For my Georgia Tech HCI Master's thesis, I collaborated with Insomniac Games to understand how console video game settings may be optimized to design an evolutionary settings experience to better improve the gaming experiences of players.
Video game studios have implemented robust settings options to provide for individual needs, but settings are often underutilized due to how they are presented in-game. This presented the opportunity to engage in research and design to understand how players approach game settings to develop a solution that optimizes each player's gaming experience.
Oasys is an evolutionary prototype of the console video game settings experience that allows players to better understand how settings impact their gameplay and to more efficiently optimize settings to match their assets and needs. This is accomplished through an interactive setup that encourages proactive optimization, prompted settings that allow context-based adjustments, and adjusted settings that reduce menu information architecture complexity.
Western AAA game studios have implemented robust settings focused on accessibility and inclusivity for players with disabilities who have been excluded from gaming. While these offer heightened accessibility and customization, players must opt-in through time-consuming adjustments to optimize their experience. Many of these settings often go underutilized, especially by players without disabilities, and detract from desired immersion. My team and I were fortunate enough to use the opportunity of our Master's project with oversight from Insomniac Games to investigate how settings might be better implemented to create more immersive and optimized experiences for all players.
Orient understanding of current practices, limitations, and trade-offs that define how settings implemention in recent titles
Examine accessibility databases, developer conferences, and industry press releases to understand current settings implementation
Insight into disparate landscape of how settings are implemented and deficit-style thinking that defines how settings are frequently approached by studios
Establish foundational understanding of the current settings and their implementation to identify existing patterns and best practices
Examine 12 AAA+ console games through online user-interface databases spanning 6 distinct domains of settings and UI
Operational understanding of current state of console settings and common beneficial and detrimental implementation patterns
Understand high-level approaches and reasoning players with and without disabilities have when adjusting settings to optimize their experience
Distribute survey across gaming forums, websites, and social media hubs, resulting in 92 total responses
Insight into context, frequency, and type of settings players often adjust while demonstrating preferences and motivations
Understand the process by which gamers approach and manipulate settings to optimize their gaming experiences
12 remote semi-structured interviews with gamers recruited from survey responses: 6 identified as having a disability, while 6 did not identify as having a disability
Insight into approaches to manipulating game settings to optimize experience while demonstrating shared patterns and expectations that inform these behaviors
Understanding of how players conceptualize information architecture of video game settings and their associated menus
10 closed card sorting sessions in which participants sorted 60 settings from God of War: Ragnarök into 6 predefined categories
Players encounter difficulty understanding how settings operate and vary in how they prefer settings to be categorized
Understand how players approach the process of adjusting game settings when playing a game for the first time
8 in-person gameplay observations in Well Played LLC's play-testing lab where participants played Far Cry 6 or God of War: Ragnarök while provided prompts to elicit interactions with settings
Approach variations when implementing settings in a new game as well as the difficulties encountered when navigating unknown settings menus
Following the conclusion of research practices, I collaborated with my team to aggregate findings from each research method. Through this aggregation, we distilled research findings into essential points to guide design process.
Players at all levels and abilities seek outside help to improve their gaming experiences.
Players adjustment settings based on prior gaming and lived experiences.
Players approach new games with expectations from prior gaming experiences.
Players prefer immediate feedback when adjusting settings that alter gameplay.
Players prefer to learn new games by doing, but vary in the amount of content they prefer.
Players experience difficulty remembering previous adjustments made to settings.
Players tend to prioritize the first experience of a game to optimize settings to address their needs.
Players approach games with pre-established preferences they seek to optimize.
To initiate design, I led translating research findings into design requirements. These requirements guided the conception, development, and evaluation of the solution.
Emphasize experiential benefits of adjusting settings
Offer guided settings suggestions that aid players
Provide immediate feedback of settings that have been adjusted
Maintain players' immersion in the gaming experience.
Be inclusive of players of all experience and ability levels
Help understand what settings mean and how they function
Prioritize preventative settings adjustment for players
Reduce need to seek outside help to improve players' experiences
Following design requirements, I led the team in translating them into 3 initial design directions. These directions ensured the solution was feasible and integrated into a single flow. With these directions in focus, I facilitated team ideation sessions that resulted in 20+ initial design ideas.
Incorporating adjustment and information into onboarding to provide guided optimization while directly teaching how settings operate
Providing dedicated space within menus to test settings in a mock gameplay environment with no fail state to not miss gameplay or narrative
Developing enhancements for information architecture to optimize settings by deepening knowledge and reducing time out of game
After ideation, the team diverged to concept sketch individual interpretations of design directions. Once the sketches were completed, I led the convergence process to select concepts and connect them to establish a holistic player experience to inform the core functionality and supporting features of the low-fidelity prototype.
Upon consolidating concepts, I led low-fidelity prototype development of importing digital sketches into Figma and giving slideshow interactions. This prototype conveyed central concepts and features for feedback to transition to higher fidelity.
The settings sandbox is a fail-state-free area to adjust settings in real-time to understand how that affects the experience. By adjusting in the sandbox rather than navigating the settings menus, players can more efficiently adjust settings to fit exact requirements without missing gameplay or narrative experiences.
Prompted settings are in-game pop-ups that offer the ability to engage with the prompt to enter the settings menu or sandbox to adjust settings for the current in-game scenario. These prompts recommend settings that most benefit players based on location in-game and menu shortcuts that allow players to seamlessly enter the settings menu through a guided process.
Settings supplements are additional enhancements that address existing settings paradigms to ensure players have more control in optimizing settings while reducing the time spent in menus adjusting settings. By providing shortcuts and micro-features, players can more efficiently and effectively adjust settings in existing menu information architecture.
Elicit feedback from Insomniac teams to determine development feasibility while receiving technical recommendations to increase design value
3 sessions (1 with 5 UX team members, 1 with senior UI programmer, and 1 with gameplay engineer) with prototype features walk-through and open-ended questions
Curate experiences to engage on individual terms; difficult to implement sandbox in-game and determine operational logic of supplements
Understand how players perceive prototype value compared to current experiences and reveal further barriers / limitations
6 remote sessions with verbal walkthrough of primary features and open-ended assessment questions; 4 identified as having a disability, while 2 did not identify
Players have difficulty making informed decisions when onboarding a new game without familiarity; players felt open to trying new games with this prototype structure
By using the evaluation findings, I established a user flow to guide high-fidelity prototype development. The intention was to clarify the route players navigate through the final prototype. Given the project constraints, it was optimal to prioritize a curated experience to ensure that players could interact with the most valuable features of the design.
After developing the user flow and design system, I led the development of a high-fidelity prototype in Figma to elevate the visual fidelity and interactivity of the design. The goal of this development was to achieve a full prototype that could be used to conduct expert evaluations before beginning usability testing with players.
In transitioning to high-fidelity, the design pivoted to the development of the interactive setup for the settings onboarding experience. The sandbox remained a core component of the interactive setup, but now consisted of a curated experience to provide accessibility presets and commonly-used settings to test and optimize before beginning gameplay.
The prompted settings were refined by providing diegetic pop-ups for new gameplay mechanics and scenarios. Players can dismiss pop-ups or interact to adjust settings in a guided experience in the sandbox or menu. Fail-state pop-ups were removed due to feedback that these negatively impacted motivation to continue playing.
Many supplements were removed as they overlapped and challenged information architecture and operational logic. Active settings were refined based on feedback as these provided the most value to settings optimization. The active settings menu was moved to the settings menu home and received supporting information and images to further understanding of each setting.
Elicit feedback to determine how the design addressed requirements while receiving recommendations to improve prototype prior to usability testing
2 task-based walkthroughs of prototype features and open-ended assessment questions; 1 session with UI/UX lead and 1 with senior UX researcher
Provide progress indications throughout onboarding and clear cueing to indicate playable character within sandbox
Evaluate the effectiveness of the prototype compared to existing settings menus while identifying accessibility and usability issues
10 in-person and remote sessions in which players completed a randomized task-based A/B test of the design prototype and a control; 4 identified as having a disability, while 6 did not identify as having a disability
Further design recommendations that demonstrate players felt motivated and informed about settings optimization when using the new design
After analyzing the evaluation findings, I led the identification and implementation of iterative changes to elevate the prototype to its final version. The goal was to develop a final version that demonstrated core functionalities for developers to refer to during the game development processes.
The interactive setup was revised to demonstrate interactivity in sandbox while expanding drill-down functionalities in information architecture. The final version of the interactive setup offers the ability to clearly understand how settings operate in-game by optimizing settings while interacting with a character in a fail-state-free sandbox. This design enables preemptive settings optimization when beginning a new game to spend less time and effort adjusting during gameplay and narrative experiences.
A timer for the prompt was added to reduce unnecessary input while interaction now navigates directly to the sandbox to test the prompted setting. The final version of the prompted settings enables efficient adjustment of settings during new mechanics and scenarios. This design enables effective optimization of relevant settings when players encounter new elements that shift their assets / needs to ensure the gameplay experience remains optimal while minimizing unnecessary adjustments.
A full pause menu structure was included to signify where settings are in the overall menu; the name was changed from “active” to “adjusted” settings to clarify the functionality of this feature. The final version of the adjusted settings allows more efficient location and adjustment of settings previously changed from a default value. This design enables more effective engagement with information hierarchies so that players spend more time experiencing gameplay and narratives.
During the project, I gained insight into the game development process through conversations with teams across Insomniac. The insights offered shaped my understanding of game UX development and guided the design development process to ensure it was technically and financially feasible for actual development. The input received from Insomniac was truly able to elevate the impact of the work accomplished throughout this project.
It was meaningful to engage with players who identify as having disabilities to understand how their lived experiences inform their interactions with video games. This understanding was essential to the development process of the design to push game accessibility even further so more players can have gameplay experiences. The insights offered by these players elevated our design solutions to be more inclusive and accessible for all abilities.
I would like to offer my sincerest thanks to Cooper Colglazier for providing the opportunity to explore this project, the team members at Insomniac who helped along the way, the participants who took the time and effort to take part in our user-centered research, and Dr. Richard Henneman and Dr. Carrie Bruce for their support and guidance throughout the Georgia Tech HCI Master’s project process.