Games UX: 6 Key Differences From Traditional UX

When comparing researching and designing the user experience (UX) for traditional applications and games, there are many similarities. However, there are a few key differences. For example, one common goal in traditional UX is to make a system as easy to use as possible. This is accomplished by doing things such as adding clear labels to guide the user toward their goal. For games, this application of UX design may be true in the context of menus, but it may not be true of the actual gameplay. Here are 6 key differences between games UX and traditional UX:

  1. Challenge: Part of the enjoyment of the game comes from the challenge. Challenge adding to enjoyment sounds quite foreign to traditional UX’s ideas. In traditional UX, the challenge of completing a task is removed or reduced as much as possible. The sense of challenge in a game can make the player feel even more accomplished when achieving something. That’s why achievements and trophies exist! Achievements and trophies are challenges created for specific games. There are two types of achievements and trophies that I will refer to. The first type is achievements or trophies that are acquired by progressing in the story. The player does not need to do anything extra to accomplish these. For example, when the player completes chapter 1, they might get an achievement or trophy. The second type requires the player to do something extra and often times more difficult. For example, the player must get 100 headshots or complete a level in a certain amount of time.  Many players get a larger sense of accomplishment when completing the second type of achievements or trophies because of the additional challenge they offer. Unlike traditional UX, challenge, in its various forms, is key to good games UX.
  2. Exploration: Exploration in traditional UX is usually only done within first initial use, whereas it may be done regularly in games. In some games, exploring the environment is key feature and part of the enjoyment. Players should be able to explore at their own pace. Often in UX research, time-on-task (TOT) is used to measure how successful someone is at a task. With games UX, this may be the case for navigating menus, but on most occasions, TOT is not indicative of a problem or an error. For example, while some players may want to speed through an area in a game to achieve a certain task, other players may want to proceed slower, check every nook and cranny, and open every chest and drawer before proceeding. Neither play style is wrong, so TOT wouldn’t provide much insight other than an average of how long people take on this certain task. Unlike traditional UX, exploration may be an on-going part of a game. Therefore, certain measures, like TOT, wouldn’t be applicable.
  3. Difficulty levels: While in traditional UX often the goal is to make things as easy as possible for the end-user, players of games thrive on challenge. Players should have the option to change the difficulty setting, but there still should be that sense of challenge even on the easiest setting. Generally, if there is no challenge, the player becomes more removed from the depth of interactivity games can offer. It becomes more like a movie where the player is no longer a player, but an observer. In contrast, if there is too much challenge, it becomes frustrating. How much is too much challenge? Well, there isn’t a correct answer because it depends on the player. Allowing the player to choose the difficulty supports the player’s idea of a balanced challenge. Reducing challenge is big part of traditional UX, but games UX must maintain some balanced aspect of challenge, which often comes in the form of difficulty level selection.
  4. An ability to make mistakes: It sounds counterintuitive, but a certain allowance of mistakes is important. Players should be allowed to learn from their mistakes. Reflecting on why that boss battle was unsuccessful or having to retry jumping on moving platforms will add to the enjoyment of the game. From a traditional UX perspective, most (if not all) user mistakes should be accounted for, and measures taken to help prevent them. However, making mistakes is part of the fun in games UX.
  5. Feedback: Communicating to the user or player is extremely important in both traditional UX and games UX. However, in traditional UX, feedback is always meant to be clear and salient. In games UX, feedback isn’t always required to be clear, and it might even be intentionally ambiguous. It is critical that a player understands that they are able to perform certain actions (“I can interact with that door”) or that they have completed a certain action (“I have opened the door”). However, it might not always be clear when a player can interact with certain objects. For example, in puzzle games, the challenge might be to discover what items you can use for certain tasks. The player must figure out to place that statue on the weighted lock release. Thus, while traditional and games both rely on feedback, ambiguity can be critical to maintaining the challenge of certain game genres.
  6. Tutorials: Although games aren’t the only media to have tutorials, games are unique in the fact that they can provide an interactive & on-going tutorial built directly into the game experience. When learning how to use a new system, there are several ways that can be tackled. With hardware, there may be an instruction booklet or a diagram showing what all the buttons do. Often websites or similar software does not have any instructions. They might have a first time pop-up tips and a place to get help. Games are unique that there’s an opportunity to teach the player how to play the game with a tutorial at the start, or a hidden tutorial wherein the player does not even realize they are in a tutorial. It introduces simple mechanics and then builds upon them to create more advanced techniques. While these embedded methods for teaching the user are not possible in most traditional applications, games are able to utilize these methods to help provide a good player experience.

These are just six differences between traditional UX and games UX, and there are likely others not touched upon here. However in the end, both share the common overarching goal of creating a good user (or player) experience. Although there are some differences discussed between traditional UX and games UX, they are still very similar. All the above points tie into the overarching goal of UX which is to create a good user / player experience.


While traditional UX strives to reduce challenge and create a frustration-free experience for the user, games UX seeks to provide a good experience through challenge, freedom of choice, opportunity to learn from mistakes, and just enough feedback and tutoring to give the player the tools they need to succeed.

Are there any other differences between traditional UX and games UX you can think of?

Jasmine Granados has a MA in Human Factors Psychology and is currently working on her PhD in Human Factors Psychology at Wichita State University. Her research interest is in Games UX and how to improve a player’s experience from either hardware or software changes.

She works with an expert team of UX professionals at Human Interfaces to develop custom research solutions for any UX challenge. If you need help from a full-service UX research consultancy for a study, recruitment, or facility rental, visit our website, send us an email, or connect with us through LinkedIn.