Designing the Player Experience (PX)

IMG_4515When designing, it’s easy to get hung up on the details in front of us — the mechanics, the theme, the components. But ultimately, the point of designing games is for others to play them.

And why do they play them? In my view, it’s to facilitate a rich human-human interaction, unique from just about anything else. Competitive, fun, a centerpiece for conversation, a reason to get together with people you may not see frequently, and so on.

Because these interactions are fundamentally human in nature, we designers have a responsibility to understand the user experience, or, as I’m going to not exactly coin, (as there is a bit of previous research on this) but to champion the term “Player Experience” or (PX), even if that’s a bit on-the-nose as an adaptation from the software world, where the emphasis by good product teams is the “User Experience” or “UX”.

The board game industry is blowing up. We’re seeing more and more games released continuously: the Kickstarter campaign cycle is now thick enough that researchers can study the seasonality of trends with meaningful outcomes. It can feel like everyone wants to design and publish physical games these days. In online forums, we discuss the meta-mechanics of the process ad nauseum: how much to charge, who to manufacture with, how to balance in-game systems, what mechanics to use, which art looks the best. A concept that I’m seeing as decidedly missing, or at the least, not expressed loudly enough in the conversation is how we, as designers, are crafting the experience for our players.

While traditional UX involves mostly understanding, manipulating, and optimizing the way a human interacts with a piece of software (or other product), almost exclusively as a lone operator, PX involves not only each player’s interaction with your rules and components, but also the other players while they are each in the process of doing the same.

To layer on top of this, every player brings a unique set of personality traits, expectations, and history to the table. This becomes increasingly true as gaming become more and more mainstream.

The Player Experience is, at the core, the value your game is going to bring to your players…customers…audience’s life. It incorporates, but stretches beyond the theme, beyond the mechanics, beyond the physical manifestation of the game itself, and even beyond the time bounds of any individual session.

Photo Credit: Flickr user merulu5 (CC-BY)

Photo Credit: Flickr user merulu5 (CC-BY)

Does a designer need to think about these things? Probably not. And I’d wager that many many games in the past were not designed with these principles front-of-mind. However, the board game renaissance is forcing everyone to step it up to be heard above the noise — with more board games released in 2015 than in the several previous years combined, and 42 active board games running Kickstarter campaigns in Feb 2016 (not to mention anything the major publishers are currently working on that we have no visibility into), the field is becoming saturated. How will your game stand out?

We see this in the tech world (where my day job is) all the time. The option with the more carefully-crafted experience wins out over the cheaper, the incumbent, the […insert whatever other advantage you want here] option. I have no idea how to hail a cab, and I loathe calling for a pick-up, but I can have an Uber in moments through a few taps on my phone. Linux may be a powerful operating system, but without a pleasant, consistent User Experience, people opt for the more streamlined Windows or OS X. Experience wins.

Mark my words: The most successful and enduring games of the next decade will be those where the designer has intentionally paid specific attention to how they craft not only the rules, mechanics, and theme, but the Player Experience as a whole.

These will be the games that make the inroads in bringing board games to the mainstream, and the games that become ‘game group’ staples in an increasing field of options.

I’ve conducted a research project on PX, in an attempt to explore the aspects of design and development which intersect with this concept. Over the next several posts, we’ll dive deep into:

Conspicuously absent is the topic of “fun” — which I posit is orthogonal to Player Experience — we’re seeing a shift in the video game world with such titles as This War of Mine, Papers, Please, and most notably “That Dragon, Cancer”, where the intent isn’t (just) to entertain, but to make one think. Board games have had a taste of this, especially at the hands of legendary games researcher Brenda Romeo (née Brathwaite), whose “Train” and “One Falls for Each of Us”; we will certainly see more, and already have with titles such as Bycatch. Thus, with or without “fun”, a board game is a crafted Player Experience. For most designers, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, one objective of the Experience will be to optimize for fun, but I don’t want to leave that as a foregone conclusion.

Join me on this journey to explore the concept of Player Experience (PX). This is the future of board game design, I know it.

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  • scottS

    I wish people would stop using Train as a game that makes you think about it’s subject matter. It plays up it’s somber theme as a gimmick “when did you see it” twist and nothing more. Otherwise, we might as well talk about how Puerto Rico is a deep reflection on the use of slaves in the Carribean ( which employs the same essential “trick” as Train does, just in a less glossy package ).

    • woodardj

      You are correct, Train has been endlessly analyzed for its “gimmick”. And I include it in the list largely for that familiarity, because @br intentionally crafted the experience from the beginning to convey the psychology of following orders.

      Beyond that, yes, the game is obviously thin on gameplay. Is there a designer diary you can point me at where the makers of Puerto Rico were intentionally making a statement on the Caribbean slave trade? I would love to include it in this essay series if so.

      Thanks for reading!

  • I have been thinking about this topic a lot. We *see* the components, so it seems like that is the game, but really these just support the game that lives in the player’s mind. The components are just a means to an end, and the relationship between the components and the experience is where the actual design takes place.