This month I’ve been talking to Ula Karpińska, who is a games user researcher at Player Research, based in Brighton.
She shared her journey from community management into games user research, the challenging parts of the recruitment process, and getting her dream job!
What do you currently do at Player Research?
I’ve joined Player Research as a Games User Researcher in 2019. We are an external partner in GUR for game developers (as opposed to researchers embedded in a studio), and I absolutely love the variety of games and types of projects that come with it.
My main role is to decide, design and conduct research to help game developers make informed decisions about their games. Some projects are more unconventional, and have a teaching aspect to it, for example when a company needs guidance in building their own research team, or wants to know how to write better surveys.
I also try to help aspiring GURs ‘break in’, through mentorship programs, or by bringing Research Assistants in for some projects, to help them gain that very needed experience.
How did you get started in the industry?
Being a Games User Researcher wasn’t my first job in the industry. Before becoming one, I was working on the game development side of things for almost five years, starting my industry journey as a Community Manager at a Polish company GameDesire (currently branched into GameDesire and Stribog Games).
Previous experience as a Community Manager in a tech, non-games startup gave me the courage to apply. Academic background was helpful too – I’ve got two Masters, one in Modern Culture, and the other in Comparative Studies of Civilizations – and the latter helped me approach my recruitment task from a multicultural perspective. Being a casual gamer played a role in landing that first job in the industry too, as that matched the profile of some games I was supposed to work on in the future.
How did you discover that games user research was a potential career?
I moved a position a couple times within GameDesire. After community management, I was a part of Support and Marketing Teams, and finally moved to Live Operations where I was responsible for creating engaging experiences for players for countless occasions: Halloween, Christmas, Pet’s Day, Pirates’ Month or even… a Donut Day.
All above positions required close contact with the player base. One of my key responsibilities was collecting players feedback, and passing that feedback to game developers.
Sometimes, it was too late to do something about the insights my colleagues and I have collected, or the feedback was inconclusive. A feeling started to grow in me that there must be a way to capture that feedback in a more meaningful, rigorous way, waaaay earlier… I started digging deeper into that idea and that’s how I found out about games user research.
Around the same time I learnt about UX too, and that was a truly defining moment! It took me quite a while to find my career path. Through most of my education, I was one foot in the humanities and the other in the sciences, and never felt like I wanted to commit to just one area and skip the other completely. I also liked computers, and games, but let me tell you… I didn’t have patience for them at all when they would become hard to use for no reason! I had this thought more than once: I wish a job existed for people to make digital products more intuitive and pleasant to use, but without the need to code nor to be a graphic designer. The moment I learnt about UX years later, I finally knew: “Of course! How could I have known my career path before, if it wasn’t invented/widely known yet!?”
Did you do anything to prepare or get experience before getting your first job in games user research?
Absolutely! Some of that preparation was somehow coincidental, and some intentional.
Having previous experience in gamedev definitely helped. For games user researchers, one of the key skills is understanding the game development process, and trying to fit the user research into it in a feasible way. Breathing that game development air for five years benefits me to this day.
The Comparative Studies of Civilizations played a great role in developing empathy: seeing the world with the eyes of others while putting my personal views aside was the main skill the university taught me.
I like to think that even my very former student/summer jobs helped to some degree. I was a waitress for a couple years. I spent one summer as a housekeeper, and one summer as a gas station worker. Even though we tend to omit such early professional steps in CVs, it does feel like a part of my journey to UX. I was an extremely shy teenager and working with people helped me overcome that shyness. Without that step, I would surely struggle more with doing interviews, or presenting research findings in front of a room full of devs. Moreover, it helped me develop an eye for detail, and made caring about people’s experiences almost a habit, as all the aforementioned jobs had elements of it.
Once I’ve learnt about UX and games user research, I started to steer my career more intentionally. With some colleagues from GameDesire who also grew an interest in the field, we initiated a lot of GUR activities, and started spreading the value of UX&UR among fellow developers and the management. It often meant – similarly to Rich Ridlen’s story – staying after hours. We’ve run a number of playtests, some on our own, some through PlaytestCloud. We did playtest our own games, and competitors’ games too, which was a particularly inspiring and teaching experience.
We did learn from mistakes a lot, discovering from one project to another how to do better research, and studying materials available online. I’m glad to see that self-learners have even more resources available nowadays – thanks Steve for contributing to it!
I also started to seek other learning opportunities. I did a professional certificate in UX Design in Graphic Design School in Cracow, and read and watched many books, articles and talks about games user research in particular, and UX and design principles in general – with some of them being contributed by Player Research folks: Seb Long, Alistair Greo, Bob Tilford, Harvey Owen…
Player Research quickly became my dream workplace and I was checking regularly for new openings. Before applying, I made sure to update my LinkedIn profile to show how my previous experience could be helpful – even if it wasn’t directly related to UX. I also took time to tailor my CV and an introductory email specifically to that position – I always appreciated it when recruiting candidates myself.
What was the most difficult part of getting your first role as a games user researcher?
Presenting the recruitment task to my future colleagues was the most difficult part for me. I still find public speaking a little stressful, and being in a position of presenting my research reflections to people with way more experience was scary and intense! They turned out to be lovely though, and I can definitely tell now that there was no point in panicking as much as I did. We’ve all started somewhere.
Advice: before presentations, practice what you want to say. Time yourself, and be prepared to justify everything you include in it. If you cannot justify it, skip it.
Waiting for the right job offer to appear was hard too, with most companies looking for researchers with substantial experience. I started applying for other positions in the industry too. I treated them as a backup plan, and as a way to practice being interviewed. I hoped that, if it works, maybe at least it’ll help me move to the UK before Brexit, and then move to GUR while already being in a country with more GUR opportunities than Poland had a couple years ago.
Has anything surprised you about the industry?
Before arriving in the UK, I’ve heard about allegations towards the industry, like crunch, inequality, and the difficulties people from underrepresented groups are facing. I wasn’t sure what to expect and if I’ll fit into this world and its politics. I saw a glimpse of it back in Poland, but I’ve never worked on triple AAA games before, and I wasn’t sure how much it all will impact me personally…
I learnt about the company culture during the recruitment process but there was still some level of uncertainty, as non uncommonly there could be a disconnection between what an institution declares, and what the reality is. I was pleasantly surprised how open, inclusive and human-centred Player Research turned out to be, but I know not everyone is as lucky as I was. Even though we see progress happening every year in the industry, there’s still a lot of collective effort to be made.
If you keep checking the Learn section of our website, there will be an article about Player Research culture coming up in the near future.
Do you have any advice for others looking to work in games?
Reapplying for your dream job multiple times is OK, and hearing ‘no’ once doesn’t mean you’ll never get your dream job. Don’t give up. Use the feedback accompanying the rejection, or ask for one if you didn’t receive it. Work on it and reapply when you’re ready.
Sometimes, it still won’t work and you will feel like you hit a wall. Don’t be discouraged, keep growing and trying. It’s possible that you’re already a strong candidate but the internal plans of the company shifted and they had to suspend the hiring process, or there was only one opening but more than one great candidate. It’s easy to put all the blame on ourselves without the behind-the-scenes context.
Gain some experience if you can: through internships, game jams, working with indies, or becoming a research assistant or moderator first. It doesn’t need to be perfect but it will make your application stand out, and possibly spark a discussion during an interview.
Do your homework and learn about the field you’re trying to get into. While one can justify lack of experience as a junior, it’s hard to justify lack of (some) knowledge. There’s many professionals out there making an effort to make resources available.
Find a mentor. I wish I knew about that opportunity when I was taking my first steps in GUR. GRUX SIG mentoring program, GRUX SIG ‘office hours’ (one-off sessions with mentors), and Limit Break Mentorship are three places where you can start, but there’s surely more. Mentoring initiatives usually have some carefully planned structure to it which helps you get the most of that mentee-mentor relationship. There would typically be timeframes suggested, and the responsibilities of both, mentee and mentor, specified – so it makes applying easier, and the mentorship more deliberate.
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