Move from academia into games user research

Not hearing back from job applications? Here's what to cover when moving from academia to the games industry

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Moving from a post-graduate degree into the games industry can be challenging. You feel like a research expert, and are ready to combine your expertise with your passion playing games. 

But then – why are you getting ghosted and not getting interviews?

Your research skills are very important. That’s why, in a previous games user research salary survey, over 70% of people in the field had a post-graduate degree. But research skills are not the only thing you will be assessed on.

Getting the opportunity to make the leap from academic study to the games industry can be difficult, and many people end up frustrated – even with years of academic research experience, they get rejected from roles without even getting an interview. 

What’s going wrong? In this post we’ll look at how to make the most of your academic experience when applying, some of the traps to avoid, and how to get your first role in games.

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Too much academic experience can be a trap

Intuitively, it feels like doing a PhD should qualify you for senior games user research roles. You’ve spent years becoming a research expert, and are ready to apply that expertise to running games user research studies. 

Unfortunately too much academic experience can be a problem for getting senior roles. Here’s why.

An equal balance between
Research Expertise
Game Development Experience
Experience working with others

The perfect candidate for a research role is well balanced across multiple competencies. 

Three that I believe are important, and often assessed during applications are:

  • Research expertise – the ability to make sensible methodological decisions, and execute on them
  • Experience with game development – being able to identify appropriate research objectives throughout a production process, and do studies at the right time. 
  • Experience working with teams – being able to position your work and conclusions so that they are understood and seen as relevant by decision-makers in other disciplines. 

A PhD can leave you lopsided, and looking like this:

An unbalanced candidate, with too much research experience and not enough game development expeirence
(Oh hey – while we’re here. Don’t do these kind of graphs on your resume. They don’t help!)

An expert in experiment design and research skills (far beyond the expectations of a junior level), but without appropriate experience to work at a senior level in other categories. This means you can’t hit the ground running, and teams pass you over. 

Even if you do have appropriate experience in these other areas, the assumption will often be that you do not – and you will have to make a special effort to overcome those assumptions.

Too much of a research expert for a junior role, and too inexperienced in games for a senior role. 

You are stuck.

The experience to show to break out of the trap

Let’s return to these three areas, and look at what employers want to see.

Research Experience

This is hopefully the easiest one to tick off, because academic experience does often create the potential to develop excellent research skills. But you still need to make the relevance explicit. 

You need to show that you are comfortable with some of the most common methods found in games user research. Make explicit that you are comfortable with as many of the following methods as you can:

  • 1:1 usability studies
  • Unmoderated usability studies
  • Interviews
  • Diary studies
  • Field research
  • Survey-led playtests

Make it explicit that you can do this with industry-appropriate timeframes, and deliverables will make your experience seem relevant.

Game development experience

You need to demonstrate that you understand the game development process, and understand what it is like to work in a game studio. This should include:

  • Understanding the game production process, the stages and timelines 
  • Understanding the roles that exist within game development
  • Understand the terms used by game developers

Then you should consider how your research objectives would differ for the different stages and teams you might work with, and what some typical studies might include. (I’m writing a new post on this soon…).

Some disciplines are introduced in my book How To Be A Games User Researcher. I’ve also found the book A Playful Production Process to be a fantastic overview of a game development process. 

A lot of this experience can be difficult to get before you work in the industry (particularly the more technical things – like how to download and install a build), and you should be aware this is where you are weakest. Being ready to explain what you are doing to overcome this weakness will help show willingness – for example with self-guided projects. Here’s my guide on how to get experience working on games.

This can (and should) be supplemented by time spent understanding other disciplines, for example watching industry talks, or joining their communities. 

Team experience

Games user researchers spend a lot of their time speaking to other disciplines. Producers, designers, programmers, and artists are the people who actually need to make decisions based on our conclusions.

These conversations can sometimes be difficult, and political. Friction between disciplines comes up when finalising research objectives, or sharing research findings, as each discipline’s language and priorities are different. Having the social skills and diplomacy to understand and be understood is key to having impact with our studies.

You need to show you have worked with other disciplines (not necessarily in games). 

Many application processes test this by involving designers or producers in their interviews. When speaking to other disciplines, showing humility and a willingness to understand and learn from the environment (rather than playing the role of ‘the research expert’) can help create trust that you are able to work well with other teams. 

How to get your application noticed

As we’ve discussed before, none of this will help if your application is accidentally dismissed prematurely. 
Most game development roles advertised get hundreds of potentially qualified applications, and you need to even the odds that your application gets considered. Read the guide on networking to make sure you are getting a fair chance at an interview.

Tips from the community

From my own personal experience, using the opportunities that universities offer to get some experience in running in-person research is one of the biggest potential benefits of postgraduate study. We covered this in more depth in the HTBAGUR book. Jessica Tompkins, PhD and UX researcher at EA, help on this chapter was invaluable.

I also asked this question on twitter and LinkedIn, and Jessica gave some additional great points on LinkedIn:

Jess's comment about games user research. Linked above

Jess also later shared this fantastic advice thread on Twitter

Irena Pavlovic also raised the importance of pragmatism when performing research in industry.

Irena's comment about games user research. Linked above

On twitter, Natali, working as a user researcher at Ubisoft, raised the difference in pace between academia and industry, and that one of the challenges is adapting research methods, analysis and debriefing so that it finds answers when it’s still relevant. 

Natali's tweet about games user research - linked below

Link to Natali’s original tweet

Blake is a UX Researcher at XBox. He also highlighted how the change of environment impacts the goal of quantitative studies, and what we would consider an appropriate conclusion.

Blakes Tweet about Games User Research - linked below

Link to Blake’s original tweet  

Lots of great tips there from the community, and the need for speed comes up multiple times. In industry a study that provides findings too late is pointless, as the decision will have been made. The development team have already moved on to the next topic.

One way of speeding up analysis is through preparing templates for note-taking and analysis, and using mindmaps as a way to speed up analysis, as I covered in the Games User Research Summer Camp event in 2020.  We also explore this, and other aspects of moving from academia to industry in the book – but it’s a popular topic, so I know we’ll cover different aspects of the transition in more depth in the future.

How have others found it?

Last year I interviewed Blizzard’s Adam Lobel, with a deep focus on his transition from a PhD to games user research. Learn more about his experience and what surprised him in the full interview.

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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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