Do Awesome Video Games Really Need User Research?
Playing video games has become a norm during the last two decades. Game industry revenues have hit $91 billion worldwide for 2016 and have exceeded the entertainment market revenue in many countries (including USA and Australia) . That, to my eyes, is a staggering number given video games’ short lifetime.
When designing games one has to not only think about the game concept, content (amongst other game elements) but most importantly the players who are going to play the game. This has been evident the last decade where numerous game companies have started infusing user research practices within the game development process. User research — sometimes referred to as user experience research or design research — is a culmination of different disciplines that collaborate harmoniously with the aim of supporting the design of products that users enjoy using (or in the case of games playing).
In a previous post, I talked about my early experience with gaming. In this post I want to take a step back. I want to share my thoughts on what makes a game ‘awesome’, embark on defining what is Games User Research (GUR) and highlight the reasons for which, in my opinion, GUR is and should be an inherent component of the game development of ‘awesome’ video games.
What makes a video game “awesome’’?
Play is a core component of who we are. It shapes our understanding and enriches our learning. When we play a game we just know it . We either have fun or not and we make the decision to participate in a game or simply carry on with our work.
Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles — Bernard Suits 
The digital landscape has allowed for a significant transition to happen. Games can now be played in the digital sphere permeating our daily life from the domestic to the workplace environment. A common pattern of a good game it that it provokes positive emotion. Simply put players enjoy being immersed in the world of the video game. They feel that there is a strong connection and relationship with the game, the characters, and the story.
A good game is a unique way of structuring experience and provoking positive emotion — Jane McGonical 
At its core a video game has four defining characteristics (goal, rules, feedback system, voluntary participation) :
- Goal provides players with a sense of focus.
- Rules pose limitations on how players an achieve the goal — thus pushing them to explore territories that they had not investigated before.
- Feedback system informs players on how close they are towards achieving the goal.
- Voluntary participation highlights that all players knowingly and willingly accept the goal, rules and feedback system.
Indeed the graphics and all other digital components are very important and can be a key differentiation among games. However, the aim of the ‘digital’ is to reinforce the above defining characteristics of a game without degrading the overall player experience.
What is Games User Research (GUR)?
In the context of video games, GUR aims to better understand the player experience in order to inform the design of player-focused games.
As the interest towards games from the industry and academic environment started advancing during the early 2000s GUR practitioners started appearing from the User Experience (UX)community. This lead to many similarities amongst GUR and more ‘mainstream’ UX research.
Games User Research focuses on players’ psychology and their behavior via techniques such as playtesting, analytics, expert analysis, and others. Game User Researchers aim to help game developers deliver players the best gaming experience possible. — Donald Norman 
The biggest difference between UX Research and GUR is the complexity of game development.
Both they and we probably think that mainstream UX and GUR are more different than they really are, but all of us should periodically reflect on the notable similarities between the two fields to make sure that we don’t unduly limit our methods to those traditionally employed in our UX niche. — Donald Norman 
Building a game is one of the most difficult journeys that a user researcher can embark. Designing or building for fun is an ambiguous task with a plethora of challenges. As the figure below demonstrates the flow of communication that is essential between a games user researcher, a game designer, a player and the game itself.
For a more illustrated depiction of what Games User Research is check out the following video that the GUR community has produced:
A snapshot of GUR methods
Since GUR and User Research have a strong family bond most of the methods used are very similar but applied in different contexts. Within GUR, there is no right or wrong method when employing GUR. The best method is the one that answers the research question. which responds to the research problem that we are trying to solve.
While playtesting is the best known method, there are other ways to understand players. These include analytics (tracking player behavior via data hooks in games), long term engagement diaries (where players report on game play experiences in naturalistic settings via a diary), biometrics (where player physiological data is recorded along with their behavioral and subjective data) and many others. Some indicative ones include:
- Think-aloud protocols work together with observations where “players are asked to talk about what they are thinking as they play through the game” 
- Interviews, whereby researchers ask the players to share with them their thoughts on a series of questions that relate to their experience with the game.
- Heuristics, the evaluation consists of judging how an interface complies with recognized usability principles, which are called “heuristics”
- Questionnaires (or surveys), are a common GUR method, because they enable collecting large volumes of self-report data from many different players.
- Playtesting, which is a technique that allows researchers to understand early reactions of players towards a ‘playable’ version of the game.
All of the aforementioned methods scratch only the surface of the arsenal that a games user researcher has. As mentioned before, the choice of the method depends solely on the nature of the research question.
So, do awesome video games really need user research?
Designing and building a game is an extremely cumbersome and complicated process, which needs to take into account a plethora of challenges with a focus on the player experience.
Awesome games, whose aim is simply to be fun and provoke positive emotions, do need user research. Its presence can help in busting game team assumptions and ensure that the player is heard throughout the game development life-cycle.
Games User Researcher strive every day in:
- Understanding fun
- Making gameplay more pleasurable
- Helping design teams to build player-focused games
- Ensuring that the players’ voice is heard throughout the development process
- Bringing together the business and player values and goals
We (Games or ‘Mainstream’ User Researchers) cannot make it alone. User research is a team sport that requires collaboration, collective reflection and an agreement that we are all working towards promoting user/player empathy throughout the product development process.
I would love to hear your thoughts :)
 Suits, B. (1978). The grasshopper: games, life, and Utopia. Toronto, University of Toronto Press.
 Jane McGonigal. 2011. Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and how They can Change the World. Penguin Group , The.
 Jeannie Novak. 2007. Game Development Essentials: An Introduction (2nd ed.). Delmar Learning.
 R. Bernhaupt (ed.), Game User Experience Evaluation, Human-Computer Interaction Series, Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015