Game UI Design: Understand the science behind

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Mobile Gaming
By: Sandeep Agrawal

Game UI Design: The Science Behind

Angry Birds. I will be honest. I spend atleast one hour playing that game every day.

It makes most people ponder, what makes this game so addictive like weed? Just so that you know, this casual game has been downloaded over 2 billion times. Many of us did not even mind shelling out a few cents to buy the advanced version. 200 million people still play it every month. Players, across the globe, spend a whopping 200 million minutes a day playing Angry Birds which roughly boils down to 1.2 billion hours in a year.

Now, that’s super-impressive.

Game Engineers, today, are often asked to develop games similar to Angry Birds. It’s not uncommon to find your clients saying,

“Can you help us develop a game that has an excellent UI like the one similar to Angry Birds?”

This game’s UI design has, sort of, become a de-facto standard. It serves as an inspiration to all in the gaming community. With some help from cognitive science and behavior psychology, let’s see how you can create games with a truly wonderful UI design.

Understanding the user’s psychology

It’s always a smart move to consider the basic principles of psychology and philosophy to design a smarter interface. Understanding users’ behavior is the key to avoiding costly mistakes too.

This video on the Psychological Basis for UI Design Rules can be a good starting point for you. Implementing a great UI design is all about making users behave the way you want them to. This even means you do in-depth research about analyzing a user’s eyesight patterns. Cognitive Flow is imperative if you want to engineer a game that leads to heightened forms of engagement.

Sean Baron from Microsoft Studios has written this exceptional article for Gamasutra titled Cognitive Flow:

The Psychology of Great Game Design. It says there are four critical elements you need in a great game

  • Concrete goals with manageable rules
  • Goals that fit players capabilities
  • Clear and timely feedback
  • No room for distractions

Check out here.

Playing with the dopamine system

Michael Chorost, Ph.D., calls Angry Birds fiendishly addictive. So, much so that, he went ahead and deleted this game from his iPhone. He explains Angry Birds triggers what is called as a neurophysiological response. He goes on to say that this game is a terrific manipulator of the brain’s dopamine system.

Dopamine gets activated in you when something happens which is usually followed by some sort of reward. When we talk about Angry Birds, the firing of a bird, and being rewarded in the form of screaming birds, popping pigs and crashing pieces is stimulating for the gamers. The anticipation is what does the trick. Because I don’t know what’s exactly going to happen after I fire the bird and it hits the target.

This uncertainty stirs up tension leading the brain to crave release. It makes you do whatever it takes to create the release. This translates to you pulling more slingshots and firing more shots. This is the entire neurochemical stuff behind why Angry Bird is so addictive.

The point I am trying to make is games that are obviously simple, rewarding and feel realistic to users do tremendously well. Make sure your game has an element of tension to get the users’ adrenaline going.

Mysterious is great

If you pay a close attention, all great games have an element of mystery attached to them. Angry Birds is just one of them. By adding mystery to your UI design, you can not only make a game more compelling but also enjoyable. Mystery is always present in subtle forms.

Angry Birds has the followings–

  • Tiny Bananas spread only in some play sequences
  • Houses containing pigs shake slightly in the beginning
  • Play space showcases cross section of underground rocks and dirt
  • Birds somersault into the slingshot only sometimes

Keep engaging interactions

Simple, easy to learn interactions are always engaging. Seems cliché right? Well, most of the game developers get this wrong. However, creating simpler things is quite complex.

The UI design of your game should be such that after a brief interaction, users should be fully informed and engrossed. Angry Birds is engaging because its UI adds more detail in the users’ mind at the right time. It allows players to quickly create a picture of how things are going to work including the strategy, point system etc. The birds are engineered to elicit clever behaviors that expand the user’s mental model at the right point when the play becomes more complex.

Evoke emotions through sound

Neuroscience proves that music & sound trigger emotional response. By applying the right kind and type of music in your game, you can make it all the more engaging. Angry Birds’ sound may seem simple to you but in reality, it is more than complex. Almost every game has music/sound effects, but few have the power to take it to the next level. Angry Birds, very expertly, uses the concept of ‘Action Syncing’ when applied to audio. When audio elements are implemented in the right degree, they help reinforce new levels of engagement.

Hop on to this interesting article by Charles Mauro to have a detailed look at the concepts discussed here.

Are you aware of more such factors/concepts that make games addictive?

We would love to hear what you have to say.

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