Rather than usability, it’s all about playability and the challenge.
Parts of the game makeup could have usability applied to it. Getting menu systems wrong could result in a frustrating experience rather than a totally engrossing one.
Some games make it particularly difficult to navigate the basic menu options. e.g. Are you sure you want to quit the game? Yes/No. Which choice is highlighted? The fewer barriers there are for the gamer to become immersed, the better.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi looked into this feeling of immersion further and proposed the Flow theory. This has been applied to various fields to design better human experiences, including the gaming industry.
When the challenge presented is greater than our abilities, we become anxious, and when the challenge is significantly less than that of which we are able, we become bored.
So the challenge or playability seems like the opposite of usability, but it doesn’t have to be. An engrossing gaming experience can be capsulated by identifying where the challenge is placed in a game.
Other features of the game outside this area (e.g. menu screens, maps, choosing weapons) should assist the gamer to meet the challenge and this is where usability is placed within the games industry.
Playability, intuitiveness and challenging are ways to describe a truly great game. A sign of a truly great game is when you ask yourself “Where did the last 3 days go?”
I’m looking foward to seeing how the much hyped ‘Little Big Planet’ does this.