Indie Games and UX: Going Beyond Gamification

Robert Mion
28 min readSep 7, 2016

Here is the full transcript of my talk entitled ‘Indie Games and UX: Going Beyond Gamification’ delivered to the Charlotte UX Meetup group on Monday, June 13, 2016 at the NC Music Factory in Charlotte, NC.


Hello. My name is Robert.
Before I start, for each of the First-Timers tonight:

  • 3 years ago this meetup was the first one I attended after moving from Arizona
  • Tonight is my first time speaking

It should not take any of you that long to move from there to here.
Challenge yourself to discover, learn, and teach as often as possible.

I wrote a script for this presentation. It’s really great.
I’ll make it available to all of you afterwards, so don’t worry about taking notes.
Even though I rehearsed it several times, I’m probably going to read directly from my phone the whole time.
And I may talk fast, but hopefully not too fast.
I may walk around, too, because I have trouble standing still.

You won’t notice though, because I’ll distract you with hundreds of random slides.

Some slides are important, though, like this one.
Buy this book tonight after my presentation. [The Art of Game Design]
Read it once — as is.
Read it again replacing the word ‘game’ with ‘app’ or ‘website’ or ‘product’.
You will instantly become a better designer.

Alright then, let’s get started.

Game Design 101

I recently became a Game Designer.
Tonight I’ll start by making each of you a Game Designer, too.

Before I do…

Raise your hand if you have to leave by 8?
Ok. It was my goal to end by 8. Now it’s my goal to make you all happy to be late to wherever you are going next.

It’s time to make all of you game designers.
It’s easy. Just repeat after me:

I am a game designer”

“I am a game designer”

“I am a game designer”

“I am a game designer

Great! Now all of us are game designers.

Though you may want to actually make a game before you add that to your resume

Who here has not played a game?
Awesome. Glad to see I’m amongst fellow “nerds”

Since we’re all game designers, I’m sure each of you is familiar with the four basic elements of a game.
In case you’re not, I’ll review them quickly now.

They are:

  1. Story
  2. Aesthetics
  3. Mechanics
  4. Technology

Again for good measure:

  1. Story
  2. Aesthetics
  3. Mechanics
  4. Technology

Who did not remember all of those?

Fantastic! Now let’s explore games in a bit more detail.

Games typically contain lore

You, the player, control a character who is part of a larger world. As you play the game, you uncover the game’s lore, thereby creating a unique story for your character that defines how he fits within that larger world.

Games usually feature boss fights

These are high adrenaline moments that occur after long periods of exploration, puzzle solving or combat. A common expectation of beating bosses is to gain instant access to a valuable reward that makes your character stronger, and access to a previously locked area in the game.

Games reward exploration

A locked door will lead you on a hunt for the necessary key; a shiny object will make you seek out a path to claim it; the faintest hint at a secret area may quickly distract you from your primary objective.

Games are rich in content

Weapons, levels, enemies, non-playable characters, dialogue, item descriptions, menus and much more

Games encourage role playing

Hero or villain, spartan or covenant, dwarf or night elf, terrorist or counter-terrorist, one of hundreds who ‘defend the ancients’

Games are often multiplayer

Working in teams or playing free-for-all, today’s most popular games encourage or require participation from more than one non-AI player

Ok. That’s enough about games. After all, each of you should know all this because you are game designers

But what about websites, or web applications, or mobile apps, or anything else that supports interaction, and that normally wouldn’t be thought of as a game?

Well, it turns out, they’re suprisingly similar. That is, if you’re flexible in your definitions.

Websites typically contain lore

You may just be more familiar with calling it a ‘brand identity’.

Websites have boss fights

Except they are often far more challenging, and no where near as fun.

Websites reward exploration

Sadly often with nothing more than a spammy newsletter.

Websites are rich in content

Stores and blogs especially. Sure, you may not be able to discern 1st party content from sponsored content, but its all content nonetheless.

Websites encourage role playing

Are you a parent or student? Buying or selling? Married or single? Underage or legal?

Websites are often multiplayer

You can ask for help, collaborate with team members, spread gossip, engage in sexual activity, rant and more: all with anyone, in real-time.

So why don’t the websites — or mobile apps, etc. — we use borrow more from games, when it seems like they share many of the same elements?

Well, some of them kind of do.


Who does not know what gamification is?
“Those with your hands raised, feel free to cover your ears for this next part.”

Let’s start with a definition:

Gamification is the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts.

Great. So…[and pardon my rant]…endogenous point systems designed to encourage users to compete against one another for the sole greater goal of generating data that falsely proves to stakeholders that gamification equals increased sales?

Here’s a glimpse at what life will look like down our current path. Please don’t take notes.

Video prototyping a reality wherein the world is fully augmented and life’s goal is to collect points

I’m confident we can do better.

So forget what you know about gamification.

I’ll ask again:
Who does not know what gamification is?
“Do me a favor and lie, then.”

Wonderful! You may put your hands down.

Let’s start with an interesting perspective:

Gamification isn’t just about adding badges and leaderboards. It’s about creating a path for your user. Games are all about the story, an immersive journey that creates a great experience for the player. Great games have great stories; stories that show an understanding of who the “hero” is, what obstacles they need to overcome, and the rewards they can expect. Using these game mechanics you can give your users clear goals and objectives while showing them where they’re headed.

Sounds simple enough, right?

  • Play games
  • Study their elements
  • Steal those elements to help guide your users toward success

Who does not remember the four game elements?

Very good.

Let’s play a few indie games and study their elements.

iPad games

This is Sage Solitaire

It’s a delightful cross between Solitaire and Poker where your objective is to clear the board by forming Poker hands from top-facing cards in two or more rows.

Who does not know what ‘heuristics’ are?

Heuristics are usability guidelines

I like to think of Nielsen’s heuristics as the 10 UI commandments. Following them ensures your interface will feel intuitive. Betraying any one of them could cause your users to feel annoyed by — or frustrated with — your interface without knowing why. This could lead them to seek a competitor’s application whose interface feels more intuitive.

It’s a vicious cycle, unfortunately.

Sage Solitaire is privvy to several heuristics that many far more complex applications fail to pass.

For instance:

Visibility of system status

Each move you make triggers a natural change in the interface

Match between system and the real world

Cards move, turn and flip as you would expect

User control and freedom

Tapping cards intuitively toggles them selected and unselected

Consistency and standards

Colors, messages and animations are consistent and easily understood

Error prevention

While you could make a poor move, you can’t make a wrong move

Recognition rather than recall

The list of hands you can use to score points is available anytime from a well labeled menu item

Flexibility and efficiency of use

You can ask for a hint at any time for no cost

This is Mr. Square

It’s a seemingly simple puzzle game that uses swipe gestures as the primary gameplay mechanic.

When players start Mr. Square, this is what they see:

  • The character, Mr. Square, is on the left
  • Three empty square-shaped spaces, each one touching the previous box’s right edge
  • An animation indicating that players must swipe to perform an action

Doing so moves Mr. Square across all three boxes, completing the level.

On the second level, the instructions are gone.
But that’s no problem.
Players know what action they have to perform:

  • Swipe right

Doing this moves Mr. Square across three boxes again, stopping on the top-right space.

  • Swiping right again appears to do nothing
  • Swiping up, nothing
  • Swiping left, nothing

But swiping down moves Mr. Square across three more boxes, stopping on the bottom-right space.

From here, most players will continue swiping in the correct direction to complete the level.

Of course, this second level is masterful design for one reason:

  • There is no wrong answer. Every swipe that moves Mr. Square is a step toward success.

This intuitive and interactive on-boarding experience continues throughout Mr. Square, as the game designers introduce fun new game mechanics that players must properly maneuver to complete each puzzle.

PS4 Games

This is Rocket League

In it, you pilot a rocket-powered car and must push the ball into the opposing team’s goal, ala soccer.

As you complete matches, you unlock new content that is purely decorative.

There is also a point-based leveling system in Rocket League, but it is primarily used to match you with similarly-skilled players.

This way, the game remains accessible to newcomers, allows for a high degree of personalization, and encourages players to improve their skills by learning how to professionally maneuver their car after getting beat in a match by someone slightly or intimidatingly more knowledgable than them.

That’s all well and good, but I actually include Rocket League for it’s menu system.

Who does not know what a ‘red route’ is?

A red route is a UX term derived from specially marked lanes in Europe that must remain unblocked at all times in case of emergency.

The term is used in UX to convey an unobstructed, potentially direct path that a user can take to accomplish that which is most likely to be their primary task.
In any application, it is imperative that the most common tasks be identified and available via a ‘red route’.

Rocket League’s menu system makes effective use of red routes:

  • The main screen selects the most-used menu item, ‘Play Online’
  • Clicking ‘Play Online’ selects ‘Find Match’
  • Clicking that selects ‘Find Match’ again, with the player’s most recent match criteria pre-populated

As soon as the match is complete, the ‘Ready’ menu item is selected so the player can quickly find a new match.

In essence, Rocket League’s menu system and auto-focused menu options keep players concentrated on ‘doing’ — not ‘thinking’ — which successfully results in highly addictive play.

This is Super Meat Boy

It’s a 2D platformer reminiscent of Super Mario Bros.

Super Meat Boy is unique for two reasons:

  1. It was made by two game designers: one a programmer and the other a traditional illustrator
  2. It is unforgivingly difficult

Because of that second point, players die a lot on each level.
In fact, in later levels, it is not uncommon to die tens or even hundreds of times.

But the designers knew this about their game, so they incorporated a surprising element to keep players from getting discouraged and ‘rage quitting’.

When you finally reach the end of a level, you are treated to a replay of your winning run. The best part, though, is that the replay also includes every run you made in that session since starting the level.
So, the more times you die, the more exploding Meatboys you will see.

This results in an incredible feeling of progression, and is just the boost a player needs to feel confident enough to attempt the next level.

Review of first round of games

So far we played and studied specific elements from four games.

  • Sage Solitaire demonstrated proper use of heuristics
  • Mr. Square demonstrated excellent user onboarding
  • Rocket League demonstrated smart consideration of red routes
  • Super Meat Boy demonstrated a unique application for players’ session history

I encourage you to download one or all of these games, and experience them first-hand.
After my presentation, of course.
I challenge you to observe and analyze your experience while playing these games.

In addition, I challenge you to think about the elements in each game that make your experience possible.

Essentially, the skill you need to develop is the ability to observe your own experience while thinking about the underlying causes of that experience.

Jesse Schell, the man who’s exact words I have been quoting for the last minute, has a name for the talented few who are able to accomplish this:

Holographic Designers

Jesse offers three questions that game designers can ask when practicing Holographic Design. I have replaced the word ‘game’ in each of them with ‘app’ for our purposes:

  1. What elements of the app make the experience enjoyable?
  2. What elements of the app detract from the experience?
  3. How can I change app elements to improve the experience?

Use these questions to guide your critiques and user tests. They will provide clarity for everyone involved, including the designers, developers, project managers, and most importantly, the stakeholders.

In summary:
Great UX Designers think like Game Designers and are well practiced in the art of Holographic Design

How websites leverage game elements

Let’s turn our attention to a few businesses who currently incorporate game elements into their digital experiences to help move users towards success.


Does anyone know who is pictured here? [Photo of Kurt Walecki]

This is Kurt Walecki.

In 2013, Kurt shut down his employer’s San Diego offices for two days in order to conduct an extensive ethnographic research expedition.
700 employees asked 1,400 Californians increasingly specific questions about how they file their taxes.

The research identified a key persona who Kurt nicknamed, “True North”, the universalized individual that his team was designing for: an individual who, despite living paycheck to paycheck, opted to spend $200–300 at a tax preparation store just so she didn’t have to file taxes herself.

Kurt wanted that business, badly.

See, when Kurt was hired, TurboTax was a one-size-fits-all experience.

“There were literally tens of screens that didn’t need to be answered. You would get ‘Hey, are you a farmer?’ when you’ve already said ‘I’m a waitress in New York City.’ You don’t need to ask that question.”

Kurt knew his team could do better.

Given their target audience is literally everyone in America, Kurt’s team had to agree upon and deliver a refreshed design language. Sure, this meant a new visual language. But more importantly, it meant focusing on the voice and tone of the site’s copy.

“We looked ourselves hard in the face between 2013 and 2014 and said, ‘Man, we’re like one step away from the IRS. Our language was very credible, but it was very tax-y and we thought this is not easy for anyone to understand deductions and credits and schedule fees.”

The design team took a cue from the narrative of video games like Monument Valley and League of Legends to help people “uplevel through the experience.”

Now TurboTax users are greeted with instructions that actually sound human (“Let’s take a quick look at the story of your year”) and cheered on with little encouragements (“Great start on your refund!”).

Additional necessary information is requested using highly accessible and appropriate language that feels human.

Iconography is used sparingly and only to enforce the feeling of a delightful experience.

“If you think about gaming, it’s not only the story of minutes. It’s the story of hours and story of days and weeks”

Kurt wanted to give people that same level of engagement throughout two or three sessions, for the users who stop and pick it back up later, just like a game.

Adrian Zumbrunnen

Rapid fire question time!
Keep your hand raised as long as your answer is yes.

Who has a facebook account?

Who checks their feed at least yearly?

Who checks their feed at least monthly?

Who checks their feed at least daily?

Who uses Facebook Messenger?

Who has interacted with a Chat Bot?

Who has built a Chat Bot?

Chat Bots are one manifestation of a simultaneously emerging and super retro interface called:

Conversational User Interfaces

At their best, chat bots — and Conversational UI in general — deliver contextually appropriate answers to you, no matter where you asked your question.
At their worst, chat bots offer the same experience as banging your head against a wall when all you wanted to do was book a flight, plan a romantic evening together, or just order some damn flowers.

Conversational UIs are very likely to be the interface through which most humans get stuff done in a few years.

In fact, Google’s CEO recently made it very clear that the company is basically going all-in on natural language processing and artificial intelligence to help everyone have a better — albeit less private — life.

One designer set out to redesign his website with the goal of making it feel more conversational.

Here is the initial interaction.

  • The bot says three things, ending with a question
  • The bot presents two actions to the user as a way to continue the conversation
  • Below all of this is an option to skip the whole conversation and explore his website at your leisure, as you traditionally would

What does this have to do with games, you might be asking?

Well, if you’ve ever played a role playing game, you should recognize the use of predefined dialogue options and scripted responses.

  • When well-written, the dialogue keeps you engaged.
  • When contrived or gimmicky, you are immediately reminded that you’re just walking through a script and being forced to select a response in order to get back to the fun part of the experience.

I encourage each of you to visit Adrian’s website multiple times on your devices, and to download two apps tonight:

  • Facebook Messenger
  • Quartz news app

The former is a great example of chat bots in their infancy.

The latter is a great example of a chat bot who is not only helpful, but has its own personality.

Park Hyatt

Let’s step outside games and websites for a moment.

Who looks forward to checking in at a hotel?
“You all must be the true UX Designers, because like me you are probably more interested in analyzing the experience than actually participating in it.”

My point is, checking in is usually a pain in the ass.

Guests often arrive angry from a previous experience or random event.
They are hoping the process will be smooth, but expect any and all complications to arise.

This sounds like the perfect time to use the element of surprise in a way that empowers employees, delights guests, and gives the hotel company a chance to recover.

Randall Stone of Lippincott might call this ‘designing happiness’.

This is how his team used the element of surprise to bring delight to each Hyatt guest’s check-in experience:

“It’s about making the mundane memorable. You can take the most mundane moment of any experience interaction or process and bring it to life.”

His example is when checking into the Park Hyatt of Chicago, you’re offered a series of five or so pens. They’re not just Bics. Instead, they might be brass or tortoiseshell or any sort of pen you’d see used by a pen lover.

“They put the box in front of you and for that moment, you sit there and ponder, which pen is the most beautiful? Which reflects my personality? You ask the person checking in next to you, ‘Which pen are you going to pick?’ And suddenly the most mundane moment becomes one of delight because you’re signing the Magna Carta with this pen. It’s no longer a plastic pen; it’s a ceremony.”

Moving on.

New approaches to marketing

Whatever you design, will need to sell. After all, no sales equates to a dead product.

It’s 2016:
Your best customers are users who feel like they played a part in building your product

Let’s look at how one small company successfully leveraged unconventional marketing channels to increase sales for their game.

This is Punch Club

Punch Club is a retro tycoon/management game.
Punch Club was made by an indie game developer and publisher called tinyBuild.

Punch Club the game isn’t anything revolutionary.
Punch Club’s launch, however, was every small marketing team’s wet dream.

Who does not know what Steam, as in, is?

Steam is an online store: a digital collection of PC, Mac and Linux games.

Of particular note is Steam’s ‘Early Access Games’ feature.

As read from their about page:

“Get immediate access to games that are being developed with the community’s involvement. These are games that evolve as you play them, as you give feedback, and as the developers update and add content.”

“We like to think of games and game development as services that grow and evolve with the involvement of customers and the community. There have been a number of prominent titles that have embraced this model of development recently and found a lot of value in the process. We like to support and encourage developers who want to ship early, involve customers, and build lasting relationships that help everyone make better games.”

“This is the way games should be made.”

My advice to you?
Think like Steam for your next project and get users involved as early as possible.

Who does not know what Twitch is?

Twitch is the world’s leading video platform and community for gamers.

What does that mean?
That means that if you are:

  • Someone who wants to make money playing games, you use Twitch
  • Someone who wants to watch professional gaming athletes or random streamers play games, you use Twitch

Turns out, there are a lot of people in that first group, and exponentially more people in the second group.

As a community for gamers, one of Twitch’s biggest features is a chat system.
Broadcasters and their followers, subscribers, etc. can engage in conversation.

Not surprisingly, Twitch recently launched a new program they call, ‘Twitch Plays’.

In this program, anyone in the chat could type specific commands that an AI player will enact in the game.

Well, on Wednesday, January 6 of this year, tinyBuild launched a livestream on Twitch called ‘Twitch Plays Punch Club’

But Punch Club hadn’t been released yet.

In fact, the livestream was a marketing ploy by tinyBuild.

The catch was:

  • Until Twitch had beaten Punch Club, the game wouldn’t be released on Steam

To tinyBuild’s surprise, the Twitch community was almost too good at the game.
Chat participants had beaten more than half the game in just over 24 hours.

This was actually a huge problem:

Valve, the company who owns Steam, closes their offices on the weekends.

So games cannot launch on Steam on weekends.

Therefore, if chat participants didn’t beat the game fast enough, tinyBuild would be unable to deliver on its promise, and any potential customers who engaged in the livestream would likely forget over the weekend and never convert.

Here’s how things played out between Friday, January 8th, and Tuesday, January 12th

As of Friday afternoon

  • Steam was running four banner ads promoting the livestream of Punch Club
  • Twitch beat Punch Club in the middle of a livestream that had already gone viral on Twitch
  • Punch Club launched on Steam
  • Steam closes for the weekend, with the four banner ads left up

On Friday evening

  • The majority of Twitch’s most followed streamers came online, and using codes for Punch Club from their inbox, started broadcasting their playthrough of the game
  • Due to the influx of people playing the game simultaneously, Punch Club becomes a Featured Game on Twitch’s homepage

Over the weekend

  • With more and more people streaming, Punch Club remains on the front page of Twitch
  • Publicity from Twitch generates game downloads on Steam, helping Punch Club reach the Number 5 slot on the Steam bestsellers list, and was never below the top 15 throughout the weekend

On Monday

  • The gaming press come back online, only to find that a no-name game called Punch Club has been at the top of the Steam charts all weekend. So they start talking about it.
  • Youtube videos are now available in droves thanks to weekend streamers. Hundreds of videos with millions of views.

On Tuesday

  • Press coverage helps push more Youtube and Twitch streamers to play the game, thus generating more sales on Steam

So, why tell you all this?
Because Twitch is super important for video game publishers and developers right now, and it was hardly a thing a couple years ago

…and what does that have to do with us, here, tonight?
You better do your research: know everything about using your app, find the proper marketing channel for your app, and develop a damn good promotional strategy that likely hasn’t been used yet. You may get rich — with a little luck.

Moving on.

Unifying Themes

I think it’s safe to say that if our websites, apps, etc. have a unifying, resonant theme, the experience we create will be much, much more positively received.
Aligning our designs to a theme helps ensure that all of the elements reinforce one another, since they are working toward a common goal.

According to our old pal, Mr. Schell:

  1. Figure out what your theme is
  2. Use every means possible to reinforce that theme

Let’s look at two games that I feel are excellent examples of experiences with unified themes.

The Witness

Who here has played The Witness?

Theme: Language is a puzzle

Every puzzle in The Witness is solved the same way:

  • Starting from the empty circle
  • Extend a path to a marked end point

The Witness takes place on a large island filled with roughly 650 puzzles.
That means things could get boring really fast if you don’t mix it up a bit.

Fortunately, Jonathan Blow and his team at Thekla expanded on these simple rules in one extraordinary way: a slew of cues that make use of all the senses, each dictating new rules for each puzzle.

Different areas in the game introduce new symbols, often through a series of panels like the one shown here.
The player is revealed the language of the puzzle as they complete — or more often fail to complete — each consecutive puzzle.
As you can see, by the end of this series of panels, the game designer can feel confident that the player can effectively read other, more complicated puzzles, that include these symbols.

Puzzles like this, for instance. [Photo of a puzzle in The Witness]

The further the player explores beyond the initial area on the island, the more complex the language of the puzzles becomes.

But the basic rules have not changed:

  • Starting from the empty circle
  • Extend a path to a marked end point

It is only the shape of the path that must change, based on the type and placement of the symbols.

Throughout the island are closed areas often only accessible through doors.

Instead of requiring the player to find an item to unlock the door, the game designers use…you guessed it: puzzles!

Puzzles to open doors

Puzzles to activate objects

Puzzles to reset puzzles that exist beyond the actual puzzle

Puzzles to generate walkways to other puzzles

The Witness, as stated earlier, takes place on a large island.
Due to it’s scale, the game offers a form of transportation other than by foot: a boat.

How does the player call for the boat, you ask?

By solving a puzzle

The boat offers two forms of interaction:

  1. A map and
  2. A motor

How does the player use both?

By solving puzzles

In fact, puzzles exist outside of the typical square panels.

Here we see the same puzzle on a panel and in the form of a river on the island.

Well, players can press a button to activate puzzle interaction at any time.

So wherever there’s something that looks like a puzzle, players can try to solve it.

Yup, the game designers considered that too, and made it one of the most engaging, surprising, and rewarding parts of the game!

In this photo of an abandoned ship, the player actually has to be on the boat, start the puzzle from one end of the ship, and continue directing the line around the ship as the boat moves. One wrong move and it’s back to the start.

Quoting the game designer, Jonathan Blow:

“My approach is to respect the player as an intelligent person who can figure things out. And who wants to discover things or come to understand more things than they knew at the start of the game.”

“I want to respect my player’s time. I don’t want to give the player a lot of filler, just because I feel like gameplay ought to be 60 hours long.”

Play The Witness.

And play Braid, Jonathan’s earlier indie game.

You will activate creative areas in your brain you didn’t know existed, and it will feel amazing.

More importantly, you will learn that the mantra “Don’t make me think” does not translate to “Treat users like idiots”, but rather, “Have respect for your users”.

Dark Souls

Who here has played Dark Souls?

Theme: Against all odds

The Dark Souls series has some of gaming’s richest lore.
But you wouldn’t know it unless you really looked.
That’s totally fine. In fact, that’s one thing I admire about the game.
There’s plenty of great stuff on the surface, but dig deeper, and players will continually be rewarded with revelations, more questions, and a connection to the game’s world that few other games can match.

Heck, this is what made Lost such a historic television show, isn’t it?

Back to Dark Souls.

The game is designed to make the player feel

  • tiny
  • alone
  • unable

Like David fighting hordes of Goliaths, dying time and time again.

So much that the publishers put that in the title of an expansion pack for the first game.

But it doesn’t have to suck that bad…if players dig a little deeper.

Dark Souls includes Multiplayer, but not in the usual way.
Players living anywhere in the world — meaning Earth — can use an item to place their mark on the ground.
Other players can select that mark — assuming it appears in their game world — to ‘summon’ that player into their game for a limited period of time: often to defeat a tough boss, or to help them fight another player who ‘invaded’ their world and wants to kill them.

This all sounds like fancy words for ‘Team deathmatch’ or ‘Cooperative play’, but the notion of ‘summoning’ someone or getting ‘invaded’ by another player adheres perfectly to the underlying theme of the game.

Speaking of getting killed or killing enemies: in Dark Souls you don’t just ‘kill’ or ‘beat’ an enemy.

Instead, players will see words like ‘slaughtered’ or ‘banished’.
Words like this make players feel:

  • powerful
  • accomplished
  • ecstatic, even

It’s those exact emotions that the game designers want players to feel.

In order to achieve those high points, though, players must be willing to persevere through continued moments of death and struggle.

When you defeat a boss in Dark Souls, you often gain access to three things:

  • those happy killing words
  • a bonfire, which is basically a checkpoint
  • and treasure

But remember, in Dark Souls, everything is trying to kill you.

Even the treasure chests.

There is no way to communicate with others in Dark Souls using a mic.
This is by design.
But that doesn’t mean players can’t communicate at all.

In fact, players can use a madlibs-style message system to write anything from tips, warnings, to stupidly fun messages, on almost any surface in the game.
Other players can rate these messages.
If your message is rated positively, your health bar immediately returns to full.

That can come in real handly in the middle of a tough boss fight.

Thus, several game elements each support the overall theme of the game.

I mentioned earlier that players could invade other players.
This enables a sort of player-vs-player (or PVP) element in the game.
To accommodate this element, the designers included an equally appropriate form of communication between players:

  • gestures

Players earn new gestures throughout the game, specifically for use in PVP.

Some are celebratory or formal, others are downright troll-ish.

When players die in Dark Souls, they leave two things behind:

  1. A green orb that contains ‘souls’, the game’s form of currency
  2. and a red bloodstain

Both elements serve the greater theme of the game:

  • The bloodstain, when activated by another player, replays the final moments of a player’s life.
  • If a player dies again before picking up their green orb, it disappears forever. Basically, players must literally fight to get their life back.

The world in Dark Souls is littered with shiny objects seen here in all kinds of seemingly unreachable areas.
But that just encourages exploration: after all, the game designers wouldn’t put collectable items in places players couldn’t get to. So…

  • Seek out a path to the shiny objects and risk dying
  • in hopes of discovering new pathways that may lead to shortcuts or valuable items

And boy, are those items rich with lore.
In fact, Dark Souls is acclaimed for ‘hiding’ much of its lore in the descriptions of its nearly thousands of items.

Here’s one particular item: a peculiar doll.
The description ends with the words:

  • painted world

That’s interesting.

See, in another area of the game, there’s this giant painting of…a world. But when you examine it nothing happens.
Well, with the Peculiar Doll in your inventory, something happens:

  • the player enters a new, secret area in the game, with new enemies, a boss fight, and tons of unique treasure

Dark Souls is an incredible game.
I have had countless memorable experiences playing it, mostly of dying.
Other games have started stealing various game elements from Dark Souls.
I think it’s about time the digital experiences we create steal from Dark Souls, too.

Here are a few ideas to get you started.

New Ideas

Scenario 1

Dark Souls has several secret doors.
These lead to secret areas filled with items, bosses or new levels.
They can be located anywhere, but are often placed

  • near treasure chests or
  • near otherwise locked areas

In our industry, the equivalent place could be a checkout page.

Most online stores conclude with a page that confirms your order details and offers options relevant to a user’s context, like sharing what was just ordered.

To the user:

  • Task complete.
  • Treasure collected.
  • Close tab.
  • Super mundane.

But it doesn’t have to be.

How can we use surprise to keep our new customers engaged?
Perhaps offer the possibility of more, through considered but minimal effort.

Here I’ve added a disabled button labeled ‘Secret Area’

Clicking on it displays a text link that could start the user’s quest for whatever is necessary to make the button enabled.

It’s up to you what you make available here, but if you’ve learned anything from tonight’s talk, it should be this:

  • Any elements should align to a unifying theme


  • The way you signify that extra content is available should match existing patterns in your app
  • The content you show should be of value to every possible person who arrives at your checkout page
  • Remember progressive enhancement: this is content not everyone will see, so keep it supplementary, not necessary.

Scenario 2

In Dark Souls, destructible objects — like these barrels — are intended to be…well, destroyed.

These objects serve two purposes:

  1. To enhance the player’s sense of inhabiting the world
  2. To entice players to interact with the objects in hopes of finding valuable items inside

Truth be told, it’s just fun to roll through boxes.

In fact, this concept of wasting time in a game may seem a bit odd, but one very recent game has made impressive use of it.

Before each match in the game OverWatch, players are locked in a room for under a minute while the server loads game assets and other players join the match.

In this room are several items that players can interact with.
One such item is a basketball.
There’s also a hoop.

So, you guessed it…
Players will gladly amuse themselves by shooting hoops.

There is no achievement for making a basket.
It’s just a fun interaction element while players wait for the game to start.

Online, this element of supplemental interaction design exists:

  • Animation

In fact, on there are several sleek animations that are triggered upon user interaction.

I could play with these all day.

Users of this site likely come for a specific reason, and the website does a great job of making it easy to find information.

But users may stay longer, have a richer experience, or be more susceptible to sharing the website with others…purely because of these animations.

Scenario 3

In Dark Souls, players can both summon others to help them, and be invaded by other players who intend to kill — or simply harass — the hosting player.

I’m willing to bet you have all experienced the same elements multiple times while online, you just didn’t realize it.


See, many of Google’s apps enable multiple users to work simultaneously on the same document.

The document owner can share a link with anyone, and those people can then join the owner in real-time to edit the document.


In terms of being ‘invaded’, well…
How many times have you been browsing a website’s contents, only to have an annoying pop-up catch you off-guard?

I’ll bet that clicking the X to close it gives you the same feeling

Scenario 4

In Dark Souls, vital information is often not available in the world, but rather in item descriptions.

Returning to the genre of online stores, this element could be used to transform the mundane process of browsing a catalog into the thrilling adventure of reading interesting stories about particular items.

Heck, if you can get people to read product descriptions, why not reward them with small but enticing promotional codes to thank them for reading your content?

In fact, let’s look at that term, ‘Promotional code’.

Who can tell me what that sounds a lot like?
“A cheat code!”

When you look hard enough, you’d be surprised how many ways websites already subtly borrow from games.

Unfortunately, they largely do so in ways that treat users less like players, and more like point-hoarding slaves.

We need to design more with respect for our users.

New Processses

I would wager that each of you has one — or is one — of these. [Picture of Bowser from Super Mario Bros.]

By that I mean a boss.

Odds are their titles are one of:

  • Manager
  • Supervisor
  • Vice President
  • Chief something Officer

The list goes on.

And that’s perfectly acceptable, as long as:

  • Your manager helps you stay on task
  • Your supervisor effectively coaches you
  • Your VP keeps you well equipped to deliver success

and so on

I, however, don’t believe that any of these people is befitting of a title that is commonplace in our industry:

  • Decider

Sure, bosses are rightfully tasked with making sure projects are completed on time, and team members’ work meets certain criteria and milestones.

However, there is one person who’s approval you must not only seek, but who’s approval can get stakeholders on your side, and who’s approval is that which your product depends on:

  • Your user

Find her.

Prototype something that effectively illustrates your idea so that she can critique it in a way that is helpful to you and your team.

Find him.

Give him the same prototype and ask for the same specific critique.

Your product, or what exists of it at that moment, will be a thousand times closer to incredibly useful, or an incredible waste of time.

In fact, if the first time anyone outside of your company sees your product is when it launches, you’ve already failed.

I beg of you:
As long as your product exists to be of use to someone other than yourself or your boss, there’s only one person who can effectively approve your work.

You should work as hard as you can to get her approval, or to quickly find out that you’re never going to and move on to the next idea.


Before closing, it’s important to clarify that I am not advocating for UX Designers to fight hard to incorporate game elements into their experiences just because that would be cool.

There are billions of applications, each with thousands of moments where, should the allusion of a game element be perceived, the user’s attitude may be negatively impacted, thus sparking unwanted backlash on social media towards your app or business.

Considering things like this is exactly what Eric Meyer’s book, ‘Design for Real Life’, is all about. You should definitely read it.

Instead, I am advocating for the ‘surprise handful of puppies’ of experiences.
Ones that potentially leverage game elements to:

  • build anticipation for your product,
  • enhance a user’s experience,
  • and leave a positive lasting memory once the experience is over.


We are Designers — Visual, Graphic, Interaction, Front-End, Product, Holographic and now Game Designers.
Artistic expression is not our goal.
Our goal is to dream up or build the thing that enabled those micro-moments that people remember when they tell their friends about that time they had a meaningful experience.

  • So Play, Study, and Steal ideas.
  • Learn to quickly prototype your ideas.
  • Get actual users to approve your ideas.
  • Use their approval to convince stakeholders to give you money.
  • Use their money to build something you know users will want.
  • Then use their money to improve what you built.
  • And ask them again to approve your improvements.
  • Use their approval to convince stakeholders to give you money.
  • And so on and so forth.

If you want to design incredible new experiences, stop looking at your app, and stop looking at apps like it. Instead — look everywhere else for inspiration. Including games.

I’d love to help.

Any questions?

What it took to write these words

- [Book] The Art of Game Design
- [Book] Design for Real Life
- [Book] Think First
- [Book] Articulating Design Decisions
- [Book] Discussing Design
- [Game] Sage Solitaire
- [Game] Mr. Square
- [Game] Super Meat Boy
- [Game] Rocket League
- [Game] The Witness
- [Game] Dark Souls I — III
- [Game] Bloodborne
- [Game] Enter the Gungeon
- [Game] Overwatch
- [Game] Super Mario Bros.
- [Website] Fast Co. Design
- [Website] The Verge
- [Website] Polygon
- [Website] IGN
- [Website] Air Force
- [Website] Adrian Zumbrunnen
- [Website] NN Group
- [Website] Medium
- [Service] Vimeo
- [Service] Youtube
- [Service] Steam
- [Service] Twitch
- [Service] Google Docs
- [Service] App Store
- [Trait] Curiosity
- [Right] Free Speech