What Does a UX/UI Designer in the Video Game Industry Do?
In this article
Learn more about the opportunities, responsibilities, and salaries of UX/UI designers in the video game industry here.
The user experience is arguably the most important facet of video game development—strong UX design can make the difference between a chart-topping hit and an unplayable dud; it can engage players for hours on end or lead to game-quitting frustration; and it can even make or break a game development studio, with class-action lawsuits filed against developers who release glitchy games.
Game designers and testers have historically done the work of UX designers—it has often fallen on them to understand player behaviors and thinking processes, test their games with real players, and iterate based on feedback. But as video games have gotten bigger, more complex, and more ambitious, dedicated UX staff—from designers to analysts—have played an increasingly important role in ensuring that the game designers’ vision translates into a fun and intuitive player experience. Whether it’s providing feedback on user interface choices, dialogue, or commands, “each small choice could have minimal or monstrous implications on the players’ holistic experience,” according to Player Research. Because of this, UX professionals have become a “player-centric voice in the studio directing the team’s attention, reality-checking design choices, informing the team’s judgment, and facilitating communication.”
Here’s another way to think of the role of UX designers in the video game industry: “Game design defines rules, creates mechanics, balances gameplay, designs toys, activities, and things to do in the game,” according to Mun Lum, a senior visual designer at Riot Games. “UX is the bridge between game design and the player.”
How Is UX/UI Design Used in the Video Game Industry?
At its core, UX/UI design in the video game industry isn’t too different from UX/UI design in other industries—the ultimate goal is to create a positive user experience that will lead to stronger user engagement, retention, and, depending on the product or service, conversion. But the specific applications of UX/UI design can differ greatly, and in video game development in particular, UX/UI designers play a significant role in helping games succeed.
Some of the major ways that UX/UI designers make a difference in the video game industry include:
- Making sense of a game. Most video games are built on rules, require engagement with certain features and mechanics, and take players on a journey, whether it’s through a traditional narrative as seen in titles like The Last of Us, a race to dominance as seen in real-time strategy games such as StarCraft II, or simply overcoming puzzles that progressively harder, like in Tetris or Candy Crush Saga. Regardless of a game’s complexity, a certain level of onboarding and education is needed—this is where UX designers play a pivotal role in helping players “get” what they’re supposed to do. “Teams inevitably become too close to their project; they cannot play nor perceive the game as a real player would,” according to Player Research. “This skewed perspective can lead to needless iteration, or simply never recognizing where experiential disparities exist.” Those experiential disparities can get in the way of fun, which is why it’s important for UX professionals to help developers bridge the gap between a game’s intentions and the player’s enjoyment.
- Reducing cognitive friction. “The traditional UX approach is all about solving users’ needs,” according to UX Planet. In comparison, “the gaming UX approach introduces challenges to users to entertain them whilst simplifying the underlying complexities that come along with the challenges.” In other words, in the video game industry, game developers and UX designers are put in the unique position of not only solving problems for players, they’re also responsible for crafting the challenges that players are expected to overcome. Both challenge and solution need to be seamless and intuitive in order to reduce cognitive friction for players, allowing them to both process the gaming challenges that lie ahead while also engaging with the games’ mechanics to overcome those challenges.
- Usability, accessibility, and ergonomics. Video games can present unique usability challenges because they often engage players both mentally (through the game rules and mechanics) and physically (through input controls such as touch screens, console controllers, motion sensing hardware, or mouse and keyboard). Given that video games tend to be multi-sensorial experiences, game developers also need to factor in accessibility issues—this is where UX designers can serve as advocates for players and help shape a game. For example, in The Last of Us Part II, the developers were able to build in more than 60 accessibility settings, which allowed those with vision, hearing, and motor impairments to enjoy the game.
- Bringing players back. In addition to creating a fun game, developers and UX designers build in dozens of features that draw players back into the game, such as progress bars, badges, and other counters that let the player know that there is more to be done. A large part of a UX professional’s job is to understand what motivates a player to return, how they feel rewarded, and identifying ways to satisfy the user through game design.
Video Game Industry UX/UI Designer Job Roles/Responsibilities
Most UX/UI designers bring technical design skills to the table such as the ability to conduct and make sense of user research; wireframing and prototyping; interactive design; visual communication; information architecture; and proficiency with tools such as Sketch, Invision Studio, Proto.io, Webflow, Balsamiq, and Axure. But UX/UI designers in the video game industry need the added skill of understanding video game mechanics and striking a balance between clearing obstacles for players without defeating the purpose of a game
“The focus is not to make the game easy, but rather to make it so the player is able to easily experience the game,” according to UX designer Philippe Chambon. “The game could be really hard, but it should be easy to figure out how to play it and improve.”
Some of the key responsibilities of UX/UI designers in the video game industry include:
- Identifying and resolving communication issues within a game. For example, is it clear to the player who their opponents are? Does the game offer enough visual, audio, or other sensory cues to guide the player toward their goals? Quake was a game that used the red color to signify opponents—according to UX Planet, this cue has been carried forward to new games like Overwatch and Team Fortress 2.
- Identifying and solving usability issues, particularly as it relates to control inputs and in-game mechanics
- Conducting design experiments and A/B testing, listening to user feedback, and staying on top of industry trends to develop user-centered design solutions
- Helping design teams prioritize features that will make a game intuitive and accessible to players
Video Game Industry UX/UI Designer Salary
Among hiring managers, UX/UI design is one of the top five most in-demand skills, according to a LinkedIn report, with the demand expected to rise throughout 2021. And as video game budgets get bigger, games themselves become more ambitious, and the player experience bar is raised, so too will demand for designers who can optimize user experiences.
UX/UI designer salaries are typically determined by education, years of experience, location, and organization type. As of 2021, the average base salary of an entry-level UX/UI designer in the video game industry is around $64,343. The average base salary of a senior-level UX/UI designer in the video game industry is around $90,503.
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