Users as Co-creators: Player-centric Game Design

For many years the audience for digital games was limited to young males, and it was sufficient for the game designers’ mindset that a game felt playable for themselves. However, the game market has changed and there has been an enormous expansion into other segments, such as women aged 30-50, a segment that game designers couldn’t imagine years ago.

There are many game design processes today, but most are still clearly not player-centric. By this I mean not only thinking as the user, but really going deep into collaborative and co-creative design processes with research methods and tools that provide fresh information from the players themselves.

To understand and discuss the best practices with my colleagues at Laurea University, I first created an overview map of the player experience (see Figure 1).

Mind map of elements of games user experience.

Figure 1. Overview of user experience in games.

Second, we interviewed gaming industry professionals from around the world, asking their opinions about integrating users into the game design process. Most indicated that they are not using many methods to engage customers in game development, and that they get close to users only in the testing stage. Many professionals know this is an imperfect approach. They were all interested, though, in understanding the advantages of including the players as early as the concept stage.

Many of the designers’ comments touch on the importance and advantages of player-centric design:

“It doesn’t make difference if only one person thinks about user experience during the game design process. The whole mind of the company needs to change. The problem is communication—communication between company and players, communication between game professionals.”
—Fabio Florencio, CESAR

“By understanding the player audience’s needs and expectations, it is possible to create better ways of motivation [game-play], realizing efficient products and solutions, spreading the message purposed [communication plan] in an involving manner, raising the chances to promote innovation.”
—Melina Alves, DUX Coworking

“Game designer and developers many times don’t see the relevance of including players to test the concept of the games, many times because of time or the costs. Comparative and instructive information showing the benefits of player-centric design methods could help to change their minds.”
—Francimar Maciel, Nokia Institute
of Technology

The importance of the player experience needs to be an integral part of company thinking, and the methods and tools need to be part of the whole design process—inspiration, idealization, and implementation.

While playing digital games, the main goal of the player is to have fun by interacting with the elements of the game. A better study of those elements from the user experience perspective could give us a framework to better develop games using player-centric design tools.

In a 2008 article in Interactions Magazine, Sus Lundgren from the Chalmers University of Technology said that gameplay design is design of the core game, for example, the rules of the game. And the rules in turn affect not only how the game is played, but also how players interact with each other via the game, and thus how they experience it. If the game wasn’t created by thinking about how people will play it, there is an enormous chance that many changes will be made after the game is launched. An understanding of players’ previous experiences, abilities, and capabilities as part of game development reduces the chances of failure.

 Game Design Process

One of the most popular player-centric processes was presented by Ernest Adams in his 2010 book, Fundamentals of Game Design. He divided the game design process into three stages: concept, elaboration, and tuning. Table 1 is a quick overview of the stages, along with the methods and tools for each, many of which are familiar to UX professionals.

Table 1. A summary of Ernest Adams’s process

Design Stages

Methods and Tools

1. Concept

 – Imagining the game and defining the way it works.

a. Getting a concept

Idea generation, benchmarking, affinity diagrams, business model canvas, concept drawing, and game advertising

b. Defining the audience

Potential players interviews, focus groups, personas, stakeholder map, scenarios

c. Determining the player’s role

Use cases, player journey maps, player experiences maps, stakeholder map, and similar games safaris

d. Fulfilling the dream: first steps for the gameplay definition

Group and individual interviews, experience prototype, Five Whys, What if…, mood boards and storyboards

2. Elaboration

 – Transmitting information about the game to the team who will build it.

a. Defining the primary gameplay mode

Paper prototypes, focus groups and interviews, player expectations maps, and player lifecycle maps

b. Designing the protagonist

Player interviews and focus groups, roleplaying

c. Defining the game world

Players brainstorm, team brainstorm, affinity diagram, player lifecycle maps, mood boards, futures cards

d. Designing the core mechanisms

Players brainstorm and team brainstorm, paper prototypes and prototype simulators, expectations maps, interviews, and focus groups

e. Creating additional modes

Game blueprint, expectations maps, and player lifecycle maps

f. Design levels

Game blueprint, player lifecycle maps

g. Writing the story

Game blueprint, player lifecycle maps

h. Build, test, and iterate

Paper prototype, simulation prototypes, net promoting scores and semantic scale, player storytelling

3. Tuning

 – No new features, only small adjustments to polish the game “before the game launch.”

Beta test prototype, net promoting scores, semantic scales, heuristic evaluation, task analyses, grid and usability testing, UX questionnaires, interviews, storytelling

Now let us add a fourth “stage” to Adams’ three stages, making the process more receptive to the players’ point of view after the game launch (see Table 2). By using an agile development approach, new features and other improvements can be added during development.

Table 2. An additional stage in the process

Design Stages

Methods and Tools

4. Agile Development

 – Continuously scanning user behaviors, feedback, engagement, and satisfaction.

Game analytics, focus group, interviews, design labs, ethnographic research, futures thinking, collaborative and co-creative tools (such as forums, communities, templates, design patterns, APIs, and a fan art page)

The Player Experience as a Whole Experience Cycle

As time passes and users get more familiar with technology and accessing information, they know their rights and feel empowered to speak out about their feelings. Some of them know more about your product or service than your own company’s employees. Some are experts and could really contribute new ideas and improvements to your game.

Some game companies, including those already following best practices, have noticed the potential value of including customers in the development process. This has led to companies giving their fans more opportunities to influence the services and products around them. The game industry is also beginning to see customers as co-developers; users are given tools to collaborate and co-create products further.

Rovio, as an example, is using a transmedia (multiplatform storytelling) approach which includes various channels to reach new users, such as a Facebook fanpage, Angry Birds store, Angry Birds Wiki, animations, books, toys, and others. All elements support their main characters: Angry Birds and Bad Piggies. People recognize the characters even if they haven’t been playing the mobile game that originally made Angry Birds famous.

Who remembers the FarmVille game from Zynga and their incredible community on Facebook? I remember seeing discussions asking the company to create a harvester machine that allows the players to harvest many blocks at the same time because the initial structure of the game permitted the player only to do it one by one. Now the harvester is part of the game.

Some game companies give players the freedom to create add-ons or mods for the game. Many of them are unofficial and their use is questioned by their own community because they can be useless or offer risks. People usually prefer the official ones. Sometimes, though, based on usage and popularity, customer mods become official or inspire company developers to create new features for the game.

One example of this is Blizzard Entertainment, which maintains a large, official community for the game World of Warcraft (WOW). Players are very engaged in it; they talk about add-ons, better features, experiences, and so on. The WOW also has unofficial communities where unofficial add-ons can easily be found. Some of the unofficial WOW communities are bigger than the official one.

Minecraft is another game phenomenon that illustrates the power of fans to develop games. It is an indie-game, that is, a game created without publisher support usually by an individual or small team. It was developed in 2009 by Markus Persson with the default feature “survival mode” that challenges players to survive in a world where they can build and destroy blocks. There is also a “creative mode” in which players have an unlimited number of blocks, leading to a world that is enormous, expanding, and exploratory. Minecraft has been extraordinarily popular for an indie game; as of January 2013, it has sold more than nine million copies.

These examples show why game companies can’t concentrate only on the gameplay and core mechanisms of the game. It is important to think about the player experience as a whole experience cycle, to think outside of the game and consider the player in others aspects of the business. A big part of the player experience happens in the game, but a sense of involvement through activities and interactions outside of the game itself can make the player feel more confident in the game.

Users in the Company Mindset

Collaborative and co-creation methods help to imagine present and futures that might go unnoticed by a team of experts. Creating a place for people to express their hopes and fears, concerns, and constructive ideas about the games can engage them more actively with game issues.

People can be engaged to use a product when they give their own personal ideas or have some kind of personal identification. This includes:

  • Customization, based on features that users can adapt to make the game more suitable for them
  • Personalization, in which the user makes the design and applies it in a product or service
  • Collaboration, where the user contributes with part of the work
  • Co-creation, with users helping the designer come-up with better solutions

All of these techniques are ways to enable people to personally identify with a product or service. They can be added to more traditional ways of studying the player experience. Taken together, both approaches can help game designers to better understand concepts such as immersion, engagement, emotions, feelings, attitudes, expectations, and fun.