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Soapbox: Market Research and Creativity can go hand in hand

A recent article in the GamesIndustry.biz weekly email update began with the question: âWho is responsible for making a successful game?â This is an important question. The answer, if there were a single answer, would have direct consequences on the way that games publishers allocate resources to development teams. It would also affect such allocation within games development companies themselves.

The articleâs main thrust was that the work of the development creatives within games design is overlooked, and that more attention is paid these days to the input of the marketing department, especially within larger companies. The comparison drawn was with the movie industry. Such spectacular marketing-driven flops as Alien Vs Predator were shown as evidence of the meddling of marketing in the design of the product. Other âmarketing-led mistakesâ included the game BMX XXX — a game that on paper seemed a winner, but which âAside from making the "groundbreaking" move of featuring a lot of cursing and strippers, [...] doesn't do anything particularly well.â (GameSpot.com review)

However, it would be a mistake to think of market research as the enemy of the developer. Market research is not about people shaving off the rough or âdifferentâ corners of products to make a bland approximation of a âcomputer gameâ. It is true that it can be such, if too much emphasis is placed on it as part of the overall development process, but that usually belies a lack of creative substance to begin with.

User input into the design process must be laudable. We have all experienced the frustration of playing games that are incredibly difficult to play, or control, or in which the game concept does not draw us in. This is not necessarily due to bugs, which QA testing should pick up. These difficulties are symptomatic of higher-level issues; issues which rely upon the user experience, and which user testing can highlight in the early stages of development, where making changes is easier and cheaper.

There are many reasons why these playability and design issues creep into a game. However, although there may be many causes, there is also a simple remedy for identifying them: running novice users through the game; the concept; an area of the game that one feels needs further work; or maybe the control mechanism, and noting their responses and ideas for alterations.

The key thing to remember is that users will most likely find a wealth of issues with the game, but it should be up to the developers and creatives to decide whether to act upon them. This is where the benefit of conducting user research can have a huge benefit on the final game, without impacting greatly on the overall game concept.

Take Halo, for example. When the developers wanted to know if they should use an inverted joystick mechanism, where the view moves up as the user moves the stick down, they conducted a series of user tests to find out. Other issues of investigation were whether the game had a learning curve that was too difficult or too easy, and whether, in such a first person perspective, the users had a sense of who they actually were (see here for details).

User testing found that roughly half the users needed an inverted stick mechanism, and half the users didnât. There was therefore no scope for providing one mechanism over the other. Instead the developers decided to incorporate an automated selection mechanism. As for the usersâ idea of their character identity, most users were unsure of who they were, and what they looked like. Finally, by running users through the first level, they found that at a certain stage, users became frustratingly stuck in one corridor, unable to move on. This was not intended to be part of the challenge of the game.

From these findings, the developers began to alter the first level prototype. They recognised the importance of drawing users into the game quickly, and incorporated into the action a story/scenario of weapons calibration. This monitored the way the user pressed the joystick when trying to look up, and inverted the stick movement if necessary. To give the users a sense of identity, they were shown a reflection of themselves as the game began. Finally, to help users navigate through the first level, an avatar was introduced, who guided them through beginning of the level, shouting âfollow me!â These were simple changes, but ones that drew in the gamers, and helped prevent an early sense of frustration and confusion.

And far be it for only the largest developers to use such techniques in their design. Running 10 users through a prototype game level is an incredibly cost effective way of identifying user issues early in the design lifecycle. The quicker these can be resolved, the better the gameplay, the better the gameplay, the better the reviews, and the better the reviews the more people buy the game.

So who is responsible for making a successful game?

It may well be true that a game designed âby committeeâ, or focus group, is marginally less risky, and, as the GamesIndustry.biz article claimed, it does not necessitate that the end game will be any good. Games developers and creatives are the lifeblood of the industry and should be given greater recognition by the âsenior executivesâ, but it is not as black and white as simply developers vs. marketing.

Developers should use potential users as a tool to help them produce and refine designs and concepts. The user information should be interpreted by them and employed as they feel appropriate. The key here is that it should not be driven by marketing any more than it should be driven solely by developers.

The best games are those that have a great creative idea to begin with, but which are also built around the users ability to play them. Simply put, developers plus user input will make the best games.

Ben Weedon is a Usability Consultant for Serco Usability Services, and can be contacted at ben.weedon@usability.serco.com - or visit the Serco Usability Services website at http://www.usability.serco.com/ for more information.

GamesIndustry.biz welcomes Soapbox submissions from industry professionals - either in response to previous editorials on the site, or to highlight issues which you believe would be of interest to other readers of the site.

Suggestions for Soapbox articles should be sent to the site editor, Rob Fahey, on rob@gamesindustry.biz.

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