Game Usability

1st Edition

Advancing the Player Experience

Authors: Katherine Isbister Noah Schaffer
Paperback ISBN: 9780123744470
Imprint: Morgan Kaufmann
Published Date: 12th August 2008
Page Count: 400


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Computers used to be for geeks. And geeks were fine with dealing with a difficult and finicky interface--they liked this--it was even a sort of badge of honor (e.g. the Unix geeks). But making the interface really intuitive and useful--think about the first Macintosh computers--took computers far far beyond the geek crowd. The Mac made HCI (human computer interaction) and usability very popular topics in the productivity software industry. Suddenly a new kind of experience was crucial to the success of software - the user experience. Now, 20 years later, developers are applying and extending these ideas to games.

Game companies are now trying to take games beyond the 'hardcore' gamer market--the people who love challenge and are happy to master a complicated or highly genre-constrained interface. Right about now (with the growth of interest in casual games) game companies are truly realizing that usability matters, particularly to mainstream audiences. If it's not seamless and easy to use and engaging, players will just not stay to get to the 'good stuff'.

By definition, usability is the ease with which people can emplo a particular tool in order to achieve a particular goal. Usability refers to a computer program's efficiency or elegance. This book gives game designers a better understanding of how player characteristics impact usability strategy, and offers specific methods and measures to employ in game usability practice. The book also includes practical advice on how to include usability in already tight development timelines, and how to advocate for usability and communicate results to higher-ups effectively.

Key Features

  1. AUTHORITATIVE: The book brings together the foremost experts in game usability, including great minds from Microsoft, Maxis, Sega, Ubisoft, Sony Online, Nintendo).

  2. PRACTICAL: The book gives readers instantly applicable theory and tactics for designing game usability methods to improve and enhance games. Designers can pick methods to suit their needs (example Lazarro's 4 Fun Keys theory to help organize designer decisions.)

  3. INSPIRING NEW TECHNIQUES: Contributors are at the vanguard of using physiological techniques (like measuring heart rate, tiny muscle movements, and so forth in players as they play) to measure success and game play experience - cutting-edge, future-facing techniques.

  4. CAREER-ENHANCING: Suggestions included on selling usability to managers, and how best to report results.


Game designers and developers. Secondary: students of game design and HCI (Human/Computer Interaction). Level: All levels of game designers/developers.

Table of Contents

I. What is usability and why should I care? A. Overview chapter Isbister and Schaffer (Editors) Introduces key concepts and positions book for primary audiences: game developers and students aspiring to work in game development. Addresses key concerns that developers may have about adopting usability, and sets a broad road map of what is to come in the book. B. Interview with Tobi Saulnier of 1st Playable A discussion with the CEO of a small game studio about why and how she uses usability techniques in her development. C. Interview with Don Norman of Nielsen Norman group A discussion with one of the preeiminent HCI practitioners of usability in design practice, about how game developers may benefit from usability techniques, and about trends in usability.

II. Usability techniques 101 A. Use of Classic usability techniques at Microsoft Games Wixon (Microsoft) An overview of the tactics in use to improve games usability at one of the earliest adopters of usability techniques. B. Expert evaluation Laitinen (Adage, Helsinki) Overview of how to conduct expert evaluations and when they can be of value in game usability. C. Heuristic evaluation Schaffer (RPI) Overview of the use of heuristics in game evaluation. D. Selling usability in the organization Noergaard (Copenhagen U.) & Rau (IO Interactive) Overview of challenges and process for convincing your company to adopt usability practices. E. Think-aloud evaluation and other interview techniques Hounhoot (Philips Research) Interview techniques including think-aloud and retrospective think-aloud as they apply to game usability. F. Interview with Eric


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© Morgan Kaufmann 2008
Morgan Kaufmann
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About the Author

Katherine Isbister

Associate Professor, Department of Language, Literature and Communication, RPI; Director of the Games Research Lab, RPI; Chair of the MS in HCI Program, RPI. Katherine is Director of the Games Research Lab at Rensselaer (RPI), where she has worked to build an undergraduate major in game design, as well as a robust program of games-related research. She is also the Chair of the MS in HCI at RPI, which she helped to redesign to address current challenges facing HCI practitioners, such as the design of games and other social and leisure applications. Katherine is a former MK Game author, having written: Better Game Characters by Design: A Psychological Approach, which was nominated for a Game Developer Magazine Front Line award in 2006. She has published work in a wide variety of venues, and has given invited talks at research and academic venues including Sony research labs in Japan, Banff Centre in Canada, IBM, the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and others. The Games Research Lab at RPI has cutting-edge facilities for user studies, and Isbister has used the lab to research innovative methods in user testing (e.g. the Sensual Evaluation Instrument - a project nominated for Best Paper award at the CHI conference in 2006). Isbister has worked in both research and commercial settings on HCI and usability aspects of games and other products. This background, combined with strong connections to game industry practitioners, makes her well suited to put together an edited volume on games usability that is both rigorous and useful to developers in their everyday work.

Affiliations and Expertise

Associate Professor, Department of Language, Literature and Communication, RPI; Director of the Games Research Lab, RPI; Chair of the MS in HCI Program, RPI

Noah Schaffer

Affiliations and Expertise

Ph.D. student, RPI. Schaffer has served as a summer intern at game companies in Mumbai, India, and Shanghai, China. His Ph.D. topic is heuristics and games usability.


"Playtesting is the most challenging, and most mysterious part of game development, and this book is by far, the most thorough and practical collection of writings on the subject. I plan to return to it again and again -- there is just so much to draw from! Anyone who reads it will be able to playtest their games well, and with confidence." Jesse Schell, Professor of Entertainment Technology, Carnegie Mellon University “…Games user research has taken leaps and bounds over the past 10 years, as evidenced by the content of this book…We encourage the readers to use this resource as a great starting point for strengthening the discipline while taking us into the future.” Randy Pagulayan, Microsoft Game Studios & Dennis Wixon, Microsoft Surfaces "Katherine Isbister’s “Game Usability” is a multi-faceted look at a critical component of modern game design, full of excellent case studies by usability experts, industry leaders and cutting edge researchers. The methods found here will be useful to anyone interested in honing the player experience of their commercial, independent or academic games." Tracy Fullerton, Associate Professor USC School of Cinematic Arts; Director, EA Game Innovation Lab "On first blush, usability and game design look like oil and water: they don't seem to mix. One appears scientific, the other creative; one dispassionate, the other sentimental. This book offers a variety of promising ways to put the two together, ways that suggest general lessons in how design can learn from a measure of impartiality, and usability from a measure of passion." Ian Bogost, Associate Professor in the School of Literature Communication and Culture, The Georgia Institute of Technology, and Founding Partner, Persuasive Games