with good reason: the game is a radically fun way to pit three different alien races against each other.

Yet that fun becomes chaotic when you have dozens of small aliens fighting each other, which is exactly why the design in Starcraft is so crucial. Creating bright, colorful units is essential to make sure that everyone knows where theirs are.

The result? Even if you don’t know what’s happening at any one moment, you can easily recognize where your units are among these massive frays. Dozens of games have copied Starcraft’s model of doing this, including current popular titles like League of Legends.

Gamers of all ages want a quick and easy onboarding experience

Game makers have become extremely adept at finding ways to make two teams instantly distinguishable. Even items like icon or button designs need to become obvious when the player is using them over and over or needs to locate certain items within just a glance.

The lesson? Your product or page needs to be recognizable to users within just a few seconds. Good design often lends itself to visually distinctive work. Play a few games and find out why.

Consistent positive—or negative—feedback

One of the great things about games with massive player bases is that UX researchers can get answers to meaningful questions extremely quickly by running A/B tests. Riot Games—one of the few companies that have a dedicated data science team across the business—makes a habit of doing this in big ways.

Related: How to get started with user testing at your company

For instance, Riot is famous for running tests that boot “toxic” players for insulting others, but it also runs tests on user interface changes all the time, even for something as small as a button or icon.

Another way game UX designers differentiate from other markets is in the way they receive feedback. We often ask users to review a product on the app store, or on a product review website. Sometimes we ask in-product as well, but we don’t often go far beyond that.

In Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, Ubisoft—a massive studio with massive UX support—took that a step further by asking users for a rating after each mission. This isn’t usually done in games as it can sometimes break the narrative flow, but Ubisoft used the findings to double down on areas players liked for future games.

The best feedback comes step-by-step, user-by-user

Getting feedback from users shouldn’t necessarily be about the whole, but about particular parts—which is where you can find massive gold.

Personas—which can always be changed

We spend so much time creating personas, but don’t always end up using them. They just sit there in the background, untouched.

But games aren’t shy about telling you there are personas working in the very foreground of the game. They straight up ask: how good are you at games? Do you want a story-based adventure with very little combat challenge, or do you want something tough that’ll beat you down?

It’s worth keeping this in mind during your content design. We tend to hold our personas very tightly and secretly, but as games show—there’s absolutely no harm in putting them straight in front of the user’s face.

Don’t be afraid to follow the uncommon path

If you’ve spent any time reading about video games over the last few months, you’ve probably the heard the name “Fortnite”. It’s the biggest game in the world right now and it’s made its creator—Epic Games and publisher EA—more than a billion dollars.

Related: Making a change: When you find yourself on a stalled train

It’s big business. Did you also know it’s a modification of a previous game?

Well, sort of. Fortnite’s battle royale mode is based off a game called PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, which is arguably the second biggest game in the world right now. The game—affectionately known as PUBG—pits players against each other in a fight to the death as the play area slowly shrinks.

That game originally started as a modification to a previous game. In fact, multi-million dollar games like DOTA 2 or Team Fortress 2 all started as fan-made modifications to existing games.

The lesson? Sometimes the best and most valuable decisions your users can make are when they ignore certain things within your design and only focus on the best parts for an entirely different purpose.

Related: Tips for understanding what motivates your users

If your users are constantly using a particular feature of your product, is it worth thinking about whether that feature should become a product in and of itself?

Understand the specific variables that need to change

One of the great things about games is that even the tiniest, smallest detail can have a massive effect on the game. For instance, check out a game like StarCraft or PUBG—they regularly add patches that change how much damage a weapon will do, or how long it takes to reload a weapon.

These take months to test. Months!

Even delaying a reload time by 0.3 seconds can have a huge impact in gameplay. In fact, it might even turn a large portion of your player base against the game entirely!

Games do this all the time, and as UX in games has gotten more comprehensive, they’re able to pinpoint the exact things that turn players off. Not just based on what they say, but on what they actually do.

While not everyone in UX design has those types of tools at their disposal, it highlights a need for any UX designer to be super critical about even the smallest change. They can have the biggest impact.


This is probably the area where video games are well ahead of software.

As games have become more complex, they naturally require more complex tutorials. Game designers can debate for hours—and often do on platforms like Twitter—about how tutorials should go about teaching you certain aspects of the game you’re about to play.

Learning to play video games isn’t always easy

Beforehand, everything you wanted to find was in a manual. There wouldn’t be any on-screen tutorials—at best, a very basic one.

Then games slowly started getting better at this, so there were all sorts of methods developed for how tutorials could work. Maybe a message would appear on-screen, telling you which icons perform certain actions.

Over time, narrative games now put you straight into the action and give you increasingly difficult tasks to accomplish, rather than giving you everything at once. The most recent God of War, for instance, never actually uses a camera cut so everything happens in one, continuous motion—and just displays messages on the screen when you need to perform a new action.

A game like XCOM, which is notoriously difficult, even has you play a type of test mission straight away so you get the feeling of what it’s like to actually play the game.

Software users don’t always test their tutorial process, but this is something game makers do frequently, and you’ll often find game designers say it’s one of the most crucial parts of the experience.

What if software designers scrutinized their tutorials in the same way?

Who should be a game designer?

It’s important to remember that game design is a complex web of systems, and it’s not as simple as just “gamifying” an existing concept. As designer Raph Koster says: “UX is about clarity that hides simplicity, and game design is about clarity that teaches complexity”.

But if you can learn anything from UX counterparts in games, remember this: UX is a collaborative medium. Everyone making a game forms at least some part of the user experience. If nothing else, adopt a game designer’s mindset for your projects: everyone has something to offer.

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