I built games for 2-6 year olds for a little over half a year. This was my first job out of school, and to this day, was one of my favorites. I frequently like to make the joke that kids are the harshest critics you will ever have. They have no filter, and will gladly play with blocks instead of your fancy prototype. And even more challenging, their level of communication is extremely simple. This means little to no verbal feedback from playtesting. Five years later, I am now building games for cats. Interestingly enough, the challenges are much the same. Just a few months into the project, I quickly realized that typical playtesting wasn’t working for me. And so I looked into something new. Enter Empathic Game Design.

The Power of Empathy

Empathic Design is known by many other names. While not exactly the same, the most well known and accepted is “Human Centered Design,” We are humans, and the design community is finally starting to accept our intrinsic motivators instead of denying or trying to change them. The Design Management Institute tracked companies that used Empathic Design, and saw a yearly growth rate of 299% versus the average S&P growth of just 75%. Google event has an Empathy Lab where they are studying how Empathy may improve their products. The practice is not unique to the game design industry. Many industries, from Web Development to Healthcare, are starting to follow the trend. It is everywhere. So why, as game designers, are we not talking about this?

What is Empathic Design?

Empathic Design is a growing concept that is very simple at its roots. Wikipedia calls it, “Experiencing what your end user experiences with your end user.” A good example is the Milano Baby Bottle. Milano, an Italian company, decided that they would enter the Baby Bottle marketplace. They spent a ton of time just sitting and observing both children and their parents. They learned that children need different types of help with their bottles at different ages. They also quickly discovered that parents had a particular objective in mind. It was of course getting their kids to use cups, and to minimize parental assistance in doing so. In response, Milano created multiple bottles for different age groups. This decision supported observed behavior and increased profit. It is a perfect example of the power of Empathic Design.

Bottles on bottles

What about Empathic Game Design?

Empathic Game Design is not much different. In fact, as the seasoned game designer you no doubt are, you probably scoffed a little at the above paragraph. How is what I described any different from typical playtesting? Well, in many ways, it is not. In a standard playtesting session, you sit down with your end user and have them play your game. What I am really trying to drive at here, is incorporating a sense of empathy. As the famous Ford quote goes:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses

Henry Ford

Testers can only articulate so much, and are sometimes wrong about their own feelings and experiences. Empathic Design is simply a prompt to spend the time to understand your users, and therefore build better games for them.

So how do you do it? Well, you start by reading this article! I’ve broken Empathic Game Design down into six steps. They will likely be recognizable to anyone who has run a few standard playtesting sessions. But by reading the entirety of this article, you will learn the little places that Empathic Design can improve your process, and show you better results. The following is assuming you have a prototype ready to go. Okay! Let’s do it.

The Steps to Empathic Game Design

Step 1: Prepare

Nobody who is anybody walks into anything without some preparation. As my beloved business mentor once put it after a particularly stupid mistake, “Don’t ever answer a question you aren’t prepared to answer,” This step is one of the strongest differentiators between standard playtesting and Empathic Game Design.

Standard playtesting prep includes a few things, and I believe they should stay. The biggest thing I always encourage my students and readers to do is have a primary goal with every playtest, and 2-4 secondary goals. These can be mostly anything, but help to define the playtesting session and ensure you get maximum value out of it. They typically have to do with questions that need answers, assumptions that need validation, or new features that need testing. I recently built a Rhythm game for Lumosity, and one of the biggest things that I had to figure out was if my circular measure technique was actually helpful, or just confusing. Therefore, my primary playtesting goal was, “Confirm that the circular measure is a valuable learning tool,” and a secondary goal was, “Collect alternative measure layouts.”

A dancing man
Can you feel the beat?

Prepare Empathically

The biggest Prepare step difference for Empathic Game Design is to research your users. With Mew and Me, my cat games, I went from something like 25% to 50% user engagement by simply reading a few books. And yes, by, “user,” I mean cats. I also connected with two cat behaviorists, who helped to supplement my knowledge. I discovered a couple of key things. Cats see at near 60 FPS, are partially color blind, and actually think they are hunting while they are playing. This information informed my designs, such as allowing prey in my games to die and react “realistically,” when they get scared.

Assumedly you will not be building games for cats in the near future, but the principle still stands. Choose your target users and then learn as much about them as you can. How old is your typical user? What excites them? Who do they idolize? Fortnite is a truly fantastic example of utilizing user research. They quickly honed in on the things their younger audience cared about, like the upgradable skins and especially the dancing mechanics. How many 15 year old boys have you seen do a Fortnite dance at this point?

Historians of the future will ponder the meaning of this dance

Start an Empathy Map

An empathy map is a tool that has been used for some time to get more in depth with your users. We tend to fall into the trap of only really listening to what our users say, and perhaps what they do. But there is so much more going on. To use a traditional empathy map, as described by the Nielson Norman Group, take a picture of your user, and place both their name and face in the center circle. Then fill our each of four categories as you can, describing what that user: says, thinks, does and feels. Keep this up throughout your entire design process and make a unique map for every user. This forces you to think outside of the traditional lines, and attempt to get deeper with your people.

I made this art for a prototype over 8 years ago and I’m still using it. No shame

Step 2: Introduce

You can dramatically improve your results for a playtest with a solid introduction. I typically tell my students to do a few things. One, tell your user what they will be playing. Keep it simple. Do not reveal too much. “This is a rhythm game,” is plenty of information. You just want them to be primed for what they are about to play.

Next, give them the ground rules. There are a few things I ALWAYS say to my users. First, I ask them to think out loud. This tip usually gets extra information out of the user, where they may have been quiet before. It is also often something I need to remind them of as they play. Next, I tell them they won’t hurt my feelings.This simple line prompts more honest feedback. As long as you can refrain from crying, user honesty is in your best interest.

Introduce with Empathy

And now apply some Empathic Game Design. For the Introduce step, the thing I want you to focus on is getting to know the user. I know I know, we aren’t talking about speed dating. But spending a moment to emotionally feel the room can be extremely valuable. Are they an angry user? What do they seem to be focussed on as far as outcomes? Accomplishment? Meaning? These small moments of personal connection and understanding most importantly help you filter feedback through this user’s unique lens. A user that seems to be in a bad mood can probably be safely ignored when they get upset about an enemy. One that seems bubbly and positive should probably be taken seriously if they react the same way. Don’t forget your empathy map here. You should immediately start recording how your user reacts.

Warning signs

Step 3: Test

The actual testing session is hopefully something you are familiar with. User testing is more art than science, and you can get dramatically different results from different kinds of people. Remember to keep your ideal user in mind. If it seems like younger players consistently get excited about your game, and then a retired schoolteacher seems uninterested, you might be okay. Also remember to shut up. The most common mistake inexperienced playtesters make is they talk too much and lead on their user. Get information without letting people know what you want. Let them play without interrupting, unless absolutely required.

Test with Empathy

This is particularly important with Empathic Game Design. What you should be looking to do here is continue to learn about your user. If you are leading them into telling you what you want, you are not getting useful information, and you are not learning more about them. As in the Introduce step, learning about this particular user is an extremely valuable feedback filter. If this user feels like an exact match for your target market, then you better listen to what they have to say.

Continue to fill out that empathy map and  pay attention to non verbal feedback. A user may have a lot to say, but as anybody in any kind of design role knows, they might be completely wrong. Here is an absolutely perfect example from The Art of Game Design: A book of Lenses by Jesse Schell.

As an example, there was once a racing game that was about halfway through development when the client came in for a review. After toying with the prototype for a few minutes, he looked at the team and said, “These cars need more chrome.” The lead artist looked at the designer in a panic—the models were mostly complete and had been approved by the client months ago. The lead engineer was similarly panicked—the performance was tough as it was and adding shiny chrome meant more drain on an already overworked CPU. The designer could have said “Yes,” and he could have said “No,” but instead he said the only wise thing: “Why? Why do they need more chrome?” And the client’s response was surprising: “Well, as I was playing, I kind of felt like the cars weren’t as fast as they should be. I know changing the car speeds would probably be a lot of work for you guys, so I was just thinking that if you just put more chrome on the cars, it would make them look faster.” Now, this might sound like some pretty strange logic, but set that aside, and take note that the client was only trying to help! In fact, the team had the same feeling that the cars felt too slow and were going to bring that up. Their solution was a combination of making the cars move faster (easy) and lowering the camera viewpoint to make the perceived motion faster. They were able to make the changes with the client standing right there. He was thrilled to see the improvement and also pleased to understand a little more about how a racing game is put together.

The Art of Game Design: A book of Lenses by Jesse Schell

Listen to complaints. Consider that they might be valid. But consider that they may be completely wrong too. Instead, let your understanding of this user guide you. Look for those moments when they play your game in a completely unexpected way. Why did they go left instead of right? What did that moment of hesitation mean when they walked up to that wall? By understanding your user, you can try to get to the truth of what is actually going on. But of course, don’t hesitate to ask them questions too.

We are all stupid sometimes. Don’t deny it. Design for it.

Step 4: Reflect

A good game designer will always have a moment of reflection after a user test. I typically break this into two parts. During the first part, I include my user in the reflection. This is when I ask any questions or for any clarification from the test. It is SUPER IMPORTANT that you are as vague and unbiased as possible with these questions. People are social animals, and want to please each other. So if you ask, “Did you find the menu confusing,” they will smile and say, “No of course not!” And yet that same user, if asked, “Did you find anything confusing,” may say, “Oh yeah, the menu was weird,” This is because that little social dopamine boost they are getting is now positively directed. Instead of pointing out something that is wrong, they are now helping you find something they assume you didn’t already know about.

I escalate these questions from most directed to least directed. I am also sure to try to figure out any nonverbal communication moments that I had while watching. For instance, if I noticed them hesitate at one moment, I can ask a nice and simple, non leading question like, “Why did you hesitate in that one moment?” As I run out of these specific pieces of feedback, I then open up my questions much more. I almost always ask something like, “Any other thoughts?” towards the end. A small pro-tip, open ended questions tend to get fake answers. This is because people think they need to come up with something to say. Just be ready to dismiss statements that seem to have no evidence behind them.

Reflection – User + Empathy

The second part of the Reflection step is to reflect without the user. This is where Empathic Game Design works its way back into the discussion. I frequently question why my users respond the way that they respond. This is where understanding this specific user and being diligent with my empathy map is important. In my rhythm game example, we kept having ridiculously negative feedback from accomplished musicians. This originally threw us into a panic. Seasoned musicians hated our rhythm game. So we asked some questions.

What we kept hearing was that they disliked the circular music layout, and thought we should stick with the traditional linear one. But standard users loved it, and it had become an integral part of the game. What we realized that we were fighting their previous training. The circular layout was an alternative way to practice rhythm, and it was just a difficult game in general. So when traditional musicians were bad at it, we had to learn to ignore much of their more defensive feedback.

My greatest enemy

It is also worth noting that you should be compiling data during feedback. This is not a tip from Empathic Game Design, but is often something I find inexperienced playtesters neglecting. Keep track of how many users are doing what. Ask numerical questions, like, “What would you give the understandability, out of ten?” By tracking metrics, you give yourself a way to prove that you are making forward progress.

Step 5: Brainstorm

The second half of your Game Design Reflection step really easily leads into brainstorming. Brainstorming is nothing new, and there are a million and one ways to do it. It is such a large topic that I will not cover much here. Perhaps I will write an article about it in the future. For now, lets talk about what is different for brainstorming while using Empathic Game Design.

The key difference is the understanding of the user. By now, you should have tested on multiple users with the same primary goal in mind. You should also have a couple of filled out empathy maps to look back on. To take a lesson from the scientific field, your sample size should be large enough to account for any user eccentricities and general outliers. Depending on the size of the primary goal you’ve been testing, that can be anywhere from three users for tiny changes to dozens for foundational game decisions.

While testing, I not only take notes on what happens and what I have learned, but I also take notes on the users themselves. Everything I’ve talked about so far applies. Were they in a bad mood? How old are they? Have they played other similar games? This starts to paint a wholistic picture of your users. With my cat games, I noticed a handful of cats which would notice the games but look off to the side of the device. What I eventually decided what that my current art style must be confusing them, and making it difficult to focus on the game elements. I knew that cats had a limited color palette, and that they could not focus on anything that was too close to their face. This lended to new prototypes with simpler art and thick outlines, which I immediately noticed higher engagement from.

It’s not simple. It’s Empathic Game Design

Step 6: Repeat

Now that you have some wonderful new prototypes informed by Empathic Game Design, it is time to run back through your cycle. Test your games again. Choose new primary and secondary goals. Use traditional Split Testing to compare it to old games. Are you seeing an increase in user engagement? Have you noticed that you were totally wrong about which users are playing? I hope you learned something from this article, and will consider being a little more empathic on your next kick butt project.

By spending the extra time to understand your users you can build more meaningful and engaging experiences for them

Me 😉

Hope you rock it

If you enjoyed this article, PLEASE sign up for my mailing list. That would be so rad. Promise to not abuse the trust. If you want something else to read, you also might find my article about jumping in the ocean to be fun.

1 Comment

The 4 Pillars of Conscious Gamification - If You Willem · March 10, 2019 at 7:37 pm

[…] there aren’t many great resources I can recommend for you. What I suggest is that you read my article on empathic playtesting and learn about Empathy Mapping, if nothing […]

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