For my Master's thesis for the Georgia Tech HCI program, I collaborated with my team with sponsorship from Insomniac Games to understand how console video game settings may be optimized to design an evolutionary settings experience to best improve the gaming experiences of players.
Video game studios have implemented robust settings options to provide for individual player needs; however, settings are often underutilized due to the current manner in which they are presented in-game. These circumstances presented the opportunity to engage in the process of research and design to understand how players approach game settings to develop a solution that optimizes each player's gaming experience.
Oasys is a functional prototype that exemplifies the next evolution of the console video game settings experience that enables players to better understand how settings impact their experience and allows them to more efficiently and effectively optimize settings to best match their assets and needs. This is accomplished through an interactive setup that encourages proactive settings optimization, prompted settings that allow for context-based settings adjustments, and adjusted settings that reduce the complexity of menu information architectures.
In recent years, Western AAA video game studios have implemented robust settings options focused on creating accessibility and inclusivity for players with disabilities who were previously excluded from gaming experiences. While these settings offer heightened player accessibility and individualized customizations, they operate on a model in which players are expected to opt-in to use these settings through a time-consuming series of adjustments to optimize their game experience. As such, many of these newly implemented settings often go underutilized, especially by players without disabilities, and tend to detract from the desired immersion of their gaming experiences. Given these circumstances, my team and I have been fortunate enough to use the opportunity of our Master's project with oversight from Insomniac Games to further investigate how settings might be better implemented within video games to create more immersive and optimized experiences for all players.
The goal of the literature review was to orient our understanding of the current practices, limitations, and trade-offs that define how settings are implemented in recent and upcoming video game titles.
To conduct our preliminary literature review, we examined accessibility databases, developer conferences, and industry press releases to understand the current video game settings implementation.
The literature review offered insight into the disparate landscape of how settings are implemented across titles and genres as well as illuminated the deficit-style thinking that has defined how settings are frequently approached by game studios.
The goal of the competitive analysis was to establish a foundational understanding of the current state of settings and their implementation in console video games to identify existing patterns and best practices.
To conduct our competitive analysis, we examined 12 AAA+ console video games through online user-interface databases. The analysis spanned 6 distinct domains of video game settings and UI.
The competitive analysis provided an operational understanding of the current state of console video game settings and demonstrated common beneficial and detrimental settings implementation patterns.
The goal of these surveys was to understand the high-level approaches and reasoning that players with and without disabilities have when adjusting settings to optimize their game experiences.
To reach the broadest population of console video game players, we distributed our survey across gaming forums, websites, and social media hubs, which resulted in a total of 92 responses.
These surveys provided direct insight into the context, frequency, and type of settings that players most often adjust while demonstrating that all players have their preferences and motivations for doing so.
The goal of the interviews was to have an insightful understanding of the process by which gamers approach and manipulate settings to optimize their gaming experiences.
We conducted a series of 12 remote semi-structured interviews with gamers who were recruited from their responses to the survey. 6 of the interviewees identified as having a disability, while 6 of the interviewees did not identify as having a disability.
The interviews provided key insight into the various approaches that gamers take when manipulating game settings to optimize their experience while also demonstrating the shared patterns and expectations that inform these behaviors.
The goal of this card sorting was to gain a deeper understanding of how players conceptualize the information architecture of video game settings and their associated menus.
We conducted a series of 10 closed card sorting sessions in which participants with and without disabilities sorted 60 settings from God of War: Ragnarök into 6 predefined settings categories.
Analysis of the card sorting showed that players often encountered difficulty understanding how certain settings operate and indicated there is variability in how players prefer settings to be hierarchically categorized.
The goal of the observations was to understand how players approach their process of adjusting game settings when playing a novel video game for the first time.
We partnered with Well Played LLC to conduct 8 in-person gameplay observations in their local play-testing lab where participants played through the opening of Far Cry 6 or God of War: Ragnarök while we provided prompts to elicit interactions with settings.
The observations demonstrated the approach variations that players take when implementing settings in a new game as well as the difficulties that players encounter when navigating unknown settings menus.
Following the conclusion of our research practices, I collaborated with my team to aggregate disparate information and findings from each individual research method. Through this aggregation process, we distilled our overall research findings into these essential points to guide our forthcoming design process.
Players across all levels and abilities often seek outside help to improve their gaming experiences.
Players approach adjustment of settings based on their prior gaming experience and lived experience.
Players approach new games with existing expectations established from prior gaming experiences.
Players prefer to receive immediate feedback when adjusting settings that alter their gaming experiences.
Players prefer to learn new games by doing, but vary in the amount of content they prefer.
Players often experience difficulty in remembering what previous adjustments they 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 settings preferences that they seek to optimize.
To initiate the design process, I next led my team members in translating our essential research findings into a series of actionable design requirements. These design requirements were the key guiding factors throughout the conception, development, and evaluation of our solution.
The design solution should emphasize the experiential benefits of adjusting settings.
The design solution should offer the ability to provide guided settings suggestions that aid players.
The design solution should provide players immediate feedback of settings that have been adjusted.
The design solution should maintain players' immersion in the gaming experience.
The design solution should be inclusive of players of all experience and ability levels.
The design solution should help players to understand what settings mean and how they function.
The design solution should prioritize preventative settings adjusment for players.
The design solution should reduce players' need to seek outside help to improve their experiences.
Following the establishment of our design requirements, I next led the team in translating those requirements into 3 initial design directions. The establishment of these design directions was intended to ensure that our design solution was both feasible and integrated into a singular user flow. With these design directions in focus, I facilitated multiple teamideation sessions that resulted in over 20 initial design ideas.
This design direction focused on incorporating settings adjustments and information into existing video game onboarding approaches to provide a more guided settings optimization process while directly teaching players how settings operate.
This design direction focused on providing players a dedicated space within existing settings menus in which they can freely test out settings in a mock gameplay environment with no fails states so that they do not miss out on key gameplay or narrative experiences.
This design direction focused on developing smaller settings enhancements to implement in existing settings information architecture to further optimize the settings adjustment experience by deepening player knowledge and reducing time spent out of gameplay.
After the initial ideation process, each team member diverged to independently produce concept sketches based on individual interpretations of the established ideas. Once the individual sketches were completed, I led the convergence process in which concepts were selected and connected together to establish a holistic player experience that would inform the development of the core functionality and supporting features of the low-fidelity prototype.
Upon consolidating the concepts, I led the development of a low-fidelity prototype through a series of digital sketches imported into Figma and given slideshow-style interactions. This prototype was intended to convey the central concepts and features of the design to be presented for feedback to inform the transition to higher design fidelity.
The settings sandbox is a failure-state-free area in which players can actively adjust settings in real-time to understand how those adjustments affect their experience. By adjusting settings in the sandbox rather than navigating in and out of the settings menus, players can more efficiently adjust their settings to fit their exact current requirements without missing out on key gameplay or narrative experiences.
Prompted settings are predetermined in-game pop-up prompts that offer players the ability to actively engage with the prompt to enter the settings menu or sandbox to adjust settings that address the current scenario that they have encountered in-game. These prompts primarily serve as recommendations for settings that most benefit players based on their location in the game as well as menu shortcuts that allow players to seamlessly enter the settings menu through a brief, guided process.
Settings supplements are a series of additional enhancements that directly address existing settings paradigms to ensure that players have more control when optimizing their settings while also reducing the time they spend in menus adjusting settings. By providing additional shortcuts and micro-features, players will be able to more efficiently and effectively adjust settings in the existing settings menu information architecture.
The main goal of these evaluations was to elicit feedback from Insomniac team members to determine the design's development feasibility while also receiving technical recommendations to increase the design's value.
We remotely conducted 3 evaluation sessions in which Insomniac team members were provided a verbal walkthrough of the prototype’s primary features and then asked open-ended assessment questions. 1 session consisted of 5 UX team members, 1 session was with a senior UI programmer, and 1 session was with a gameplay engineer.
These evaluations demonstrated the need to provide players a curated experience they can engage with on their terms while highlighting the difficulty of implementing a sandbox transition in-game and determining the operational logic of settings supplements.
The main goal of these evaluations was to understand how players perceived the value of the prototype compared to current gaming experiences and reveal further barriers and limitations of the prototype.
We remotely conducted 6 sessions in which players were provided a verbal walkthrough of the prototype’s primary features and then asked open-ended assessment questions. 4 of the participants identified as having a disability, while 2 of the participants did not.
These evaluations demonstrated that players might have difficulty making informed settings decisions when onboarding a new game without familiarity with the new structure, but players felt more open to trying new games if this prototype structure was widely implemented.
By utilizing the findings of the low-fidelity evaluations, I established a user flow to guide the development of the high-fidelity prototype. The intention was not to be comprehensive of every interaction within a game menu, but rather to clarify the route players would navigate through our final prototype. Given the project constraints, it was optimal to prioritize a curated experience to ensure that players could intentionally interact with the most valuable features of the design.
After developing the user flow and visual design system, I led the development of a high-fidelity prototype in Figma to elevate both the visual fidelity and the interactivity of the design. The goal of this development period was to achieve a full prototype that could be used to conduct further expert evaluations before beginning usability testing with players.
In transitioning to high-fidelity, the design pivoted to the further development of the interactive setup for the initial settings onboarding experience. The sandbox remained a core component of the interactive setup, but now consisted of a more curated experience that provided specific accessibility presets and commonly used settings for players to test and optimize before beginning actual gameplay.
The implementation of prompted settings were further refined by only providing settings prompts in diegetic pop-ups directly related to new gameplay mechanics and scenarios. Players have the option to dismiss pop-ups or interact with them to adjust related settings in a guided experience in the sandbox or menu. The previous fail-state pop-ups were removed due to player feedback that these negatively impacted their motivation to continue playing.
Many of the settings supplements were removed as they overlapped with one another and presented challenges in developing information architecture and operational logic. The active settings were further refined based on feedback as these provided the most value to the settings optimization process. The active settings menu was moved to the home page of the settings menu and received additional supporting information and images to further understanding of each active setting.
The main goal of these evaluations was to elicit feedback from Insomniac team members to determine the extent to which the design addressed the design requirements while receiving actionable recommendations to improve the prototype prior to player usability testing.
We remotely conducted 2 evaluation sessions in which Insomniac team members completed a task-based walkthrough of the prototype’s primary features and then asked open-ended assessment questions. 1 session was conducted with a UI/UX lead and 1 session was conducted with a senior UX researcher.
These evaluations demonstrated that players should be provided progress indications throughout the onboarding process and more clear cueing to indicate that the character within the sandbox environment is controllable by players.
The main goal of the usability testing was to evaluate the effectiveness of the prototype in comparison to existing settings menus while also identifying additional accessibility and usability issues.
We conducted 10 in-person and remote sessions in which players completed a randomized and task-based A/B test session that consisted of the design prototype and a control resembling existing settings menus. 4 of the participants identified as having a disability, while 6 of the participants did not identify as having a disability.
These test sessions offered further design iteration recommendations while demonstrating that players felt more motivated and better informed about their settings optimization experiences when using the new prototype design.
After analyzing the findings of the high-fidelity evaluations, I led the identification and implementation of necessary iterative changes to elevate the prototype to its final version. The goal of this period was to develop a final version that clearly demonstrated core functionalities for developers to refer to during forthcoming game development processes.
In iterating to the final prototype, the interactive setup was revised to demonstrate character interactivity within the sandbox environment while expanding upon the drill-down functionalities of the information architecture. Through these revisions, the final version of the interactive setup offers players the ability to more clearly understand how settings operate in-game by optimizing settings while interacting with a player character in a fail-state-free sandbox environment. This design enables players to better preemptively optimize their settings when beginning a new game so they spend less time and effort adjusting settings during actual gameplay and narrative experiences.
The final iteration of the prompted settings was updated to include a timer for the prompt to reduce unnecessary player input while interactions now navigate directly to the settings sandbox environment to immediately test the setting included in the prompt. Through these revisions, the final version of the prompted settings enables players to efficiently adjust settings as they encounter new mechanics and scenarios in the game. This design enables players to effectively optimize relevant settings each time that they encounter new game elements that might shift their assets or needs to ensure that their entire gameplay experience remains optimal while minimizing unnecessary settings adjustments.
To develop the active settings to the final iteration, a full pause menu structure was included to more clearly signify where these settings would be located in the overall menu information architecture; the name was also changed from “active” to “adjusted” settings to better clarify the functionality of this feature to players. Through these revisions, the final version of the adjusted settings allows players to more efficiently locate and adjust all settings that they have previously changed from a default value. This design enables players to more effectively engage with settings menu information hierarchies so that they spend more time experiencing actual gameplay and narratives.
Throughout this project, I was fortunate to gain a meaningful understanding of players' assets and needs to inform the development of the redesigned settings optimization experience. I am proud of the final prototype as the evaluations and user testing demonstrated that its novel features provide players deeper understanding of how to optimize their settings while reducing time spent in menus. I believe the foundation laid by this project represents the next evolution of settings in the console video game experience. I am hopeful this project may inform the development of settings in upcoming console video games as developers continue to expand accessibility and inclusivity of games for all players.
During the project, I gained considerable insight into the realities of the game development process through conversations with members of development teams across Insomniac. The insights offered by these team members were valuable in shaping my understanding of game UX development and guiding the design development process to ensure it was both technically and financially feasible for actual development. The input received from people across Insomniac was truly able to elevate the impact of the work accomplished throughout this project.
It was particularly meaningful to engage in conversations 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 every stage of the design to strive to push video game accessibility even further so more players can have engaging gameplay experiences. The insights offered by these players truly elevated our design solutions to be more inclusive and accessible for players of all abilities.
I would like to offer my sincerest thanks to Cooper Colglazier for providing us with the opportunity to explore this project, the team members at Insomniac who helped this project 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.