Oct 22, 2020

User Research in Games: What is it and why does it matter?

User Research is all about investigating the different aspects of the user experience: how games fit into our lives, why we play them, what encourages us to keep playing, and what makes us stop. In this article we join User Researcher Project Manager Ahmad Azadvar in a deep dive into what it means to be a User Researcher and how our team at Massive works to support the creation of fulfilling experiences for players.

Making games is a complex process and part of that process is to make sure that there is a bridge between game creators and players. That means we believe that empowering game development teams with information about their players, be it studying player interaction with the product or general trends on players’ motivations, will result in better games. At Massive User Research, we are dedicated to providing actionable insights that support design and production teams through reliable data collection and analysis. Our team includes psychologists, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, data scientists among other researchers who are interested in why we play games, how we interact with them, and the range of emotions we experience about them, even when we are not directly engaging with the game.

Verification and exploration

Typically, it starts with an idea, a question, or an assumption about players’ intended actions, emotional state, or markers of their behavior like personae, motivations, and preferences. Then our experts will use their toolbox to design a study most suitable to inform, respond to, and examine these questions. Not only do we want to verify that our games are enjoyable while meeting the standards of Usability and Accessibility, but we are also interested in exploring players’ choices and behavior as well as their relationship with concepts like psychological well-being or mood regulation.

USABILITY AND ACCESSIBILITY

Usability is one of the fundamental aspects of user experience and it refers to how pleasant, easy, and intuitive it is to interact with different elements of the game. First, the player must learn the basics of interaction and logic that connects different parts of the game. Learning is enjoyable when its function follows the context of the game and is coupled with consistent feedback and intuitive use of symbols. Of course, the player would need enough opportunities to practice and master the newly learned skill. A usable game is also efficient (no extra steps) and accounts for players’ potential errors, long-term interaction, and when they come back after a period of not playing. In other words, the game is aware of the kind of errors that a player would encounter and provides necessary information after returning to the game, to support players in recalling previous knowledge.

Accessibility then, is to ensure that the game usability is as inclusive and flexible as possible for accommodating a range of disability conditions, diversity needs, and customization options. Massive is one of the studios in the forefront in this field, with Gameslab’s Accessibility initiative that directly involves players with different types of disabilities in our in-house playtests, as well as contributions to understanding and advocating gaming needs for different generations, specifically older adults.

combining methods

Understanding the experience of playing games, far beyond functionality and ease of use, also involves the study of players’ psychology. What motivates us to play games and spend time on them? What makes one game worth playing over another? How are games able to provoke certain emotions? How and why do opinions about games change over time? These questions require User Researchers to combine methods used in social sciences with statistical models and AI techniques to unravel relationships between player behaviors, perceptions, and emotional states. For example, in one study we were able to predict players’ motivations of The Division players by their gameplay data with 94% accuracy.

The User Researchers’ toolbox, or the methods chosen to address research questions, has two main data categories: self-reported and sampled data.

User Researchers are trained to ask players to voice their opinions, expectations, ratings, and descriptions of what they do and how they feel while interacting with the game in presence of a researcher (think-aloud study) or after the play-session via surveys and interviews. They may also ask the player to keep a journal (player diaries) of certain topics or discuss them in groups with other players (focus groups, forum discussions). Researchers may also sample player behavior by observing patterns and key elements in gameplay, especially when they provide context to or contradict self-reported data. Another unintrusive method is to monitor the physiological properties of the player that are known to be connected to markers of excitement, attention, and cognitive load. Generally referred to as Biometrics, tools like Eye tracking (gaze patterns, pupil dilation), Galvanic Skin Response (conductivity of the skin, a measure of arousal), Heart Rate Variability (HRV)Facial Expression recognition and Electromyography (EMG) provide a moment-by-moment picture of how players react to different beats of the game.

Although telemetry engines record a bulk of players’ behavioral markers such as performance, progression, economy interactions, sequence of actions and much more, User Researchers need to utilize their knowledge of the game to select the relevant parts of that data as well as the appropriate method to make sense or connect the telemetry data to player behavior and opinions. In an innovative example, the Massive User Research and Data Analytics teams joined forces to create a new method of categorizing character builds in Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 (see the published paper here).

Whether it is an intimate one-on-one, think-aloud play-session or a standardized mass-survey linked to granular gameplay metrics, part of the analysis is to figure out if aggregations of trends and behavior types (e.g. clustering, segmentation) would best answer the research question or if emphasizing on individual quotes and instances provides more context.

In any case, the User Research team is equipped and eager to attend to the games’ research needs, collect and clarify players’ perspective and contribute to the practice of player centered design. You can help us in doing so by signing up here to participate in our routine playtests of a diverse set of Ubisoft games here in Malmö.

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