Applying UX skills to game design

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  • Nathan Verrill of Natron Baxter Applied Gaming provides a wonderful in-depth
    explanation of how he designed Signtific
    a game that facilitates prolific high-quality brainstorming around a
    central question.  While the project was wholly a game, Nathan’s
    descriptions of the process steps and deliverables will sound very
    familiar to any UX designer: mind maps, wireframes, design comps, user
    testing, analytics, and so on.  His background is in the design of
    conventional user experiences, and those same core competencies lent
    themselves well to the design of a successful game.

    While they
    currently reside in different industrial families, user experience
    design and game design share a common parent in human-computer
    interaction.  To the extent they differ, there are opportunities for
    cross-discipline learning.  To the extent that they’re similar,
    expertise and skills transfer well from one practice to another.  My
    own experiences applying UX skills to game design provide examples of

    I designed my first game in 2002, when Unisys started an
    annual tradition of sending e-cards with embedded games to clients,
    employees, and partners.  Each year, the in-house Web team would design
    and develop an original game, taking it from concept to delivery.  Our
    first idea was for a miniature golf game that fit in with the company’s
    sponsorship of professional golf tournaments.  While we were excited
    about the opportunity, none of us had made video games before.  So we
    applied the same methods and skills that we used in the design of
    websites, simply because they were the only ways we knew to approach
    any design problem.

    We started by conducting ethnographic
    research at a miniature golf course.  Now I realize that last sentence
    reads like it’s meant to be facetious, but this was actually an
    indispensable step in understanding what makes the real-life game
    interesting, exciting, frustrating, funny, social, competitive, and
    worthwhile.  For example, we discovered that the courses were often
    designed to tempt people who overestimate their own proficiency to
    attempt difficult putts which, if missed, put the ball much farther
    away from the hole.  This in turn creates a social dynamic that can
    reverse the fortunes of beginners who play it safe, and skilled golfers
    who take greater risks.


    From there I designed a short wireframe,
    available here as a PDF
    In some ways this was a traditional document, showing the
    core functionality while saying very little about the game’s
    appearance.  But in other ways it was very different.  The document
    focused on small interactions, as we were developing every interface
    element from the ground up instead of relying on ready made widgets
    like those baked into Web browsers.  These were presented as atomic
    pieces that could be assembled to build a course, much like a pattern
    library.  I also experimented with ways to show motion over time, and
    the effects of objects moving relative to one another.


    finished game, which you can play here, had
    its strengths and weaknesses.  The visual presentation was fantastic
    and the level design was really good (owing to the efforts of Todd
    Horning and Mike Rosario), but it had some important usability and
    learnability problems (precisely the things that I should have been on
    top of).  I think the core mistake was in describing the interface
    elements as individual pieces without showing how they should be put
    together.  At the time, I reasoned that game design needed broad
    creative latitude and that the traditional prescriptive wireframe would
    have been too limiting.  But it turned out that the way the pieces hang
    together, as with a conventional user interface, is really critical the
    experience of the game.  For subsequent games in the holiday series my
    documents actually started to look more and more like Web wireframes.

    Do you have examples of games you’ve designed using conventional UX methods?  If so, I’d love to hear from you!

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