My day job is to improve everything about the games industry. That may sound rather sensationalist for the opening sentence of a regular new column, but I believe it to be true. Well, mostly. So what job could I possibly have that has such a broad impact across the industry? After all, the games industry is made up of many different roles - designers, programmers, artists, producers, directors, studio heads, publishers, investors - is there really one discipline that could enhance the way each of these individuals work and improve the games that emerge as a result of their efforts? Yes, there is, and it's called User Research.
What is User Research?
In this first column I'm going to try to explain my job in the games industry. It's unusual, not well understood at all and should give you a particular perspective on what you will read in my future articles. So what does a user researcher do? Well, one function is to evaluate how a player interacts with a game: are players playing a game as the designer intended? If not, why not? If so, is it enjoyable? It gets more complicated than that of course, but hopefully you get the idea. I don't like the term much, I have to say. It suggests that user researchers only focus on researching users, and this isn't the case at all, it's much broader than that. A user researcher can also help the whole team better understand players, can implement a user research process, and help make sure the studio, publisher and investors minimise risk and build a successful long-term business. I think I should probably explain that in more detail - after all, user research is all about providing evidence to support claims or assumptions.
"the reason why user research exists is easy to understand: to consistently deliver successful games, where successful means that the game is experienced the way the designers intend"
Despite the slightly misleading job title, the reason why user research exists is easy to understand: to consistently deliver successful games, where successful means that the game is experienced the way the designers intend. The word 'consistent' in the previous sentence is critical - user research applies repeatable methods for objectively evaluating key assumptions about the way a game will be played and experienced. Even today, it's possible for key game design decisions to go unchallenged until very late in development, if ever at all. It's also important to say that the aim of user research is not to interfere with the designer's vision. In fact, it's quite the opposite: it's to help them achieve their vision. Designers make assumptions about how their game will be played, wouldn't it be crucial to know if these assumptions were true?
To achieve this, User Research draws upon its multi-disciplinary roots of Computer Science (interaction, interfaces), Psychology (attention, perception, memory) and Design (user-centred design) among many other academic disciplines to form a toolbox of methods which, when structured into a scientific process, will allow the developers to make informed decisions based on objective evidence, rather than opinion. One of the most commonly used methods is playtesting, which evaluates how real players experience the current version of the game. If they're not experiencing the game as the designer intended, the reasons are identified, fixed by the development team, and the process repeats to verify that the potential solutions have had the correct effect.
"It's perhaps comforting to imagine that a game could have been better but what was needed was too complicated: it was outside of one's control and there's nothing that could be done about it."
However, although playtesting is instrumental in improving the gameplay experience, it only represents a very narrow view of user research. For a game to reach its full potential, user research needs to be considered across all stages of development.
User Research in Game Development
It's perhaps comforting to imagine that a game could have been better but what was needed was too complicated: it was outside of one's control and there's nothing that could be done about it. In other words, "we did the best job we could". However, this is often not the reality. It's perhaps painful to realise that your game could have been better and the solution was in fact, simple. At least, it was simple to understand, and well within the realm of 'the possible'. However, you have be aware of what needs to be done and when, and then you have to actually do it.
The making of games can be quite unstructured, finding the 'secret sauce' is not easy. Although agile development aims to improve how software is developed, it's still features-driven: it focuses on delivering content, but does not check to make sure that the right features are being developed, what's the best way to implement them, or how they impact the player experience. What's needed then, is a set of methods which work alongside the software development process, but instead focus on the player. Such methods have existed in various forms for well over half a century and are already used in the product, services, and entertainment industries. It really does seem like the game industry has been the last one to take advantage. This process is called User-Centred Design.
"What's needed then, is a set of methods which work alongside the software development process, but instead focus on the player"
The aim of user-centred design (UCD) is to make sure that designers factor in the expectations, needs, and abilities of the user at all stages of a project - from concept, through to design, production, launch and beyond. And of course if you have to design for the player, then you have to actually interact with them. This means the UCD process requires that teams engage with real players continually throughout development; observing their behaviour, understanding their capabilities and needs, in order to keep their design assumptions in check at all stages.
However, just using a UCD approach is still too narrow a view of user research. For example, during the early design stage of a game, it's often unwise to ask players for design ideas, but what is definitely useful is having a thorough understanding of underlying evidence such as best practices in control scheme design, user interface guidelines and trends, and the best methods for teaching players about your game effectively. These underpinnings do not rely on interacting with users, instead they require a solid understanding of existing research which allows game design to be informed from the very start with the best of what we already know. Of course, these initial assumptions will be validated with playtesting, the sooner the better.
This combination then, of a solid scientific base and UCD allows games to be designed with the best practices that we know of from the outset, and design ideas to remain validated throughout development.
"User Research is not only a role or a department, it's a focus on the player experience by all members of the team, it's a common language used to communicate how the game behaves and feels"
But I feel even this combination is too narrow a view of user research. For me, user research is everywhere.
User Research and Culture
By 'everywhere' I mean it's in the culture of the studio. User Research is not only a role or a department, it's a focus on the player experience by all members of the team, it's a common language used to communicate how the game behaves and feels, and it's a process that makes sure the right features are being developed with the player in mind. It's objective evidence for management and investors to make sure their game is on track to meet whatever targets are necessary, which in turn makes sure the studio survives to make another game. And, ultimately, it's a glue which binds together talented teams to consistently deliver the successful games which we all love to play.
As user research touches on almost every aspect of the games industry from evaluating gameplay through to processes for structuring development, future articles are likely to be diverse. We'll challenge some commonly held beliefs, dispel some myths, but always from the viewpoint of user research, science, and getting to the truth. The main aim will always remain the same though, to help improve the player experience.
Look out for Graham's column on the second Monday of each month.