It’s an understatement to say that the video game industry has exploded. In fact, gaming’s global market value has virtually doubled from $76.5 billion in 2013 to a projected $152 billion in 2019. And as the industry has evolved from playing Atari in your friend’s basement to a lucrative esports culture on a global scale, it’s urgently turning to advanced research and analytics that are more associated with Lehman Brothers than Mario Brothers.
This week I attended the #GamesUR Conference 2019, a summit of some of the brightest and most innovative minds in Games User Research (GUR), an emerging field that uses data and psychology to discover important insights that guide developers as they deliver the best gaming experiences possible in this hypercompetitive space. Based on presentations and informal conversations with fellow attendees, I discovered five trends that are driving GUR.
- Integrating Multiple Data Streams
User research has long availed itself of segmentation and A/B test methodologies to better understand gamers, but as the breadth of questions that need answering grows across game makers and publishers, so too, it seems, does the need to pull many sources of data to get the full picture. Telemetric data from playtesting alone – without further insights – fails to tell the full story. And failing to tell the full story can be worse than telling no story at all. Blizzard, for example, presented a case study for its World of Warcraft extension Battle for Azeroth, a game that they discovered had a particularly high rate of death. In general, players do not like to die all of the time, and they could get easily frustrated with the bad game experience and eventually quit. But when Blizzard examined this data in line with survey results that rated this same encounter as just as fun, if not more fun, than others with much lower rates of player death, a richer picture began to emerge. In this particular case, it seems Blizzard succeeded in crafting a difficult but rewarding challenge for players. Without integrating survey data in lockstep with playtesting, this level of nuance may never have emerged.
- Testing Narratives
One of the most interesting workshops I attended was led by a pair of researchers from Microsoft’s Xbox team that walked researchers through Narrative Usability Testing. This seemingly emerging area of usability research empowers game developers to tell data-driven stories by having respondents respond to key narrative story beats and tone-setting artwork to see “Do they get it?” and “Are they tracking with the story?” Given the centrality of pacing in interactive storytelling and the element of player choice (the story must be able to respond to every player interaction), testing and research can help strengthen narratives and ensure that players never have their immersion broken and continue to suspend disbelief. Gearbox’s panel on the Impacts of GUR on action-adventure game We Happy Few also underscored the importance of including later-stage narrative comprehension testing. Their findings led to inspirations in game design that ultimately led to a tighter, more immersive narrative experience that better aligned game designer intent with end user experience.
- Disrupting Disruptive Behavior
As much as gaming has grown to become more prominent in mainstream circles, it’s also been subjected to a reputation of disruptive behavior by online bullies, trolls, and cheaters. And while it would be easy for the industry to blame it on “bad eggs,” it’s instead turning to researchers to identify things that it can control as it addresses the issue. If there are ways to change user interfaces, game mechanics or branding in a way that encourages and rewards “good player” behavior, then researchers are digging into how they can do that. One interesting concept is for online competitive games with respawn times after player death to find ways to more actively engage fallen players. Right now, when someone gets killed in many games, they may feel they have nothing better to do until they respawn than to engage in disruptive behavior. After all, nothing puts a gamer in a worse mood than not being able to game! Honing matchmaking algorithms is another area of continued interest in combating disruptive behavior as players tend to assume other players are as good as they are and may jump to the conclusion that a misplay was deliberate trolling on the part of a teammate. Researchers are actively looking at ways to better match players of similar skill levels to alleviate this risk.
- Delivering Insights Early and Often
Every industry today wants insights to inform their business decisions, but there’s even more urgency in the gaming industry. Almost every team I talked to says their organization is making it a priority to get GUR involved earlier and earlier in the development process. And since today’s gaming software can be updated at any time after launch, developers can use insights to improve subpar user experiences on the fly. That means insights teams are hot after new techniques and tools that can deliver and refresh critical insights in days and weeks instead of months.
- Spreading Their Research Wings
Gaming companies have quickly realized that GUR teams have important skills that apply well beyond the games themselves. I heard from many GUR teams who said they’ve been asked to branch out into important projects beyond just user research, such as helping their companies understand and analyze surveys on employee satisfaction and working with data science teams to synergize insights. They’re no longer seen as simply niche researchers; they’re seen as “insights” people who know how to analyze and inform business decisions across all corners of the company.
Games User Research still has a great deal of fascinating questions to answer, but with these trends driving it forward, I can’t help but think back to one conference presentation from Xbox & Microsoft Studios Director of User Research Randy Pagulayan. He described GUR as heading into a “Golden Age,” an age in which this growing discipline is finding ways to incorporate other data streams to drive thought leadership. I can’t wait to see where this bright group of researchers works together, as Randy put it, to “create magic.”