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Changing the Game

In response to a growing demand within the gaming industry, the School of Game Development is introducing a dedicated UX/UI track

Pieces of art, in general, want to be seen and noticed. In terms of UX/UI in the video game world, however, going unnoticed is a good thing. 

UX/UI, which stands for “user experience” and “user interface,” is the newest track in the works for the School of Game Development at Academy of Art University. Gaming students have the opportunity to study coursework focusing on one of the gaming industry’s most in-demand positions, according to Gregory Eichholzer, lead UX/UI instructor and former associate art director for RockYou games.

“It’s a very challenging position, but it’s also a place where you can influence a lot within the game. Depending on what choices you make with the UI, you can totally change the experience of a game,” Eichholzer explained. “And it pays well.” 

The UX/UI designer is essentially two roles lumped into one. On the UX side of things, the designer conceptualizes and defines how players interact with the game, whether it’s a mundane action, such as collecting a coin, or a more engaging feat, such as how users delete or save items from an inventory. The UX designer has to figure out how the interactions are going to visually work and whether it will be a positive or negative experience for the player. Once those questions are answered, the UI designer figures out how these interactions are going to be represented on screen.

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Above and below: A mobile UX/UI project from the GAM 190 course by student Carly Hwang. Images courtesy of the School of Game Development.

Essentially, a good user experience is seamless, meaning it should be easy enough for even new gamers to get used to manipulating the characters and progressing to new levels without a steep learning curve, yet also difficult enough to challenge a player’s skills and abilities. 

Michael Buffington, GAM concept art lead instructor, said the job “takes a very specialized skillset.” 

“You have to have an understanding of graphic design, you have to have a little bit of art skills, you have to have some understanding of the technical side,” he said. 

On top of that, the job also requires a little bit of psychology.

“You have to think about how someone expects to interact with something,” Eichholzer remarked.

“Whether it’s a phone, a PC or a console, people have, in their mind, an idea of how something is supposed to work or how it’s supposed to feel.” 

Within the video game development pipeline, Eichholzer described the UX/UI designer as “sitting in the middle of a hurricane.” 

“You have to know a little bit of everything. You have to communicate with the game designer, the art director, the engineers, the product people and the QA testers,” he stated. “You need to basically understand a bit about the whole pie.” 

The Academy will be one of few schools in the country to provide a designated UX/UI track specifically for gaming. Full Sail University in Florida, SAE Institute, The Art Institutes and DigiPen Institute of Technology all offer courses covering UX/UI within gaming, though the classes exist beneath a general game design and development umbrella and not as its own trajectory. Academy students graduating from this track also have the added benefit of being located right in the heart of the tech-heavy San Francisco Bay Area. 

“The [gaming] industry is the one asking for more of this,” said School of Game Development Executive Director David Goodwine, of the growing demand for UX/UI designers. “There was never enough of them and it was never taught; you had to teach it to yourself and after a few years, you’re the UX/UI person. Companies keep asking us if we have any UX/UI people, so we needed this track.”

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So far, Eichholzer has nine classes mapped out, with Intro to UX/UI Design Principles (GAM 130), Elements of UI Design (GAM 119) and UX/UI for Mobile Games (GAM 190) already available. Eichholzer said as he moves further along developing the track, he will be reaching out to instructors from the School of Web Design & New Media to round out the remaining classes, which includes wireframing and prototyping, typography, implementation, analysis and testing. 

Eichholzer’s goal is for students to be able to create interfaces that fit the art and design, but to also “work smarter, not harder, with showing players what they need, when they need it.” Even though a UX/UI designer’s fingerprints on a game might be overlooked from a player perspective, a job well done doesn’t go unacknowledged in the studio. 

“A UX/UI position is a great way to get into a company and set yourself up for learning the skills you need if you want to move up the path,” Eichholzer said. “That’s what I did, I started as an intern and went with the UX/UI path, working up to art director because it just lends itself to that progression.”