Gaming, Technology, UX & Technology, UX Design, UX Philosophy

Recipe for a Cozy Game

How do you wind down after a busy day of work? Maybe it’s reading a book, or watching your favourite show on Netflix. Perhaps you enjoy de-stressing through baking or painting. We all crave a break from reality every once in a while. For some, video games provide this escape. More recently, there has been an emergence of “cozy games” as a category for games specifically designed to create a therapeutic environment. But what really makes a video game experience cozy?

The essence of every cozy game is ultimately how it makes the player feel, no matter the playstyle or difficulty. To understand the elements making these games memorable, I spoke with four of our UX Consultants who enjoy gaming in their free time. Together, we came up with a recipe for a cozy game. 

Meaningful Socialization

One of the most therapeutic elements of a cozy game is the depth of interaction that a player has with the NPCs. Consultant Sirine Nasr explains, “NPCs make you feel loved and supported, which is an element of therapy.” She brings up Animal Crossing, Bear’s Restaurant, and Stardew Valley as prime examples of deep NPC development. Ensuring NPCs have a meaningful storyline is part of a process called worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is an essential part of any game, especially ones that seek to encourage escapism. The idea is to create a seamless, realistic gaming experience by filling any gaps in the virtual world and giving NPCs purpose.

One example of this is shown in Animal Crossing, a life simulation video game series developed and published by Nintendo. The games take place in a village inhabited by anthropomorphic animals, where the player takes on the role of a human character who moves to the village to start a new life. The game’s main objective is to interact with the other animal residents, engage in various activities like fishing, bug catching, and fossil digging, and work towards improving the player’s home and the village as a whole. When you log into the game Animal Crossing: New Horizons on your birthday, a villager will ask you to follow them to their house. After walking inside, you’ll be greeted by two other villagers saying “Happy Birthday!” and a fully decorated room. This tiny detail makes the game feel incredibly personal, creating a meaningful bond between the player and the virtual characters which impact players in real life. 

Diegetic UI

Although there are many elements that contribute to the immersive quality of a game, I’d like to focus on Diegetic UI. Consultant Emilia Wennberg explains, Diegetic UI is when the player and character interact with the environment at the same time. Through Diegetic UI, Emilia argues “the game feels like an extension of yourself”. Mechanics that feel real, or immersive, add to the escapism cozy games provide players with. 

There are a lot of different ways designers implement this experience, whether it be using voice lines or gear on a character’s digital body to convey information. A notable example of this is the health bar being a part of the character’s gear on their back in the game Dead Space, not necessarily a cozy game but definitely an immersive one. Another example of this in a cozy game is Animal Crossing, as players move furniture around by physically dragging and rotating it in game. This contributes to the feeling of actually setting up your home, moving furniture the way you would in real life. 

Encouraging Curiosity 

Consultant Ali Hamra describes the environmental elements of one of his favorite cozy games Subnautica as “fitting together like a puzzle”. The open world sea exploration game encourages a deep sense of curiosity within its players. While there is a storyline and end goal to the game, players are encouraged to take it at their own pace. This is why designing for curiosity is so important to Subnautica’s gameplay – the player needs to have a desire to explore.

Ali recalls “every animal and piece of vegetation feels like it’s part of the game very well. It pulls from our real experience but makes it fit the game’s space theme. How you as a player interact with the environment is taken into account very well.” The feeling derived from this sort of experience is a relaxed focus, comparable to flow-state, that many of us seek when looking to wind down. 

The game gives further purpose to each of the environmental elements by encouraging players to use a device called the scanner. The player can identify all vegetation and animals in the game to learn more about them. The more interaction available to the player, the more interesting and immersive the gameplay becomes.

Optimising UI

In my conversation with consultant Lisa Nordgren, we discussed the importance of seamless mechanics when it comes to designing an immersive cozy game. A problem Lisa has encountered is when developers do not take console players into consideration when designing mechanics. When a player presses a button, moves the joystick, or interacts with their mouse, the in-game movement should feel like an extension of the person’s physical movement. While a game dev might optimise the mechanics and UI for PC, the same won’t necessarily translate to the console as the controls are different.

Lisa discusses how the game Stardew Valley does a great job of closing this gap. Unlike other games, she mentions that this game felt truly optimised for Switch players which made the gaming experience easy. She adds, when games aren’t properly optimised “it adds to the component of having to really THINK when I don’t want to!” If you’re gaming to wind down, the last thing you want is to spend hours learning the mechanics or doing a simple task. Taking the extra step to optimise gaming for console players makes a huge difference in the overall experience of relaxation.

The elements that make up a game cozy vary, but often include features like beautiful and immersive visuals, charming characters, relaxing music, and a sense of community. Cozy games often provide an escape from the stresses of daily life, offering a safe space for players to unwind and relax. Furthermore, cozy games can be enjoyed by a wide range of players, from hardcore gamers to casual players, and can be played on various platforms such as consoles, PCs, and mobile devices. 

Overall, cozy games are a testament to the fact that video games can be much more than just entertainment. They can be a source of comfort, joy, and even healing. As more and more people discover the benefits of playing cozy games, we can expect to see this genre continue to grow and thrive in the years to come.

Contact us for more insights of gaming UX design!

Author: Shamya Zindani, UX Consultant

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