User Experience (UX) in Video Gaming: Early Access vs Playtesting

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Video games present a unique user experience challenge in that they must simultaneously deliver an intuitive interface and compelling gameplay to keep players engaged. Playtesting has long been a valuable step in the development process for game developers, but in some cases this sort of testing can create its own problems.

As gameplay conventions become more established by popular franchises, it can be difficult to convince players to take a chance on new experiences. It’s not by accident, then, that many new games wind up feeling very similar to one another. Players have a bias toward the familiar, so if developers aren’t careful, they can let focus testing steer their games into the realm of bland imitation rather easily.

This is not to say that user playtesting doesn’t provide valuable feedback. When something in a game isn’t working for a group of test players, it’s safe to assume that many more people will encounter the same problem when the game is released. The challenge is learning to correctly interpret those concerns and address them in ways that are in accordance with the developer’s vision of the game experience.

Gaming UX in Practice: Gearbox’s “Team Truth”

Gearbox Software, the team behind the hugely successful Borderlands series, sought to get around this problem by implementing a focus testing process internally dubbed “Team Truth.” Staffed by team members with a background in psychology, this group’s primary job was to interpret and implement user feedback provided by playtesters. Borderlands director Matthew Armstrong summed up the challenge faced by this team in decidedly UX terms: “Testers try to speak in fact, but they speak in emotion.”

Team Truth’s playtesting process helped Gearbox in a number of ways. In one sense, it helped the developers understand how to balance what users wanted against what experience they were trying to deliver. Players often wanted features that would have undermined the core experience of the game or disliked game mechanics that they didn’t immediately understand. The testing process therefore helped the team to identify where they needed to make gameplay elements more intuitive and enjoyable enough to make players forget about the things they “thought” they wanted.

More importantly, the team found that many criticisms from playtesters were not always as obvious as they appeared. Two major complaints had to do with speed. Players thought characters didn’t run or reload their weapons fast enough. Objectively speaking, though, they were wrong. The speeds were comparable to anything found in competing games, and in the case of running, the problem couldn’t be addressed by increasing speed because it would have compromised graphics performance.

After reviewing the problem, the team gained insight that would make any UX designer proud. Players weren’t criticizing these gameplay elements for being slow, but rather for feeling slow. Gearbox addressed the running issue by widening the player’s field of vision and adding environmental elements to move past, which created the illusion of greater speed. They also added additional animations to the reload process to make it seem as if more things were happening. After implementing these changes, the playtesters reported that everything felt faster, despite the fact that the actual speed was the same as before.

In another case, Borderlands testers found a particular level to be boring and advised eliminating half of the area’s enemies to allow players to get through it faster. Team Truth considered the feedback and decided instead to triple the number of enemies. Suddenly, playtesters found that a previously boring experience they just wanted to finish as quickly as possible now felt like an intense challenge that kept them engaged.

As Armstrong pointed out, the problem wasn’t that players couldn’t identify a problem, but rather that they weren’t always able to articulate the true nature of the problem: “The tester might not have known how to say ‘The pacing is bad,’ so we had to figure out what they really meant.”

The Chaotic UX of Early Access

While Gearbox’s Team Truth took a controlled approach to user feedback, many smaller developers have opted for the much more chaotic method of early access testing. With digital distribution channels like Valve Software’s Steam service, developers can now make early playtest versions of their games available for purchase and provide players with the opportunity to shape the game’s development. While this approach gives developers the chance to test out concepts and ideas on their eventual users, it also creates some problems that can cast a shadow over a game’s final release.

Red Hook Studios’ Darkest Dungeon, for instance, was funded by a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign and opened up to early access in February of 2015 to enthusiastic acclaim. For the first few months, the community was a positive environment, with players providing well-intentioned feedback on various gameplay mechanics as the developers continued to refine the experience. It was a success story of how early access could work as an approach to iterative design, allowing developers to obtain valuable data about how actual users felt about the product.

Then Red Hook changed something and everything went to hell.

Almost overnight, previously enthusiastic players were not only actively campaigning against the game, but also launching negative personal attacks against the developers. The situation forced the developers to impose severe restrictions on the online community, which only made the aggrieved players angrier. Although the game was publically released to widespread critical acclaim in early 2016, it never managed to win back the trust of many early adopters.

Darkest Dungeon’s early access experience is insightful because it showcases the potential dangers of iterative design in the video game industry. Had Red Hook first unveiled the game in its final release form after a period of closed and controlled playtesting, it’s quite likely that the game mechanics that caused such controversy would never have attracted much attention or criticism. The problem was that the early access version provided a user experience that many customers liked and they were not prepared for any significant changes.

As the video game industry continues to grow, UX principles will surely become even more important for developers trying to deliver the best gameplay experience possible. Whether companies rely on the controlled environment of closed playtesting, or the messier and potentially volatile public forum of early access, user feedback will be a key component of success.

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