UX game design insights from The Walking Dead: March to War

23rd October 2019

How to improve your players’ experience before conducting playtests

Here at Player Research we’ve improved gameplay experiences for more than two hundred games globally by applying our knowledge of human-computer interaction, psychology, and neuroscience. Using user experience (UX) analysis and playtest labs, we’ve worked with games studios to help them develop a true understanding of their players and how to improve their games. Working with Google Play to gather learnings from developers, we are sharing insights on the importance of great UX in game design.

In the first article in this series, we shared critical player-centric design principles across three themes:

  • Break barriers with players to accommodating how they see, hear, think, interact, and live.
  • Build game structure to help players understand, learn, and progress.
  • Refine focus and try to find the right balance.

For game development teams, using this framework can help improve their games from the player’s perspective.

In this article we’ll look at how applying these principles impacted a real game’s development, sharing some of the UX flaws identified, the design changes implemented, and their impact on key performance metrics. We hope this will help you apply these UX lenses to your own game, and see the benefit of this kind of analysis in identifying problem areas before conducting playtests with users.

The Walking Dead: March to War — game strategy

Based just outside Boston, Massachusetts, Disruptor Beam specializes in story-rich mobile games with social components. They previously released Game of Thrones Ascent followed by Star Trek Timelines. Their newest title, The Walking Dead: March to War is an epic free-to-play multiplayer strategy game, set in the world of Robert Kirkman’s long-running comic, The Walking Dead. The game’s rich visuals and gameplay aim to provide players with a gripping story and strategy experience with social elements. Joey Lapegna, Creative Director highlights how important the visual experience is in the game:

“We knew we were entering a space with a lot of competition, both in terms of The Walking Dead and the strategy genre. Building a visually striking game was something we knew could be an advantage for us in both areas. We felt that by recreating a distinctive looking world and creating beautifully painted characters we could transport players into a unique Washington DC during the events of March to War in the comic series.”

Assessing the UX of March to War

Our objective in assessing any game’s UX is to highlight parts of the implementation that might contradict designers’ intended experience. To understand how best to apply our UX principles to March to War, we needed some knowledge of their intended experience.

Using the questions for the development team, provided in our introductory article, Disruptor Beam outlined their vision for the game, the game’s target audience, and what their players need to understand and do. This outline acted as the basis for us to seek out any discrepancies between intent and actual player experience, using each UX principle as a lens:

Break barriers: Accommodate how players see, hear, think, interact, and live:

  • Maintain audience-suitable complexity

Build structure: Help players to understand, learn, and progress:

  • Leverage familiarity
  • Provide minimal effective tutorials
  • Ensure assistance is nearby

Accommodate how players see, hear, think, interact, and live

Maintain audience-suitable complexity

Testing players’ memories and attention can be a compelling gameplay mechanic. However, if players are required to memorize too much, especially around core tasks such as navigating menus, it can become burdensome and negatively impact their experience and efficiency.

March to War uses a menu with blueprint-style icons for players to build and upgrade their Survivor’s base. The screen only shows one or two areas at a time. Because players couldn’t see other areas in the base, they’d have to remember the position of unseen areas to navigate to them, adding a layer of complexity.

Disruptor Beam wanted this UI to be intuitive and easy-to-use, and also to impart an understanding of the game structure to players, communicating the game’s depth. In showing only a small part of a larger map — with no option to zoom out — the scale of the survivor’s base-camp was hard to appreciate and so too was March to War’s content and depth.

Pinch-to-zoom view of map

This issue was easily addressed by adding a pinch-to-zoom feature and a slightly wider default view of the base camp. This view allows players to see the much more of the base and reduces their need to remember absolute positions, improving the efficiency of using the map. All players can also see more of the buildings they’d unlock later, creating a better understanding of the base-building metagame.

Build structure: Help players to understand, learn, and progress

Leverage familiarity

Leveraging familiarity reduces the need for training by relying on familiarity with real life, similar games, or referencing information that the game has shown in other areas. As Joey outlines, ‘familiarity’ can be genre specific, adding a challenge for developers who want to reach a broad audience:

“The genre of mobile strategy games doesn’t have a history of highly accessible UX, but highly engaged players have learned to master such games in spite of those challenges. What we saw as counter-intuitive UX when designing March of War, they saw as intuitive. So, we had to balance presenting an experience familiar to expert players of the genre but also attempt make it accessible to Walking Dead fans unfamiliar with the genre. We ultimately developed a UX that felt mostly familiar to experienced players — albeit with several usability improvements — but which was also accessible to new players.”

In March to War, similar colors were used for both positive and negative confirmation pop-ups, with red, orange, and green used interchangeably for positive messages such as a completed building, or negative messages such as an error or alert.

Neutral and positive messages in non-intuitive colours

This led to some mixed messages about feedback, as there was no consistent use of color players could familiarize themselves with and recognize quickly. In an easy fix, Disruptor Beam revised player feedback across all messaging and confirmations: using a green color for advantageous, red for disadvantageous messages, and notification-style top-mounted message for neutral feedback.

Players look for patterns and consistency in a game. When a pattern breaks it can feel disconcerting. March to War’s base-building section provides ‘free waiting time skips’ to speed up players’ construction of buildings. Players would quickly get into a habit of skipping waiting time for free. As it wasn’t clear when free skips would end, there was a jarring surprise when players suddenly found that they needed to wait for 15 minutes before they could skip again.

This jarring moment could be avoided by giving players the ability to predict when the skips would end. Disruptor Beam implemented a change that gave players enough knowledge to predict how free skips worked. Using a brief full-screen takeover message, players are told that a free skip is always given for a wait time under ten minutes. While we stress that tutorials are only one way to communicate knowledge, judicious and considered use of tutorials can be the best way to provide information to players. This solution is a great example of a minimal but effective tutorial.

Provide minimal, effective tutorials

The Disruptor Beam team were very aware of the challenges of building an immersive, rich experience like March to War while meeting the needs of the mobile player:

“We wanted the player to feel like they were transported into the world of The Walking Dead at a certain place and time and the 3D map and environment we built helped to do that. Meanwhile, we were also building a mobile game that required a quick and easy UX in order to keep players engaged. Mobile players don’t want to spend time exploring rich worlds, they want to get the task they’ve committed to completed as soon as possible. Visually communicating the information players needed to see on the map was an important challenge for us to keep the experience consistent.”

March to War is an intricate game, with a lot of information to teach new players.

The game takes a mixed approach to teaching new players, from using on-screen highlighting and animations to draw players’ attentions to features, to text-based messages to explain game systems and features. Use of text matches the game’s target audience of adults well: the game has a PEGI 16 rating.

Occasionally, the highlighting of in-game elements was a barrier to understanding. In some tutorials players were presented with multiple animated icons vying for their attention. Each of these flashing effects would perform well as reward moments or effective notifications in isolation, however, when presented together players’ attention was split, and the logical flow was lost.

Calling the players’ attention to multiple areas at once meant splitting players’ attention

Similarly, when being instructed on how-to build the Survivor Barracks, players are presented with multiple elements that might draw their attention away from the Barracks itself, including blue glowing blueprint locations, and three green arrows (which show available upgrades). Although the Survivor Barracks does glow orange — rather than blue — to draw attention, the various other highlighted elements create visual clutter, reducing the effectiveness of the tutorial.

Disruptor Beam altered the flow of the tutorial. Instead of using multiple arrows, one familiar icon now guides players toward the relevant UI and on-screen controls.

Ensure assistance is nearby

If development teams can feel confident that players will figure out a game mechanic for themselves, the need for long and overbearing tutorials disappears. March to War lets players explore the various mission types, with their varied mechanics and rewards communicated in-the-moment.

However, one mission type in particular — resource cache missions — works differently. In most missions Survivors complete a task and return immediately, but in this mission type the Survivors march out of the base for a longer period to collect cached resources. We identified a potential point of confusion from players: “What happened to my Survivors?” To communicate Survivor status without using text, Disruptor Beam drew players’ attention to the ‘active marches’ graphic by pulsing it once the mission had begun, and glowing it green when survivors had reached the cache, encouraging players to tap the button and reveal the countdown timers that show exactly when their Survivors would return.

March to War’s in-game economy requires players to produce resources and periodically collect them from their base by tapping an icon. Food, fuel, and lumber are needed for upgrades and new buildings. When players tapped on a resource icon to collect it, the icon simply disappeared. If players had forgotten or misunderstood what these icons were for, or what the building did, there was no assistance to help them understand the metagame. To address this, Disruptor Beam team changed the visual design of resource collection, showing the currency icon and the amount of that currency the player has collected.

Before-and-after resource collection graphics

Impact of the changes

In the weeks following our review, Disruptor Beam made small changes to address the individual UI and tutorialization issues highlighted by the analysis, releasing an updated version of the game in December 2017.

The impact of these straightforward changes was reflected by improvements in several in-game behaviors. Spending of in-game resources and premium currency, completing objectives, and carrying out research to unlock new features all increased in the first session, reflecting players’ better understanding of resource gathering as a result of tweaking the tutorials.

The gathering and use of salvage greatly increased too, reflecting an improvement in players’ understanding of the ‘resource cache’ missions, thanks to the improvements that provide ‘assistance nearby’.

The clarified ability to skip waiting times resulted in players skipping more than before the changes, and sticking around for longer, with average first-session time being double that of the previous release.

Summary and observations

We hope our outline of the simple process of re-thinking and assessing a game from the players’ perspective will inspire you to assess your game for latent UX issues. By focusing on breaking barriers to play and structuring learning in The Walking Dead: March to War Disruptor Beam achieved significant improvements in key metrics. It was great to work with a company so open to growing and improving, as articulated by the Production team:

“Disruptor Beam as a company has always been committed to continuous improvement. It’s a philosophy we take to heart when evolving and developing new ways to approach our games. Does that mean we always nail it? No. We’re still learning and growing in the art of game making everyday. Player Research gave us a fresh perspective on our game product with concrete feedback that we could make changes based on. It’s rewarding to see how those became positive experiences for our Players.”

This article reflects just one type of UX research. There are many other player-centric research options such as usability playtesting, play diaries, eye-tracking, and more, each providing a different lens on latent issues in the design and implementation of your vision. The combination of these measures and their integration into your development cycle helps teams better understand players’ experience.

In the next article in this series, we’ll look at an example where the findings and impact of changes aren’t so clear cut, and explore other variations of UX research projects.

What do you think?

Do you have questions about these player-centric UX principles, or have tips of your own for what makes a great UX in game design? Let us know in the comments below or tweet using #AskPlayDev and we’ll reply from @GooglePlayDev, where we regularly share news and tips on how to be successful on Google Play.


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