I spend a lot of my time supporting the development of games for children: educational apps, EdTech, console games & other gamified experiences. I often come up against 2 different mindsets that stand in the way of optimising games:
- Improving the user experience (UX) will make it too easy and less fun.
- Children don’t like failing so we must not make it too challenging.
Both attitudes are flawed and limit a games potential. However, they do raise interesting questions about the complexity of getting the level of difficulty right. The first also highlights misunderstanding surrounding the difference between UX barriers and gameplay challenge.
Finding the design that optimises the UX whilst providing a fun, challenging, engaging gameplay is not easy. It’s even harder when designing for children. A game may be far more challenging for one child compared to another due to minor differences in their age and stage of development.
No-one plays an easy game more than once
Head online to buy a gift, use your remote control to choose something to watch on demand or check the news on your mobile and you don’t want to face any challenges. However, play a digital game and, if it’s easy to complete every level without effort, what’s the point? For many games, most of the appeal for players is in the gameplay challenge. Make it too easy and why would they bother to play again? Conversely of course, make it too hard and they are equally unlikely to come back.
It is true that some dedicated gamers will never give up. Knowing the answer is out there, after they’ve exhausted their own ideas they will take to YouTube and Google to find help. But whilst many developers may fall into this user category themselves, the majority of the population do not.
Different levels of difficulty or intelligent progression within games are a good way to cater for children of different abilities. This provides a ‘low threshold’ for less experienced players whilst ‘high ceilings’ to challenge those reaching for mastery. Both of these can form part of a seemless user experience.
Does failure have to be a demotivator?
Research has shown quite how unhelpful failure can be for children. Many lack confidence, and failing makes these children feel: stupid, demoralised and self-critical. You can therefore see the wisdom in removing opportunities for failure in digital games. But not everyone agrees, as Dr. Carlton Reeve said during the Learn to Play or Play to Learn panel at CMC 2017 (see 5min 30 into podcast): “Who plays a game you can’t fail? What’s the point?”.
Creative, sandbox games with no challenge/competitive element work well in some contexts, but for many this is not appropriate. I believe, in these cases, the solution is in the approach to failure. Not succeeding/winning immediately does not have to feel like failure. Failing repeatedly and giving players the impression they cannot succeed is the demoralising result we want to avoid. We want to encourage them to try again through humour and incentives. Using humour to make failure funny can be a good approach. Also, we need to ensure players always have something else to try. Subtle, contextual, well-timed hints and support work well. For example, a hint can appear if the player is not successful for a specific amount of time. This means they want to keeping trying. Players need to feel that with each ‘failure’ they are getting ever closer to success and have at least one more approach to try.
It’s poor UX that makes most players give up
For me, UX is more than just UI design, it’s about the whole experience. Designing the correct level of challenge and approach to failure are vital parts of good game UX in my book. But even if your definition of UX doesn’t broaden to match mine, classic UX barriers are still the reason I see most players struggle with games. Gamers are just as frustrated by UX barriers as everyone else so ignore them at your peril. Common, classic UX issues include: players struggling to use controls, misunderstanding core aspects in the game, becoming confused by lack of feedback or having navigation problems due to unclear signposting or labelling.
Fixing issues in all these areas can be done with no negative impact on the gameplay. Good, fun onboarding is vital, as well as clear age appropriate signposting and contextual support. Focusing on optimising UX in this way through careful design and (ideally iterative) user testing during development really is a no-brainer.
Can games be both challenging and easy to use?
There is no question that games can be easy to use and yet still challenging, fun and engaging. UX issues can be easily identified through user testing. Many of them are, comparatively, straightforward to solve. Developers are right to be cautious about making games either too easy or too hard. There certainly needs to be a challenge, and one that supports different user types and skill levels. A user-centred approach to game development makes such a difference. Great interface design, clear onboarding and well-timed contextual support is the way to ensure players enjoy and remain engaged with your game.