Role of data visualization in game design

  • I’m curious how you guys think about and incorporate data visualizations into games. It’s something that rarely comes up in data viz conversations, but even in academic literature there is a surprisingly small amount of research around the intersection of games and data viz.

    I tried to summarize some of my thoughts on data viz in games in this post, but I haven’t yet made any “real” games so I’m curious the how much the role data visualization plays in your design process. Also, (I didn’t mention it in the article), I’m curious if you guys use data visualization not for players but for yourself; e.g., collecting and visualizing data on how players progress through the game, where they often die, how far they get, etc. - like Bioware’s Skynet telemetry visualization system.

  • LDG

    I love diegetic interfaces, so clever! Dead Space with its spinal-health-bar and holographic UI was super slick. Too bad it’s not as easy to design into medieval fantasy games…

    In action games like A Wizard’s Lizard, the UI is mostly in your way – users complain about it often, prompting us to add an option to (temporarily) remove ALL UI from view. My goal is basically to minimize it as much as possible. However, there’s lots of important stuff to do know even while in battle, especially your health and cooldowns. In Onslaught! for iPad, we added a health indicator below the player avatar so players could know their status without having to look away from the game action. For my recent prototypes I’ve experimented with moving all this information into a sidebar, especially tempting when everyone has widescreen displays these days, doesn’t feel like losing much.

    In strategy games (like @geoffb is working on) UI is more critical, and so more concessions are made for it. Regarding debugging data, we’ve made some special screens to display information about items for example in AWL we can display, say, Killer Bees and get all of its stats, where it’s spawned, how it compares to other items, etc. Regarding visualizing gamer data, we’ve only ever messed with a simple high score table. If we ever made a game like AWL multiplayer, it would be super cool to show heat maps of where people die, etc. Lots of interesting possibilities there.

    Such a complex, multi-faceted topic! Obligatory Gamasutra article, a good read:

  • Definitely easier to represent health on a space suit than on plate mail armor. ;) Sorry for the long post, I tried to shorten it - I love talking about this stuff; you guys always have interesting perspectives and I feel like I’ve learned a ton by listening to Lostcast.

    Man…UI and user experience design is hard, but you do a good job of getting across all the important information in AWL. I’m more of a data viz guy, and from my perspective there’s a good amount of elegant, clean data viz going on. The status visualizations are straightforward and the aesthetics do a good job matching the feel of the game (like the heart health chart), the cool down bar + time is well done also (how the other special items count down and the progress bar animates at 1, drawing attention to it).

    I think you’re right - some genres, likes strategy games, have a lot more data; meaning, more necessary data visualizations and UI. I definitely agree with the article you posted that an interface doesn’t have to be diegetic for it to be great (and in some games diegetic interfaces might make little sense, like strategy games). However, that’s not to say a non-diegetic interface can’t be designed to fit the theme of the game (like how Diablo’s 2 interface is well designed to match the game).

    Thanks for the article link! It was interesting. A lot of her points made sense, but I think she relied too much on user feedback. Good design is invisible. The UI of Diablo II was designed by people who have their own wikipedia pages, and if non-designers don’t notice it then it means the design has succeeded. Asking players how much importance they placed on it is, I think, flawed. It’s as if I were to say that I didn’t think the suspension system was important, but I enjoyed the smooth ride in the fancy fancy car and wasn’t distracted by the bumps in the road. That’s obviously silly, and you wouldn’t conclude that a well designed suspension system isn’t necessary to have people enjoy a smooth ride. I can really only say If I enjoyed the ride; I don’t know enough about cars to tell you what parts of the car’s design are important. That’s just where I had a problem with the article - it seemed to me that she drew conclusions based on (or fit her theories around) player feedback.

    User feedback is necessary - user studies are critical for us when we design sites and applications; however, we observe user behavior and figure out where the pain points are. It’s up to the designers to solve those problems. Non-designers can’t solve design problems, just as non programmers can’t write bug fixes. It’s very easy to draw wrong conclusions if you place too much weight on what players say are the cause for problems. Players can detail what they did and report bugs; but that doesn’t mean they know how to fix them, or (more aptly) that they have insight into the code behind the bug. For me, that’s the kind of concept the author was asking the players for…I think players can tell you if they like some part of the UI design, but I think it’s not necessarily true they can tell you why they like the design if they aren’t designers. (There’s bug, and they can tell you how they got it, but non developers usually can’t tell you why the bug occurred in the code.) I really enjoyed the article - it sparked a lot of thought for me. I’m coming at this from a different perspective though, so if I’m missing something or completely off base I’d love to hear another perspective!

    I was also curious how much do you feel the debugging data has helped you. Has it made it easier to balance things? On a whole, have you found that data to be very useful in the design process?


  • LDG

    People without programming knowledge will have a tough time contributing to code, true, but non-designers can become designers in the blink of an eye. I’ve seen people with no experience, no context, discover a creative work and make a brilliant suggestion, blowing the “real” designer’s minds. Design can be/feel effortless, which makes it extremely accessible. And experts can make serious mistakes (see Diablo 3’s awkward circular UI).

    Honestly no, the developer-only debug tools we’ve made aren’t that useful – I made them to help analyze and balance loot, but I don’t think Geoff’s ever used them (and even broke them in an update! haha). But it doesn’t matter, I hadn’t used them in a while either. AWL is a bad example of good game design, tho, which could be partially to blame on us not having better debug tools, or not using them… but I don’t think so. There isn’t a great visualizer for “game feel” or balance, both of which are critical to good game design. We’ve tried using spreadsheets to visualize game data, but it’s too abstract to be useful and syncing spreadsheet/code is painful. The code is the source of truth.

    I’m a fan of analogies, so: in AWL, it’s like we started zipping a zipper, and the teeth weren’t lined up from the very beginning, so we just forced it. We got it to zip smooth in a few places, but there’s no denying it feels bad in some important areas. I believe that if we had built on more solid design ground, the rest of the content would have come out more smoothly, with or without visualizer tools. This might be why I haven’t considered debug data visualizers for future games, but then again, it might be useful! There could even be a way to expose this information to players (e.g. Spelunky’s diary, if it was more comprehensive).

  • @richtaur Good point - no designer is perfect, any nearly any work of art could be improved to some degree (“art is never finished, only abandoned” - I’m not a designer, but UI is a form of art to me). You make a good point that it’s much easier for a layman to make design suggestions than code suggestions. My metaphors were a bit weak. I think it’s also true that people who aren’t immersed in the design world would have fresh and innovate perspectives that a veteran designer would have a harder time coming up with if they’re too set in the established principles of design, or what’s currently hot (e.g., being stuck in a “skeuomorphic vs non-skeuomorphic” mindset).

    However, I think only the designer can weigh the suggestions, and know how they fit in with the experience as a whole. If one is trying craft a very specific experience (like a book, or a website, or a game), it’s more useful to know where the player’s experience breaks down. After knowing the pain points, only the author can know how to fix it in such a way they it fits in with the broader experience. Suggestions can be helpful, but I think it’s common for them to lead you down a wrong path or cause you to draw the wrong conclusions (e.g., if someone says a completely diegetic UI would be better…maybe it’s just that some part of the non-dietetic UI was distracting and didn’t work for them, but they weren’t able to as easily analyze their experience as a UI designer would be able to; and so the designer tries to create a diegetic UI - when a more optimal solution would have been to tweak a few buttons). At least in my experience of web and app design I’ve found this to be true, but maybe it’s less true for games (don’t have the experience to say). I could see suggestions from players being more useful since game players are constantly actively engaged with the experience, vs. a website user who just is passively consuming content.

    I guess the tl;dr of my point is that I’ve found it most helpful to be place great weight on listening what users have problems with, but to be a bit wary of user suggestions on how to fix those problems.

    Maybe because you see all the flaws you say AWL is a bad example of good game design, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and felt it was pretty well designed. It was engaging, I was immersed, and I’ve been frustrated many times trying to kill those damn owls. Good point about not being able to visualize “game feel” or balance. These are more subjective things; I think quantifying them is hard (just as it’s hard to visualize what “good design” is). I wonder how much visualizations around game design can help. I think there’s a limit. I think they could be beneficial to some degree, like visualizing mana curves when building a M:TG deck; but ultimately there are emotional decisions the author has to make that are very difficult to formalize. Ultimately there’s this essential complexity of designing experiences which tools cannot aide a great deal in.
    One area I wonder if debug tools could help though is in using analytics to validate assumptions…if you can know that 80% of players have trouble getting past a certain point and they stop playing, it seems like having that visibility might help. But, maybe that sort of stuff can be figured out by just playing it or getting user feedback. It’s super useful for me when developing apps to have metrics around usage, but it’s a much different kind of experience than a game.

    Thanks for your perspective! it’s been really helpful

  • LDG

    Awesome, glad you’re enjoying AWL despite its flaws. There’s definitely some good stuff in there, but from our current perspective all we can do is kick ourselves for the mistakes ;)

    Player data at scale could be a great indicator of game feel, balance etc. – say if we had tracking in place for all AWL players, we could see which weapons were favored, where players died, how much they used totems, stuff like that would be super awesome. Aside from some people being upset about the anonymous data tracking, that’s something we might consider for future projects.

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