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Becoming a UX Researcher in the Games Industry

Why User Experience Research Is Growing as a Career in Games

The games industry is always transforming due to changes in player demographics and business models. The introduction of new technologies compels developers to create new kinds of games interactions and experiences. For example, as new publishing and distribution models like Free-to-Play (F2P) and Games as a Service (GaaS) gain popularity, the player experience and long-term engagement have become increasingly crucial factors for achieving commercial success. Given the constant transformation, the value of User Experience researchers (UXR) in the games industry is more prominent, creating exciting new career prospects.

This shift toward establishing UX research-focused roles is noticeable in the growing number of industry organizations and events focusing on this domain. For instance, in 2009, the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) established a dedicated Special Interest Group (SIG) for Games User Research (GUR), which was later renamed Games Research and User Experience. The SIG runs annual summits, mentoring programs, and hosts an active Discord Community. The Game Developers Conference (GDC) responded to this shift by introducing a conference track dedicated to Games UX in 2017.

Becoming a UX Researcher in the games industry can be an attractive career path. It offers a unique opportunity to merge one’s passion for gaming and research into a profession that can have considerable impact. Games UX Researchers advocate for players and improve their gameplay experiences based on research data and insights. They work closely with game developers during the development process to ensure that the final product creates a fun and engaging experience for players and meets designers’ experience objectives. This role allows UX Researchers to witness how their research contributions and recommendations translate into better player experiences, which can be incredibly satisfying. A notable sense of fulfillment comes from contributing to the success of games that many players enjoy.

The games industry is at the forefront of innovation and creativity, where technological advancements and artistic expressions are combined to create new experiences. Games UX Researchers are well-positioned to take advantage of this by constantly adapting their methods and techniques to make the most of new opportunities and match the evolving gaming industry. This adaptability can keep the job fresh and exciting, providing new challenges and fostering a continuous learning environment. This adaptability also contributes to the intellectual aspect of the career as it is founded in understanding user behavior, psychology, interaction design, and product development. This combination can further offer personal intellectual satisfaction while building demand for this expertise in the job market.

Additionally, diverse career opportunities within the gaming industry add to the appeal of this career path. Games UX Researchers can choose to work with game development studios, publishers, firms specializing in UXR, or as freelance consultants offering their services to multiple companies. This diversity means they can follow a career path that best matches their personal and professional goals. Moreover, given research skills are highly transferable, Games UX Researchers can relatively easily change career domains and apply their knowledge to other fields of interactive systems to gain diverse career prospects.

The Skills Required for Games UXR

Games UXR allows people to combine a professional research skill set with a field they feel passionate about. One of the most crucial skills that games UX Researchers regularly demonstrate is understanding how to design, run, and analyze reliable user research studies that address the questions that emerge when developing games.

Some research objectives that game development needs to answer include discovering if experiences are fun, how to optimize that fun, and how to teach game mechanics effectively. Table 1 highlights key differences between games and other interactive systems that impact games’ UXR objectives and approaches (for more details, you can read Getting Ahead of the Game: Challenges and Methods in Games User Research,

a previous UXPA article on this topic).

Table 1. Differences between games and other applications. (Adapted from Pagulayan’s “User-Centered Design in Games” in Human-Computer Interaction Handbook (2003).)

Games vs. ApplicationsExamples
Process vs. resultsThe purpose of gaming is usually in the process of playing, not in the final result.
Imposing constraints vs. removing or structuring constraintsGame designers intentionally embed constraints into the game loop, but productivity apps aim to minimize constraints.
Defining goals vs. importing goalsGames (or gamers) usually define their own goals or how to reach a game’s goal. However, in productivity applications, the goals are usually defined by external factors.
Few alternatives vs. many alternativesGames are encouraged to support alternative choices to reach the overall goal, whereas choices are usually limited in productivity applications.
Functionality vs. moodProductivity applications are built around functionality, but games set out to create mood (for example, using sound or music to set a tone).

Game development offers a unique environment to deploy a research skillset, so researchers are required to understand the medium of games. This is not only about knowing how to have conversations with players but also about understanding the game development process and disciplines involved. The process of making games has developed separately from other software development approaches, and many of the product processes, terms, and disciplines will be unfamiliar to someone from another industry. Specifically, a researcher interacts with producers, game designers, insight professionals, and UX designers. Understanding how games are made and who makes them is necessary to be an effective games UX Researcher.

Finally, communication is a core skill for games UX Researchers. Studies uncover opportunities and problems that stretch across the whole company, so a multidisciplinary effort with designers, producers, and developers involving the whole team is required to prioritize and fix issues. Communication skills, confidence in giving presentations, and relationship-building skills with colleagues are pivotal. Ensuring that research findings can be understood—that findings feel relevant and important to a broad range of colleagues—is essential for success.

Getting into the Games Industry

Because it’s an industry people feel passionate about, available roles can be infrequent. There is a lot of competition for games UX Research roles when they open. This means that candidates must demonstrate their mastery of the core skills to stand out.

To develop these core research skills, many people come into the field with post-graduate study (master’s and PhD levels). In the IGDA’s 2019/2022 survey, 24% of people working in games UXR had a PhD, most commonly from psychology, HCI, or neuroscience backgrounds. However, academia isn’t the only way to get and demonstrate study design experience. Hiring managers are often open to applicants who already work in UXR in other fields that have given them experience in qualitative and quantitative research. Working with hobbyist game developers to gain experience applying user research methods to games will help build confidence that you’re ready to apply your skills to games.

In smaller teams without a dedicated UXR role, designers, producers, and quality assurance managers often run studies referred to as playtests. With support from a mentor, courses, or the wider research community, one can get the experience necessary in designing and running studies at a professional level. 

For people entering the games industry, hiring managers will want evidence that candidates understand how games are made and that they can have constructive conversations with colleagues from other disciplines. This can be a particular challenge when trying to join the industry at a senior level because candidates are expected to be able to represent the games and UX disciplines immediately. Luckily, some great books and talks introduce game design and development, which will help aspiring games UX Researchers understand the domain. A Playful Production Process, by Richard Lemarchand, the former lead designer of Uncharted™, describes their approach to developing their hit games and how UX research fits in. The Game Designer’s Playbook by Samantha Stahlke and Pejman Mirza-Babaei, also gives helpful context on designing fun interactions for games.

As mentioned above, games UXR has an active community, including conferences and newsletters. Finding a network on social media or Discord™ and following industry discussions may help make integration into the games industry easier. The IGDA’s Games Research and UX Discord community is a great place to get started alongside curated lists of games researchers on X (Twitter).

The Changing Role of a UXR

Similar to other careers, games UXR offers the potential to develop your skillset as you advance. At some companies, the most junior roles are focused on moderation and execution of studies. They can be the team member who spends the most time face to face with players while asking questions, administering surveys, and observing studies. This is frequently done in partnership with a more experienced researcher who has designed the study. This role can create opportunities to develop study designs and analysis skills and understand how to apply them in the industry.

Mid-level researchers are typically trusted with the end-to-end development, execution, and debriefing of a study, including working with a development team to confirm a study’s focus, deploying a range of research methods to gather reliable data, and drawing that together into a clear and compelling debrief.

As a researcher progresses in seniority, relationship building and proactively advocating for the discipline becomes important. Senior researchers are expected to help teams unfamiliar with user research determine what’s important to test and how. Senior researchers can often expect to be the sole representative of their discipline in a team, so persuasion, communication, and influence become increasingly important. It can be a very rewarding career for people who are interested in using their research skills to understand people (not just users, but also their colleagues).

As a researcher develops further, they can often decide whether to focus on coordination and people management of other researchers or to take a principal route that focuses on deep skill development and becoming the go-to person for a specific method or focus area. Focus areas include accessibility in games, player trust and safety, particularly in online multiplayer games, platform-focused areas such as virtual and mixed reality (VR/MR), or techniques such as reliably measuring attitudes or retention over time.

A Career on Hard Mode?

Despite the rewards, game development can be a demanding career, and it’s not uncommon for people to leave the games industry after five to ten years.

Depending on the team you’re working with, some roles can be repetitive. In a single studio, a researcher may work on the same title for many years, with similar study designs, which can become repetitive. A lot of UXR for games is focused on evaluative methods, such as usability testing or gathering ratings, which can offer limited opportunities to apply a wider research skill set.

Like many industries, games UXR lacks recognition at senior levels, and roles beyond the director level are currently uncommon. Some people move to adjacent roles, such as design or production, to continue developing their careers.

Game development is also known as an unstable environment, with layoffs common when games fail to hit critical success (or even after a hit game, due to poor planning!). Unless a researcher is based at a large established publisher, they may have to change roles unexpectedly or relocate for a new position, which can be difficult to balance with care responsibilities or a family. Many game professionals decide to seek more stability later in their career and eventually leave games.

Because games is a passion industry, wages can often be lower than equivalent roles in other industries such as tech and finance. This can become increasingly challenging in high cost-of-living areas. Ultimately, working in games isn’t always fun. It is an industry that players (and colleagues) have a deep passion for, and they are often deeply invested in their craft and creating a positive experience for players. For many people, especially earlier in their career, this is an attractive offer!

The Future Trends in Games UXR

As discussed, technological and business advances have constantly reshaped the games industry, allowing developers to make novel forms of interactions and experiences. These advances also pose challenges and opportunities for games UXR; for example, researchers may be the first to evaluate new interactive experiences and their social implications to further our understanding of humans and play. In this section, we will highlight some of the technological trends currently shaping the future of UXR in games.

Development of Novel Interaction Methods

We’ve come a long way from gameplay experiences that were only focused on a single-player using standard devices like a mouse, keyboard, and screen. Nowadays, online gaming platforms and streaming services have made large-scale interactions between massive groups of players commonplace. Technologies such as virtual and mixed reality (VR/MR) headsets and the widespread use of augmented reality (AR) in smartphones enable compelling, immersive experiences accessible to many people. Furthermore, cutting-edge technologies are pushing the boundaries of interaction design by exploring sensory channels beyond sight and hearing, including touch and smell. This expansion is opening new possibilities for games.

Advances in User Data Collection

As business models trend away from traditional boxed releases toward games that develop long-term relationships with players, game developers and UX Researchers are collecting more data related to player behaviors, preferences, and game performance metrics. This data allows for creating highly detailed profiles of individual players, including factors like purchase history, play session durations, in-game actions such as combat style, and time taken to solve puzzles. It also enables UX analysis of larger player populations and answering high-value business problems, such as optimizing player retention and in-game item sales.

Automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Game development can be a very time-sensitive environment, and development has traditionally heavily relied on skilled human labor for tasks like game creation and UX evaluation. Procedural content generation (PCG), which uses automation to assist in generating game content, has been a well-established practice in the industry. Nowadays, content creation is evolving further as AI technology becomes more sophisticated. Games UX Researchers are exploring whether AI technology can help aid game testing and data analysis.

Opportunities to Learn More and Develop

The demand for games UXR is rising as research plays a pivotal role in helping developers achieve their player experience goals. Yet, many game studios, particularly smaller teams, lack dedicated UXR personnel or existing research staff and cannot meet the research demands. Maturing and scaling research in the gaming industry continues to be important.

While expanding a research team may not always be feasible due to budget constraints and prioritizing other development talent, there’s an alternative solution: democratizing research. This approach involves empowering and educating non-research team members to conduct research effectively. However, it needs support, such as covering educational costs, incentivizing learning initiatives, providing access to learning resources, and offering mentorship. It’s important to note that there are associated risks, such as maintaining research validity and concerns about the impact on established research teams. Deciding which projects should involve the research team and which can be handled by non-researchers by providing the necessary resources is essential for success.

Further reading might include the Games User Research book, which offers an extensive collection of insights and best practices from over a dozen games UXR experts. The book covers topics such as planning user research, obtaining actionable insights from research, and determining the most suitable methods for various scenarios. Steve Bromley’s book How to Be a Games User Researcher applies lessons from running the International Game Developer Association’s Games UX research mentoring scheme to help people start their career. It covers research methods, game development, and career tips. His website,, offers further career guidance and help, including a free book sharing the secrets of games research hiring managers.

Steve Bromley is a games user research consultant and was formerly a senior user researcher for PlayStation working on many of their top European titles, including Horizon Zero Dawn, SingStar, the LittleBigPlanet series, and the PlayStation VR lineup. He wrote the bestselling book How to Be a Games User Researcher.

Pejman Mirza-Babaei is a Games UX consultant, author, and professor. He is known for his books, The Game Designer's Playbook (2022) and Games User Research (2018). As the former UX Research Director at Execution Labs (Montréal, Canada), he worked on the pre- and post-release evaluation of over 25 commercial games.

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