Pocket Gems Director of User Experiences Alfonzo Burton on UX


Alfonzo Burton, Director of User Experience for Pocket Gems, joins Steve Waskul for a discussion on creating user experiences for mobile games.

Alfonzo kicks things off stating that user experience is all about the experience the user takes away with them after playing a game. In Alfonzo’s case Pocket Gems features all free-to-play mobile games and the focus is on creating something that is memorable, engaging and ultimately drives monetization. Steve comments that monetization is the tricky part and Mr. Burton agrees noting that the experience has to be valuable enough so that players feel comfortable spending money within their products.

Looking back, Alfonzo says he’s been playing games for a long time with his first experience coming on the Commodore 64 PC and continuing onto most of the game consoles and other available platforms since then. Those were the days he recalls when folks used to say that games would “rot your brains”. He’s glad that 30 years later it has turned out to be a huge growing industry that’s creating a lot of jobs and opportunity. Like many in his time, he used to run home from school to play his favorite games and the next day at school he would join his friends talking about the games they were playing. It’s neat he says that he’s come full circle and now plays a role in game development.

The men now focus on how you create a great user experience and Alfonzo proposes that the first thing is to create a game that’s fun. That’s part of his job – to find the fun. It’s challenging and tough but he feels that he’s good at it noting that he’s had multiple products in the top 100 grossing games in the U.S. on Android and iOS.

Mr. Waskul asks Alfonzo if his measure of what is fun is his own experience. He clarifies that part of the process is bringing in real players and doing a lot of testing with them. You do have a certain intuition if you’re in this industry he remarks but you just don’t know until you test it and that’s part of the user experience process that he brings.

Steve leads the conversation to the beginnings of the user experience for most players. They are browsing one of the app stores and they see lots of different icons for lots of applications. He notes that the icon itself is the beginning of the user experience and that it must draw players into selecting it so they will get to the next part of the user experience – the game summary which must also grab them otherwise they’ll move on to something else. Alfonzo agrees and notes that in the gaming industry user experience or UX as a discipline is very new. In his work he brings the total experience together from the icon through the actual game itself.

In an ideal situation, UX is part of a games planning process from the beginning and runs as a parallel process with the game development and marketing efforts. That way the disciplines are working together and the message is clear for the player by the time the development is complete. Steve notes that it would be difficult to come in at the end assigned with the task of making a game look like it is fun after it is already created. Alfonzo relates that most games are actually created that way and that’s why it’s so difficult for them to get into the top 10.

Looking at what other developers do, Mr. Burton notes that UX as a discipline is very well known for applications, and software and web development but for mobile games it is relatively new but is catching on.

Steve asks Alfonzo if there are any titles he’s worked on that stand out as great experiences who replies that the 2014 Deer Hunter game is one that does. It’s still one of the top grossing games in the iOS charts and was one of those games “that when you played it, you just know it was going to be good because it was fun from the beginning.” He notes that the game has surpassed $50M in revenue.

Alfonzo commutes on the train and notes that for him, one of the “coolest things” is when he sees over someone’s shoulder that they are playing one of the products he’s been part of. “It’s a testament to all the hard work that goes into it and it’s a team sport” he declares. “

It takes a lot of people to do it and it’s not easy to do so when you can pull it all together into an experience that people actually enjoy and they play… out of all the choices they have they choose yours and then they choose to pay money within your product, I think that speaks volumes.”

Pocket Gems has around 200 employees organized into different teams for each game which is pretty typical for the industry. Mr. Burton’s job crosses each team as he manages the UX for all the games Pocket Gems develops. Steve notes that he’s experienced some very awkward monetization attempts in games and asks if Alfonzo has found that any particular techniques work better when trying to monetize a game or if it is really game-dependent requiring a specific strategy that flows within the particular game. Alfonzo suggests that what works best is to build a game that really adds value to the player. If they are going to buy something it should be valuable and something they need that has a value to it within the game itself. The goal with monetization should be to help users have a better experience. It’s a hobby for them so you need to create experiences in mobile games that “people really want to love”.

Next the men move on to product placements within games. Alfonzo asserts that it is coming. It’s a little harder than ads since it is content that would be built into the games which would require developers to get their sponsors in earlier but he can see that coming very soon. He points out that in some ways advertising properly incorporated into a game can help to make it more realistic and is a natural fit from the experience perspective.

Waskul asks Alfonzo to comment on whether creating mobile games only as Pocket Gems does helps to simplify the UX. He responds that it is a lot more complicated to create user experience for mobile products because they are touch. With games that use a mouse and keyboard, he notes that everybody has been trained on how they work. In the mobile world, developers are just figuring out what works and are walking the line between lots of pop-ups helping to provide guidance for users and more seamless controls that might be difficult to quickly master leaving players wondering how to move forward in the game.

Looking at a rather new development, Steve asks Alfonzo his thoughts on integrating gesture recognition through technologies like Intel ®’s RealSense™ which would extend the options for getting users engaged with the game and could open up additional options using facial recognition and other capabilities that will be forthcoming. It seems like a “cool step up if it works.” How might that impact UX? Alfonzo replies that it would be very interesting to see how that would work and notes that there could be a lot of application for this.

Considering what the next big thing might be, Alfonzo suggests that the living room might be the next big thing for mobile games to shine with people playing their mobile games on their large TVs. Steve asks if the resolution is part of that story or just the sheer size and scale of the video and the audio experience that mobile game could deliver leveraging the second screen and home audio systems. The answer is both. When playing on a small screen there is a fair amount of tension as players focus on a small screen for relatively short sessions with great concentration. If you can sit back and relax watching a large screen as you play, you don’t have to concentrate as much so you do not get fatigued as quickly. This environment will allow mobile players to enjoy longer experiences in a similar way to console games in a way that is a lot more natural.

Steve asks for Mr. Burton’s opinion on VR. He responds that he really likes all the work, effort and attention that is being placed in VR. “It’s neat to see that it’s a platform you can actually develop for”…”It’s very fun. I can’t wait to start consuming that content and start figuring out how it works and what’s going to work”. As a content creator, Alfonzo loves all the new technology and all the new platforms because it gives him options as to where he can launch is content. VR seems to be something he’ll be keeping his eyes on for UX in the future.

Game engines are discussed next. At Pocket Gems they have their own proprietary game engine. Alfonzo is upfront that this does take a lot of effort to maintain and continue development on their engine but he believes the results speak for themselves. This brings the conversation back to UX. Alfonzo asserts that the UX is critical to the success of any game. “You can have the best game design in the world” he says, “it can look fantastically wonderful, but if people can’t access those things then it’s all for naught”… “If you’ve missed on UX, you’ve missed on your product”.

In the final segment of the interview, the men discuss analytics and how mobile developers use them to improve their games and to help improve monetization. “It gives you a really good idea of what people like in your product and what they don’t really like in your product” Alfonzo relates. “When you pair that up with user reviews and what people are actually saying then you have a really full picture of what is working in your product”. The overall message in this final segment is that analytics is key to the success of mobile games.