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How to make the world a better place: The true challenge of UX in video games - Part 01

by Mickael Dell'ova on 10/20/21 01:46:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Welcome to the amazing world of UX, the purpose of this article is to provide you with a comprehensive definition of what UX is in video games and why its role is more important than you think. As the subject is vast I'm going to divide this article into 5 parts. Which part will form a whole and thus my definition of what UX is and its impact on the world. I will post one part each day this week until Friday.

The today one will deal with the reasons for the confusion between UI and UX, the second with UX as holistic design discipline, the third with UX methodologies and user centered approaches, the fourth with Diversity, inclusion and representation issues and the last with the various obstacles of a good UX approaches. I will not deal with topics such as ergonomics or cognitive sciences, which are already well covered by other specialists and which I think are a very small part of the subject.

I will offer you drama, laughter, anecdotes, maybe a few clever points (Who knows?), and the secret recipe for making amazing and ethical video games.

This article is based on my 15 years of experience in different fields more or less close to UX and the results of my observations, successes but also and above all the brakes and failures that I have encountered in my career and in my desire to elevate the discipline. I had the chance to work on games like Assassins CreedsJust DanceSTEEPBeyond Good and Evil 2 and EVE Online... and in different positions as UI Artist, Game Designer, UX designer. It is precisely this plurality of experiences that allowed me to put my finger on the dysfunctions of an efficient UX in the video games industry. In the broadest sense of the term, you'll understand that when I talk about UX, I'm not just talking about cognitive sciences, ergonomics, menus and visual feedback but really about user experience with all that it includes. Of course, this is my own vision, based on my own personal analysis and experience.

But for a better understanding of my journey and the fire that drives me, it is necessary that I explain my relationship with video games and how video games have been a salvation for me as a child and why I want to offer the same thing to others. But let's go back in time, to my childhood, where it all began.

A window on the world

I come from a fairly poor social background. My father was an illiterate truck driver and my mother was a housekeeper for schools. The only book we had at home was the TV program. Although I wasn't diagnosed until I was an adult, I have ADHD and I used to get reprimanded for forgetting my stuff at school all the time... I also banged my head against the wall more than once when I didn't understand a maths problem or other subjects that other kids understand easily. For a long time I thought I was stupid, and even though I was good at certain subjects like literature and art, these are not the fields that the system and society highlights and rewards the most.

To top it all off, as if having heard all my life what an insufferable child I was that no one wanted to keep was not enough, it turns out I'm gay. Yes, I am an all-inclusive diversity pack!

I was very mannered at school and people often thought I was a girl... Anyway, I'm not here to talk about me too much, only to provide context for you. So, to summarize, I didn't have a quite happy childhood. I grew up constantly on the fringe of all the other children and my only escape, my space of freedom and dream was pottery... No, I'm kidding, you'll have understood, video games!

A child playing video games.

More than a way out, video games were a window on the world, on art, on culture. 

As a gay boy growing up in a Mediterranean culture, accessing different representations of the male image, stories filled with sensitivity, poetry and beauty made me feel less different. In these virtual and fantasy worlds where my mind was escaping, I was not so different from the rest of the world. When I was playing, I was out of my mind, I forgot my problems and strangely enough, the incredible interactive power of video games calmed the tumult of my hyperactive brain. I was at peace, safe.

That's why, after years of professional wandering and during introspection work, the evidence appeared to me. I want to offer this space of reassurance, of peace and freedom to all the children of the world who need it as much as I did. This is my mission on earth, this is what I must bring to the world as a designer.

Fun fact, before my reconversion to video games, I had been a graphic and web designer for years.. So, I was already doing UX (in the reduced sense of ergonomics), without really being aware of it. I was also trained very early in accessibility (the web agency I worked for, designed websites for communities and accessibility standards were already mandatory) without knowing yet that I was myself disabled (I was diagnosed as an adult a some years later). This perspective is interesting because, in my opinion, the great misunderstanding of UX comes from the its web-design heritage.

The heritage

In the web, doing UX is limited to the constraints of the medium, which is a scroll of interfaces and visual interaction elements. Indeed, the discipline is very much limited to ergonomics, cognitive and visual sciences, usability, UI…

But in the video game, users, therefore players and their experience are everywhere, all the time, and thank God is not limited to navigating menus and saying yes or no to some popups! Our role is therefore to improve the player journey using all the relevant disciplines to make their experience the best it can be. When someone asks me to define UX, I say "It's how to deliver the best experience to everyone".

Another important thing, in my opinion, is to stop with the title UI/UX in video games which feeds and fuels confusion. A UI designer is responsible for designing user interfaces, using cognitive science, ergonomics, rules of perception... Whereas a UX designer is in charge of developing user experiences, that can take many forms and rely on many concepts. Of course the two professions are complementary and share certain skills but the titles are very clear. Cognitive sciences or ergonomics are important, but UX design goes far beyond that. I don't say this sentence because it makes a great punchline but because I have experienced it for years, as a UI artist on projects like Assassins Creed or Just Dance, so I could experience and identify the limits of the UI.

The User Interface limits

I clearly experienced the problem of this limitations when I was a UI artist. It's very interesting to be a UI artist on a video game production because you get to the end of the line. I quickly understood that you can't explain what is incomprehensible, and if you do, it could become even worse.

Using User Interface elements is often an acceptance of a UX failure! If something is intuitive, you do not need to explain it by overloading players with more visual information that increases cognitive overload; it's counterproductive.

When you are facing a feature that you don't understand yourself and your job is to explain it to others, you quickly find yourself frustrated. Being a User Interface designer is like being in charge of the editing of a movie. You end up with all the pieces of a whole that should represent an overall and logical experience. Except that each piece was made, and therefore, thought by different people and teams. You realize all the inconsistencies and your job is to make it understandable for the player.

Frustrated by the lack of possibility to improve this issue as UI artist, and flabbergasted by the incoherencies I was facing, I decided to go back to school to learn Game Design. I didn't want to be the last link in the chain anymore and I had the credulity at the time to think that I was going to improve things by taking the problem at the root as Game Designer.

I quickly realized that it was much more complicated than than I thought, and that even if I was at the heart of the design process as Game Designer, I couldn't improve the overall experience. What's missing in most projects is a logical and relevant guideline… And the only common link that should bring all the teams and therefore all the features together around a common goal is... Drum roll…The player

It's amazing to have to precise that the player should be the main concern of the Game Designer, it makes so much sense. In any other design profession, the user or client is at the centre of the concerns. An object designer for example is necessarily going to rely on who is going to use the object and in what context. The reason is simple. Game designers are first and foremost gamers, and it is logical that they unconsciously project their desire and taste into their work. It is this lack of objectivity, fed by their gamer bias, that makes them lose sight of the fact that they are not designing for themselves but for other players. This is why it is essential to act on the game designers and therefore on the design processes.

Look for part 2 of this article tomorrow with a focus on how UX is more about design than UI.

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