UX and UI design is a little like table service: you only tend to notice it when it's awful. For every dozen games where your hand seems to magically land on the correct button on every page, where your eyes alight on the appropriate menu choice whenever you look for it, there's one where you'll fumble for a back button which isn't there, where you'll constantly be clicking load instead of save. That makes James Chaytor angry.
"I'm terrible for that," he laughs. "I line up tables in restaurants, I'm fastidious. I get verbally angry when I see bad menu systems and it will stop me from playing games I'd otherwise enjoy if I find that I can't sign in or something. It makes me furious - my poor children have to listen to me belittling their favourite games. But the thing about children is they'll just keep clicking things until something works. They don't think the world is going to explode if they press the wrong button."
Chaytor has made a career of it. His company, Sprung Studios, has grown considerably in the 12 years since he founded it in Brighton, to the point where he's just announced that the studio is opening its first office abroad, in Vancouver. Sprung's UK headcount tripled in 2016, with clients like Halo Wars 2 and Just Cause 3, but the Vancouver office is slated to be as big, if not bigger. The company has hired a business development specialist to work from the new office, which Chaytor says is going to be dealing with a recent upswing in American business - partners which Sprung has developed close relationships with.
"We're unique because we're the only established design company that purely exists to serve interaction design within the games industry, we haven't started in art and added this as another line, this is all we've ever done. We're not outsource, where you get a list of things you want doing and send it someone, they send back the assets and you say 'that's good, that's not,' etc. We work in proper collaboration with the development teams, we're talking to them every day, we're essentially an extended part of the team."
"I found that graphic designers were getting dumber and dumber because their job was, as I saw it, solving problems with space, legibility, colour, placement, consistency, and they weren't doing any of that"
Sprung might have been about UX and UI since day one, but the switch to games work is more recent - Chaytor started the company to work with the sort of corporate clients he was dealing with in his previous incarnation as a creative director at a London agency in the dotcom years.
"I had a big team of info architects (UX designers) and graphic designers, or UI designers as they're called now. Both were not great at talking to each other, which frustrated me. I saw an opportunity to create a new and agile team serving emerging technologies, but would train individuals, finding great artists and train them in how things work in wireframes, flows etc. I found that graphic designers were getting dumber and dumber because their job was, as I saw it, solving problems with space, legibility, colour, placement, consistency, and they weren't doing any of that. They were leaving all that to someone else and colouring in afterwards."
A few years of corporate work followed, working with brands like Thomson Reuters, Orange and Vodafone across web, tablet and smart TV. When the right game job came along, it changed the company forever.
"In 2011, Boss Alien got in touch and asked if we could help with the projects they were working on," says Chaytor. "This was pre-CSR, but that's what we eventually worked on. So we worked closely with them for about 6 months. Once the game was featured at the Apple keynote, I had a sense that something big was happening. Then when it went on to earn $12m a month or whatever it was, we started to get a lot more interest from games companies seeing if we could do some consultancy. In 2012 Andrew Eades (of Relentless) suggested I go to GDC and tell people what we did."
That trip generated so much business that the company switched entirely to the games industry. Having experience with huge clients with very particular brand requirements meant that Sprung was able to jump into established IP and work within the brief, creating an experience which marries to the rest of the game. Chaytor says it's a deeply integrated part of the design process, but that the two main elements the company offers are quite distinct.
"A lot of those issues of placement, font size, legibility, consistency, buttons, can all be worked out in wireframes and nobody has to have an argument about which colour yellow we're using"
"UX and UI are fairly separated in our process. UX exists throughout the whole damn thing, and nobody would suggest otherwise, but when we present it to clients we divide it up. UX, for ease of understanding, is everything to do with how it works and nothing to do with how it looks. So you have flows, the decision tree the player takes, a complete bird's eye view of the player's route through the game. We use high fidelity wireframing, so a lot of those issues of placement, font size, legibility, consistency, buttons, can all be worked out in wireframes and nobody has to have an argument about which colour yellow we're using. That really focuses attention on how the game actually works.
"For UI design - I find people who are artists first. Those people who have worked on those wireframes are the same people who then go on to work on the art side and are able to point out why things like buttons shouldn't be moved around."
Whilst good examples of UI and UX look obvious in hindsight, and there are common elements which make sense across all sorts of projects, Chaytor says no two jobs are the same.
"I think there are a huge raft of things which are just common sense, and it's incredible just how often some of those are ignored. You'd think it was pretty obvious that you should always have the back button in the same place, but no, it's often in strange places, or moved from page to page. A lot of the big players have an established idea of what makes their games specific, but within the industry, and this is what makes it fascinating for me, is that there will always be a game which comes along and changes the landscape completely.
"That's particularly true when it comes to monetisation or retention. Clash Royale was a great example of that. It has a very interesting point at which there is a limit to what you can do, and it doesn't disguise that, it doesn't try and keep you playing. It said - 'you've done everything you need to do for now, take a break and we'll have a little reward for you when you come back.'
"That's a very interesting psychological change. So it's those things which keep it interesting for us and keeps us encouraging our clients to try new things. When non-game apps try to do this, they often fail. Accuweather is a great example of that. It's one of the worst apps to use for your phone, it's incomprehensible. It seems to use every gesture, with graphics flying in from everywhere, and all it really needs to do is tell you the weather.
"So apps often fall down, but games tend to do better. Some come through with really interesting solutions, so we're always trying to combine those. We're increasingly seeing console pick up tricks from mobile, for example.
"We work on pretty much every type of game, which keeps our life interesting. Corporate work now, especially with everything moving towards surface design - which is essentially coloured boxes and typography - is not particularly interesting. So we get quite a lot of people from a corporate background who are desperate to work in games because they want to flex their artistic muscles."