Jimmy Zhou is a user researcher, working on League of Legends at Riot Games. In this exclusive interview, he covers how an internship helped him get into the industry, how to expand your methodology experience, and the importance of starting conversations in the industry.
What is it you currently do at Riot Games?
I’m a researcher at Riot Games for the gameplay of League of Legends. That means I work on anything from social systems within the game to gameplay features years down the road.
What was your journey into games user research?
I first got into research when I was pursuing my Masters degree at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I was originally getting a computer science degree but swapped for a computational media degree instead after meeting Katherine Isbister and joining her lab. I learned my fundamentals of research from her and she introduced me to the games user research community by suggesting that I attend the Games User Research summit in 2018. I was one of those awkward students kinda milling around not knowing anyone and just chatting with various professionals who I later kept in touch with by asking them questions about research and working in industry. The combination of Katherine and those meetings allowed me to start understanding what I was missing in terms of experience and how to tackle those gaps.
Eventually, I landed an internship at NetEase games for user research and transitioned this into a scholarship for the Game Developers Conference (GDC) and a contract position at Epic Games.
What did you find the most challenging step of getting a role working in games? How did you overcome that?
I think it was probably understanding where I was weak while I was applying. It was fairly easy to get interview feedback from the places I interviewed at but the resume stage was much tougher. It was hard to say why I was rejected from places or what they were looking for. I think it was really easy to misinterpret my skill level early on. I thought with a Masters degree I would be about mid level but I’m much less certain about that now that I’m actually mid level. I expect that it made some applications predetermined rejections. Some techniques I recognize now that are extremely relevant, I hadn’t even heard of while in school. Figuring out those aspects meant a lot of work and rejections. There was a noticeable trend as I kept adjusting my resume with more and more experience as I grew and sought more opportunities. I eventually recognized that my communication skills with actual game teams were weak and I hadn’t used some methodologies before that kept showing up in job descriptions.
To overcome this I connected with the local game dev club on campus as well as the professional game dev program in our sister school and integrated myself in their processes. This allowed me to be more hands on with using research at various steps of the development cycle and understand how to juggle multiple timelines. It also let me experiment with new methodologies that I hadn’t done before. Finally, the people I met at the GUR summit and kept in touch with were really helpful as well in guiding me towards understanding my weaknesses though, and I’m really thankful for that.
Knowing what you know now from working inside the industry, is there anything you would have done differently when applying for roles?
Yeah, I think I would have been a lot more forwards in opening conversations with more professionals from the GRUX discord. It was really helpful back then in recognizing what I was missing and understanding how research is used in industry because of how different it can be used in academia. Just talking to more professionals about what they use often at work would have expedited my attempts to better myself.
What would your top tip be for someone looking to become a games user researcher?
Join the GRUX discord! Don’t be afraid to reach out to professionals who have done relevant work in your field of interest. I’ve had people reach out to me now (which is weird because I don’t FEEL like a professional yet) and ask for advice on projects and stuff which I’m always happy to do. It’s a great way to meet new people and get relevant guidance.
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