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Usability Breakthroughs: Four Techniques To Improve Your Game
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Usability Breakthroughs: Four Techniques To Improve Your Game

September 10, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

Heuristic Analysis Techniques

Methodology. There are several published sets of "heuristics," or rules of thumb, which provide guidelines for what makes a good game. Jakob Nielsen has published a very solid and well-regarded set of heuristics for software interfaces in general (you can read more about them here) but some others have come up with their own published lists.

One set aimed specifically at adapting Nielsen's heuristics to games was developed by Melissa Federoff -- the full list can be found at the author's site. If you don't like any of the published lists, however, you can develop your own set specific to your game.

First, ask a set of game experts and game players (devs and beta-testers will work in a pinch) to identify what features are necessary for a game in your game's genre to be successful (in regards to story, game mechanics, game play, etc).

Then, while the expert or participant plays the game, have other experts observe and ask them to judge the intuitiveness and effectiveness of the game interface based on the list of important features you generated earlier.

Remember that these are specific to the kind of game you're making -- you would need to come up with a different list of features for first person shooters than for MMORPGs.

Example. Nielsen's heuristics state that if any process takes longer than 10 seconds (a loading screen, for instance) you should make sure that the user is getting some kind of feedback that the system is still working (an animation, or a loading bar, for instance). This helps players to understand not only how close the game is to being ready to be played, but also if something has gone wrong (a crash or lockup).

Positive aspects of the Heuristic Analysis Technique

  1. You can either rely on the existing work of experts, or identify your own experts to analyze similar games to the one you are creating and develop your own list of important features and design elements your players will expect. This can help prevent your user base from immediately going hostile when you launch because of obvious lapses in gameplay, mechanics, and story elements usually present in your genre.
  2. Cost is relatively low because you are doing the evaluation yourself or with a few hired experts instead of having to bring in and test lots and lots of potential users.
  3. This is very effective when used together with other, more expensive and time-consuming techniques -- the heuristic analysis identifies the big, easy to find problems so that later techniques can focus on harder to find, but still critical problems.

Problems with the Heuristic Analysis Technique

  1. Heuristics themselves may be simple, but applying them well requires an expert's eye for detail and a lot of experience with interface assessment. If your team is relatively inexperienced, this can be a problem.
  2. Using members of your team to evaluate your interface can be problematic -- after all, they already know how users are "supposed" to use the controls and interpret the HUD. Ideally, you want somebody who knows about games and usability, but isn't familiar with your game specifically.
    Finding people who fit the bill can be a problem. This is doubly problematic when developing your own heuristics, as now you need more experts to generate the heuristics in the first place. When you don't have experts in-house, one way to deal with this in multiple-project studios is to have the dev team from one game work as the usability team on another game within the studio.
  3. It can be hard to judge the heuristic statements that are created. For example, it may seem obvious that first person shooters should include a mini-map that allows the player to easily identify the orientation and placement of their avatar within the environment, but how do we assess this? Is this statement answered by a yes or no, a ten point sliding scale (called a Likert scale by professionals) or a subjective response from an expert? Worse, experts can disagree on how to answer the question or even on how to judge the question.
  4. Sticking closely to your own heuristics can lead to limitations on game creativity. Do all gamers really want all MMORPGs to have the exact same game elements, mechanics, and story processes?

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