JF: I wanted to invite UX designers to think of game design as a competency they should build into their own toolkits, as well as to think of video games as another form of human-computer interaction. These two disciplines are like siblings who grew up in different houses. There’s a lot of mutual benefit in uniting them, which actually seems inevitable now that games and user experiences are so tightly fused into single devices like smartphones. The distinctions we tend to draw between them are very provincial—but at the macro level, it’s all one experience.
KM: You make it very clear in your book that playful design isn’t about gamification. Why? What’s the distinction, and why does it matter?
JF: I think companies have created a lot of really terrible things in the name of gamification. The word gamification is itself a problem, because it implies a user experience that is, by its nature, something other than a game, but dressed up to resemble one. So you often see a few badges and leaderboards tacked onto an underlying system that remains otherwise unchanged, with no real thought given to the quality of the player experience. In the worst cases, gamified user experiences exhibit an impoverished, cynical, and exploitative view of games. These kinds of approaches won’t survive long, because when companies that don’t value play create gamified solutions, players won’t value those solutions.
The distinction is that we must design game experiences, first and foremost, to be enjoyed by people. That’s the reason why people put their time into games in the first place. It’s not because they love your brand or because they want to solve world hunger. It’s because they value the experience. Successful games need to serve the interests of the player above those of the designer. So a large portion of Playful Design focuses on building the competencies that UX designers need to create high-quality player experiences.
KM: For those of us who are video gamers, I think we can all identify with the frustration of getting caught up in a poorly designed game vortex that just doesn’t sync up with the button-smashing sequence we’re trying to accomplish. I know, when I’m in that situation, I often think how much the gaming industry could benefit from the expertise of user experience and interaction designers. But you also see the reverse. What can we learn from the gaming industry?
JF: Video games are becoming a normal way of interacting with machines, and they will inevitably influence the way we think about interactive experiences. In the UX design, we want to leverage the conventions and patterns that are most familiar to people. Games have become a truly ubiquitous experience among young people, and as that population ages, UX designers will need to understand what’s going on in games out of necessity—just to stay current.
Games can also be a great laboratory for user interface technologies. The EyeToy, the Wii, and Kinect have demonstrated very credible motion-control user interfaces. The Wii user interface showcases some really creative ways of using multiple linked screens in tandem with one another. A lot of the playful charm in Siri’s natural-language artificial intelligence was present in text-based adventure games of the late 70’s. Games can give us a sense of what interactivity could look like in the future.
And then there’s the general inspiration we can find in looking at the ways game designers have approached the design of user interfaces. They often solve the same sorts of basic issues we deal with in UX design, but they have to do it in a very economical and no-nonsense sort of way. For example, I’ve sometimes looked at the Equip screens in Final Fantasy XII when seeking ways to design conventional user interfaces that compare the attributes of products or allow people to set up command trees, because these are things that are incredibly easy to do in Final Fantasy XII. Games can get you thinking in new ways.
KM: There are many similarities in the processes UX designers and game designers follow to get to a finished product. But one stands out: playtesting. This isn’t the same thing as user experience testing, is it?
JF: No. You’re right. Usability is just one consideration among many in playtesting, which needs to make a much broader assessment of the experience. How much fun are people having? How long does it take for people to start feeling bored? Is the amount of experience a player needs to level up appropriate? Are the players’ abilities in the game well balanced against one another? Can they solve the puzzles without becoming too frustrated? Do they find the storyline interesting, amusing, or heart wrenching? Do they identify with the characters in the game? On and on, these are all things that are so far outside of what we normally do in usability testing.
At the same time, you conduct playtesting in much the same way as the usability testing to which UX designers are accustomed. You sit with people one on one and ask them to think aloud as they complete a set of objectives, while you record your observations on their actions. So a lot of the facilitation and test design skills that people who do usability testing already have translate very well to playtesting. In fact, I think one of the best ways to introduce UX designers to the game design discipline is for them to provide testing services as a consultant. It’s a great way to bring a valuable skill set to games, while developing a critical eye for design.