User Research in Games

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Over the last five years, user research has become an important part of the game development process. It’s no longer acceptable for games to be obtuse and difficult to get into. The accessibility of cheap iPhone games and free-to-play games have made it essential for players to be immediately engaged.

In this post, I’ll look at why user research is important to games, the differences between games and traditional UX research, and user research in gaming and some common techniques used in games user research.

Why is user research important to games?

Games are a leisure activity. Unlike functional websites or databases, the player is free to leave at any time and seek any number of alternative pursuits. Because of this it’s important that players have a positive experience with the game, right from the first minute, since you can lose them at any time!

Kids playing

Especially young children are easily distracted – Picture by Sean Dreilinger

Any number of things can turn players off games, especially before the player as built up a relationship with the game. Not understanding the controls, being unsure where to go, even feeling that you are dying too many times are common issues with games that can be solved with user research. Without showing the game to real players during development, the first time these problems will be discovered is in reviews and when the game is in shops – and it’s much too late by then!

Why is games user research different?

Unlike websites and most software, games are about fun, not function. Although there are elements of games where the player is looking for an efficient interaction, such as when using the menus, efficiency is not the main goal of games – otherwise Mario would start with a button that says “rescue princess”, and be finished immediately after!

Instead challenge is an important part of games, and a key part of fun. The difficulty for game designers is making the right kind of challenge, and it’s up to user researchers to help define this. As well as discovering usability issues, where players are unable to work out where to go, or what to do, researchers therefore have to try and discover if players are having fun.

Some research has been done into defining why players have fun, including Raph Koster’s “A Theory of Fun for Game Design”. Others have looked at how we can quantify and measure ‘fun’, such as the PENS model by Immersyve.

What techniques are used for games user research?

The game design process often includes making a ‘vertical slice’ early in development – a small section of the game made to the standard of the complete project. This is ideal for being able to start user research early on, without having their perceptions altered by stand-in, or unfinished artwork and production values.

Some elements of games user research are very similar to the techniques used by other usability experts. A typical study design would include one on one sessions, where a moderator observes someone playing the game as they would at home. As in all usability research, care must be taken to reduce the artificiality of the situation, only asking questions in ‘down times’, and avoiding methodologies that can cause the player experience to suffer, such as think aloud. It is also important to consider the context in which you are asking the questions, and don’t take people at their word – just because they are telling you it’s the best game they’ve ever played, doesn’t mean they’d think so in the cold light of day!

Also important is larger scale testing, either in the lab or through closed beta accessed from home. This can allow user researchers to gain insight into appeal with statistically significant amounts of respondents, asking players to rate the game, the graphics, the sound, and questions about intent to purchase or likelihood to recommend.

Finally, and perhaps most fun, is ‘expert evaluation’. Here, usability researchers play the game, and then give their opinion as a usability expert into what aspects of the game are accessible to players, and which would cause their player experience to suffer.

User Research in Games - An expert evaluation in progress

An expert evaluation in progress – Picture by Valentin Ottone

Where can I learn more about games user research?

Gamasutra is a popular website about the industry side of gaming, and has had many articles about games user research, including articles from Microsoft, and Valve about how they are using user insight to influence the game design process.

Finally, there’s a games user research special interest group on LinkedIn, who often discuss the latest events, trends and techniques for evaluating user experience in games. If you are interested in contacting, or learning from, others in the industry, this is a great place to start.

Editorial note: In “Designed for Use: Create Usable Interfaces for Applications and the Web“, author Lukas Mathis dedicated an entire chapter to Usability testing for games.

Steve Bromley

Steve Bromley writes a (semi) regular blog on games user research, and in the archive have covered introductions to many different aspects of gaming research, including the secrets of making addictive strategy games, and how game developers can do their own research for cheap. See for more!

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