Why it would be better to talk about players lives when doing games user research?

Talking with players about their lives in games user research process may help developers understand players' situations, real demands in games, and true reasons for specific behaviors. This article shares practices and some tips.

1. What do we want to know in-game user research?

I have mentioned various user research methods for games in previous articles. Common user research methods include surveys, user interviews, playtests, focus groups, research in the field, etc. Research methods always revolve around the problems encountered at each stage of game development, and we try to use user research to help solve them. In the early stage of game development, we will investigate how the current market situation is and what kind of demand players have for a specific type of game; in the development stage, we tend to investigate whether the current core gameplay is competitive enough and whether the tutorial part is appealing new players; after the game is launched and in operation, we will also need to know the opinions and demands of players for the game.

All user research projects are focused on the goal, as we need to come up with clear and effective conclusions to make the game better. That's why we pay so much attention to any small problems in the game and expect to change them to increase the number of new users, revenues, and user retention rates of the game.

However, playing a game means a dynamic interaction between the player and the game, and each player's behavior is influenced not only by game factors but also by the complex factors of players themselves. Before one becomes a player, he is a person of a certain age and specific living environment, a complex individual who has formed his own preferences, and a social role with various social identities. It can be said that, what kind of person a player is, indicates what kind of behavior he will have. If you can't go beyond the game itself to understand the player from the emotional sector, it might be harder to understand rationally the various unbelievable behaviors of players in the game. However, this part of user research is often ignored and considered to be of little help in solving the actual problems.

2. Why do we need to talk about lives in user research?

With the increased experience in game user research, it is getting easier for some user researchers to no longer just talk about the game with players, but also begin to talk to players about their lives. The reason behind this seemingly inexplicable behavior is that all human behaviors are determined by their own needs, and humans are naturally social animals, so, to understand the needs of players we need to understand their lives of them.

When doing research on an MMO game player, we once found a player who played MMO games in a very different way from average MMO players, for he neither did ability training to battle nor participated in activities/tasks, but still spent extremely long hours online every day. The question of why he was so loyal to this game made us curious.

We tried hard to dig a little bit into his opinion about the game, but it turned out that he did not have a specific opinion about all the in-game systems, just saying that the atmosphere was good. He just logged in regularly but just kept his account online, mainly checking to see if anyone was looking for him to chat with, and then looking at what everyone was talking about in the public channel. This kind of game experience seems to be no fun at all for many other players, but he kept playing the game like this for years.

When asked about his life, he said, he was the breadwinner for his whole family, suffering the stress of work, but couldn't share this negative emotion with his family and friends, for society does not seem to allow middle-aged men to admit their own vulnerability. That's why he chose to share emotions with friends in the game. "I can talk about my life with friends in the game, and it is pure chatting. When we are online, we are close friends, comforting each other or joking with each other. When offline we have to face our own real life."

This is not difficult to understand, for him, the game is more like a place to relieve the stress of reality, and whether the gameplay is good or not does matter that much, so for him the MMO game becomes a chatting software. Other new games on the market with more diverse gameplay do not appeal to him, so he can always stay in the same game.

3. What are factors influencing players' gaming motivation potentially?

Many researchers and scholars have explored how players' gaming motivation affects their gaming behavior, and have classified players into different types based on their behavior. Probably the most well-known of these is Bartle's Taxonomy of player types, which classifies players into different types, that is Killers, Achievers, Explorers, and Socializers, from four dimensions.

The X-axis represents a preference for interacting with other players vs. exploring the world, differing in what objects in the game the players focus on, and the Y-axis represents a preference for interaction vs. unilateral action, differing in the gaming way. Simply put, killers like competition with other players, and they are keen on defeating others; achievers like to take action against the world and achieve rewards, and they are happy to complete various tasks and goals in the game; socializers like to interact with other players, they are even more interested in game players than the game itself; explorers like to immerse themselves in the game world explorations, they are happy to explore various contents of the game.

Quantic has done research on what motivates players and through their research, they have uncovered 12 motivations that broadly cover the reasons why people play games based on clustering analysis. They have paired them up into 6 key pairs of action, social, mastery, achievement, immersion, and creativity, which we won't explore in this article.

All of these models effectively help us to understand players from the perspective of the demand, from which we can know better which specific in-game demands influence players' behavior in playing the game, i.e. what players actually want to do in games.

In actual research projects, we discovered that players' needs are influenced not only by in-game factors but also by many other factors outside of the game. If we go one step further and take games as a kind of general entertainment activity and think about why players play games, we will find some interesting points, for example, some players who choose to play games are not necessarily the real gamers. Some out-of-game factors that are often overlooked also influence players' motivation to play, including their life situation and their attitudes and notions about the game.

We found that some of the players choose to play games out of their genuine love, they believe that games give more meaning to their lives and are the best way to mobilize their energy. Accordingly, they tend to have their own clear preferences and attitudes when selecting games, and their behavior is more consistent, so we can easily put these players in one of the categories in the above model.

While some players see video games as a spice of life, for them playing games is not different from watching movies and any other entertainment activities, which are mainly to relax. This type of casual player tends to pay more attention to the visual effects of games and the excitement brought by games, but does not necessarily have high requirements for the gameplay itself. They are also relatively more susceptible to life changes, for example, they may suddenly leave the game when they are busy recently, and may return to it for no specific reasons.

There is another part of players who seem to have complex gaming experiences and seem to be very in-depth in terms of gaming time, but once asking them in detail, you get the feeling that they do not have a clear gaming preference and unlike a real gamer in terms of gameplay understanding. They are always inconsistent in what they say and what they do, so it is hard to classify them as any type in the player models mentioned above.

These players are likely to be gamers who see gaming as a social activity, who play games mainly influenced by their friends around them, and are trying not to be left behind by the people. They focus on playing with friends, not the game itself. It is easy to understand why they often choose very different games; if we look too deeply into their evaluation of a game, we will probably end up finding nothing insightful at last.

The MMO game player I mentioned above represents a group of players, who are eager to escape from daily life. They may have the need to relieve the stress, and an interesting game environment and low threshold to start can easily attract them; they may also have unique emotional needs, desire to find a social connection in the game, or find their lost selves, and thus they will value whether the game is humane, rather than whether the game quality is high or not.

4. How to talk about lives with players

In the research process, we found that sometimes the players' living situation is a difficult topic to talk about, as many players would reject revealing too much of their personal information or real-life situations. In practice, we used the following tips.

  • Give the player a chance to introduce himself. One who is willing to communicate with you about his daily life will reveal more of himself without thinking, and then you can follow up and ask for more potential information.
  • Ask the player following-up questions about his life at the right time instead of direct questioning. For example, when talking about the player's view on activities in games, you can follow up to find out whether the player's life is busy and how much time he spends on gaming.
  • Spend enough time for ice-breaking process, communicate with players like a friend, and give appropriate self-expression chances for them. A qualified user researcher should not express his attitude too much which may influence the player, but there is no need to be a questioning robot; appropriate reactions will make the player feel that he has met a gamer that fully understands him and will be more willing to communicate with you. I will discuss this topic in my next article.

5. Summary

All human behaviors have motives, we can't talk about players' game behaviors without knowing their daily lives, and we can't talk about what problems exist in the game except for the players themselves. Game user research itself is a big topic, perhaps only by truly knowing the players' lives and their minds can we clear things up and get a better understanding of the real players.

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