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Moving from academia into the games industry

Applying academic experience into a games user researcher role, Charles Somerville’s journey to Bethesda, the latest from the GamesUR conference and games user research jobs!

Welcome to issue four of our newsletter about entering the games industry as a user researcher. In this issue:

Congratulations also to Vanissa who won the GUR poster and stickers from the competition last month! 

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Games user research and academia

Moving into the games industry from academia

It’s common that user researchers have academic experience. In this years games user research salary survey, 70% of people who took part had a postgraduate degree. 

Planning reliable playtest studies requires the application of scientific methods. A masters degree or PhD is one way of demonstrating that you are qualified to apply research methods. It is not the only way – plenty of great researchers don’t have academic experience. However postgraduate experience is an indication that you know how to pick an appropriate method, reduce bias and draw reliable conclusions.

I wanted to explore how to transition from academia to industry in this issue. My own experience was very fortunate. My postgraduate course gave me the opportunity to work on projects with real game studios which, supplemented by personal projects, helped me get my first job in games. 

From my own personal experience, using academic study to get some experience in running in-person research is one of the biggest potential benefits of postgraduate study. We covered this in more depth in the HTBAGUR book. Jessica Tompkins, PhD and UX researcher at EA, help on this chapter was invaluable.

I also asked this question on twitter and LinkedIn, and Jessica gave some additional great points on LinkedIn:

Jess's comment about games user research. Linked above

Irena Pavlovic also raised the importance of pragmatism when performing research in industry.

Irena's comment about games user research. Linked above

On twitter, Natali, working as a user researcher at Ubisoft, raised the difference in pace between academia and industry, and that one of the challenges is adapting research methods, analysis and debriefing so that it finds answers when it’s still relevant. 

Natali's tweet about games user research - linked below

Link to Natali’s original tweet

Blake is a UX Researcher at XBox. He also highlighted how the change of environment impacts the goal of quantitative studies, and what we would consider an appropriate conclusion.

Blakes Tweet about Games User Research - linked below

Link to Blake’s original tweet  

Lots of great tips there from the community, and the need for speed comes up multiple times. In industry a study that provides findings too late is pointless, as the decision will have been made. The development team have already moved on to the next topic.

One way of speeding up analysis is through preparing templates for note-taking and analysis, and using mindmaps as a way to speed up analysis, as I covered in the Games User Research Summer Camp event last year.  We also explore this, and other aspects of moving from academia to industry in the book – but it’s a popular topic, so I know we’ll cover different aspects of the transition in more depth in the future.

Charles Somerville Bethesda

How I got started in games user research

Charles Somerville is a user researcher at Bethesda. I caught up with him to ask about his journey into games. He talked about some great topics including applying academic experience into the games industry.

What is it you currently do at Bethesda?

I’m a user researcher, and my job is to conduct and facilitate user research at the publisher level for the many talented dev studios in the ZeniMax Media family. This means that while the actual science of designing and executing user research is the core of my job, it is equally (if not more) important that I also help maintain positive relationships with the many stakeholder groups Bethesda’s UR team interacts with.

What was your journey into games user research?

The abridged version of this story always starts in the same place at GDC 2018 in San Francisco. While attending graduate school in southern California, I had scraped up enough money to attend my first GDC, and by that time I was still unaware that games user research was a field. When exploring the various talks being given, I discovered the roundtable discussion on user research in games chaired by Ben Taels, who would end up being my boss a year later.

Fast forward to 2019 and many, many rejected applications later, I landed a contract role at Epic Games as a UX Lab Analyst, helping to moderate Epic’s lab and support the talented UX team there.

In the middle of 2020, right after the pandemic began, I knew my contract was expiring soon and began exploring full-time opportunities. Fortuitously, a user research role opened at Bethesda, and I applied with all due haste. Many interviews and several months later, I began my first full-time role as a mid-level user researcher.

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

The first step is always the hardest, and that is absolutely true for landing a job in the gaming industry. I had several advantages when I started applying specifically to GUR roles – my location in California meant that I was close to many studios, and my recently acquired graduate degree in social psychology was a good way to prove my research acumen.

However, the biggest gap in my history was, funnily enough, displaying a passion for games and doing so in a way that coincided with some kind of work history or academic project. I did what I could to remedy this by working with my academic advisor on incorporating games into my doctoral studies while also doing independent research on the side.

Did your experience working in academia help with getting a job in the games industry? How?

Yes and no. Academia taught me the fundamentals of research and the importance of the scientific method, especially when dealing with something so subjective as games. However, academia never adequately prepared me for the sheer speed at which GUR operates. Turnaround time has varied at both the companies I’ve worked for and across different projects, but I think anyone else in the field will agree that there is an expectation that results are due sooner rather than later. Academia just really doesn’t prepare a person for that – or at least my experience didn’t.

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

It’s okay to fail. This field is highly competitive at the junior level. As I said earlier on, the entirety of my 2018 and part of 2019 was spent applying and getting rejected to a lengthy list of roles (recorded in a spreadsheet I keep to this day as a reminder and confidence boost). Every rejection is an opportunity to reach out, be graceful and gracious, and learn why you didn’t make the cut. They are chances to patch the holes in the metaphorical armor of your resume and try again. Be persistent and willing to improve, and you will get there!

As a bonus tip, perhaps even more important than accepting failure, learn how to network. Attend conferences as you’re able. Go to talks. Join the GRUX SIG Discord. Our community is still relatively small, which means that good impressions are critical. Conduct yourself in a way so that your name has a positive association, and your chances will greatly improve.

Thanks Charles for the great introduction to his journey, and top tips! To hear more from Charles, do follow him on twitter. This is a popular topic, so we have more interviews from experienced games user researchers about the transition from academia to industry over the next few issues, including Joe Florey from PlayStation and Adam Lobel from Blizzard. 

Games User Research Community

The #gamesUR summit

This month was also the annual games user research conference organised by the Games Research and UX team.

There were some great live events around mentoring and getting your first role in the industry, hopefully you were able to attend.

There were also some great pre-recorded sessions on topics such as teaching players without tutorials, the accessibility of The Last Of Us, academic and industry partnerships, and why ‘the boring stuff’ is also your job as a user researcher. All of the videos are online now, and are obviously excellent:

Find them on the GRUX youtube channel.

Games User Research Jobs

Games User Research Jobs

A games research apprenticeship: 

This UK based opportunity is quite rare – an apprenticeship in a games research related role. The criteria for eligibility is quite niche, but if you are between 16 to 24-year-olds, not in education and are currently claiming Universal Credit this is a fantastic opportunity.

User Researcher at Xbox:

The fantastic Tom Lorusso posted about this junior-appropriate role working with his team at Xbox – take a look! 

Get 1:1 career support

I’ve enjoyed all of the office hour chats I’ve had last month and it’s been great meeting everyone. If you are after free 1:1 advice on how to start your career in games user research (or how to playtest your game!), then do book some time for a chat.

The types of things we can discuss on a call include: 

  • Answering questions you have about games user research
  • Giving feedback on something you’ve done
  • Talking about how to tackle a specific research challenge

I’m looking forward to meeting more newsletter subscribers this month!  

How To Be A Games User Researcher

The Book

The paperback version of the book was unavailable for a few weeks last month, thanks for everyone who got in touch about it.

How To Be A Games User Researcher is back in stock, and available now

As always, if you’re feeling kind, please do leave a review on Amazon – it makes a huge difference!

Help this newsletter

I’m putting together a page for the website that introduces this newsletter. I want to make it easier for people to discover it.

I would really appreciate it if you would write a few sentences about the newsletter, and how (/if) it has been helpful so far. I hope to use these to help other people discover it, and decide whether the newsletter is right for them.

Send me an email (ux@stevebromley.com) with some kind words – I would appreciate it very much! 

Thank you! 

Thanks for reading another issue of the How To Be A Games User Researcher newsletter. Personally, I have a busy month ahead – some exciting game projects to look at! 

I’ve also started thinking about my next community project for the games industry. Follow me on twitter to be the first to hear about what I’m up too (…although it’s still a year away!).

As always get in touch with questions, feedback, etc – and have a great month!

Steve (@steve_bromley)

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