Moving into games user research from other UX jobs

How to convert your career and experience from other UX industries into a job in games user research.

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You spend eight hours of each day at work. And after many years of working as a user researcher, that can start to fill like a drain – what is the next career step? 

Some choose management and advance into mentoring or growing the next generation of user researchers. 

Others look to move industry – into a domain they feel passionate about. And everyone love games! 

This move into the games industry can be more challenging than expected, and questions emerge such as “how do I retain my seniority”, or “why am I not getting interviews from my application”.

In this updated article, we’ll look at how your existing user research experience can help put you ahead of other candidates, and reveal the gaps in your experience that you will have to address to be taken seriously.

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Recognise your transferable experience

A whole bunch of your experience will be transferable, and will help indicate that you are suitable for a games user research role. Here are some of the things to emphasise.

Many of the basic research methods are common to games

Many of the most common research methods from any user research role are hugely applicable to a games UX role, and your experience of running real research studies should be the central point of your resume and application. 

Some of the most common methods used across both industries are:

  • Usability testing 
  • Interviewing users
  • Unmoderated testing
  • Survey design

Emphasise any experience of these methods in your application to build confidence that you have the raw research skills required.

In your resume and interviews be ready to show that applying these methods led to real changes in the products you’ve worked on – impact is very important!

🚀 Do this now: Add a list of the research methods you are comfortable with to your resume

Working with other disciplines is also a huge part of the role

Being able to run studies is only one part of a user research role. Our studies our pointless if our peers don’t discover, understand or believe our findings. Because of this, relationship building, creating consensus, getting buy-in, convincing stakeholders, and leading without official power is incredibly important. 

To paraphrase Lou Downe, 10% of the job is running user research, 90% is creating the environment where user research matters. 

This isn’t unique to games, and if you’ve worked as a user researcher in other industries, this is a very important skill to emphasise – it will help you stand out from recent graduates who haven’t had the opportunity to demonstrate these ‘soft’ skills.

When applying, especially for more senior roles, emphasise your experience at bringing others along on the research journey, rather than just your ability to deliver studies. 

🚀 Do this now: Prepare some examples of working with other disciplines to increase their engagement and understanding of research, ready for an interview question

Be aware of your gaps and overcome them

If you have never worked in games before, you will have some gaps in your experience. 

Especially as you start to apply for mid-level or senior level position, these become increasingly important, and it can be very difficult to convince teams that you will be able to operate at a senior level in games. This includes being prepared for the unique nuances of games user research, and being able to operate in a professional game development environment.

Look at the nuances below, and make sure you are prepared to address them in your resume or interviews.

Be prepared to measure emotional goals

Games are entertainment, and are trying to create specific emotional or experiential goals. Often your game team want to know some variation of ‘is this fun?’. 

This is different to much of traditional user research, which is often focused on discovering and meeting the functional needs of users. 

Handling emotional objectives has some implications. For usability issues, this is fine – we can frame usability problems as ‘barriers to fun’. 

However it also means working out a reliable method of measuring enjoyment or fun. One approach is using a combination of quant measures, benchmarking and qualitative data to explain any quant scores. 

To prepare for a transition into games user research, think about how you might tackle research objectives based around emotional goals.

🚀 Do this now: Think about the challenges of measuring fun, and how to explain the limitations of measuring fun to a game team who will want to equate it with a review score. This will be excellent preparation for a researcher joining the games industry.

Think about the nuance of difficulty

In most other types of software, ‘difficulty’ is to be avoided. No-one wants it to be hard to order a book from an online shop. However for games, a game without difficulty isn’t (usually) fun. Theory like Raph Koster’s A Theory Of Fun For Game Design and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow both put ‘overcoming challenges that were previously unachievable’ as a key part of creating compelling experiences. Games need friction.

Games user researchers need to be nuanced and put in more upfront work to understand the thing being tested. They have to understand the game well enough to dinstiguish intended difficulty from accidental difficulty. 

This usually involves a lot of time working with designers to identify what the difficulty is meant to be and what players are meant to understand or be able to do before they should be allowed to progress. They need to moderate the session and capture notes in a way that recognises ‘intended’ challenge (that has been designed) and separates this from ‘unintended’ challenge (that is accidental). 

This also means that some of the typical things a user research team working outside of games (like ‘time to complete’), are not appropriate for games. These measures are not able to separate intended and unintended challenges.

🚀 Do this now: Consider how you would handle unintentional and accidental difficulty as part of an analysis process, and be prepared to talk about it.

Adapt your methods to minimise leaks

Many games have big marketing budgets, and excited fans who care deeply about the games being made. This puts them at high risk of leaks, and the consequences of leaks can be very expensive for the studio. So, secrecy is extremely important.

This includes asking participants to sign non-disclosure agreements and finding ways of actively preventing recording, such as removing their phones.

This need for secrecy has a big impact on the methods available to us. For extremely secretive games, there is a lot of pressure to run research in a controlled environment, a research lab. 

This is particularly difficult for quant research.  Other types of software can be distributed to users to use at their home, with unmoderated tools, surveys and analytics to capture their behaviour. With games, the huge risk of leaks means we can’t allow players to participate at home, and we need to bring them into a research lab. This leads to the need to build labs which can hold 10-40 players playing simultaneously. 

For a researcher coming from other industries, this requires them to adapt their study designs so that it works as a mass playtest and adapt their moderation so that they can control a room of many players simultaneously.

🚀 Do this now: Read more about minimising leaks in user research studies, and consider which adaptions would be appropriate for qualitative and quantitative studies. 

Understand how games get made

Understanding game development is important to be an effective games user researcher.

Market pressures push game development towards ‘big-bang’ launches, with one big software launch, often using a waterfall methodology. The process that game development follows is a-typical, and not like many other types of software.

We frequently work with other disciplines, and we need to understand their approach to game development, and their roles. This will help build credibility, but also work out who we should be sharing our conclusions with to get them actioned. 

User research is also a relatively new discipline in games, and we’ll frequently work with teams who don’t understand the full range of ways we can help de-risk game design decisions. This means game user researchers can’t sit back and wait for requests to come to them, instead we need to proactively jump in and tell design teams when we should be running studies. 

Understanding how game development works, the roles within game development, and where we can have an impact is crucial for identifying those opportunities when we should step in.

🚀 Do this now: Learn how user research and game development work together in my in-depth article

What is it like working in games?

I asked the community what some of the differences between working in games and other industries. See their replies in this thread:

Last thoughts on applying for roles

When applying, use a covering letter to highlight your strengths and also show that you’re aware of the gaps and what you have done to address them. 

When you are applying with a pre-existing user research background, your experience of planning and running studies is extremely valuable. Strongly emphasise this in your resume, including the methods are you comfortable with. Leave off focus groups though! 😉  

Supplementing your experience with an understanding of how games are different to other software design projects, will make you a very strong candidate. 

Last of all – mention you like games, so they can tell you are applying specifically to this games UX role, rather than just sending blanket CVs to every open user research role available! 

Tom Lorusso is a games user research veteran and also had some advice

(Tom’s original tweet)

I think Tom’s point, about the implications of games being art, is important. There is not only the impact on ‘how much people care’ about what they are making. It also affects how user researchers describe their work. 

In other fields, it’s common to talk about how user research uncovers and fulfills the needs of it’s users. In games, we often describe that our role is to ensure the game design vision is being experienced correctly. We frame this around the vision of the designer, not the needs of the user. 

As Tom says, it’s definitely a high-passion environment, which creates different dynamics to working in many corporate environments. Demonstrating that passion when applying for roles will help you stand out from other applicants.

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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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