Using heuristics to evaluate the playability of games (Desurvire, Caplan, & Toth, 2004)

Desurvire, H., Caplan, M., & Toth, J.A. (2004). Using heuristics to evaluate the playability of games. In Extended Abstracts of the 2004 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM Press, New York, 1509-1512.

The authors present a set of design heuristics specific to the evaluation of videogames. The usefulness of these heuristics was examined by comparing the use of them to the outcome of a traditional user study. Overall, the user studies uncovered many of the same issues found by HEP, but also identified specific behaviors and problems specific to the actual game (e.g., boredom, challenge and pace level, and terminology). HEP seemed most useful in ensuring general game principles; thus the authors recommend using HEP in the preliminary design phase prior to creation of expensive prototypes.

Heuristics – experience-based design guidelines that serve as a popular evaluation tool for both product designers and usability professionals.

“The goals of software productivity are to make the software interface easy to learn, use, and master, and somewhat oppose design goals for games, usually characterized as ‘easy to learn, difficult to master’ [6]. In the realm of game playability, there is a need to go beyond basic interface game usability evaluation to assess additional properties of the game experience including game play, story, and mechanics” (p. 1509).

Game heuristic categories:

  • game play – set of problems and challenges a user must face to win a game;
  • game story – plot and character development;
  • game mechanics – programming that provides the structure by which units interact with the environment;
  • game usability – addresses the interface and encompasses the elements the user utilizes to interact with the game (e.g. mouse, keyboard, controller, game shell, heads-up display).

Heuristics for Evaluating Playability (HEP)
[Feedback-related ones have been bolded…]
Game Play
1. Player’s fatigue is minimized by varying activities and pacing during game play.
2. Provide consistency between the game elements and the overarching setting and story to suspend disbelief.
3. Provide clear goals, present overriding goal early as well as short-term goals throughout play.
4. There is an interesting and absorbing tutorial that mimics game play.
5. The game is enjoyable to replay.
6. Game play should be balanced with multiple ways to win.
7. Player is taught skills early that you expect the players to use later, or right before the new skill is needed.
8. Players discover the story as part of game play.
9. Even if the game cannot be modeless, it should be perceived as modeless.
10. The game is fun for the Player first, the designer second and the computer third. That is, if the non-expert player’s experience isn’t put first, excellent game mechanics and graphics programming triumphs are meaningless.
11. Player should not experience being penalized repetitively for the same failure.
12. Player’s should perceive a sense of control and impact onto the game world. The game world reacts to the player and remembers their passage through it. Changes the player makes in the game world are persistent and noticeable if they back-track to where they’ve been before.
13. The first player action is painfully obvious and should result in immediate positive feedback.
14. The game should give rewards that immerse the player more deeply in the game by increasing their capabilities (power-up), and expanding their ability to customize.
15. Pace the game to apply pressure but not frustrate the player. Vary the difficulty level so that the player has greater challenge as they develop mastery. Easy to learn, hard to master.
16. Challenges are positive game experiences, rather than a negative experience (results in their wanting to play more, rather than quitting).

Game Story
1. Player understands the story line as a single consistent vision.
2. Player is interested in the story line. The story experience relates to their real life and grabs their interest.
3. The Player spends time thinking about possible story outcomes.
4. The Player feels as though the world is going on whether their character is there or not.
5. The Player has a sense of control over their character and is able to use tactics and strategies.
6. Player experiences fairness of outcomes.
7. The game transports the player into a level of personal involvement emotionally (e.g., scare, threat, thrill, reward, punishment) and viscerally (e.g., sounds of environment).
8. Player is interested in the characters because (1) they are like me; (2) they are interesting to me, (3) the characters develop as action occurs.

1. Game should react in a consistent, challenging, and exciting way to the player’s actions (e.g., appropriate music with the action).
2. Make effects of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) clearly visible to the player by ensuring they are consistent with the player’s reasonable expectations of the AI actor.
3. A player should always be able to identify their score/status and goal in the game.
4. Mechanics/controller actions have consistently mapped and learnable responses.
5. Shorten the learning curve by following the trends set by the gaming industry to meet user’s expectations.
6. Controls should be intuitive, and mapped in a natural way; they should be customizable and default to industry standard settings.
7. Player should be given controls that are basic enough to learn quickly yet expandable for advanced options.

1. Provide immediate feedback for user actions.
2. The Player can easily turn the game off and on, and be able to save games in different states.
3. The Player experiences the user interface as consistent (in control, color, typography, and dialog design) but the game play is varied.
4. The Player should experience the menu as a part of the game.
5. Upon initially turning the game on the Player has enough information to get started to play.
6. Players should be given context sensitive help while playing so that they do not get stuck or have to rely on a manual.
7. Sounds from the game provide meaningful feedback or stir a particular emotion.
8. Players do not need to use a manual to play game.
9. The interface should be as non-intrusive to the Player as possible.
10. Make the menu layers well-organized and minimalist to the extent the menu options are intuitive.
11. Get the player involved quickly and easily with tutorials and/or progressive or adjustable difficulty levels.
12. Art should be recognizable to player, and speak to its function.

“In 1982, Malone constructed a list of heuristics for instructional games [6]. In 2002, Federoff [4,5] compiled a list of game heuristics from a case study at a game development company and compared them with current game industry guidelines and J. Nielsen’s heuristics from 1994 [7]. Since 2001, game designers Falstein and Barwood have been writing the first of 400 rules of game design ‘that can be used by designers to make better games’ [3]” (p. 1509).

1. Desurvire, H. (1994). Faster, Cheaper: Are Usability Inspection Methods as Effective as Empirical Testing? In Nielsen, J. and Molich, R.L. (Eds.) ‘Usability Inspection Methods’, in “Usability Inspection Methods”,
New York: John Wiley & Sons, 173-202.

2. Desurvire, H. Kondziela, J., and Atwood, M. (1992a). What is Gained and Lost When Using Evaluation Methods Other Than Empirical Testing. In the proceedings of the ACM conference, CHI1992, collection of abstracts (1992), 125-126.

3. Falstein, N. and Barwood, H. The 400 Project. Available at

4. Federoff, M. User Testing for Games: Getting Better Data Earlier. Game Developer Magazine (June 2003).

5. Federoff, M. Heuristics and Usability Guidelines for the Creation and Evaluation of FUN in Video Games. Thesis at the University Graduate School of Indiana University, Dec. 2002 (

6. Malone, T.W. Heuristics for designing enjoyable user interfaces: Lessons from computer games. In John C. Thomas and M. L. Schneider (Editors), Human Factors in Computing Systems, Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1982.

7. Nielsen, J. Heuristic evaluation. In Nielsen, J. and Molich, R.L (eds.) ‘Usability Inspection Methods’, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1994.


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