Applying for games user research roles can sometimes feel hopeless. There are hundreds of applications for each role, and yours gets lost in the pile. You never even hear back.
(and worse – what about those entry level roles which ask for two years experience?!)
It’s the classic problem that everyone runs into at the start of their career. You need experience to show you can do the job, and get an interview. But you need the job to get experience. Sometimes it can feel like you’re stuck!
Today we’re going to tackle how to get games experience before you get your first job. This will help you stand out amongst the other candidates, and increase the chance of getting interviews. Plus you get started actually doing user research, instead of just reading about it – which teaches a huge amount.
This is an updated version of my talk for the GRUX conference in 2021. You can watch the video of the original talk here. The updates cover a whole bunch of follow-up questions that have come up since such as:
- Is it ethical to work for free?
- How do I know when I have enough expertise to get started with this?
- How do I know when I’ve done enough?
- What skills should I emphasise when describing my work?
Read on to learn how to get games user experience without already working in the industry.
How to get games user research experience before you have the job
Junior games user research roles are extremely competitive. Every year a new batch of people finish studies, complete bootcamps, or decide to move on from another industry. People love games, and want to work in the industry. This means there are a lot of very qualified candidates, and it can be hard to stand out.
One tactic for standing out is experience. Demonstrating you can do games user research, and having a body of work you can show people, will distinguish you from other candidates, and make getting an interview more likely.
The process we’ll cover is how to use usability reviews, and partner with real game devs, to get experience. This is better than reviewing a finished game, because it can lead to a real change in the game, and allow you to practice + demonstrate communication with game teams.
This hits many of the skills game developers are looking for
What is a games usability review
A usability review (or ‘expert review’) is when one or more usability practitioners play through the game, and spot potential issues. (As an aside – I never refer to these as expert reviews, although it’s a common industry term. I don’t think going around calling yourself an expert is a way to make friends with game developers).
The type of issues we’re looking for are usability issues – parts where the player won’t understand what they are meant to do, or what is happening, or how to accomplish their goal. Looking for usability issues is safer than trying to spot ‘user experience’ issues – whether players will like the game or not. We’re looking to anticipate their behaviour, not their opinions!
As a research method, usability reviews are not used in industry that often. Running real tests with players creates objective data (“the player did or didn’t do this”), so there should be no debate about whether the issue is true or not. In contrast, because usability issues are based on your expertise, it can become a lot more difficult to convince people that the issues you’ve identified are real. However they are sometimes used before running a bigger test with real users, to spot some obvious problems. They are also commonly used as part of the application process when applying for games jobs, so a good thing to practice!
They are also free to organise, which is why we’re going to do them today.
You might be wondering “am I ready to start doing this?”. I started this process within my first few months of learning that games user research exists. The reviews have been lost to time, and were probably rubbish – but that’s normal. We need to start with doing this poorly, getting feedback and iterating, to get good. So, start today!
Find a game that is in the right state
We need to find a real game to work on. Luckily, there are places where game developers hang out and ask for feedback – playtesting forums.
Some examples include:
TIGSource’s Playtesting forums
Itch.io’s playtesting forums
(of all of those, my recommendation is the r/playtesters forum is the most active and high quality).
Normally, I don’t recommend using these playtesting forums to game developers. Because only other game developers hang out there, you get massive sampling bias (here’s a better method I recommend to small game teams). But for our purposes today, that doesn’t matter, as we’re just using them to look for games in the right state.
As you’ll see, game developers post their game on these forums looking for feedback. Most won’t be familiar with what ‘user research’ is, or what a ‘usability review’ is – we’ll deal with that in a minute. But the fact they are posting tells us they have a game, and it’s in a state where they are prepared to make changes to it – exactly what we’re after.
There are a lot of posts on these forums, and a lot of the games are low quality. We need to filter those down to being the best ones to run you review on. Some criteria I use are:
Is there time to make changes?
Read the most and look at the state of the game. Sometimes people mis-use those forums to promote a game post-launch. That’s no good for us – if the game is already out, they are unlikely to make real changes, regardless of what you find in your review.
Can the team handle usability feedback?
Look at what information they’ve provided about the game. Do they feel like they will continue development, and be able to react to the issues you discover? Or are they only requesting very specific types of feedback?
This is something we’ll explore more when we start talking to the developer – working out if they are open to, and will be able to react based on usability feedback you discover.
(also a lot of the things on these forums will never make it to launch. Again that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you should try and suss out how serious they are so that you can prioritise projects that have a chance of coming to fruition.)
Can I run this review?
Look at the genre of the game. Ask yourself, is this a genre I have played before and know the ‘format’ of. This will help us later identify what are real usability issues players will have, and not be distracted by issues that will not occur for ‘true’ players.
For example, If you’ve never played a real-time-strategy game before, you will find it challenging to identify and describe usability issues that occur within the genre.
Can I share what I learned?
From this usability review, we want to get a good case study that can be shared with potential employers. We’ll need to ask permission about including this project as a case study on your website or portfolio. That will allow you to be more specific with examples when talking about how you handled the usability review in interviews, or on a blog post.
I’ve never had an indie developer tell me they are not happy with the findings being shared (because they benefit from getting the feedback, and appreciate any attention being paid to their game), but it’s polite to check!
Can the team afford professional help?
User research is a professional skill, and deserves to be compensated as such. Agencies and consultants will be charging five figures to do this kind of review professionally. We want to avoid devaluaing our expertise, by not working for free.
This means that we shouldn’t be doing this work for any company that can afford to pay a professional. If they are paying for professional QA, marketing, localisation, or other third party services – don’t do this for free. Either find a different team to work with, or come up with a fair price for your time.
My ideal game team for this project is one who has no budget, because this then becomes a mutually beneficial partnership. You gain experience of running this kind of work, and a portfolio piece. They benefit from your growing UX expertise.
When preparing this talk, I went through the process myself. Here’s the post I found for a team I wanted to approach – I thought it was a genre I understood and I could see they were still making changes to their game.
I was still unsure if they could handle usability feedback, or would be comfortable with me sharing the results (especially as I wanted to use them for a conference talk!). But this was enough of a hopeful lead to get in touch with them.
Make the approach
Having found a potential lead it’s time to approach them. Remember that most game developers working at this level will not have encountered UX, usability reviews, or structured playtesting – they think they are just going to get general opinion feedback. We need to explain the difference between what they asked, and our proposal (which is great practice for advocating for games user research).
You have to explain what it is you do:
Hi <<name>> I'm <<name>>, and I run usability reviews of games which identify usability and UX issues that will prevent players from experiencing it the way you expect. I saw your post looking for playtesters for <<game>>, and wondered if you would be interested in a usability review for it. I will identify usability problems, and send you a report covering the top issues. I wouldn't charge for the review, but I'd also be really interested in sharing this as a case study <<on my website/blog>>. This might create some extra publicity for your game, so hopefully a positive for us both. Let me know if this sounds interesting and looking forward to chatting further.
Working with game developers is great experience to demonstrate when applying for game jobs later, and so building a good relationship with the developer is really important. The more you can do on this (such as asking their priorities for the game, understanding what they are worried about, and working out how to be helpful), the more useful this will be to reference in interviews and job applications later.
You will also want to feel out whether they will be a good partner. Do they feel open and interested in the process, and likely to be a good person to work with. Are they giving the impression they take game development seriously, or are they opening Unity for the first time and have vastly over-scoped their game. If you’re not getting good vibes, politely move on to the next developer.
Running your review
Once you’ve set expectations, understood their priorities and have a copy of the game – you are ready to run your review.
Running good usability reviews is a whole different topic (and one we’ll cover in future newsletters, so sign up to make sure you don’t miss it). This talk from Seb Long is a good place to start learning in the meantime.
My own approach when doing this was:
- Work with the developer to understand their current priorities and focus. List those out
- Then play through the game once, as a fresh player. Record the video, and audio of my ‘new player experience’. Write notes throughout.
- Then do a second pass, looking at the game as a UX practitioner. Look at every element of the game, what I anticipate the design intent is, and how or why players might misunderstand.
- Then watch back the new player video, take more notes, and try and notice ‘what the designer meant to the experience to be’ compared to what I actually experienced.
That generated a lot of raw material for my report.
For extra credit, you could find some users and observe them playing. This will practise participant moderation (which is another of those core skills above that interviewers want t osee). But it does add a time commitment, potential cost (if you pay participants) and is more challenging to organise than a usability review.
Share what you discovered
After you have your raw data, you’ll want to write a report. Here’s my free guide on how to write a report.
Making the report is good practice, as it’s a common way of sharing results when working in industry – and demonstrates your ability to communicate findings (another one of those core researcher skills!).
I strongly recommend that you show your report to someone else for feedback. This is critical for improving – getting feedback from peers, working out what people don’t understand, and finding better ways of communicating it. I’ve been doing this for over a decade, and I still ask peers to read my reports before sharing further.
(As an aside – are you interested in joining a small group of people learning games user research to share their work in progress, and give each other feedback? If so pop your name down here, and if enough people sign up we’ll make it happen).
After writing your report, and getting feedback, share it with the development team. Remember that communicating with developers is a core thing that will help you stand out from all the other candidates in interviews, so try and make this as ‘active’ as possible. If you can set up a 30 minute call to present your findings, that’s fantastic!
You should also follow up after sending the report. Ask them if the report helped, and what changes they are considering. This is great evidence to show the impact of your work, when interviewing for a games user research job later.
Make it into a portfolio piece
Now you’ve done some work, and have permission to share it, it’s time to do so.
To share it with others, you want to tell the story – rather than just show the final report. This should include you explaining…
- What you did
- Why you did it
- What compromises you had to make beyond the ‘perfect’ study, and why you made those compromises.
This would all make a great blog post, if you have a blog. We’ve previously covered how to make a portfolio, but some of the things to emphasise from this work will be the contact you had with the developer and the impact that your study had on changes to the game. That kind of experience very few other people will have, and should really help.
This whole process does take time, but doing it just once or twice will put you in the top 10% of applicants for jobs. That doesn’t guarantee you will get through to an interview, but it does increase the chances.
Plus as an added benefit, you might even get a credit in the game. Here’s my credit, for the project I did to prepare for this talk:
So, time to get started by looking at those playtesting communities, and finding some good leads. Do tell me about your experiences running usability reviews, either on Twitter (@steve_bromley), or by dropping me an email.
(and did you spot the aside above about making a group of learners to share feedback on eachother’s work? Sign up if intrigued, and we’ll make it happen!)
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