My book, How To Be A Games User Researcher, has been out for around two years now. I’m excited to share that it’s recently been translated into Korean, thanks to the excellent initiative of the Game UX Analysis Team at NEXON.
I took the opportunity to ask their team about their approach to games user research, the games industry in Korea, and their recommendations on essential games user research books.
Tell me about NEXON – what is the companies history with making games?
NEXON started its online PC game service in 1996 with a game named ‘The Kingdom of the Winds’, and now develops and publishes dozens of games across multiple platforms, including PC, mobile, and console. Genres range from MMORPGs to casual games, and many titles have been in service for more than a decade. (FIFA 4, Dungeon & Fighter, Maple Story, Mabinogi, Kart Rider, Crazy Arcade, Sudden Attack, etc.)
NEXON is a popular game company in Korea and most of our current team members have played at least one NEXON game since childhood. NEXON also provides games in other regions such as North America, East Asia, and Southeast Asia, and we often do research on international markets.
Have NEXON always had a user research team? Has it been easy to promote the value of user research there?
NEXON didn’t always have a user research team. In 2014, when the user research market was not as big as it is now, the organization that became the prototype of the current ‘Game UX Analysis’ team was first created. It was an organization that did “game testing” with users and used a user research methodology.
In the early days of the organization, there was no consensus on the value of user research, so the group members used a variety of methods to promote the organization internally. It took a while, but after one, two, or three studies, we saw the results, and now almost every game developed at NEXON has gone through at least one user research study.
At a company as large as NEXON, the growth of the user research organization has been driven by management’s understanding of its value. The results of user research, which are highly quantitative and difficult to measure, have been well received by the management team, who have been very supportive of the organization’s growth.
What type of studies do the user research team at NEXON do?
Our main goal is to validate the various needs that arise in game development against the ‘design intent’. The focus is always on whether users respond to the ‘design intent’. This can be in the form of early concept and prototype testing, as well as milestone build testing in production.
The most common research is Focus Group Testing (FGT), where we bring in targeted users to determine if the build is fun and the core system works. We also do a lot of intensive research on ‘usability’ and ‘learning’. We often utilize UT, and if necessary, we also conduct more detailed research using eye trackers, etc.
Recently, we also repeatedly conducted surveys to understand the trends of users of ‘live game (service)’ from time to time. This is a way to collect responses that meet our planning intentions when updating specific content and whether there are any requests for future updates.
In addition to testing our builds, we also conduct research to understand our target audience. Who are our target users, what are their needs, and how do they fit into the game we’re developing? This research is conducted through a process of large-scale surveys -> interviews -> stakeholder workshops, and results in personas and UX needs lists that we can refer to during development.
We also strive to knowledgeize our accumulated know-how and insights as the organization grows. We are also trying to data the results of our tests by genre and element, and make them accessible to everyone in the company. Due to the nature of user research, the insights derived are often volatile or limited to the project, so we are trying to figure out how to systematically accumulate these insights and apply them to other games.
And you’ve recently built out a new user research lab. How did you find the process of building the lab, and what will it allow you to do?
Our previous testing space was a computer lab that was used as a training space at our company. While we were able to utilize the space fairly easily, there were a few things that I found frustrating as a researcher. For example, South Korea has a very popular cultural space dedicated to gaming called a PC cafe. The vast majority of gamers in South Korea have been exposed to and played games there since childhood, so their influence on the Korean gaming industry is huge.
As a space designed solely for “gameplay,” PC cafes provide an optimal immersive environment that focuses on the game itself, from the hardware to the interior and atmosphere. We wanted to understand the characteristics of Korean gamers and test them in an environment where they could be more immersed in the game itself, but the existing computer room was disappointing in that regard.
Fortunately, as mentioned above, NEXON’s management team has a strong understanding of the importance of user research. We were fortunate to receive approval for building a new test space, and we were able to create an environment that would be comparable to a Korean PC cafe. We now have an awesome test space that looks like a large 100-seat PC cafe that we’ve never seen before. In addition to the performance of the PC hardware and monitors, the keyboards, mouse, and chairs were all configured with gamer-friendly products so that users would feel like they were playing in a familiar PC cafe during testing. With this space, we were able to scale up our offline testing and observe “more natural user engagement”. That was the biggest benefit.
We also created a separate room where we could monitor every user’s play screen in real-time, allowing developers and researchers to watch them play in more detail without disturbing them. Previously, only a handful of players could be directly captured on camera and broadcast, but now we can broadcast any player’s play as it happens. In fact, developers are observing players in the observation room and gaining much more insight than our researchers ever intended. By observing play at scale, we have been able to spot balance, user flow, and critical bugs and issues directly and quickly fix them. This testing environment also allows for more efficient communication between developers and researchers at wrap-ups.
(However, the space has become so large and accommodates much more people… it’s more physically demanding for researchers than before…)
Is user research well-established in the Korean game development community?
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a community for “user research” in game development. Only a few large game companies, including NEXON, have user researcher positions. Of course, in the IT industry as a whole, the position of ‘user research’ is expanding, and there are related communities.
However, it is unfortunate that there is no community dedicated to the intersection of game user research and IT development.
Outside of a few game companies, there don’t seem to be many user research positions. I think for a user research culture to take hold, there needs to be an organizational understanding and belief in UX, and I don’t think the Korean game industry has that yet. As the industry grew mainly in online games, there is a tendency to think in terms of suppliers, but I think this is slowly changing as there are more diverse game companies and the importance of users as a whole is becoming more important.
What made you decide to translate How To Be A Games User Researcher?
A hallmark of our organizational culture is that we’re always looking for ways to improve. We have a weekly one-hour meeting where we share and talk about good resources or videos that we’ve found in our work or studies, and sometimes if we find a good book, we’ll organize a book study with interested people.
How to be a Games User Researcher was also discovered by someone, and we had a study group of 5 team members for about 5 weeks where we read, summarized, shared, and discussed how to apply the insights to our respective areas.
We set aside time to read and share the book with the team, and I found it to be very relatable and helpful. After summarizing the book together, the idea of translating it came up within the team, and we thought it would be great to see more interest in game user research in Korea.
How did you find the process of translating the book?
We had already read the book once and organized parts of it for sharing, but since we are not professional translators, it was not quite easy. Fortunately, it was easier than translating other texts because there are many shared languages, but it took more time than we thought because we had to translate the English expressions into Korean for translation.
What are your hopes from creating this resource for the Korean game development community?
We want to recognize the importance of user research in games.
Although NEXON has recognized the importance of user research to a certain extent, it is still immature in Korea as a whole. We hope that this book will help many people in the Korean game industry understand the importance of user research. Since there is no community of game user researchers to interact with, the team has been working for many years by gaining experience from scratch or looking for overseas references.
We thought that people from other companies, even non-researchers, and whoever has needs in user research would benefit from our work.
Are there any other books your team have enjoyed or found helpful?
Unfortunately, there aren’t many books for game UX research in Korea yet. Among the translated books, Celia Hodent’s Gamer’s Brain has a lot of good content. Outside of the UX realm, Jesper Juul’s books have been very helpful in understanding games. While not a book, we share a lot of Mark Brown’s videos on his GMTK YouTube channel with our team.
We also tend to read a lot of UX research/user research books from industries other than games. e.g. Think Like a UX Researcher – David Travis, Philip Hodgson
What’s next for your team?
To build a successful game UX research culture and spread good practices. The goal is to help non-technical people to conduct their own user research and to help them lead the way for wider use of user research. The most important thing is that the research we do helps us make better games and more fun games.
Furthermore, we hope that we can help to spread and understand the value of user research in the Korean gaming industry as a whole, just as we have done at NEXON.
As mentioned above, this is also the reason why we decided to translate and publish the book. We wish for everyone to realize that we can create better content and services through user research.
To that end, we are trying to spread the word and reinforce the fact that we, as an organization, are on this path before other organizations, so that we can make a good example.
That’s a wrap – thanks again to the team for sharing their insight into their process and the Korean games industry. If you’d like to learn more about the work of the Games UX Analysis Team, or NEXON – I’ve shared some links below.
Game UX Analysis Team Blog (Korean) 넥슨 UX의 브런치 (brunch.co.kr)
NEXON Intelligence Labs Tech Blog (Korean) 넥슨 인텔리전스랩스 테크블로그 (intelligencelabs.tech)
You can also pick up the Korean translation of How To Be A Games User Researcher from Kybobook’s website.
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