Why the games industry should pay more attention to UX

The chaos of 64 players engaging in an all-out war with tanks, choppers, and boats in the Battlefield series is a breathtaking experience. And the kind of pure escapism that I can’t get anywhere else.

Ever since I was a little kid with my Commadore 64, I have loved gaming. There’s nothing else like it to focus the mind, engage in brain-teasing challenges, and rejoice at the pure adrenaline-pumping mayhem of a first-person shooter.

When I can prize myself away from Battlefield to try a new release, I’m always struck by the lack of good UX practise when it comes to game design. When you encounter confusing controls, weird UI design choices, and poor game mechanics, the experience becomes jarring.

With the popularity of new distribution models such as EA Access and Xbox GamePass, there are so many games to choose from, making the overall game experience critical. If players experience any frustration or confusion, there’s a very high risk, the title will be rejected for an alternative.

There are four UX issues I see consistently that can ruin the game experience.

Lack of control over the game difficulty

The whole point of a game is to challenge you and keep you engaged as you try to improve. Your ultimate purpose as a gamer is usually mastery of the game itself, or of other players you find yourself competing against.

The trouble is few games get the difficulty levels right. There’s either the Sekiro or Dark Souls series who pride themselves on being unwaveringly tough and not for the novice or casual gamers. Or there are the other games that offer different difficulty levels like Madden and Fifa where it’s hard to get the right balance between too easy or too hard.

As many games progress, particularly in the single-player category, it’s common practice to steadily increase the difficulty level. Personally, I feel that very few get this right. Sometimes a game becomes a grind rather than an enjoyable show of mastery and challenge.

There are way too many games that set a level of difficulty at the start, and if you ever get stuck on a really tough bit, you’re out of luck. Carry on your grind or start again at a lower difficulty. One of the worst examples of this is in Uncharted 3 with several repetitive boss battles that are increasingly difficult to get past. I got to the point where I ditched the game because it became such a boring ball-ache of repetition.

Offer a variable level of difficulty for players throughout the game. Offer them an option to skip when they are repeating the same boss fight over and over with no success. Or utilise AI to match the player’s reaction time and game performance. If they are having a bad day, lower it slightly or at least offer them the option.

Provide an easier way to jump back into a game

My pile of shame is large. I have several games still in their wrappers, awaiting a debut on my console. I will get to them someday when I’m in the right mood.

In fact, I suspect a lot of gamers choose a game to play based on their mood. If I need escapism, it’s Battlefield, if I’m feeling tired or ill, I find myself playing Rocket League. If I have time on my hands, I’ll immerse myself in the beautiful western landscape of Red Dead Redemption 2. Sometimes I fancy a change and will jump back into a title I enjoyed for a while but never completed.

The trouble is, most games are designed to introduce users to how the game mechanics work at the start of the game. So if you’ve not played for a while, it’s easy to forget. You jump back into the middle of the game where the difficulty is pretty high, and you find the whole experience unforgiving of your rusty skills.

Recognise when users haven’t played for a while and offer a short reminder or mini tutorial. At the very least, provide a brief video guide as a reminder on how it works.

Stop forcing people to watch your cut scenes

Ugh, there is nothing worse than sitting through cut scenes when you just want to get to the action. The storytelling is, of course, important to the immersive feel of a game, and most of the time, I will engage with them. But there are times when I want to crack on, or worse I’ve seen them before.

So many games force users to sit through lengthy cinematic cut scenes. Even sports games like Fifa or Madden, insist on users having to actively skip mini cut-scenes instead of being able to turn them all off.

One of the most frustrating examples of this is where there is a cut scene just before a boss fight. If you die, you have to watch the scene again and again. I’m looking at you Quantum Break! I ended up leaving that game halfway through because of my frustration with such a poor cut scene experience.

Keep cut scenes short and sweet, and allow people to skip cut scenes by default. Even better provide a simple cut scene intro, and offer players the choice to skip or watch in full (including a time length). It is all about giving users more control over their experience.

Pay attention to the entire game experience including box opening

Imagine the scene, you’re excited to have a newly released game drop through your letterbox on release day. You’ve taken the day off or managed to usher the wife and kids out for the morning and have a precious few hours to enjoy some pure gaming ME time.

Open up the box, place the disc in the tray and get comfy. Then sit there for the next hour while the game downloads and installs.

It’s such a disappointment to buy a disc only to find that you have to download the update which is several gigabytes worth.

Now I know there are several reasons for this that I’m not going to touch upon here, because quite frankly, from a user perspective I don’t care. I just want to play my damn game, and instead, I’m staring at a progress bar.

Apart from shipping a complete game in the first place, offer users a mini-game, or a tutorial that can run off the disc without lengthy installs. Find a way of giving users and instant fix. If it can’t be the full game straight away, let them enjoy something while they wait.

In summary, gamers are fickle, just like most consumers in the modern age. Serve up a mediocre experience or worse, and we’re off to one of your competitors. When there’s so much choice available, spending precious downtime on something confusing or frustrating isn’t an option. Good UX is no longer a nice to have, it’s essential.