Designing the User Experience Curve | October 30, 2007
I’ve been interested in how the lessons learned from game design can be used to improve online experiences for a while now. I guess this interest started when I started learning about the concept of a “flow states”.
Flow is the state of being where you lose all perception of time and you flow from one successful task to another with seeming ease. It’s great if you can get into this state at work as you feel “in the zone” and can get a lot done in a short space of time. Sadly the number of distraction in the modern work place, combined with the fact that we’re perpetual multi-taskers, makes entering into the flow state at work a rare occurrence.
The place where we’re most likely to experience flow is when we’re playing a new computer game. As you start playing a new game you start encountering a multitude of small challenges and rewards. The high from each reward spurs you on the the next challenge, creating a cyclic effect.
If each challenge was as simple as the last you’d soon get bored, so computer games create a user experience curve. As the game progresses, challenges get incrementally harder, as do the rewards. However if the challenges get too hard too quickly, people give up. So the skill is in getting the curve just right.
Creating the perfect game curve used to be the preserve of level designers and was more art than science. However as game development budgets start outpacing those of the average Hollywood movie, the market needs to expand. Blockbuster titles are no longer the preserve of the hardcore gamer, demonstrating their l33t fragging skills. Instead these games need to appeal to a much broader audience. People who want to pick up and play, without having to learn overly complicated controls.
As an increasing number of these titles are sequels, the game designers also want to make sure that people can complete the games and are primed for a sequel. Because of this, games have become less about skills and more about creating an experience, a narrative and a sense of momentum. It would be no good if your newbie gamer gets stuck on level one and gives up.
I bought a copy of Wired magazine recently, and was fascinated by an article on the user experience design of Halo 3. The developers set up a fully featured testing lab and recorded more than 3,000 hours of play from 600 gamers. Normally game testing is restricted to bug testing, but what Bungie did was usability and user experience testing in it’s purest form.
Though usability testing the developers were able to pinpoint areas of the game where inordinate numbers of players were getting lost of killed. By examining real user interaction they were able to figure out what was going wrong and come up with ways to smooth out the user experience. This involved everything from making ammo more obvious, through to channelling users in the desired direction by stopping them from going backwards.
While this could be seen as an overly prescriptive way of creating games, it’s the essence of good user experience design. By removing usability barriers and helping people achieve their goals in an enjoyable manner, you end up crafting the optimal experience.
I was really excited by this article, and think there are a lot of lessons we can learn here. Not least the importance of usability testing on the user experience. At Clearleft we always budget for at least one round of testing, and even the smallest test produces amazing results. However imagine the improvements we could make if customers really started to value the importance of usability testing and budget accordingly.
Posted at October 30, 2007 5:54 PM