The Future of User Research in Games

Image credit: game remote gamer video by Olichel. Public domain via Pixabay.

Games User Research, or GUR, is essential and integral to the production of games and to shape the experience of players. The following is an edited extract from Games User Research and introduces this relatively new field in the gaming industry, its challenges, and its future.

The games industry is a powerhouse in the global entertainment sector, driving an annual revenue of over 100 billion dollars, which means it is larger than the film or music industries. More than two and a half billion people play games every day, whether on their computers, consoles, tablets, or phones. Games are also enthusiastic adopters of technology. When a new piece of technology is developed that can be used with audiences, it is quickly adopted. This also means that the games industry is incredibly competitive and constantly reinventing itself, how games are designed, built, and marketed.

In games, there is direct focus and emphasis on the user experience. The user experience is basically the emotions you experience from playing a game, and a complex psychological and physiological phenomenon in its own right. Games live and die commercially based on their ability to provide a good user experience — nobody likes to play boring, frustrating, or unfair games.

In order to inform how we design games towards building the intended user experiences, and evaluate whether our designs are successful, a highly interdisciplinary field of practice and research has grown over the past 10–15 years: Games User Research. Referred to as “GUR” in the industry and academia, the focus is to ensure the optimal quality of usability and user experience in digital games.

This means that GUR inevitably involves any aspect of a video game that players interface with, directly or indirectly: from controls, menus, audio, and artwork to the underlying game systems, infrastructure, as well as branding, customer support, and beyond.

GUR is like a wine, in that it has tendrils spread across game development. It is a metaphor, but it describes GUR’s role in contemporary game development: it supports, provides evidence to act on, troubleshoots, checks, and inspires.

Essentially, any aspect of a video game that influences the user’s experience and perception of that game is of concern for an investigative GUR practice. This makes GUR a field that interfaces with more or less every other area of game development.

In practice, GUR production revolves around delivering evidence of what players experience in a game project and uses methods from many research fields, including human-computer interaction, human factors, psychology, design, graphics, marketing, media studies, computer science, analytics, and other disciplines to deliver robust tests to assess all aspects of UX in a game. How to do this in practice is an interesting challenge — games are intricate, interactive information systems, where engagement is an important factor. Over the past two decades, much work has been exerted adopting and extending the methodologies from other fields to develop appropriate tools for GUR.

There are currently a few areas of GUR where the need for innovation is great or where, conversely, innovation is great and there is a need to figure out how to apply these innovations. Briefly, these are:

Technologies: In recent years substantial advances have been made in the application of various technologies to academic and industry-based GUR work. These notably fall within the domains of psycho-physiological sensors, VR, and behavioural telemetry. While the technologies are well known in GUR, they have gained substantially in maturity within the past few years.

Contexts: Games do not get played in a vacuum, and there are many different kinds of games and delivery vehicles for games. The contextual impact on game user experience is recognized as being highly important, and in recent years more attention has been given to adapting GUR methods to different situations. At the same time, our knowledge of what we do not know has broadened. Providing access to games for all people, irrespective of their specific needs, can be a major challenge — but one that can be addressed via GUR, so games can become even more inclusive.

Methods: Technological innovations have specifically opened up the opportunity in the future to bring GUR more out of the lab and into the wild. This has many challenges and benefits, but significantly means it is getting easier to assess players and their experience in their natural environments, outside the user testing lab.

There are many open challenges in GUR, but what is perhaps most striking is that the foundational challenges of how to actually measure player experience and how to integrate user research in game development remain far from solved. Fortunately, a substantial part of this challenge relates to the happy circumstance that games and game development keeps changing, and thus GUR has to adapt with it and address new and specific situations.

GUR is still maturing, and is not likely to stop doing so any time soon, if not for other reasons simply because games are not likely to stop breaking new ground.

Many new technologies have emerged and gained maturity in recent years, all of which have carried with them new challenges and opportunities for user research. At the same time, the target audience for games has diversified, as have the contexts of play, which means that user testing has to accommodate these scenarios.

GUR helps us figure out if the experiences we hope to give our players are what we are indeed delivering. This is at the heart of all games.

Dr. Anders Drachen, Ph.D. is a veteran Data Scientist, Professor at the Digital Creativity Labs, University of York (UK). His multiple award-winning work in data- and game science is focused on game analytics and business intelligence. His research and professional work is carried out in collaboration with companies spanning the industry. He is one of the most published scientists worldwide on game analytics, virtual economics, user research, game data mining, and user profiling. He is a former member of the board of the IGDA SIG on Game User Research. He is one of the co-editors of Game User Research (Oxford University Press, 2018).