For people working with game analysis, gameplay metrics (measures of player behavior, e.g. navigation, item- and ability use, trading etc.) is the kind of data that – if data were gemstones – would be diamonds. And not the regular white, discount version but the flawless blue ones that we need Indiana Jones to steal back from bad-tempered natives in the South American jungle.
But just like Indiana Jones has to manage the hordes of evildoers wanting the shiny stones, we have to manage the allure that hard numbers have. Gameplay metrics present quantitative data about player behavior, usually in the form of convincing diagrams, charts, visualizations and whatnot.
However, critical thinking should always be applied – sometimes the analysis will show one thing through a flashing red color on a heat map or another suspicious pattern in the data, but the problem may actually rest in a minor design detail somewhere else.
Heat maps and graphs look cool and travel better in organizations than two pages of text with detailed explanation of a specific finding from a comprehensive user test. Additionally, heat maps, data visualizations and diagrams are deceptively easy to understand. However, data visualizations also make it easy to ignore other factors that could potentially hold an impact on whatever is being investigated, but which is not included in the metrics-based analysis in question.
Heat maps can be interacted with, worked with, provide valuable feedback on design, and also printed out and used as trophies on the wall of an office.
The key lesson here is that analysis is not design. Analysis can help us make choices about which design solutions to use (indeed, this is the underpinning of free-to-play social online games), but the allure of numbers need to be managed. And if in doubt, designers need to trust their gut instincts.