The Role of UX in Player Retention: A Deep Dive into Gaming’s Secret Weapon

Corey Hobson
8 min readSep 20, 2023

In the ever-evolving world of gaming, there’s one element that stands out as a key determinant of a game’s success: User Experience (UX). While graphics, storylines, and gameplay mechanics are crucial, it’s the UX that often decides whether a player stays engaged or abandons a game. In this article, we’ll explore the pivotal role of UX in player retention and why it’s the secret weapon every game UX’er should prioritize.

Understanding the Player’s Journey

Gaming is an immersive experience. From the moment a player starts a game, they’re entering a new world, one that should be engaging, intuitive, and rewarding. The role of UX is to bridge the gap between the player and this world, ensuring a seamless and enjoyable journey. Factors of UX, such as graphics, sound, gameplay, and design, play a significant role in shaping this journey. A positive UX leads to recommendations, positive reviews, and increased sales, while a negative one can harm a game’s reputation and decrease its sales.

As highlighted in my previous article, onboarding is the first impression players get of your game. It sets the tone for the entire player experience. A well-designed onboarding process can be the difference between a player who stays and one who leaves. It’s not just about teaching the player the mechanics of the game but about immersing them in the world you’ve created.

Engagement and Immersion: The Building Blocks of Retention

The connection between player experience and game mechanics is incredibly intertwined. Smooth mechanics draw players in, making them feel a part of the game’s universe. This immersion is what keeps players glued to the action, coming back for more. By understanding player behavior and preferences, game developers can create enhanced game experiences that prioritize engagement.

Smooth mechanics in games are essential for ensuring that players remain engaged and immersed. Here are some examples of smooth mechanics that enhance player engagement and immersion:

  • Responsive Controls: Controls should be intuitive and responsive. Whether it’s a character’s movement, aiming in a shooter game, or selecting options in a menu, the controls should react promptly to player inputs. Games like “Super Mario Odyssey” and “Celeste” are praised for their tight and responsive controls.
  • Fluid Animations: Animations should be smooth and natural, adding to the realism or the intended aesthetic of the game. For instance, the fluidity of movement in games like “Journey” or the detailed character animations in “The Last of Us Part II” contribute significantly to immersion.
Journey has incredible fluid movements that add to the games UX
  • Consistent Game Physics: Whether a game aims for realism or a more stylized approach, the in-game physics should be consistent. For example, in “Portal 2”, the physics-based puzzles rely on consistent mechanics to allow players to predict outcomes and strategize.
The physics in portal were groundbreaking when it came out
  • Seamless Transitions: Transitioning between gameplay, cutscenes, and menus should be seamless. Games like “God of War (2018)” are notable for their single-shot presentation, where there are no visible cuts or loading screens between gameplay and cutscenes.
  • Adaptive Difficulty: Mechanics that adjust the game’s difficulty based on the player’s skill can keep the game challenging yet accessible. Games like “Resident Evil 4” and “Dead or Alive” have hidden mechanics that adjust the difficulty based on player performance.
  • Intuitive UI/UX: The user interface should be clear, unobtrusive, and easy to navigate. Games like “Dead Space” integrate the UI into the game world itself, with health meters on the character’s spine and holographic menus, enhancing immersion.
  • Interactive Environments: Environments that react to player actions can enhance immersion. For instance, in “Red Dead Redemption 2”, the environment responds to weather changes, and NPCs react dynamically to player actions.
  • Dynamic Sound Design: Sound mechanics that adjust based on player actions or situations can significantly enhance immersion. Footsteps that change sound based on the surface, or the dynamic music in “Hollow Knight” that shifts with the environment, are examples.
  • Feedback Loops: Providing players with immediate feedback for their actions, whether it’s the satisfying sound of a coin collected in “Super Mario” or the visual feedback of a successful hit in “Street Fighter”, reinforces engagement.
Street fighter has incredibly satisfying player feedback
  • Emergent Gameplay: Mechanics that allow players to approach challenges in multiple ways based on their creativity. Games like “Breath of the Wild” offer tools and mechanics that players can combine in unexpected ways to solve puzzles or overcome challenges.

Incorporating smooth mechanics like these can make the difference between a game that’s merely good and one that’s truly memorable. They ensure that players remain engaged, reducing the cognitive load and allowing them to lose themselves in the game world.

Feedback: The Guide to Player Satisfaction

Feedback is an essential component of game UX. It provides clear and immediate responses to player actions, helping them understand their progress and what’s expected of them. Whether it’s through sound cues, visual indicators, or on-screen messages, feedback is a tool that can make or break player engagement.

Some examples of feedback mechanisms in games that enhance player engagement are:

  • Visual Indicators: Subtle cues like a glowing object to indicate interactivity or a character flashing when invulnerable. Games like “The Legend of Zelda” and “Baldurs Gate 3” use visual cues to highlight interactive objects.
Baldurs Gate 3 highlights objects in different ways as visual indicators
  • Auditory Cues: Sounds that indicate success, failure, or danger. The iconic coin sound in “Super Mario” or the low health warning in many RPGs serves as immediate feedback.
  • Haptic Feedback: Vibrations or force feedback in controllers to simulate in-game events. Racing games often use haptic feedback to simulate the feel of the road or collisions.
  • Dynamic HUD Elements: Health bars that deplete, ammo counters, or ability cooldown timers. In “Overwatch”, ability icons gray out during cooldown periods.
Overwatch uses the dynamic HUD elements to indicate which abilities are and are not available to the player
  • In-game Notifications: Pop-ups or messages that inform players of achievements, objectives, or important events. Games like “Fortnite” notify players of eliminations or when they’re in the storm.
  • Environmental Reactions: The game world reacts to player actions, such as NPCs fleeing when a player causes chaos or the environment shows damage. “Red Dead Redemption 2” has NPCs that react to the player’s reputation and actions.
  • Progress Bars: Indicators that show the progress of an action, like crafting, healing, or capturing a point in multiplayer games.

Designing for Retention: Strategies and Solutions

To boost player retention, game & UX designers need to focus on several key elements:

Simplicity in Design:

Games should be straightforward yet engaging. Overcomplicating mechanics or controls can lead to player frustration.

  • Tip: Avoid overwhelming players with too many mechanics or controls at the start. Introduce elements gradually. Start with core mechanics and gradually introduce more complex elements. This allows players to master foundational skills before being introduced to advanced tactics. Additionally, ensure that in-game tutorials or guides are clear and concise, offering players the chance to revisit them if needed.
  • Example: One of my personal steam deck favorites: “Hades” introduces its various mechanics and systems progressively, allowing players to get accustomed to one before introducing another.
Hades’ boons (skills) list and intro on how to use them
  • Example: In “Hollow Knight”, players begin with basic jump and attack mechanics. As they progress, they unlock new abilities that layer onto the foundational skills, ensuring players are never overwhelmed.


Seamless game performance ensures that players aren’t pulled out of their immersive experience by lags or glitches.

  • Tip: Regularly monitor game performance across different devices and platforms. Address bugs and glitches promptly. Consider beta testing major updates to identify potential issues before a wide release. Optimize load times, as prolonged waiting can deter players.
  • Example: “Fortnite” is known for its consistent updates, not just adding content but also optimizing performance for various devices, from PCs to mobile phones.
  • Example: “Apex Legends” frequently releases patches to address performance issues and bugs, ensuring a smooth experience for its player base.

Visual Aesthetics

Graphics and sound create an environment that players want to be a part of.

  • Tip: Use art and design that resonates with your target audience and is consistent with the game’s theme. Visuals should complement the game’s narrative and mechanics. Use consistent art styles and color palettes. Ensure that visuals don’t hinder gameplay — for instance, important objects or characters shouldn’t blend into the background. Regularly update graphics to keep up with current standards.
  • Example: “Ghost of Tsushima” is praised for its breathtaking visuals that immerse players in feudal Japan, enhancing the overall experience.
Ghost of Tushima’s stunning aesthetics reflecting feudal Japan
  • Example: “Ori and the Will of the Wisps” uses a distinct art style that not only sets it apart but also complements its narrative, making the game world feel alive and immersive.

Navigation and Interactivity

Intuitive menus, controls, and interfaces ensure that players can navigate the game world with ease.

  • Tip: Design UI elements to be intuitive. Use clear icons and labels. Group related tasks together in menus. Ensure that interactive elements, like buttons or objects, have clear visual indicators. Regularly gather feedback on UI/UX and be open to making iterative changes based on player feedback.
  • Example: “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” has a user-friendly map and quest system, making it easier for players to track objectives and navigate the vast open world.
  • Example: “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” features a streamlined quest log and inventory system, making it easier for players to manage tasks and equipment without getting overwhelmed.


Designing games that everyone can enjoy, regardless of their abilities, is crucial in today’s diverse gaming community.

  • Tip: Go beyond basic accessibility features. Offer a range of settings to cater to different needs, such as adjustable text sizes, high contrast modes, and alternative control schemes. Consider involving players with disabilities in the testing phase to gather direct feedback on accessibility features.
  • Example: “The Last of Us Part II” received acclaim for its extensive accessibility options, setting a new standard for the industry.
Visual aids in the Last of Us 2 to enhance player accessibility
  • Example: “Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales” offers a range of accessibility options, including a mode that simplifies quick-time events for players who might find them challenging.

Conclusion: Elevating the Gaming Experience through UX

The world of gaming is vast and diverse, with countless genres, styles, and mechanics vying for players’ attention. Amidst this plethora of choices, one factor consistently stands out as a game-changer: User Experience (UX). From the initial onboarding to the intricate mechanics that keep players engaged, the role of UX is undeniable. It’s the silent thread weaving through every successful game, ensuring players not only start the journey but stay for the long haul. As the gaming industry continues to evolve, those who prioritize and innovate in UX will undoubtedly lead the way, creating memorable experiences that resonate with players worldwide. As game- and UX designers, it’s our responsibility to harness the power of UX, ensuring every player’s journey is not just enjoyable but unforgettable.


Image from:



Corey Hobson

UX design Lead @ Motorsport Games | I write about UX design, Game UX, UX strategy, and leadership with ADHD.