[Torque's Eric Preisz and two Full Sail usability center PhDs offer four techniques to help make your game more accessible -- even if you don't have access to a giant lab and dozens of focus testers for feedback.]
Usability is a crucial factor when attempting to reach large, diverse audiences with a game. A commonly stated rule-of-thumb is that if your player doesn't understand the basics of your interface in two minutes, they'll stop playing your game. Therefore, good usability is critical to game success.
When it comes to designing usable games, it is critical not only to understand how your target audience experiences your game, but also how other groups of individuals not in your target audience will react to a product (professionals call these "core" and "fringe" users).
For financial and quality reasons, increasingly usability work on games is being done by specialized user experience centers with broad access to large diverse groups of potential users and whose team members have extensive training and experience in usability assessment methods.
This is a rare combination of factors, however, and means that such user experience centers are typically located in and around universities, and at the few large game companies that can afford an in-house usability center.
Although this makes it harder for many game studios to get access to these groups, user research teams can pay for themselves quickly in several ways including: keeping a development team working together for a common achievable and prioritized set of goals, alleviating investor concerns about customer targeting and focus, improving the efficiency and effectiveness of development tools, and most importantly, improving user experience within a game environment.
An early focus on usability on game projects is financially critical -- research shows that the top four reasons for development going over budget are all related to unforeseen usability problems and 80 percent of the cost of patching and maintenance on software products is due to unmet or unforeseen user interface needs.
Unfortunately, cost, location, and personnel availability often make it difficult for small to midsize studios to set up or even get access to user experience centers. While not every game company can afford the services of a professional user research team, every game can benefit from the basic techniques these groups use. Many of these techniques are simple and cheap enough to be implemented by developers and artists directly.
In this article, we'll introduce four usability ideas, a simple methodology, and discuss pros and cons for each. These concepts and methods can be understood and implemented without specialized knowledge, and can pay dividends both during development and after a game ships.
Methodology. In the think aloud technique, the gamer sits down to play the video game while a user experience team member is seated nearby to listen and take notes. The user is given specific instructions that as they play the game, they are to say out loud the reason they took each action. This allows the team member to document both their actions, and what the user was thinking as they took them. The team repeats this with multiple gamers to get multiple perspectives and viewpoints.
Example. During a recent test, a player chose to try to load a gun with a water bottle by dragging and dropping the icon for the water bottle (a blue-gray tube with a narrow end) onto the icon for the weapon, saying "this looks like a bullet, so it's probably ammo for the gun." Their actions, and their spoken-aloud explanation, made it clear that the icon for the water bottle was confusing and needed to be redesigned.