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Interview

Jess Tompkins – Senior Researcher at EA 

This month I’ve been talking to Jess Tompkins, Senior Researcher at EA about her experience working in games user research, and top tips for people looking to join the industry.

She shared her own journey into games, the value of doing a PhD, challenges around inclusion and diversity in games, and the importance of judging research on it’s impact.

Follow Jess on Twitter

Jess Tompkins

Senior Researcher at EA Games

What do you currently do at EA?

I’m a (relatively new!) Senior Researcher for Consumer Insights, supporting our Positive Play team with data and insights to help make our games as inviting and positive as they can be for all. I started this role approximately one month ago, so I’m still learning about the space and research needs for my stakeholders – but, I’m very excited to be here!

Prior to starting this role, I was a UX Researcher on EA’s global User Experience Research team. I worked directly with game development teams to understand their research needs for their products, running everything from playtests to in-depth interviews and surveys – all to advocate for our players and drive improvements to game design. 

How did you get started in games user research?  

I tell this story a lot. I was attending the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in 2016 on a scholarship from I Need Diverse Games (I remain forever grateful to them!). I was there to learn more about the industry as an academic (I was a PhD student at the time) and to conduct some on-site interviews with developers who volunteered to participate in my research about character design. Around that time, I was coming to realize a lot of my academic questions had practical implications — I wasn’t satisfied with simply doing research for the sake of building knowledge; I wanted to do something with it. 

When I attended a roundtable discussion hosted by IGDA’s Games Research and User Experience special interest group at GDC that year, I had this massive epiphany for my career. I already had some doubts about thriving as an academic. The game user research discipline was the intersection of two things I enjoyed very much – research and gaming – so, it made a lot of sense that I pursued that rather than academia. 

You studied for a PhD. How has that helped your career in games user research?

It helped me in the sense that, prior to attending graduate school for my PhD, I didn’t have sufficient research training – particularly with human participants. Research skills can be picked up in the industry, but increasingly there is a demand for talent with existing, robust research chops.

When I entered my PhD program, I had a Master’s in Media Arts. I knew how to do secondary research, but primary research with human participants was something I had yet to practice. In my PhD program, I developed expertise through coursework and through experience with independent research projects. I quickly learned how to plan and execute interviews, surveys, experimental designs, as well as how to analyze data qualitatively and quantitatively to make a compelling argument. All of these skills, honed in an academic environment, transferred nicely into professional games user research.

Would you recommend studying a PhD to people interested in working in games?

It depends on your level of experience and familiarity with research! I received a lot of value from my PhD. Coming out of my Bachelor’s and Master’s programs, I lacked adequate human-centric research experience, but taking on the level of work in my PhD really deepened my knowledge and gave me the experience I needed to be a competitive candidate for jobs.

I’d like to note, some folks will undertake robust research activities in Bachelor’s programs and Master’s programs. Sometimes, that’s all you need! But for me, as someone who did not attend a research-driven undergraduate or Master’s program, the PhD research experience made a huge difference. 

Another note: everyone’s financial situation is different. I strongly recommend anyone entering a PhD program have at least 4 years of secured savings or funding. If you’re not getting that funding from family or a partner with a job who can support you, I would encourage anyone pursuing a PhD to only take part in programs that will fund you through a teaching assistantship/stipend for at least 4 years. My advice is you shouldn’t pay for a PhD with substantive loans unless you can reasonably pay them back. For working in games, I would be extremely hesitant to recommend anyone take on massive debt to obtain a PhD when there are other ways to enter the industry. In the time it takes you to complete a PhD, you can work in the industry in an associate researcher or moderator role. 

What skills do you think have been important to work on as your career has developed?

A notable shift in my mindset as I’ve advanced my career is about the impact my research will drive. I came into the games industry as an already savvy researcher; what I lacked was a strong sense of business acumen and, specifically, how the games industry operates from the inside. To that end, it’s been important for me to develop my understanding of how the games business works – this includes understanding the different stakeholders on a game project and when to talk to the right person about research, how to work with cross-functional partners (such as analytics and brand), as well as knowing your game project’s business goals.

Top of mind for user researchers is usually things like design intent, game pillars, and UX goals, but knowing your product’s business goals (e.g., obtaining a 70% metacritic, expanding a franchise’s audience, etc.) can also be helpful for you as a researcher to help inform potential risks to the product’s success. 

I would also add, hone those communication skills! Those of us in the field can’t emphasize that enough. Not only do I want my stakeholders to consider me a partner in the development process by building rapport and trust, but I also see it as part of my job to inspire my development partners to act on my insights. It’s one thing to provide research and be helpful, but we need to take it a step further and inspire discussion about positive change. 

What do you think are the biggest challenges for people joining the industry now?

The biggest challenges, I feel, are related to diversity and inclusion. We’ve unfortunately seen time and time again that women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ folks are likely to face discrimination in this industry (and beyond). Folks from these underrepresented groups may face issues related to pay equity, career advancement, and fair treatment in the workplace. Thankfully, many companies recognize this and are providing more education and resources on this topic.

Know your friends and allies in this industry. It’s not a matter of having the most connections, but having a few trusted and deep ones – people you can use as a helpful sounding board and confidant when you need it most. 

Be a part of the change: educate yourself (take a look at the existing resources and communities at your workplace), be an ally, and put in the work to improve your company’s culture and contribute to a better environment for everyone. This work shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of underrepresented talent. 

Do you have any advice for others looking to work in games user research?

Find a mentor or mentors. Have one for different ‘seasons’ of your career. So, as you’re first looking to work in this field, have a mentor who can help you hone your skills, give feedback on your resume, introduce you to folks in the industry, and so on and so forth. 

Once you’re in a professional setting, it may make sense to continue your relationship with your mentor, or, maybe they will have done all they can by that point to set yourself up for success. Ask yourself what your goals are and if your mentor can help you get there — and if they can’t, it may be time for you to find a new mentor who can help you with the next steps you want to take in your career. For example, once you’re in, what do you want to do three years from now? Five or ten years? Do you want to climb the ranks of your research org or eventually try something else? Knowing what you want is important, so take the time to reflect on that and build relationships with people who can support you.  

Also, once you have sufficient experience (which, frankly, is much sooner than you think!), pay it forward by mentoring others who aspire to work in this field. 

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Interview

Lanie Dixon – Director of Insights at Ubisoft Montréal

This month I’ve been talking to Lanie Dixon, Director of Insights at Ubisoft Montréal about her experience working in games user research, and top tips for people looking to join the industry.

Lanie is also host of the GUR Cafe Podcast, a monthly place to chat about all things Games User Research.

She shared her own journey into games, her experience starting an indie game studio + running scrappy research, and importance of relationship building and partnership in successful user research.

Follow Lanie Dixon on Twitter

Lanie Dixon - Ubisoft Montreal Games User Research Interview

What do you currently do at Ubisoft?

I started at Ubisoft Montreal in 2017 as a User Research Analyst. In 2020, I transitioned into leading our User Research Analysts across several games, including franchises like Assassin’s Creed, Rainbow Six, For Honor, and others. My role then was to mentor and coach the analysts as they work directly with their production teams to perform the research on a variety of topics.

This year I’ve transitioned into an entirely new role for our lab, Director of Insights. My role today is focused around guiding multi-expertise teams working across our various production teams. We act as their partners in building the best player experiences by supporting them in their decision making through delivery of impactful insights.

How did you get started in games user research?  

I started getting interested in the idea of leveraging psychology into a career in games after a late degree switch from Finance my sophomore year of college. At the time I had no clue games user research existed, but I really wanted to find a way to get a psychology degree and work in games. I ended up in a game design course and after the second session I explained to the instructor I might be in the wrong place and if he could help. He was the one that steered me towards GUR and then encouraged me to apply for the IGDA GDC Scholarship. I was selected into the program in 2015 to attend my first GDC. As part of my scholarship I was given my first UR mentor and was able to attend GDC and meet so many incredible GUR folks that in many ways all had a part to play in helping me get to where I am today.  

In the fall of 2015 I launched my indie game studio, Octothorpe, with 3 other extremely talented individuals (including my instructor from that game design course) and I suppose that got my foot in the door in a big way. From there, it was about networking and building relationships within the GUR community, and that has helped me get where I am today.

You originally worked with Octothorpe as their first user research director. What did you learn from your time there?

I was just getting into GUR by the time we started up Octothorpe, so much of my formative time learning my craft happened there. 

When I look back at that time I can see how truly grateful I am that I was able to be in a situation where I needed to learn more about game design and development, not only as an owner of the studio but also so that I could teach my colleagues how we could incorporate GUR to enhance our products. It was nice to be able to have those learning opportunities for myself at such a small scale where I could really get involved and see the literal day to day, as well as learn from my mistakes. It helped me to see the value in GUR being present during the decision making process in the earliest days of conception. This helped me identify the GUR value add for our designers, and how I could communicate that value to my partners, which has been hugely valuable for me throughout my career.

I also learned a lot about flexibility and creativity. We didn’t have a lab, or really any budget for GUR most of the time, so I was forced to do what I could with what I had. This guerilla approach to research helped me learn to be okay with compromise and embrace a level of uncertainty with what needed to be done to ensure I could deliver information back to my team.

You now work with much larger teams. What skills do you think have been important to work on as your career has developed?

Relationship building and communication.

Going beyond the research and really focusing on more interpersonal skills to build better working relationships has been key. I’m forever grateful that I took several basic game design and development courses in college as even just this basic understanding has paid off many times over. Additionally, I had the opportunity with Ocothorpe to be so close to the design and designers throughout the process which taught me a greater appreciation for that craft and how I could insert GUR around it.

As you progress in seniority as a researcher, it really does become less and less about your methods and more about communicating findings, as well as the value of GUR. Building good relationships takes time and trust. For me, I quickly learned when it was important to answer the questions vs asking the right one when it came to being integrated into decision making. I’ve spoken about it multiple times on the podcast I host, the GUR Cafe podcast, but communication is key. Not only do you need to be able to communicate your findings (or even more often, what GUR is) but you will need to be able to communicate with your stakeholders which can vary immensely and listen to what they have to say, and what they need.

What do you think are the biggest challenges for people joining the industry now?

There is certainly a lot of saturation in GUR compared to 5 years ago when things still felt… small. It can be very difficult to get experience to set yourself apart from other grads, especially when you have many companies looking for mid to senior level individuals. I think at times there tends to be a hyperfocus on everyone getting the highest, most extensive research experience in their schooling. I’m not saying that this is wrong, but it really does depend on what role you want to have in GUR. Depending on your role will depend on whether a PhD or Master level research understanding will be necessary. Not all GUR jobs have the same needs so don’t feel downtrodden if you opt to not get a PhD. Join the GRUX discord, join the mentoring program, read the articles and books put out by so many in this community. There isn’t only one way in.

Would you recommend people interested in becoming games user research starting in indie or AAA?

Great question. I will forever have a soft spot in my heart for all that scrappy research I did at Octothorpe. Though I certainly don’t miss toting my suitcase/”lab on the go” around filled with phones, laptops, and my go pro, I learned so much in those early days. I think there is a lot to be said for getting started small, which doesn’t necessarily have to be indie but you should start running GUR on your own. Don’t get bogged down with having access to the fanciest tools or understanding the ins and outs of the best processes, be okay with things not being perfect and just start. Even in my early days at Octothorpe I ran a lot of heuristic/expert (whatever you want to call them) reviews on my own with nothing more than a game and an excel spreadsheet. To me “being an indie” will always be synonymous with scrappy, so I would always suggest people to start small. I’ve seen it happen too many times when juniors get sucked into all the fancy tools available to them that they forget the purpose of the research and what questions they were trying to answer in the first place and what your role as a user researcher is. So, start small and remember the questions you are trying to answer – whether that be as an indie or in AAA. 

Do you have any advice for others looking to work in games user research?

I really wish someone would have sat me down and told me that it was okay to not feel confident with every method, or even know every one. Be okay with the fact that you won’t be an expert in every method – it is unrealistic and no one expects this of you. Being a successful GUR is more than methods, it’s okay to learn on the job when you’re new.

If you want to go into industry and work in GUR – remember successful GUR is about partnerships. Learn about your partners in game design and development. Take time to learn more about basics of game design, learn the fundamentals of game development, and take time to learn the terminology (I highly recommend Game Maker’s Toolkit on YouTube). Being successful in GUR is as much about being able to understand their lingo as it is about getting them to understand yours. If in doubt, take the pragmatic approach.

Lastly, just start doing it. It can be difficult at times to “break in” but there are plenty of things you can start practicing on your own. Do reviews, learn more about game design and development. On the job it won’t be only about being able to do research so push yourself to learn about everything around it.

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Interview

Hannah Murphy – User Researcher at Activision

This month I’ve been talking to Hannah Murphy, User Researcher at Activision about her experience working in games, and top tips for people looking to join the industry.

She shared her own journey into user research, her experience running the Games User Research mentoring scheme, and how to develop your own games user research skills.

Follow Hannah on Twitter or Twitch

Hannah Murphy User Research Career Interview

What do you currently do at Activision?

I’m a User Experience Researcher that focuses primarily on UI/UX, meaning the majority of my work is designing, executing, and reporting research as it relates to UI/UX,  and I work closely with the many different subsidiary dev studios of Activision in that process. Before that, I built up our mobile research area. 

How did you get started in games user research?  

This starts with attending the gamesUR Summit since 2015 when I was in graduate school. A friend of mine had told me about the SiG and I thought I would check it out. Shortly after my first gamesUR Summit I decided I wanted to pursue a career in games user research so I did my best to gain relevant research experience on my own by working with local indie devs in Minneapolis. 

My first formal UX Researcher role was actually not in games but in finance. While I was working at a financial institution I continued to gain relevant games user research experience on the side while still regularly attending the GamesUR Summit. I also managed to go to GDC and had Celia Hodent as my mentor for that week, which helped immensely. 

Eventually, I got my first role in the games industry as a UX Lab Analyst at Epic Games in 2018 where I moderated user research studies at Epic. The rest is history.

You started studying games in graduate school. What did you learn from your time doing that?

My time studying games in graduate school was quite valuable, as it taught me about the differences between academic games research and industry games research and gave me the necessary tools to take my academic research and adapt it to industry work. I feel that my graduate studies of games gave me a solid foundational knowledge of research methodologies that I brought with me to industry.

Has anything surprised you about working in the games industry?

This may sound naive, but the lack of women! Maybe it was wishful thinking, but I’d really hoped that once I got into the gaming industry, I would see that there are plenty of us. Fortunately, that has been changing and I believe will continue to do so, for the better. 

What do you think are the biggest challenges for people joining the industry now?

I think that, even though I imagine the games industry was always competitive, it feels like it has become so much more since I became involved with the GRUX SiG. I think people really need to strategize and take the steps necessary to stand out from everyone else. This challenge is unfortunately compounded by the current state of the world (COVID), as networking at the #gamesUR Summit and GDC can have a huge impact on career development. 

You run the GRUX-SIG mentoring scheme for people interested in becoming a games user researcher. Why do you think mentoring is valuable for people?

That’s a great question! Mentoring, in my opinion, helps both the mentor and the mentee grow in ways that are incredibly valuable to their career. It not only is a method for mentees to gain feedback on their own work and knowledge, but it builds trust, communication, and problem-solving skills that are essential to career growth. Managing professional relationships and adapting to others’ unique needs and learning styles is a great experience for mentors that they can take and apply to their own career. It’s also a great way for mentees to get their feet wet in managing professional relationships and expectations in a way that helps prepare them for industry.

Do you have any advice for others looking to work in games user research?

Don’t give up. Think about how you can set yourself apart from other applicants. Some thoughts on how to do this: Build your own experience and don’t wait for someone to hand it to you. Taking responsibility for your own learning and putting yourself out there shows. Reach out to indie devs and ask if you can hone your research skills and provide feedback on their game (whether that’s in the form of a usability test, playtest, etc.). Create something you can show to someone in interviews. 

My other piece of advice is to get involved in the community and attend the annual #gamesUR Summit (if you’re able). If you’re able to, volunteer for our annual Summit. It’s a great way to network and show work ethic. Being involved in the community and attending Summits has undoubtedly helped me break into the industry.

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Interview

Marco Alesci – Games User Researcher at Player Research

This month I’ve been talking to Marco Alesci, Games User Researcher at Player Research about his experience working in games, and top tips for people looking to join the industry.

He shared how his experience with primates helped him become a better researcher, the value of a research community and how to practice games user research skills.

What do you currently do in the games industry?

I’m a games user researcher at Player Research. I help game companies to answer questions about their games’ UX by conducting various types of research and analysis. This involves scoping the research project with the stakeholders, suggesting and executing the most appropriate methodology and reporting the research findings to them. As Player Research is a consultancy agency, I collaborate with companies around the world on games of different genres and platforms.

What did you do before you worked in games?

I started to work at Player Research soon after finishing a Master’s Degree in Experimental Social Psychology. I’ve always been interested in the ultimate causes of human behaviour and, for this reason, I dedicated my last University years to the study of primates’ behaviours. 

Although this might sound unusual, planning and executing research to study wild primates proved to be very instructive also for my Games User Research (GUR) career. Not only it taught me the fundamentals of research design but also provided me with specific domain and methods knowledge applicable to GUR. Interviewing local people to understand their attitudes toward the monkeys provided me with hands-on experiences in interview practices, which resulted to be useful when interviewing playtesters to assess their understanding of a game. In both disciplines, certain questions can only be answered through behavioural observation and precise note taking. Finally, studying primates also taught me how observed behaviours can sometimes be misinterpreted in absence of other additional information. Combining different types of data (such as interviews, behavioural observations, biological samples, habitat characteristics etc) to have a more holistic understanding of my study topic is equivalent to what is done in GUR to get a more accurate understanding of players’ behaviour.

How did you discover that games user research was a potential career?

This is an interesting story. After I graduated, I realised that I didn’t want to pursue a career in Primatology, as it didn’t align well with the lifestyle I wanted, so I started to look for an alternative career path in which my psychology knowledge was useful. At that time, I didn’t know GUR existed as the only psychology-related professions my University professors ever referred to were the clinical or work psychologist, which I was not interested in. 

One day, trying to find new and more appealing career options, I decided to search online for a way to combine my personal and academic interests together. I googled “psychology research videogames” and, after some digging, the IGDA GRUX website came up. Initially, I couldn’t believe that such an interesting job existed. Then, I assumed that other technical knowledge (e.g. coding, art design) was necessary. It was only when I read the first job openings’ descriptions that I realised that an entry-level GUR position was not out of reach based on my experiences. Now I’m so glad I did that Google search on that day!

Did you do anything to prepare or get experience before getting your first job in games?

I had to complement my research psychology background with more specific GUR knowledge. I studied every GUR content I could find, starting from the GUR book (Drachen, Mirza-Babaei, Nacke, 2018) and the talks of previous GUR summits. I also enrolled in free online courses to learn more about other topics related to GUR and games research (e.g. “mainstream” user research, serious games, gamification etc).

Joining the GUR Discord channel was also a defining moment. It gave me the opportunity to learn more about the state of the industry and to get in touch with GUR professionals. Receiving guidance from a mentor was incredibly helpful as I had plenty of questions to ask and I wasn’t sure if my CV was ready for a real application (so thank you very much Steve for helping me back then!).

How did you find the process of applying for jobs?

I’ve been extremely lucky to have landed on my current role immediately after finishing my Master’s degree, so the job-hunting period was pretty short for me. The hiring process deeply tested my GUR knowledge and also involved an expert analysis task on a commercial videogame. Presenting my findings to the Player Research team was both stimulating and scary, as I feared that failing the interview could have prevented me from entering in the GUR industry. Travelling to Brighton for the final interview, meeting the Player Research team in person and seeing the lab was really exciting. 

What was the most difficult part of getting your first role in the games industry? What did you do to overcome it?

I believe that the most challenging part for me was getting up to speed with the state of the GUR industry and realising that I had the competences needed to apply for an entry-level role. No one ever mentioned GUR as a potential career during my university studies, so I had to discover and study this discipline autonomously (I’m extremely grateful to the IGDA GRUX website, Discord, and the mentorship program). This also meant that I wasn’t fully aware of all the companies that could potentially offer GUR roles and where they were located. As there weren’t many GUR positions in Italy (my home country), I also had to be ready to move to a foreign country.

Do you have any advice for others looking to work in games?

First of all, make sure to have a solid understanding of GUR methods and that you can talk about them confidently. You need to be able to explain why certain methods are preferred over others and what their trade-offs are in terms of research reliability and business objectives. Job interviews will likely cover these topics.

Practice the job-related skills as much as you can. Conduct usability expert reviews in your free time, compile the issues you found in a short report and ask for feedback (plenty of people in the GUR Discord channel will be happy to provide it). Many hiring processes involve an expert review task, so being familiar with this research method will definitely come handy during this hiring step. Similarly, remember that you don’t need an high-tech lab to get experience with usability playtest. You can run mock-up playtests with your friends and family, or you can volunteer to help indie companies if you are up for it. This will give you initial insights on the difficulties and limitations of this research method and also something to discuss during the job interview. More in general, read jobs’ descriptions and be proactive in filling the gaps of your profile. 

Finally, but probably most importantly, join the GUR Discord channel and the mentorship program. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to get involved with the GUR community.

Feel free to contact me on Linkedin if you have any questions or want to talk about GUR, games..or primates! 

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Interview

Krista Parham – Senior User Researcher at Kabam

This month I’ve been talking to Krista Parham, User Researcher at Kabam Games about her experience working in games, and top tips for people looking to join the industry.

She shared what it’s like working on mobile games, how games mirror the film industry and why it’s important to be honest about the games you play.

What do you currently do at Kabam?

I’m a Senior User Researcher. I work on studio level research to help teams understand players and their needs to inform design, partner with project leadership to build out research programs to take their game from concept to live services to help make player’s experience of the game match their vision. Day to day that means meeting with devs, figuring out what’s coming and anticipating where they’re going to need research. I work across multiple titles so I have to hold many different timelines in my brain at once.

How did you get started in games user research?  

I first heard about Games User Research at an industry panel in one of my HCI classes and went “That’s a job?? I want to do that.” After I graduated I applied at EA for a Researcher position, got it, and the rest is history.

What is games user research like for mobile games? What type of questions do you help with?

I’ve worked on both mobile and HD titles and some of the major differences are: it’s easier to get and deliver builds, the UI is more important, and the games have longer and more iterative beta cycles. The questions are mostly the same, we try to understand what blocks players from progressing, how to help the game be more satisfying, and make sure the game is engaging in the long-term.

The divide between mobile and HD games is blurrier than ever, if there was a major difference before. With cross-platform titles, live service games, and higher quality graphics and responsiveness on mobile, they’re really all just… games. And the focus as a researcher is on understanding the game and the motivations of our players, less than the platform. Except that it is way easier to distribute games on mobile. 

What skills do you think have been important to work on as your career has developed?

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that you start out doing the job and then as time goes on you end up managing the job, either as people management or in project management. I still do the job, analysing the data, but the focus is more on building plans, making sure we’re doing the most useful work at the right time, and thinking about strategic work.

Has anything surprised you about working in the games industry?

I came into games thinking it was a software industry but it’s an entertainment industry. We have more in common with the film industry. We share similar job titles and structures. Games are often successful not because of being better or whatever ineffable thing makes something a hit. We’re also in the business of making something that is meaningful for people and that will stick with them when they aren’t engaging with it.

What do you think are the biggest challenges for people joining the industry now?

Roles are increasingly specialized, understanding those roles and figuring out which one is a match is a big challenge. Figuring out what you want to do day-to-day and then figuring out what that’s called in video games. Just choosing what jobs to apply for is a huge challenge, it’s not always easy to understand what the titles mean without experience.

Do you have any advice for others looking to work in games user research?

  1. Focus on research skills. When we’re looking at candidates, we can teach the business processes but we’re looking for someone who really understands the philosophy of research and is solid in their methods 
  2. Read up on design research (or take a course). Wider UXR has a lot to teach Games UR and coming in with even a basic understanding of what UX maturity is and what design research is will help someone acclimate to the industry and also help them communicate why research matters. 
  3. If you get asked if you play games, say yes and list the games. So many times I interview people who are like ‘I don’t play games’ and then thirty seconds later they’re talking about how many hours of Candy Crush or FIFA or Pokemon Go they’ve played. Those are games! 

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Interview

Richard Lemarchand – Playtesting and a Playful Production Process

I was very lucky to have some time with Richard Lemarchand, to talk about his new book A Playful Production Process. Richard has worked in the game industry for over two decades, and is currently teaching at the USC Games program at the University of Southern California. 

When at Naughty Dog, Richard led & co-led design for the Uncharted series. In the interview, we talk about his experience running playtests in the industry, some of the barriers that teams face and steps to overcome them.

His new book covers how to balance the creativity of game design with techniques for effective project management, and describes a playtest focused method of game development.

I think it’s a really important text for growing user researchers, to help them identify where they fit in the game development process, what they should be testing and how to position their conclusions for maximum impact.

Learn more about Richard’s work on his personal website

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A Playful Production Process: The challenges of making games, and avoiding crunch.

Your book, A Playful Production Process came out recently. What inspired you to write it? 

Ever since I joined the industry, I’ve understood how tremendously difficult making games is. I tell a few anecdotes in the book about underestimating how long things were going to take and having to crunch, ending up in the kind of uncontrolled overwork that easily burns people out, damages both physical and mental health of individuals, and really damages organizations as well. It can lead to studios folding, publishers going out of business, if our processes aren’t sustainable.

So all throughout my career, and including in the second phase of my career since I joined the USC games program at the University of Southern California, I was trying to gather up best practices to just try and make game development that little bit easier.

Game development is never going to be easy. The technology is always changing. New game genres emerge. Design in itself is a fascinating kind of practice, where we’re looking to meet needs and solve problems. And there is the artistry of game making, not just in terms of visual art or beautiful audio, but games as an art form. And while you can have various philosophies around art making, I don’t think we’ll ever analyze art away.

Game development is going to remain tremendously challenging and that’s part of what I love about it, and what intrigues me. All I wanted to do with this book was gather up all these best practices that I’ve been exposed to, that I’d learned from other people, from my colleagues, my mentors, from talks at GDC and elsewhere, and put them in a row just to guide people through making a game. The book guides people through four phases that guide them, steadily but surely, towards a finished game.

We can be making games throughout our working lives, into our seventies, even our eighties or nineties

Richard Lemarchand

I would be very happy if the relatively simple structured process in the book led people to work out for themselves, for their teams and their organizations, how to bring that hard work under control so that it doesn’t hurt them, so that they’re doing it in a deliberate way. This will make our careers and our game design practices sustainable, so that instead of leaving the industry and getting a job somewhere else, like unfortunately happens to many people, we can be doing this right the way throughout our working lives, into our seventies, even our eighties or nineties. I would love that.

The evolution of playtesting

How did you develop your approach to game development?

Well I really get this focus on play testing from a couple of places. One is my experience in the industry. I remember running a play test for the very first game I worked on, which was F-15 Strike Eagle 2, for the Sega Mega Drive as it was in the UK, when I worked at MicroProse. I think probably one of my wise bosses suggested that we do this. It might have been my friend Pete Moreland, who was my boss at the time & one of my early mentors. But it was a kind of friends and family playtest.

F-15 Strike Eagle 2

And all the way back then in the early ’90s, I could see clearly that, even though it was very unstructured and the feedback we were getting was very anecdotal, there was great value in putting your game just in front of people and seeing how it lands with them, seeing whether they could figure out how to even start the game, let alone how to play it.

I could see clearly that there was great value in putting your game just in front of people and seeing how it lands with them

Richard Lemarchand

 

Of course, in the ’90s and even in the early 2000s, playtesting and especially user research, wasn’t very prevalent. But in those times I would spend a lot of time with the QA department, who were of course playtesting the game in a slightly different mode, in the mode of quality assurance, looking to create bug reports.

Once I joined Naughty Dog, and it was exposed to what they called, slightly confusingly, the focus testing process, which was really user research, that was when things really began to click for me about the importance of play testing.

And then latterly, through reading Tracy Fullerton’s amazing book, Game Design Workshop, which stresses the importance of playtesting at every stage. Tracy coined the term play-centric game design, to show that we can and indeed need to start playtesting right at the very beginning of our process. I hope that my book is a kind of spiritual sequel to Tracy’s Game Design Workshop. It’s really intended to follow on from all the lessons that Tracy teaches.

Playtesting early in development

I think that no matter how small and clunky, and maybe un-gamelike a prototype that you make is, there’s incredible value in putting it in front of somebody else, and just seeing how they react, seeing how they approach it, seeing if they can work out the controls that you haven’t properly explained, seeing what they can get just through play.

When prototyping it’s usually much better to make a toy than it is a game.

Richard Lemarchand

I tell my students that when they’re prototyping, looking for interesting game verbs that might lead them to a more fully developed game design, it’s usually much better to make a toy than it is a game.

I’ve actually seen students start to burn themselves out in the first or second week of class by struggling to make a whole miniature 2D, side scrolling platform game or something, complete with attack jumps, and attacks, and enemies and a score readout. 

I don’t think that’s productive. I think that’s getting ahead of ourselves. If we make a toy like a digital slinky, or a handful of digital rubber bouncy balls, and put them in an environment that has some features maybe and just see what people do, what people figure out they can do, what people like to do, what they enjoy, what they keep doing spontaneously, I think those are the discoveries that lead us onwards to interesting places in game design.

Playtesting vs ‘User Research’

The book distinguishes between playtesting and user research. How do they differ?

When I talk about user research I’m describing a rigorous scientific discipline where we’re really gathering solid knowledge about something to do with our game.

I do think that the process of formal play testing that I described, which is inspired by, has its roots in, user research practices, is more of a subjective art making process. It introduces subjective evaluations on the part of a game designer which hopefully are rooted in their experience, their knowledge, their wisdom as a designer, but might also have some foundation in their intuitions — what their gut is telling them, their informed guesses, perhaps.

I think that we’re not totally lost in a sea of subjectivity though. Because I think very often we can find the fun, or other kinds of emotional affective state, by noticing what players want to do more of, or what players have a difficult time stopping doing.

This can help us make design decisions. In the case of my sort of physics-based toys that I was just describing, it might be the case that if we make small changes to the numbers, some physical system that we can play within goes from being annoying, frustrating, blocking, to rich, pleasurable, aesthetic. And that’s I think a way to a particular kind of fun at least.

I’m very interested in this word “fun”. I think that it bedevils game designers quite a lot. And I’ve been very glad as the emotional spectrum of games has opened up. Because it’s allowed us to make other kinds of evaluations. Like, is this game making people feel the kind of nostalgic melancholy that I want to feel, for instance? Or the kind of reflection on grief or loss? 

But like you say, there’s an artistic quality. And that’s what game designers are paid for, to make artistic judgment calls.

User research in the games industry

I want to ask about the games industry — what are your thoughts on the take up of playtesting and user research in industry? 

I think that there were reservations at one time. I think any time there’s a change in the way that an industry or creative practice is organized, there’s going to be some skepticism on the part of the folks who were there before. But you know, I think that we are 10, 15 years, maybe even longer beyond that. And I do think that today user research testing practices are widely accepted as being extremely important. 

Not universally though. I think that some developers still miss a trick in terms of not taking the opportunity to use techniques from HCI and user research to make sure that there are no problems with their game. 

My gut is that [reservations around playtesting] are a generation behind us now

Richard Lemarchand

I think we still see this sometimes around interface. I think in the last few years we’ve seen some major AAA PC gaming RPGs where the developers may have assumed that the interface for something like an inventory and the management of armor and weapons on a character was going to be a relatively straightforward task to deal with, and then implemented something that was functional but that wasn’t really easy or pleasurable to use. However, my gut is that that’s kind of a generation behind us now, because when we look at the standards of interface design in the current generation of AAA and PC games, I think that we see incredibly high standards.

I was very impressed by the interface in Cyberpunk 2077, which actually my friend Zach Bohn worked on.  Zach’s now a senior technical designer at Sony’s Santa Monica studio, and his background is in UI design. So I’m sure that I should credit his amazing colleagues as well as him for that wonderful interface design in Cyberpunk 2077.

I think we have the academy to thank for that, right, and folks who came out of the academy. I’m very lucky to work both with Dennis Wixon and Heather Desurvire who come from the world of HCI and user research who teach classes with us, as well as having a lot of amazing industry credits. 

I think that the widespread adoption of user research techniques in industry is probably due in part to the wisdom that graduating students have brought to their first industry jobs helping their new colleagues to understand the great value that these techniques can bring to game design.

Uncharted 3 Image

In the book you talk about your work on Uncharted with Naughty Dog and that near to launch playtests were happening weekly. Do you see any barriers that stop teams playtesting as often as they would like to, or they should? 

There are barriers certainly, in terms of time and attention, I think this actually has a relationship with the problem of crunch. If you are racing to just build out your game as the final shipping deadline gets closer, you may not have the time that it takes to invest in organizing and running playtests and then analyzing the data that you get back from them, especially if you’re a small team. That’s a problem that can be solved using money, of course, but again, money is something that not every game developer has a lot of.

So I think that what I’ve seen is that user research practices are more readily adopted by teams who have quite considerable institutional support from a publisher perhaps, or perhaps because they’re a team within a large studio. I think things are more challenging for smaller developers.

But, one of the reasons that I teach my classes the way that I do, and the way that I discuss the process of formal playtesting that I describe in my book is because I believe that you can do it on a shoestring, you can do it at relatively low cost. It doesn’t have to be tremendously time consuming. In the book, I describe some quite mundane details about finding playtesters, finding a space to playtest in, getting there early to set up the chairs and so on, that I hope will help other people not run into the same kind of basic problems that I did when I first started running playtests. Because it definitely does take somebody at the studio to own the process and make sure that all the little details are getting taken care of.

That was something that I was very excited about at Naughty Dog and I helped as we were ramping up our formal playtesting processes. And now I believe that there’s a good cadre of people who are devoted to that process at Naughty Dog.

Playtesting in academia

You teach game design and game production at the University of Southern California. How does the idea of playtesting go down with your students and the people who come to your classes?

I think that our students are a little surprised at the very beginning of their time with us just how quickly we want them to start playtesting, and just how much we want them to playtest. I regularly give that feedback — your playtest reports are excellent, I would just like you to do even more playtests and take even more notes.

I think maybe in culture there are some received ideas about the creative process ,which are probably tangled up with wrongheaded notions about auteurs and about how great artists work and about geniuses. That creatives do some thinking, and they’re very brilliant and they think for a long time, and then they start to make the artwork, and then they just make it from start to finish without fault. When in actual fact, most creative projects — even the ones that we think of as made by auteurs — are made by communities of people, maybe located around someone who acts as a figurehead, or a guide for the process. And all those processes are messy, nonlinear, iterative.

Perhaps that’s why our students are sometimes surprised, because they think that they’re going to just design a game in a straight line. They’re going to think, and build, and then it’ll come out brilliant. Of course, we know that it takes place in a loop.

An iterative loop showing Design -> Develop -> Playtest -> Analyse
Adapted from ‘A Playful Production Process’

However, I think that by the end of their first semester, every USC game student really gets it, that we’re going to iterate a lot, we’re going to do a lot of analysis, we’re going to re implement things a lot in search of the right game design solutions. I’m very proud of our student community for embracing playtesting in the way that they do.

If people would like to hear more about the USC games program, then they can find us online at games.usc.edu. We offer courses at both the undergrad and the graduate level, and we offer courses in both USCs Viterbi School of Engineering, which offers computer science degrees with a specialization in games. And we offer degrees in interactive media and games in the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Students from all these programs are drawn together at every stage of their education. So between the tech of the engineering school, and the design and artistry and storytelling of the cinema school, we have an incredibly rich program with everyone learning from everyone all the time. So please check out the degrees that we offer and tell your friends about them.

What’s difficult for students and indie developers and when trying to run playtests?

I think one of the barriers for students when they’re playtesting is just finding fresh playtesters. When you’re in a student community you have your friends around you a lot, and you might feel a little shyer about approaching someone you don’t know for a playtest. Also, when you’re in a student community at a game design program, everyone around you is a game designer and I don’t think those are necessarily the very best people to playtest your game on. You want regular punters, right. You ideally want people off the street.

Finding playtesters is a solvable problem

Richard Lemarchand

In a university setting, and when we’re not experiencing a global pandemic, a path to solving that is to just go out onto the quad and set up your little lemonade booth asking people to play test our game and grab passers by. And my students sometimes do that. They’ll also put up posters with the tear off strips along the bottom.

Finding playtesters is a solvable problem. It’s a little harder for Indie game developers where there may be more of an expectation if you’re playtesting on random members of the public, that there may be some compensation for them and I think that’s appropriate that people are compensated for their time. It comes back to budgetary matters again.

But there are always ways around it. With the way that we’re so socially connected online these days, we can hack our way to finding fresh playtesters. Then we just have to get over whatever hurdles of shyness or social anxiety that we might have. I seem extroverted, but I’m actually an extroverted introvert. So sometimes I have to push myself to make that jump to make contact with a stranger and to organize groups of strangers. And that’s something that I always try and give people support around as well.

The future

What’s next for you, Richard?

I have discovered just how much I love to write in the course of creating this book. Becoming an author has been a longstanding goal of mine, and I want to keep writing, I’ve got loads of ideas that I’m stewing on.

I was lucky to have a few successful GDC talks over the course of the last few years and I’m quite interested to synthesize my thoughts about the role that attention plays in the design of video games, attention as understood by psychologists, of course. I’m interested in the rhythmic patterns that we find in the temporal media that we enjoy. As you can tell from the kinds of games I’ve worked on, I’m very interested in storytelling and in storytelling games.

I’m fascinated by the sort of cadences of stories, and of games, and of how they can be aligned or misaligned. I discuss this a little bit, actually, I discuss this at some length in the book, in talking about the game design macro, which is a lightweight game design document that we can use to plan these things. I’d love to take a deeper dive into the rhythms of games and stories.

I’m also really interested in more transcendental matters around games. I gave a talk at GDC a few years ago called Infinite Play, which was partly about the work of James Carse, who wrote a book called “Finite and Infinite Games,” which looked at games and play as a kind of spiritual orientation for life in a way that really resonated with me. So, as you can tell, I’ve got a lot I want to talk about. So hopefully in the new year I’ll be launching into a new project.

Keep up with Richard’s work on his personal website.

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Interview

Jason Schklar – Founder & UX Consultant at UX Is Fine

This month I’ve been really lucky to talk to Jason Schklar, industry veteran and co-founder of UX Is Fine. Jason has worked in the industry for over two decades with both game publishers and development studios, including Microsoft Games, Big Huge Games, Zynga & Disney Mobile.

He shared his experience making the business case for research, how research informs iteration and advice for people looking to start a career in UX or games user research.

To keep up with Jason’s work, follow him on Facebook or LinkedIn

What do you currently do at UX is Fine?

I am one of three co-founders at UXIF. Neil Edwards heads up UX, Dave Inscore heads up UI, Look & Feel, Art, and Brand Identity.

I try to stay out of peoples’ way. We have awesome talent here (currently over 30 contractors) and the most important thing I can do is help them feel fulfilled, excited to work on cool projects, allow them to grow, and spare them the misery of the all-to-familiar ship and close the studio circle of game dev life.

Oh, and I also am in charge of getting and retaining clients so everyone gets paid 🙂

How did you get started in games user research?  

Like many of my colleagues at Microsoft Games User Research back in 2000-2001. I burned out of grad school after completing my Masters and Prelims and couldn’t possibly imagine an academic career any more. 

I had done research on how judges and jurors evaluate complex scientific evidence using both observational and survey research methods. This was a natural fit for the Games UX Research team, and they were happy to hire me in September of 2001.

Discovering the MS GUR group was a chance occurrence, however. My employer at the time (SPSS) sent me to an HCI conference in Seattle. I went to a Microsoft hosted happy hour and saw a couple of people demoing Dungeon Siege — a game I was super interested in at the time.

Turns out they were grad school dropouts like myself and encouraged me to apply for a job.

The rest is history.

How did that role change as your career developed? 

I didn’t actually have a very long career in user research. A couple of years at Microsoft in 2001-2003 and a couple more years as a consultant in 2008-2009.

The role changed because I quickly learned that a lot of my value was in working closely with development teams to help them understand and act on user research findings. Specifically I developed ways of doing research that fit with their development cadence.

Big Huge Games was my first real project. It became clear that my role as researcher was best handed off to another researcher so I could sit with the team, evaluate observational and quantitative data in real time, and help them make implementable solutions quickly.

I loved the speed of iteration. We’d make fixes between subjects (easy obvious misses) and between days (deeper think pieces, or relied more tech to fix).

It made sense, at that point, for me to join Big Huge Games as a producer who also kept an eye on UX and UXR strategy.

Has your background in games user research helped in your UX roles since?

Yep. The value of quick iteration during early development, the way to mitigate risks to quality and schedule by having the right cadence of feedback, and the deep integration into teams from both the developer and publisher side of the business.

Starting out on the publisher side that already had a small but growing UXR department meant that there was a cohort to debate and grow with. This was before the amazing community of GRUXers existed and I would have likely floundered around, felt lonely, and developed bad habits if left on my own.

Has anything surprised you about working in the games industry, compared to other industries?

It amazed me, at the time, that people who made games were so hesitant to engage UXR. I mean I expected it (sadly) from enterprise companies with a legacy of selling to procurement folks instead of end users. But in games? It made no sense.

The business case for UXR was harder to make back then when awareness was low, perceived value was lower, and it was just seen as another box to check off in terms of publisher demands.

Times have changed for the better, that’s for sure.

What do you think are the biggest challenges for people joining the industry now?

The bar is much higher now for people looking to join the bigger GRUX departments. People actually want to choose it as a career while they’re in college and grad school. There is a glut of talent (embarrassment of riches?) and not enough positions.

There are opportunities at smaller indie devs, but this isn’t ideal. Often you’ll have to spend most of your time in another role (not enough budget for a full time hire) and then you risk becoming so invested in the project, and so hesitant to make changes based on feedback because that work falls on your own shoulders, that you aren’t really fulfilling the role to the best of your ability.

Do you have any advice for others looking to work in games user research or UX?

There will always be a need for people who love games, think deeply about games, and who have a background in scientific and research methods.

Case studies (even made up ones) help a bunch for juniors — but be sure you get feedback on methodology, interpretation, and recommendation details.

For academics who want to break in, research on accessibility and inclusiveness are super hot right now because they are desperately needed in our industry.

We also need more diversity in the field. And I say this in the broadest sense. There are still many underrepresented groups in the field. And there is always room for people who are interested in playing and working on games other than the standard casual, midcore, and AA/AAA games that get most of the attention.

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Interview

Patrick Tan – User Researcher at Hothead Games

This month I’ve been talking to Patrick Tan, User Researcher at Hothead Games about his journey into games user research, and getting his first role in the games industry. 

He shared his experience applying for roles, getting the experience necessary to work in games and top tips for finding entry level games jobs.

To keep up with Patrick, find him on Discord (Pat#4036) or LinkedIn

Working in games user research

I am a User Researcher at Hothead Games, a mobile game studio. I primarily work with game teams through early concept testing all the way to a worldwide release!

I’m relatively new to working in UXR so my background isn’t too lengthy! But before working in games I did UX research at a creative agency named FCB/SIX and also the Royal Bank of Canada. Both were awesome experiences that let me contribute to some pretty cool products and work with other amazing researchers. Then before working at FCB/SIX and RBC, I was finishing my last year of undergrad studying computer science, psychology and communications technology.

Discovering games user research as a career

It was not until early this year I learned about Games User Research and its possibility as a career. I guess I always knew subconsciously that games user research existed, just by playing in betas and participating in player feedback surveys while growing up. But it never really clicked for me that it was usually user research that facilitated these moments.

When applying for jobs, I always noticed UXR opportunities at the different game companies but I always just assumed it was just the same as any UXR in tech. That was until I was able to connect with Phil Keck from WB Games and I was able to learn a whole new side of user research that I completely fell in love with! It was a super insightful chat, getting a quick crash course on how user research works in games and its differences/similarities to tech. But the most important takeaway was the introduction to the GRUX discord and other resources like Game Makers Toolkit. This put me in a never-ending rabbit hole learning everything about GRUX and how to break in. Which led me to buying the famous “Games User Research” book and funny enough “How to be a games user researcher“!

After taking some time to read through the books and scrounging the web for GUR related topics. I figured I very much enjoy playing video games and I like to do UX research as a job. I mind as well combine the two and look for something in the games industry!

(Shoutout to Phil Keck for getting me in touch with GUR and sharing your awesome resources! and Esther Santos for connecting me to Hothead Games!)

Preparing for a first games user research role

I was very fortunate to have the experience from both FCB/SIX and RBC as a UX researcher, which helped me practise research methods and tools in a practical setting. But because I was in between jobs at the time, I decided to use my time productively and continue to practice my skills by volunteering at Hack4LA. This was a great opportunity to continue to work on my research skills like interviewing and creating actionable insights, while also contributing to some fantastic civic tech projects.

Unironically, I was playing more games during my job hunt. In preparation for interviews, I usually played one of their games that the company developed (In my case it was mostly mobile games). This was more so to get an understanding of the types of games I could be expected to work on, and to demonstrate my interest in the company I was applying to. I love talking about anything games, and it definitely feels better if it is relevant towards the company!

(There are a bunch of volunteer platforms that you can use and gain experience from like Code for America, Code for Canada, Tech Fleet, and UX Rescue! (I’m sure there’s more))

Applying for games user research jobs

Applying was long and challenging but definitely rewarding when it was finished! Like many others it was a lot of applications through LinkedIn Jobs submitting your resume, cover letter and portfolio. But I think one of the key things is knowing there is a lot of support out there. I truly believe that networking is a very important skill and a lot of researchers are happy to give advice and their experiences with interviews. 

I found it also important to utilize different UX channels like Mixed Methods, Leaners (Previously UXRC), ResearchOps and of course the GRUX discord. These slack groups alongside the GRUX discord were a fantastic resource for not only job listings but also general questions and mentoring/advice.

The most difficult part of getting your first role in the games industry

I believe this applies to all industries but the most difficult thing is understanding the industry you will be working in. GUR is still a relatively new field so getting to know the differences and similarities between GUR and UXR in software development (Where I was coming from) was important. It helped me distinguish transferrable skills and read up on new ones. Meeting with researchers already in games helped me gain insight on what to expect from GUR and a list of resources to read up on, which evidently prepared me for future interviews in games.

Understanding game development

Although I am still very new to the industry, game development as a whole has been surprising. It’s been really interesting to see the entire process in developing a game and seeing all the different iterations a game goes through. Especially coming from a player’s perspective always thinking it must be so easy to make a game! haha

On a side note, it is pretty awesome that I can do research across all the different game teams. You really get exposure to all the different types of games and watch it grow from a small concept to a playable game! …Kinda crazy to think about it

Advice for others looking to work in games user research

1. Start playing games to get an understanding of different game designs, mechanics and terminology.

Since you will be working with games day-to-day, it is important to understand them as well. I found that having a basic understanding of how games are played will help with conversations down the road (especially when playtesting with users).

2. Play or research the games of the company you are interviewing for!

Not only do you learn more about the company, but you prepare yourself for any questions directly tied to one of their games (It happens!). I think most importantly, it shows genuine interest in taking the time and playing their games. People are passionate about games in this field.

3. Network and join different UX communities!

Can definitely say I have learned a lot from so many different researchers and I wouldn’t be in this field without the mentors I’ve met. It can be daunting at first but people do genuinely want to help eachother out! At the end, we are all trying to improve and grow the practice 😄


I am always open to chat about anything related to games (upcoming games, recommendations, whatever!) and of course I would be more than happy to chat about UXR related stuff (especially mobile!). I am still new to GUR so I am always looking to learn and would be more than happy to share my experiences so far! You can reach me over on discord Pat#4036 or LinkedIn

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Interview

Jimmy Zhou – Researcher at Riot Games

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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Interview

Joe Florey – Senior User Researcher at PlayStation

Joe Florey is an experienced user researcher, working in PlayStation’s European user research team. In this exclusive interview, he explained how mentoring helped him join the industry, and his experience converting a psychology PhD into a games user research role.

To keep up with Joe’s work, follow him on twitter.

What is it you currently do at PlayStation?

I am a Senior User Researcher in the EU user research team. I spend most of my time planning and running play tests with Media Molecule.

What was your journey into games user research?

I started out doing a Psychology undergraduate degree, then a perceptual psychology PhD. A couple of years into that degree I realised the academic life wasn’t for me long term and started looking for other opportunities. I discovered GUR was a possible role and that people with Psychology PhDs could do it (I still have an email I sent Mike Ambinder from Valve, who had a similar academic background at that time asking how to get into the industry, he sent a nice helpful reply). Over the course of the last year of my PhD I joined the GUR-sig mentoring scheme and worked with a mentor (big thank you to Bob Tilford!) to work on specific games user research skills. I was fortunate that PlayStation were hiring not long after my PhD ended and I managed to get a job as a Junior Researcher in 2017. 

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

The hardest step was just getting enough of an understanding of what GUR actually is and what skills are most important for getting a job. Initially I struggled with a lot of googling and reading but there weren’t many places with real detailed information (stevebromley.com was still in its infancy). The biggest help with this was joining the GUR-SIG mentoring scheme. Being able to talk directly to a researcher in the industry, especially one with a similar academic background to me, gave me a really clear direction of what I was already good at, and what I would need to work on to get a job. I also attended the London GUR-sig Conference as a volunteer, which allowed me to talk to lots of active researchers in the industry and see first hand the research that was going on. 

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

Definitely. Games user researchers are still researchers, and the skills and experience of designing, running and reporting on research I gained through my PhD gave me plenty to talk about in an interview. Academia also gives you good practice at discussing research methods and results objectively, something which is essential for a User Researcher.

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

Join the GUR mentor scheme and Discord. The GUR community is really welcoming and are happy to help people who are passionate about games and research.


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