This month I’ve been talking to Ugo Bui-Xuan, Worldwide User Research Manager at Gameloft about his experience working in games user research, and top tips for people looking to join the industry.
He shared his own journey into games, life in a games user research consultancy, and experience establishing a new games user research function.
What do you currently do at Gameloft?
I’m the “Worldwide User Research Manager”, which is a very long title to basically say that I manage a small team of 6 researchers (+ the odd intern) and that we support all Gameloft Studios around the world, from Gameloft HQ located in Paris. There are about 10 studios, each working on 1-5 games (in-development and/or already live), so we’re pretty busy!
We’re a small, very agile team, with all levels of seniority so I’m still very much involved in day-to-day needs gathering with game teams, research design, planning, strategy, complex issue analysis, as well as final report validation. That said, I can’t (and shouldn’t) be everywhere all the time so I try as much as possible to leave more space for my team to try their own approach, (sometimes) make their own mistakes, learn from their own experience and grow as a researcher.
On top of that, I manage the politics, budget, evangelization, training and try my best to inject more user-centricity in all Gameloft processes, from the stage-gate timeline, to concept validation, to design and marketing.
How did you get started in games user research?
In France, Masters Degrees take 2 years. In addition to courses, the first year, you must do a 1-3 months internship and then a 6-month full time internship in order to validate your degree.
At the time I was studying Neuroscience & Neurobiology and my first year internship was very much Neurobiology focused, with lots of looking at various slices of mice and rat’s brains on microscope… and not much else. I must admit that the experience was not great. Or at least, it was good for making me realize that I didn’t want to do that.
For my second year, I got into an Applied Neuroscience Masters, supposed to be much more practical and focused on applying Neuroscience knowledge and research methods to various industries such as Food, Automobiles… and even Video Games!
At the time, I had never heard about UX, and I had never seriously considered working in games. I was interested in Psychology/Ergonomics/HCI/Human Factors but due to how the French University system is divided, it seemed I had gone the wrong path and these fields were now out of reach… Moreover, I had no idea they could be applied to games!
Still, I had heard of a student who’d got an internship at Ubisoft a few years back and the idea stuck with me. I eventually applied to a User Research internship offer at Ubisoft and got in!
How has your role changed as your career developed?
Initially, my internship and then role at Ubisoft Paris was divided between regular playtesting duties and the development of Biometrics methodologies. I learned a lot about the basis of UX, usability, theory of fun, game design… as well as practical playtest organization, game development processes and working with people on completely different timezones.
However, Ubisoft is a huge machine and you can rapidly feel like being stuck in a role, with a limited number of projects and methodologies at your disposal (at the time, at least!). Also, I didn’t want to specialize in Biometrics so soon after graduating and rather keep discovering and trying my hand at broader UX methods.
So I left for Player Research, at the time a small British start-up of 4 (superstar) researchers offering their services to studios of all sizes, working on all kinds of projects, from big AAA series to small indies, from free-to-play mobile games to emerging VR or Toy-to-Life games.
Working as a consultant was very, very different from what I had experienced at Ubisoft. Clients pay for your time and expertise, so you’re much more easily listened to… but you also need to deliver high-quality research on super tight timelines, and move between vastly different projects and methodologies from one day to another, which is extremely formative.
I really enjoyed trying and developing expertise on new methods such as Expert Analysis, Co-Design with game teams, Large scale tests with 60+ participants, but also in-depth 1:1 Usability testing, VR testing, Concept testing, Focus groups…while also starting client management as well as junior recruiting and training.
I left Player Research after 3.5 incredible years, to go back to France (thanks Brexit!).
However, I didn’t find my current role right away. I actually tried my hand at a UX Designer role for a few months, in a big Parisian UX agency. Developing my skills at wireframing, design workshops and working on something else than games was exciting and challenging. Well, especially challenging. I rapidly found out that Banking software or ecommerce websites are definitely not as interesting as game UX, player motivations, FTUE challenges and long term retention challenges.
So, I jumped ship as soon as I could and got in for my current UR manager position at Gameloft.
As a young manager with 5 years experience of both big, well-oiled UR machine as Ubisoft, and rapid, agile and more varied consultant work, there was plenty I wanted to do… and quickly realized that I needed to first build top management confidence by demonstrating value and impact, before thinking about (and putting into place) big plans.
At the time, Gameloft had no generalized UR process, team or budget. There was already a 2-people playtest team in a remote studio, but with limited methodology, limited impact, and nothing global. So I had to build everything from the ground up, which took lots of politics, quick tests, easy wins, multitasking, explaining and re-explaining UX and UR 101…and also watching and listening in order to find ways I could get in and maximise impact while minimising disturbance of game teams current processes.
Each new piece of research/testing served both the purpose of helping a team in need, while also showcasing a new kind of test methodology (first Usability test, then Appreciation, then Longitudinal, Focus groups, Expert UX analysis, Concept test etc.), and using this as an opportunity to use or develop a tool (i.e. building a usability lab, acquiring a new test device, trying a new test provider or player recruiter, building an internal database of testers, developing templates, etc.)
I guess that kinda worked, as each year I managed to secure more budget, in turn allowing me to recruit new researchers in order to cover more projects at once, and develop our offer of services and methodology.
What skills do you think have been important to work on as your career has developed?
Controversially, I think soft skills are what make or break UR as they grow more senior.
Hard skills are a given, they’re expected. And after a few years of being a UR, you’ve run so many tests, interviews, seen various types of games, and met various types of users… that you should be pretty solid.
However, being able to be super flexible in terms of approach, deadlines, budget, resources, handle change of plans…, while keeping a steady enough scientific foot to guarantee reliable data. Making the right compromises. That is tough, and does not necessarily come naturally.
Moreover, clear and concise communication is also super important as you move up and talk to higher-level stakeholder and/or management.
Also, managing to understand processes, constraints, etc. met in game development every day, outside of UR is crucial. Being able to understand why decisions are made, why sometimes frustrating compromises are put in place, why builds are broken, or late, or both, is of utmost importance in order to grow as a UR and work hand in hand with game teams. And Marketing. And User Acquisition. And Monetization.
So to sum up: communication, empathy, flexibility & pragmatism. These are the skills.
Has anything surprised you about working in the games industry?
I’m quite lucky for having worked, and still be working on so many and so different types of games, with such various types of users. Testing a Toy-to-Life game with 3 year olds who do play games but don’t speak super well yet (and definitely can’t read) is extremely different from testing a match-3 with hardcore Candy Crush 50 year old moms, which is also vastly different to running focus groups with football fans who buy the new FIFA every year. Multiplayer games, VR games, indie games, narrative games. They all have their own challenges, no tests are ever identical and I really love that. I was definitely not expecting such variety when I started as a junior UR.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for people joining the industry now?
I’m not sure. I think I was personally super lucky to get in and it’s mostly based on chance as, had I not heard of that previous student who got an internship at Ubi a few years before me, I would have never applied.
I think nowadays UX and UR and how they can be applied to games is much more known. So the challenge is to get in, and how to get a fair salary.
I’d say that thanks to the big guys (Ubisoft, EA, Microsoft, Sony) there are many many new recruits every year, but it’s definitely not enough to cover the huge number of great applicants. It’s good that external UR companies such as Player Research, PlaytestCloud, Antidote, etc. do recruit regularly too, and help newbies get in and develop a different type of experience to what they’d get in a big studio.
In addition, after 2 years of pandemic which somehow generalised remote testing (and remote work, period), I think it’s important, for everyone but especially for juniors to work with people IRL, in a team of UR and with non-UR people, as you learn and grow so much faster than you would behind a screen with scheduled meetings. I really believe the non-scheduled coffee machine chats, the discussions and arguments, including the one you can hear but you’re not taking part in are so important.
And it goes without saying that in-person testing, workshops, focus groups, co-design, etc are so much better than remote ones.
Start your own games user research career
Found this helpful? We’ll be exploring all of these topics in more depth in the future. Get an email each month about playtesting and UX in games, with an article just like this one.
Ready to finally start your games user research career?
Every month, get sent the latest articles on how to start a career in game development, and find games user research jobs.
Plus get two free e-books of career guidance from top games companies