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How to convert user research experience into a games user research job

Women in gaming, Converting research experience from other industries into games, Surabhi Mathur’s journey into working on FIFA, and more…

Welcome to issue three of the How To Be A Games User Researcher

This month:

…and more! 

Every month we’ll be tackling topics important to people looking to develop their career in games, and run better playtests.

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Read on to learn how to become a games user researcher.

Transitioning into games from other user research sectors

This month, I wanted to go a bit deeper into how to take user research experience gained in other industries, and translate it into a games user research job. 

This is a reasonably common route that people use to join the industry, and one of the pieces of advice I give to people who are having difficulty joining the industry at a junior level is to look for a broader user research role. This helps develop very relevant experience you can bring into a games job application. 

This month’s interview is with Surabhi Mathur, a user researcher at EA who made the jump into games last year, who has some great advice based on her own experience. Before that though, let’s consider some of the differences between games user research and other sectors.

Expect friction

In most other types of software, ‘difficulty’ is to be avoided. No-one wants it to be hard to order a book from an online shop. However for games, a game without difficulty isn’t (usually) fun. Work like Raph Koster’s A Theory Of Fun For Game Design and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow both put ‘overcoming challenges that were previously unachievable’ as a key part of creating compelling experiences. Games need friction.

Games user researchers need to be nuanced and put in more upfront work to understand the thing being tested. They need to understand the game well enough to know what difficulty the designer intended. This usually involves a lot of time working with designers to identify what the difficulty is meant to be and what players are meant to understand or be able to do before they should be allowed to progress. They need to moderate the session and capture notes in a way that recognises ‘intended’ challenge (that has been designed) and separates this from ‘unintended’ challenge (that is accidental). 

This also means that some of the typical things a user research team working outside of games (like ‘time to complete’), are not appropriate for games. These measures are not able to separate intended and unintended challenges.

Methodological constraints

Many games have big marketing budgets, and excited fans who care deeply about the games being made. This puts them at high risk of leaks, and the consequences of leaks can be very expensive for the studio. So, secrecy is extremely important.

This includes asking participants to sign non-disclosure agreements and finding ways of actively preventing recording, such as removing their phones.

This need for secrecy has a big impact on the methods available to us. For extremely secretive games, all research has to be lab-based. This is particularly difficult for quant research.  Other types of software can be distributed to users to use at their home, with unmoderated tools, surveys and analytics to capture their behaviour. With games, the huge risk of leaks means we can’t allow players to participate at home, and we need to bring them into a research lab. This leads to the need to build labs which can hold 10-40 players playing simultaneously

For a researcher coming from other industries, this requires them to adapt their study designs so that it works as a mass playtest and adapt their moderation so that they can control a room of many players simultaneously.

Research Objectives

Games are entertainment. Often your game team want to know some variation of ‘is this fun?’.

For clear usability issues, this is fine – we can frame usability problems as ‘barriers to fun’. But it also means working out a reliable method of measuring enjoyment or fun. One approach is using a combination of quant measures, benchmarking and qualitative data to explain any quant scores. Think about the challenges of measuring fun, and how to explain the limitations of measuring fun to a game team who will want to equate it with a review score. This will be excellent preparation for a researcher joining the games industry.

Converting your experience

If you are applying from another user research role, your experience of planning and running studies is extremely valuable. Strongly emphasise this in your application. Supplementing your experience with an understanding of how games are different to other software design projects, will make you a very strong candidate. 

Tom Lorusso is a Research Manager at Xbox, and also had some advice:

(Tom’s original tweet)

I think Tom’s point, about the implications of games being art, is interesting. There is not only the impact on ‘how much people care’ about what they are making. It also affects how user researchers describe their work. 

In other fields, it’s common to talk about how user research uncovers and fulfills the needs of it’s users. In games, we often describe that our role is to ensure the game design vision is being experienced correctly. We frame this around the vision of the designer, not the needs of the user. (At least, that’s what one of the posters says!).

I personally believe that this framing will change over time, as the maturity of research in the game design process grows. That’s a subject for another time. 

As Tom says, it’s definitely a high passion environment, which creates different dynamics to working in many corporate environments. 

How I got started in Games User Research

Surabhi Mathur is an Associate UX Researcher with EA Sports, working on FIFA. In this exclusive interview, I asked about her experience moving from user research at Uber, and the challenges of transitioning into the games industry

What was your journey into games user research?

As a UXR I look for opportunities that will help me grow, expand my skills and pose exciting challenges. A job posting by EA was one such opportunity that I took up. 

When I switched from tech to games user research, I didn’t expect GUR to be so different and distinct. Tech UXR has a big, cohesive community which allows a general understanding of how UXR functions in different businesses. Since GUR is largely absent from mainstream UXR conversations, I was oblivious to its uniqueness. 

Even though my journey began subconsciously, I quickly realised that GUR has its own tightnit network of highly qualified and passionate individuals. As soon as I joined( and even before), I started leveraging the information shared by this community and it helped rapidly ramp up. 

What did you find the most challenging step of getting a role working in games? 

I faced two key challenges when trying to enter games industry:

  1. Since games/GUR is unique in the way it functions, the industry prefers people with prior experience in the field. Experience in playing/interacting with games is the next best thing one can bank upon. Since I had neither, I started interacting with different games to get familiar with game design. I also read as much literature as possible on GUR, Game Design etc which helped me understand how I could use my previous experience to draw parallels with the GUR process. 
  2. GUR is more inclined towards quantitative research than tech UXR (subjective experience) and basic quant skills are tested during the interview process. To prepare for this, refreshed all my quant skills before the interview and took a few classes to learn basic statistical languages (R, Python).

Did your experience working in UX elsewhere help with getting a job in the games industry? 

Definitely! Working in Tech made me a versatile UXR with the ability to conduct research in any given circumstances, methods, timelines, stakeholders etc. These skills helped me during my interviews because I was able to think on my feet and be creative with my approach.

What would your top tip be for someone looking to become a games user researcher?

  1. Get in touch with the GUR community and leverage its resources to get started.
  2. Play the games you want to work on or of similar genre: you don’t have to play the whole thing but do experience it’s gameplay. 
  3. Focus on your quant skills. 

Fantastic advice from Surabhi. I personally found the book ‘Quantifying the User Experience’ a really helpful introduction into learning enough stats to get by in most user research roles, if this is a topic you don’t feel comfortable with.

Last month Crystal Dynamics released their 2018 book Women in Gaming: 100 Professionals of Play as a free download to celebrate Women’s History month.

I was particularly impressed to see how heavily represented games user research was in the book. The book includes a day in the life feature from Elizabeth Zelle (who featured in issue 2 of this newsletter), a history of Carol Kantor’s work establishing Games User Research as part of game development, and profiles from other games user researchers. Read more about the book, and download it here.

Win a games user research poster and set of stickers

This month we have some of the games user research posters to give away exclusively to newsletter subscribers.

Winners get a poster of their choice (signed if you live in the UK!), and a pack of all three stickers. Designed by Chloe True, the posters and stickers are a fun way of sparking off games user research conversations – and look great in an office or home environment! 

To enter, fill out the attached form – I’ll be in touch with the winners by the end of May.

A junior/mid-level user research role

CCP are looking for a Player Researcher to join their team at Eve Online. Although the role requires a postgraduate degree, the listing on the GRUX site describes this is a junior and mid-level role. Take a look and pack your bags for Reykjavík.

Player Researcher role at CCP

Speak to experienced games user researchers

The GRUX Community

John Hopson has once again arranged a set of Office Hours for the Games Research and UX community. From his original post on the Discord:

 This is intended as a way for anyone in the community to have a chance to sit down and get advice. Feel free to offer yourself as a mentor even if you're fairly new to the profession, your experiences getting hired are probably more valuable to someone looking for their first job than mine are. Also, feel free to sign up as a mentee even if you're fairly senior yourself. Everyone needs to talk through career stuff with someone sometimes.
 Here's a sign up sheet where potential mentors can post their availability and mentees can sign up for a slot: GRUX Office Hours
 How it works:
 1) This is an unofficial experiment in trying to make basic mentoring more easily available with less obligation and commitment on the part of either the mentor or mentee.
 2) People who want to volunteer as one-off mentors should post some times they're available.
 3) Folks who are interested in having one-off conversations with a mentor should claim a time by entering their name next to it.
 4) Mentor is responsible for finding the mentee on the GRUX Discord and arranging a call at the scheduled time.
 5) The mentee is responsible for coming to the session with a set of questions and topics.
 6) Mentor is strictly a volunteer and can cancel or quit at any time if the session goes off the rails.
 7) John has no authority to do this or control over this. If you think there's a better way, make it happen and I'll sign up there too. 

This is a great opportunity to speak to some top industry professionals. Do take a look! 

Time with Steve

I’m loving the chats I’m having with people looking for advice, feedback or asking questions about the industry. However to help manage my calendar, I’m going to explore using calendly to schedule these automatically.

I’m available to talk about anything games user research related – such as answering questions about user research, reviewing some work you’ve done or discussing how to get relevant experience. Book some time for a chat here

Help GRUX Online conference

Emma Varjo (interviewed in issue one) has started the process of organising another Games Research and UX online conference for late 2021. 

The team is currently looking for volunteers to help:

Could you volunteer to make this event even bigger and better? As a volunteer you get to help shape the event: we can make it even more awesome this time around. Check the form for a list of roles and their approximate responsibilities. We have some ideas of what we need to get the conference up and running, but if you don’t see your superpower listed, we can adjust the roles or do bigger and better things! Please send us your ideas!
https://forms.gle/UbeWz4jyz8HzzF2E7

As we’ve discussed before, volunteering is a great way to start to get introduced into the community – and a way of networking without appearing sleazy. I highly recommend getting involved and becoming an active member of the community.

You made it!

That’s it. Thanks for reading. I have a few more podcasts scheduled as part of the book tour, and some games projects I’m excited about. I’m also trying to get the paperback version of How To Be A Games User Researcher back in stock on Amazon. It should be up again in a few days.

I’d love to chat about games user research, and what would be helpful for you in this newsletter. Do email me by replying to this newsletter if you have any questions, or drop me a line on twitter!

If you’ve enjoyed this newsletter, there are two very helpful things you could do for me:

  1. Share it with people you think would find it helpful
  2. Leave a review for the book How To Be A Games User Researcher on Amazon.

I’d be extremely grateful if you decide to do either of these, as both are very helpful!

Have a great May! 

Steve (@steve_bromley)

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