People who play video games are often wary of buying new games – they don’t know whether they’ll actually be fun to play. So they read reviews and try out games in stores or at friends’ houses before deciding on a purchase.
Game designers have a similar problem – how to create the next great breakthrough game that would attract millions of fans, and make millions. So they conduct what is called “playtesting,” bringing in gamers to try out games that are still under construction, and having them give feedback on their attitudes and preferences about the new game.
Some of the questions designers have are simple: Is the game’s interface easy to understand and operate? Others are more sophisticated, dealing with artistic taste: Did you enjoy the game’s graphics? The deepest level of questioning relates to the experience of playing the game: Did you become so engaged in the game that you lost track of time or where you were?
But it can be hard to understand the exact meaning of testers’ answers, and even more difficult to figure out how to take multiple players’ divergent suggestions into account. What questions are the best ones for developers to ask testers, in order to best understand players’ reactions to a particular game? Is there a way to objectively measure players’ subjective enjoyment of any given video game?
Looking at games and research
We, along with our doctoral student Mikki Phan, looked at 450 different games across many popular genres, from “World of Warcraft” and “New Super Mario Bros” to “Candy Crush Saga” and “Trivia Crack.” Building on existing research investigating elements of game satisfaction, we developed the GUESS – the Game User Experience Satisfaction Scale. It can help determine what aspects of a game contribute to user enjoyment, and help developers debrief playtesters about their experiences.
Through a very thorough analysis with more than 1,300 participants, we identified nine factors that, taken together, provide a complete picture of how satisfying a game is. These include:
- Usability/playability – the ease with which the game is learned, and how intuitive the game’s interface and menu system are. At the less usable end of the spectrum, “World of Warcraft”’s large game space and many actions take time to learn. “Madden 17” boost playability by providing a list of actions and their respective controller buttons to make it easy to control the on-screen NFL stars.
- Narratives – how captivating the game’s story elements are, and how well the characters are developed in regards to their in-game story. “New Super Mario Bros’” basis is an unemotional straightforward trip to rescue Princess Peach. “Fallout: New Vegas” provides a compelling, deeply emotional journey of discovering what unknown assailant leaves the player “for dead” in a wasteland.
- Play engrossment – how well the game induces a state of being immersed, including losing track of time while playing and excitement to play again. In “Fallout 3,” players are thrust into a nuclear wasteland with never-ending quests and opportunities for reward.
- Enjoyment – how fun the game is for players. “The Lego Movie Game” consistently entertains players with the main character’s goofiness and references to the blockbuster film.
- Creative freedom – how well the game stimulates curiosity and allows for imaginative control. In “Minecraft,” players are free to engage with the world as they choose, including mining resources, building structures and crafting supplies.
- Audio aesthetics – how appealing players find the music and sound effects of the game. “Star Wars: Battlefront,” for example, has a fully composed score that shifts when scenes change.
- Visual aesthetics – how appealing players find the graphics of the game. “Forza Motorsport 6” players race through a variety of scenic environments in highly detailed vehicles that can open their car doors, hood and trunk to show off the details of each sweet ride.
- Personal gratification – how motivating the game is to play and to continue to play. In “Words with Friends,” players essentially play the same game with different people however often they want. “Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” advances players through levels that push them to continue playing and rewards them with increased strength, power and abilities.
- Social connectivity – how well the game allows for connections between real people playing. In “Pokemon Go,” there is no support for chat between players, and friends can’t choose to battle each other. “League of Legends” players must carefully communicate and coordinate their strategies with teammates to defeat the enemy.
Using the results
Industry, game developers, and consumers will all find value in the GUESS. Industry can use the GUESS as a way to assess what aspects of a game contribute to user satisfaction and as a tool to aid in debriefing users on their game playing experience.
Scores on the GUESS can be calculated by looking at specific elements of each factor to rate the game’s performance on that factor on a scale of 1 to 7. To get a game’s overall score, incorporating all the factors, we average the nine scores. This lets us compare different games directly.
But the information it provides is more complex than simply saying one game is better than another. For example, maybe one first-person shooter game has much higher usability, visual and audio aesthetics than a major massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), but the MMORPG has consistently higher ratings on narratives, creative freedom and social connectivity.
Developers could use this information to broaden their games and help them identify their strengths. They could also find areas where their designs could improve. For example, adding a narrative element to that first-person shooter could make an otherwise run-of-the-mill game a crossover hit. Or investing more in the music for that MMORPG could really set it apart from similar titles.
Consumers can use GUESS scores to help them choose games that are high in factors that are important to them. If you like lots of graphics and cool sounds, but don’t know what kind of game you want to buy, you could look for games with GUESS scores high in the aspects you are looking for. Likewise, if you care less about sound or a story because you plan to play the game on your mobile phone as you wait in line, you may want something with a social component that is easy to play and engaging.
In hopes that others will extend our research and learn more about game enjoyability – and refine the GUESS – we have made it freely available under Creative Commons licensing. Understanding what people enjoy in video games will make the games – and players’ experiences – better.