Collaborating in a crowd: User Experience design at DICE
Helping players understand and navigate gameplay is a delicate balance of explicit and implicit communication. To get the balance right, user experience (UX), user interface (UI), and game designers must work in close collaboration. That makes the process of designing a captivating player experience almost as complex as the design itself.
DICE’s Senior UX Designer Nathalie Ek is an expert at navigating the internal forces that contribute to an enthralling player experience. At our upcoming Friday Stories, Nathalie will talk through the ways good user experience design “helps users understand a game without knowing that they understand it.”
Before her event, however, we asked Nathalie to tell us more about the processes behind this subtle design discipline and what aspiring games makers need to know about collaboration in a crowd.
Persuasive collaboration means being prepared
Design teams share the goal of helping players understand their game without bombarding them with instructions and information that disrupts their experience. How that’s accomplished, however, is a negotiation between designers.
“There’s a huge difference between a designer, a UXer, and a UI specialist,” Nathalie explains. “It all ties in together, and we have to plan closely. That’s why I’m in meetings a lot. I’m always working with so many designers!” She continues, describing a real design problem she encountered in a previous project.
“There’s this issue where the player really needs to understand this super intricate game mode. We can’t tell them what to do because the moment needs to be as intense as possible, and we want them to feel on edge at all times. So, we can’t tell them much without ruining that tension. What can we do instead? Asking that leads to a huge discussion. Someone will suggest, ‘can’t you just tell them in a message what to do?’ Then designers say, ‘no, you can’t do that because we don’t want you to reveal too much.’ This can go on for weeks because everyone thinks it’s easy to solve, but with so many voices, each with their own opinion and agenda, it becomes a problem.”
Ultimately, producers put a stop to it to ensure the project stays on track. This forces agreement. To avoid being pressured into a decision under threat of losing a feature from the game altogether, teams sync and collaborate constantly. An experienced designer, Nathalie comes prepared:
“When I want to argue my case, I rely on statistics. This helps me avoid repeating the same mistake over and over again. I can go back to those figures and say, look, we’ve done this in the past, and here are the numbers. I can lean back on them when I make a new decision or present a new design. It means I can say that I’ve already tried something out, and I know it doesn’t work.”
While Nathalie can use numbers as her backstop for promoting familiar design solutions, she’s got to rely on emotional insights when innovating. “When you’re designing something new, it’s about gut feeling,” she explains. “But most importantly, it’s about how it feels while playing. Of course, we have the basics of psychology and understand cognitive overload… But it’s more about trusting our gut to know if we understand and if players understand the stuff we’re testing.”
This means that even designers as senior as Nathalie have to put their necks on the line. “Sometimes I have to convince people by conducting a UXR test before they cut me off and say it’s not working,” she describes. “I might only have a couple of weeks to present my case. I’ll create a few mockups and flows that show my intention, and then we either go for it, or it’s killed off.”
But again, Nathalie’s experience means she’s always a step ahead. Her expertise in coding and scripting means she designs with cost in mind. This helps her persuade others that what she’s suggesting is “good enough to a low enough cost.”
Learn to distinguish expert feedback from personal opinion
It’s not uncommon for aspiring designers and developers to overlook the importance of user experience design - assuming they know what it is. “There is a misconception of what UX design is,” Nathalie cautions. “It’s not only a misconception about what UX is relative to UI but also relative to what games designers do.”
Even newcomers to the industry struggle to draw the boundaries between these interconnected but distinct roles. “It tends to be quite hard because a lot of people think it’s game design (and vice versa),” she explains. “But it’s important to understand there is a difference.” Nathalie goes on:
“I’m not necessarily designing a game mode or how weapons should work. My job is to translate how that game mode is understood by the player or how they understand how to work the weapon… When we have new people joining they don’t always see where the line is drawn between game design and UX.”
While these distinctions are important for the production process, the view of what players want and what they’ll enjoy isn’t the domain of any one team. Nathalie agrees that “it’s hard to say what people enjoy.” She explains:
“If you come up with a new game, a new game mode, a way of playing, you don’t have numbers that will tell you what players will enjoy. So, it’s impossible to say that UX people know best because that’s not necessarily the case. And because we’re all gamers and enjoy playing games, we all have an opinion on how to make a game as fun as possible. While that makes everyone’s feedback valid, you can’t listen to personal opinion… It’s hard to filter out useful feedback from personal opinion.”
Nathalie admits that even when she gives feedback, it should be treated as an opinion. Only when there’s a consensus should designers act. Nathalie observes that this is a challenge for newcomers to the industry. “Everyone wants to be a part of the game and have something that they can point at and say: this is mine,” she explains. “But that feature doesn’t have to be something you enjoy. You can have a great time making it because you know millions of people will enjoy it.”
Prioritize what’s most important to you
When she started her career, Nathalie concedes, she was quick to share her view. And, she admits, “I had strong opinions on everything.”
With time and experience, she’s learned to speak when she’s prepared to fight for something. “And when I do,” she clarifies, “I back it up with something - numbers, or player feedback, or I present five ideas and an explanation why four don’t work and why one does.”
Why the change? “The more you raise your voice, the fewer people hear you,” Nathalie advises. “So, choose your battles. That’s really important.”
There is still time to sign up to Nathalie's talk on Friday!
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