GDC 2017 UX Summit – Overview

The UX Summit debuted at GDC this year and Anouk Ben-Tchavtchavadze and myself had the extreme honor and pleasure to serve as advisors for this inaugural year. The intent of the summit was to cover all facets of the user experience discipline within the video game industry. As you might know, UX aims to ensure that the design and business intent of your game is the one ultimately experienced by your target audience and does so by using knowledge from cognitive science and psychology, and by applying the scientific method (user research). It was a very exciting day for all UX practitioners and evangelists across our industry!

The GDC ‘17 UX summit was composed of eight sessions, each covering one specific aspect of the UX discipline, and represented various perspectives, from indie game developers to UX designers and user researchers. Attendance at the summit was in high demand; sessions were full all day and we had to turn away large crowds, which was heart-breaking yet very encouraging. Also, because many people could not get in, the GDC staff made all the videos accessible for free in the GDC vault (thank you!). I encourage you to check them all out. Below is a very brief description of each session, in order of appearance, with a link to the relevant video.

If you’re interested in Game UX conferences, our next rendez-vous is at the Game UX Summit ‘17, hosted by Ubisoft Toronto, which will take place on October 4-5 in Toronto.

GDC ‘17 UX Summit sessions:
1- Playing the Middle: Balancing Trust, Creativity, and Business in the Science of Experience. Panel moderated by Ian Livingston (Electronic Arts), with: Corey May (2K Games), Jonathan Dankoff (WB Games Montreal), Alex Hutchinson (Ubisoft), Chris Lang (Bungie).
2- From Rational to Emotional: Designs that Increase Player Retention, by Jim Brown (Epic Games).
3- It Takes Two to Tango: Integrating UX Research and Production at EA, by Veronica Zammitto (Electronic Arts)
4- Dark Patterns: How Good UX can be Bad UX, by Anisa Sanusi (Frontier Developments).
5- Teaching by Design: Tips for Effective Tutorials from “Mushroom 11”, by Itay Keren (Untame).
6- “Ice Age Adventures”: UX Diagnosis for a Live-Ops Game (Case Study), by Om Tandon (Digit Games Studio).
7- UX Methodologies for Holistic Product Design, by Paul Rybicki (Electronic Arts).
8- Throwing Out the Dopamine Shots: Reward Psychology Without the Neurotrash, by Ben Lewis-Evans (Epic Games).

 

1- Playing the Middle: Balancing Trust, Creativity, and Business in the Science of Experience.
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Panel moderated by Ian Livingston (Electronic Arts), with: Corey May (2K Games), Jonathan Dankoff (WB Games Montreal), Alex Hutchinson (Ubisoft), Chris Lang (Bungie).

The panel examined how UX crosscuts the different disciplines within our industry (creativity, design, business, production, and user research). After asking the panelists what user experience means to them and why it should be the concern of everyone on the development team, Ian moved on to explore what has contributed to panelists’ understanding of players. The panelists had an argument over why developers should or should not directly chat with UX research participants (user researchers recommend to not interact with participants to avoid biasing the study and the developers’ takeaway from a test). The last topic was about how feedback works in the creative process, and how to distinguish between opinions and user research feedback — basically, how to cut through the noise and get to the relevant feedback. The panel was very lively since it was composed of game developers with very different perspectives (creative, production, user research).

 

2- From Rational to Emotional: Designs that Increase Player Retention, by Jim Brown (Epic Games).
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Jim Brown (Senior Designer) tackled how to use the concept of Emotional Design to increase retention in games. He first explained how Don Norman breaks down emotional design into different levels (visceral, behavioral, and reflective) and how they can impact the player experience. By combining these different levels, emotional design can help players to build memories, develop patterns (repetition in movements, actions, etc.), and increase the effectiveness of feedback. Jim used various examples from shipped and in-development games, and also emphasized the importance of considering players’ mental model when designing emotional experiences to avoid frustrating or confusing players when the intent was to offer a memorable and emotional experience.

 

3- It Takes Two to Tango: Integrating UX Research and Production at EA, by Veronica Zammitto (Electronic Arts)
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Veronica Zammitto (Lead Senior UX Researcher) explained how production and user research need to coordinate to work together efficiently, just like dancers. Dancers are constantly moving, and they need practice to dance harmoniously, just like in game development. UX has grown in our industry over the past few years, and user research is consolidating with large research departments in the biggest game studios. Veronica advocated for an embedded model, in which a user researcher is specifically integrated in the game team she or he is working with. In her talk, Veronica explained how UX research has developed at EA, and the main milestones (including an interesting wake-up call) that got them to an embedded model.

 

4- Dark Patterns: How Good UX can be Bad UX, by Anisa Sanusi (Frontier Developments).
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Anisa Sanusi (UI/UX Designer) provided a quick overview of the main UX dark patterns, defined as “a pattern used intentionally by a game creator to cause negative experiences for players which are against their best interests and likely to happen without their consent” (from Zagal, Bjork, and Lewis, 2013, Dark Patterns in the Design of Games). Anisa gave examples of such dark patterns (e.g. bait and switch, guilt trips, etc.) and emphasized that we should rethink these techniques and consider ethics. See https://darkpatterns.org/ to learn more.

 

5- Teaching by Design: Tips for Effective Tutorials from “Mushroom 11”, by Itay Keren (Untame).
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Itay Keren is an indie developer and the designer of Mushroom 11, a puzzle game available on Steam, iOS, and Android. The game has very simple controls, but has various mechanics that were challenging to teach to players. Itay offered his insight into how he evolved the game to improve the onboarding and tutorials in the game. He used specific examples from his game and provided the audience with some key tips, such as: know what you need to teach (and understand how the brain works), teach one thing at a time, provide a safe place to experiment, set clear goals and avoid distractions, make players stop and think, only handhold when necessary, tune your difficulty curve, and test your tutorials. Each tip was illustrated by an example from his game, and how Itay iterated via play testing with real players to make the user experience better.

 

6- “Ice Age Adventures”: UX Diagnosis for a Live-Ops Game (Case Study), by Om Tandon (Digit Games Studio).
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Om Tandon (UX Director) gave a case study from the development of the game Ice Age Adventure. He explained how to gather data from various departments, how to analyze the data and conduct a heuristic diagnosis, how to communicate and pitch a solution to stakeholders, and how to design a solution that resonates with business and user needs. Specifically, that once the UX designer has enough data to understand the problem, they need to clearly communicate with stakeholders to get their buy-in to design the fix. Om explained step-by-step how they identified issues in the game that led to churn and poor monetization results. He advocated for clarity and simplicity in the design, and the importance of reward presentation to engage players more. Om emphasized that it’s important to avoid raising a player’s expectation regarding rewards and then not deliver them. Lastly, Om went on to describe his process to prototype (wireframes) and implement UX design solutions.

 

7- UX Methodologies for Holistic Product Design, by Paul Rybicki (Electronic Arts).
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Paul Rybicki (UX Design Director) explained his process of UX design for mobile games, which is all about finding your way. To do so he mapped out where he felt UX stands in relation to all the game disciplines (engineering, game design, business, art).

Paul emphasized that UX design is not only about wireframes. The workflow is about product research, information architecture, box wires, iteration (with some user research), box wire overview, and then detailed wireframes. Next up are clickable prototypes, motion sketches, detailed specification, and, lastly, gathering feedback from user research and sorting and prioritizing all the feedback appropriately. Paul concluded by pointing out that as UX practitioners we need to know where we stand in the “discipline map” in order to understand our strengths and weaknesses, to facilitate cooperation, and to encourage overlap.

 

8- Throwing Out the Dopamine Shots: Reward Psychology Without the Neurotrash, by Ben Lewis-Evans.
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Ben Lewis-Evans (UX researcher) explored reward psychology, but first started by debunking a lot of neuromyths and extrapolations about dopamine and its role in motivation. Ben suggested to leave dopamine alone given that we don’t need, as game developers, to understand the physiology behind motivation. Instead, we need to understand how the environment (i.e. the game) is shaping player behavior. One of the main points of Ben’s talk is that reward is feedback, so it needs to be clear. If players don’t understand what they got or how they got it, they cannot be motivated to do the behavior again. His other recommendations were to mix the types of rewards, set and meet expectations, help players feel in control, and show the value of rewards. Ben emphasized that social comparison and competition can motivate, but comes with risks and could backfire, and promoted the idea of cooperation as a stronger motivation. Lastly, he warned about the unintended consequences of rewards, that could in some cases encourage unwanted behaviors.