· 6 min read

Usability in Mobile Games: The Triumph of Bad Design?

Many successful games seem to have lately forgotten to include usability, which used to be the alpha and omega for game development, in their development process. Is it now the triumph of bad design?

Usability is defined as both ease of use and ease of learning to use a man-made object. It is a concept that has been at the core of good software design ever since the beginning of computers. It was, of course, a long and hard road for usability to dominate software development, leaving users in a usability Dark Age for many years.

Back in the days of the text-based interfaces standard, the average user would simply be unable to operate a computer without a large manual or specific training. Today, with the operating system standard dominating the market, anyone can sit down in front of a computer and use it intuitively, without any training at all. The progress of usability in operating systems has been enormous in the last 20 years, and comparing Windows 95 to Windows 7 clearly demonstrates that.

The usability schism

With the very rapid development and brutal competition characteristic to mobile games, it seems that some developers have forgotten or chosen to disregard usability in design. When looking at the top grossing mobile games on Apple’s App Store today, there is a very wide gap between the games there in terms of usability. Take for instance the two games Rage of Bahamut, by Mobage, and Clash of Clans, by Supercell. Both are in the top 10 grossing games in the USA and this marks them as big mobile games successes. They are not the same genre and they are not going to be compared in terms of gameplay. Rather, they will be compared in terms of usability, where they are miles apart.

Beware the low-res dragon!
Beware the low-res dragon!

Wired recently reviewed Rage of Bahamut, and they were not impressed, to put it mildly.

“Tokyo-based developer Cygames recently revealed that half of its 20 million overall players are playing Bahamut. That would make it one of the most popular games in the world. That’s surprising because it’s also a real piece of crap.”


The player must scroll up and down to find the desired action, among lot of text and few buttons. This leaves them disoriented.
The player must scroll up and down to find the desired action, among lot of text and few buttons. This leaves them disoriented.

Clash of Clans has gotten very good reviews and has scored a 74 on Metacritic. The game is clearly designed with usability in mind and it does a very good job of making the game inviting and intuitive. Rage of Bahamut on the other hand is very messy and incomprehensive, with a UI that is confusing, restrictive and just plain old ugly.

The UI clearly displays possible actions and status overview with easily recognizable icons, inviting the player to tap on them.
The UI clearly displays possible actions and status overview with easily recognizable icons, inviting the player to tap on them.

The ugliness and blatant disregard for usability however does not seem to influence the grossing power of the game, which brings up the question: Why? Why don’t the consumers of mobile games mind bad design and usability? If the customer is always right, and bad usability is not an issue, why should anyone spend time and money on making good usability? As a game developer the goal should be to develop a game that makes a profit, so that the company can continue to exist. But should that be the one and only goal of a game developer?

It now appears that the consumer will consume almost anything and that the market is also full of similar and identical games. That should mean that when similar and identical games compete, the one with the better usability would eventually win. Also in terms of player retention, it should be more difficult to keep players hooked, if another similar game shows up with a smooth, easy to use interface.

The sad thing is that good usability is not that hard to achieve, there are several guidelines that can help designers to find usability problems and deal with them. Those guidelines do not even require user testing and can be applied in a single day. The problems found using them might take longer to fix however.

Here is Jacob Nielsen’s 10 usability heuristics from January 1st 1995. This guideline might be almost 20 years old but it is as relevant and useful as ever.

Instead, you could view this 3 minute video explaning his concepts.

[youtube id=”hWc0Fd2AS3s”]

Usability through game metrics

There are several different approaches to detecting usability problems through game metrics, but as a rule, usability is one of the most difficult aspects to track. This is due to the fact that you are looking for user mistakes and difficulties in playing the game. That means it is necessary to distinguish between user action and user intention, which is almost a philosophical matter. This might also require thorough qualitative user tests, which is not always the best approach as even users are not always aware of their intentions. Player metrics can, if used intelligently, identify user intentions and compare it to the player actions, and that way find usability problems.

For instance, if users go into a specific menu and go out again without taking any action, it can indicate that the user did not intend to go in that menu. If this happens often enough it indicates that the users often end up in that menu by mistake. Then it is interesting to see what action the users take after making the mistake, as that action could be the actual indented action. In any case, if users keep going in and out of menus that are not displaying critical information, the interface might not be easy enough to use.

Something else to look for is prohibited actions, like placing something outside the designated area, trying to build something without the correct prerequisites, or even something as simple as tapping the screen where no action exists. These all indicate that the user is trying to do something but is unable to do so. If the user spends more time tapping on nothing then something, there is clearly something wrong with the UI, unless it is designed to infuriate the user.

Remember that if the user makes mistakes, it is not the user that is doing something wrong, but the game that is designed in a way that determines the user to make mistakes.

If the user finds it too hard to perform the action they want, they will eventually stop trying and stop playing the game, most likely for good. With the level of competition in the App Store, customers will have little trouble finding something else to play with, so good usability is critical right from the start.

For the sake of good design, hopefully this trend of ignoring usability will dissipate sooner rather than later, but as long as the customer keeps spending money on bad design it is likely that games like Rage of Bahamut will stay strong in the charts.

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