Defining research objectives

Successful studies need to be closely linked to the questions that game teams have, and the decisions they need to make. Learn how defining research objectives is essential to running great studies.

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Every research study starts with the objectives, defining what the study is going to learn. These are based on the work being done by the rest of the game team – what decisions are they making, and what information do they need from a study to make those decisions easier.

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A common mistake that researchers make is starting with the method (e.g. we’re going to run a usability test), and then coming up with the objectives that fit that method. This can occur when researchers feel more comfortable with some methods than others. Unfortunately, picking the method first limits the types of objectives that can be reliably answered – for example, if the decision is made to run a usability test, the team won’t be able to get high-quality answers around difficulty balancing. This can lead to running low impact studies that fail to address the questions that game teams really need answering. Always start by defining the objectives before deciding the method.

What do games user research objectives look like?

Some examples of potential research objectives include:

  • Do players know where to go on level 2?
  • Do players understand how to use fast-travel?
  • Can players complete the puzzle in the right time?
  • Does the tutorial teach players how to use their jetpack correctly?
  • Is the difficulty correct? 
  • Do players enjoy the game?

Coming up with objectives should be a collaborative activity, defined by what the rest of the studio is working on currently. It’s a bad sign if a researcher is coming up with objectives with no input from other team members, since it increases the risk of no-one being ready to react to the findings of the research study once it’s complete.

Kick off meetings get studies started right

Deciding research objectives is often done in a kick-off meeting, where potential objectives for each study can be discussed and agreed. Before the kick-off meeting, a researcher spends some time gathering potential objectives for a study from discussions with colleagues working in design or production. Researchers might also suggest some objectives based on their understanding of the current priorities in the game. These potential objectives can then be nuanced, prioritised and agreed in the kick-off meeting with leads representing different disciplines (level design, art design, producers, etc) to confirm the most useful things a study could focus on at that time.

It can be difficult to schedule time with all of the leads. On those occasions, spending time with a senior producer who can help give an overview of the state of the game can help, combined with 1:1 catch-ups with any other important leads.

What else should be agreed at the start?

As well as agreeing on the objectives, the kick-off meeting agenda should also cover: 

  • The players. What type of player is the game aimed at, and what attributes should the participants for this study have.
  • The method. The researcher should give an indication of the appropriate research method to answer these objectives, with the caveat that this might change as the study design progresses.
  • The study dates. Discuss and agree deadlines and dates, useful for producers who need to plan when to schedule changes based on the findings, or when additional development work is needed to create a testable version of the game. 
  • Who should be involved. Ask if there are any team members not present who the findings will be relevant for, and should be invited to view research sessions or take part in debrief activities. 
  • The build. Find out when the version of the game used for the test will be ready. It’s recommended to put this deadline far enough in advance of the study to allow the build to be reviewed before the test, to give the researcher time to react if it’s in a bad state.

By having a kick-off meeting, it ensures that all of the relevant disciplines are aware of upcoming studies, and have the opportunity to have their views and priorities included in decision making. This can have a big impact on the success of user research inside a studio.

Running a successful kick off meeting will have a huge impact on the success of user research studies.

After the kick off

After the meeting, the agreed points should be documented and shared – creating a document that records what the objectives are, and what was agreed around dates and team members. Any research objectives that aren’t answerable in this study can also be captured, so that they can be answered later when appropriate. This document will be very valuable to the researcher when designing and planning the study.

Having successfully agreed the objectives from a study, it’s now time to start designing what the study will actually be, and preparing for it. 

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Meet the author

Steve Bromley is an expert user researcher, who works with studios of all sizes to run playtests, and integrate user research into the game development process.

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