April 4, 2016

Inaugural Game UX Summit Set to Explore the End User Experience in Games, Apps

By Daniel Kayser

In the crowded and ever-evolving ecosystem of games and apps, there are no shortage of experiences seeking your attention. With billions of dollars on the line, the gaming and app industries are booming with both content and competition. While flashy graphics and witty pitches might lure the masses though, designers who focus on offering a thoughtful end user experience are often the ones who create products that truly connect with their intended audience and, as a result, lead to ongoing success for the developer. 

Despite this aspect of game and app design holding so much importance, it is an area of development that is often overlooked or, at least, not given the attention it fully deserves.

Thankfully, the inaugural Game UX Summit in Durham, NC is taking place on May 12, 2016 and it has been built from the ground up to tackle both the obstacles and opportunities facing an all-important aspect of our industry - the end user experience. I recently chatted with Dr. Celia Hodent, director of UX at Epic Games, to find out why this summit is so important and to fill attendees in on exactly what they can expect.

Thanks for joining me, Celia! Since this is the first ever Game UX Summit, please tell our readers what the event is all about and why it is so important.

Ever since Donald Norman - one of our keynote speakers - popularized the term "user experience" in the 90s, the field has grown in influence in industrial design and web/app development. UX has helped a lot of products to become easier to grasp and more delightful for users. There are now a lot of summits around Human Factors, Human-Computer Interaction, Interaction Design, User Research, or Usability. However, to my knowledge, there is no summit about UX as a whole, considering all the disciplines under the broad UX umbrella, specifically dedicated to video game and app development. The Game UX Summit is therefore a unique opportunity to discuss the current state of UX in our industry, share best practices, and spread our love for science and compelling user-centered experiences.


In the increasingly congested worlds of games and apps, how does UX design directly impact a developer’s ability to make their content stand out from the crowd?

Developing successful games and apps is about much more than just functionality or content. There are countless applications or games that propose the same functionalities or similar game experiences, however, only a select few will succeed. That’s the number one reason why considering the user experience is crucial for developers; to place the audience at the core of the development process and to understand what they are motivated to do, how they will interact with the product, and the emotions elicited via this interaction. It is about verifying that your design intentions are the ones ultimately felt by your audience. UX-focused design is also about saving time and resources, and refining the overall development experience through fast iteration and finding and fixing critical issues faster.


While acquisition is key to any product’s success, retention is equally as important. How crucial is UX design to ensuring an enjoyable, ongoing experience where the end users’ actions equate to the designer’s intentions?

Offering an engaging and enjoyable ongoing experience to your audience is indeed key. It's also quite difficult to accomplish. On mobile for example, a study by Compuware in 2013 showed that over 80% of all downloaded apps (including games) are only used once by the users and eventually deleted. Poor UX was among the factors mentioned for deleting an app. Another example is free-to-play games. It seems that most F2P games are losing 20% of their players after the first hour of play. It's already difficult to get your game and app noticed among the thousands of competitors out there, but it makes it even more difficult to survive in this highly competitive market if your product doesn't provide a good user experience.


How can a commitment to quality UX design at the onset of a project benefit its development throughout?

Applying UX principles within a user-centered framework will help you find problems sooner and iterate both faster and more effectively. As a result, your game or app will have more chances to meet or exceed your audience’s expectations by providing a great experience that will lead to you making more money and, ultimately, developing more products. 

You can even start with paper prototypes while it’s still very cheap to iterate to identify the biggest issues before implementing a given feature. In a nutshell, that’s what UX designers do - produce paper prototypes which they test with naive users, then interactive prototypes which they test again. Lastly, they implement a functional, very basic version and test that several more times. Then, when the interaction is nailed down, artists can dress it up and make it compelling, but a last test will be needed to see if art is conflicting with functionality, as this can sometimes occur. It seems tedious, but it’s actually a fairly cheap and straightforward process that will allow you to iterate much faster and more efficiently. I guarantee that in the end you will have saved time and money while ultimately delivering a more compelling experience to your players.

Where do you feel that UX design currently stands on the priority list for most game/app developers?

UX is becoming increasingly trendy in the gaming industry, yet it is still very new. User research is a common department in many large studios, and pretty much everyone is collecting data. However, there are still a lot of UX misconceptions and UX design in particular is not always well understood. Lastly, big data is undeniably important yet making sense of the data collected through data science and design/business hypotheses is less frequent. Long story short, UX is growing but the discipline is still paving its way in the game/app development world. This is precisely the reason why I believe the Game UX Summit will be the perfect venue to share our knowledge and best practices to push UX forward.

There is a rather impressive, robust roster of speakers attending the event. Can you give our readers an overview of the insight and experience they’re providing for attendees?

We are extremely grateful to host such an amazing lineup! The summit is featuring a mix of renown mentors, veteran game developers and distinguished scholars to have a broad representation of the UX discipline. 

Don Norman and Dan Ariely are our keynote speakers. Don Norman is responsible for popularizing the term “user experience” in the 90s and has often advocated for user-centered design. He is also the author of The Design of Everyday Things which is a must-read for any designer! 

Dan Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. He is the author of the bestseller Predictably Irrational which explains the hidden forces that influence our decisions; very useful knowledge to any designer and service provider. 

We also have veteran game developers from Riot Games (Steve Mack), EA (Ian Livingston), Massive (Anders Johansson), Bungie (Jennifer Ash), Ubisoft (David Lightbown), and King (Chris Grant). They will tackle various aspects of UX using best practices and examples from games they worked on or teams they worked with; UX design, user research, analytics, data science, UX strategy, etc., will all be covered. 

We have also invited distinguished scholars to talk about human factors, accessibility and education including Ian Hamilton, who is a UX designer and accessibility specialist, Anne McLaughlin, who is an Associate Professor of Psychology with NCSU, Fran Blumberg, who is an Associate Professor in Psychology and whose research explores how children can learn by playing, Andrew Przybylski, experimental psychologist at Oxford Internet Institute whose research is focused on motivational theory applied to video games, Michael Levine, who is the Founding Executive Director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, and Jordan Shapiro, a world-renowned leader on global policy and education as well as a columnist for Forbes. As you can see, the content will be varied and many aspects of UX will be addressed and discussed at the Summit. It's a great occasion to exchange ideas, enrich our perspectives, and mingle with great minds and thought leaders in our discipline (and beyond).

What can attendees expect from the Masterclasses being offered at Epic HQ the day after the Summit?

We propose specific tickets that give access to both the Summit on May 12th and to one of the three Masterclasses at Epic HQ on May 13th. We have a Masterclass about Game Design by Jim Brown, a 20-year veteran and design lead on Epic Games' Unreal series and Gears of War franchise. He will use his amazing experience to explain how game design can work hand-in-hand with the principles of UX. 

Another Masterclass, this one by lead designer Nick Donaldson, will be dedicated to VR and the unique sets of UX challenges it represents, using examples from the VR experiences developed at Epic (such as Bullet Train and Showdown). 

Lastly, I will host a Masterclass about UX and psychology principles, and how to apply them to game design. These Masterclasses all happen in parallel on Friday, May 13. They last about four hours and include lunch and a tour of Epic Games HQ (and our fancy UX lab!). 

Who do you think will most benefit from the information and discussion that is generated by the Game UX Summit and Masterclasses?

From my point of view, anyone interested in user experience, game or app development, user-centered design, game-as-a-service, free-to-play and educational games should find great interest in this Summit! The Summit brings together various profiles, knowledge, and know-how in a relatively intimate venue since we can only host 400-450 attendees. Therefore, there will be multiple occasions to not only absorb some great insights but also exchange ideas and perspectives with the speakers and other attendees, during the coffee breaks and lunch break, all of which are included.

How do you hope that the Game UX Summit will impact the development community?

I really hope this Summit will help break down existing barriers between the different disciplines - UX design, user research, data science, psychology, game development - who still have a tendency to work and progress in silos. There are great lessons we can learn from each perspective, so it's time for us to mingle!

How can those interested, including students, learn more about Game UX Summit ticket availability and pricing?

You will find all the information on the event's website. Anyone interested in the event should not hesitate to reach out to me on Twitter (@CeliaHodent) if they have any further questions. I hope to see you there!


Thank you for your time and best of luck with the event!