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Games, psychology, and UX with Celia Hodent - GDC Podcast ep. 8

For Celia Hodent, a psychology PhD, author, and freelance user experience consultant whose credits include Fortnite, Assassin's Creed games, and more, UX is everywhere.

"Life is UX!" said Hodent on the latest episode of the GDC Podcast. She's right—everything from coffee mugs to door handles to fighter jet cockpits contain varying examples of design meant to improve a user's experience. Of course, UX is key to video game design, too.

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"When we talk about UX, a of people think UI. Of course UI is part of the experience…but [UX] is not just the UI. It's everything," she said.

Hodent used the concept of affordance as an example. This is essentially when an object offers prompts that give users cues on how to use it.

"In product design -- I have a mug right in front of me. That mug has a handle. That handle is an affordance for me to be able to just grab it with three or four fingers and lift it. That's helping me use that object without burning my fingers if there's something warm in [the mug].

"In video games, many times we don't manipulate physical objects, so the affordances are what you call cognitive affordances or just signifiers. But the idea is that just by looking at something in a game, can I understand what it's for and how I can use it."

A classic example, Hodent pointed out, is the design of Bowser from Super Mario Bros. The dragon boss has spikes on his back, which is a clear visual cue that if Mario comes in contact with those, he'll be injured.

"This is a cognitive affordance explaining to you how this enemy is working," Hodent said. "So we need to help out players because we want the game to be, first of all fun, and also easy to understand and to understand the rules of the world…in an intuitive way. And it's through affordance that we can do that."

"It's character design, it's environment design, and yes, it's the UI, but it's not just that. Even the music, sound effects, all of that is going go be important because all of that is part of the experience."

Hodent explained that, unlike the handle of a coffee mug, video games are often meant to put challenges in front of players. That means player expectations need to be set by the designer from the outset.

"In games we do want to challenge people…so what's going to be really important is to start by defining what experience you want to offer [players]," she said. "Where do you want to challenge players?"

Hodent used the example of challenge in Epic Games' Fortnite (which she worked on) versus the challenge of UsTwo's Escher art-inspired puzzler Monument Valley. They're both very different games with very different sets of challenges – one is a twitch-based online multiplayer combat action game, the other a puzzle game that toys with players' perception of environments. Those two games—and every other game—require unique approaches to respective UX design.

"It's really important to define where you want to put a challenge, what experience you want to offer, and…who are the people who are going to play your game," Hodent said. "And once you nail that…this is where the methodology starts and this is where you can try to anticipate problems that your players are going to have."

GDC Podcast music by Mike Meehan

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