A lot of Steve Bromley’s job involves explaining to game developers what it is he actually does. Steve is a User Researcher, meaning he is the person who finds out whether players actually experience a game the way its developers intended. Most game enthusiasts have probably heard of “playtesting”, and part of Steve’s job is to design and run those playtests. He gathers members of the public and watches them play while, in his words, “observing their experiences and asking them questions to understand what’s going on in their heads.”
However, as Steve explains in his “My Journey” interview, there is a whole other side to user research that many game developers aren’t fully aware of. While playtesting tends to happen after a project is well underway, often to help developers fine-tune their game in the final stages of production, Steve says there is a great value in bringing in players much earlier in development. “As well as actually running these playtests, a lot of what a user researcher will have to do is advocacy work,” Steve says. “[We have to] explain what we’re doing and convince developers that it’s worthwhile doing usability testing or doing other types of research earlier in development to help inspire [their] game design decisions.”
It’s an approach that comes from other areas of software development outside of games, where companies want to “understand their users’ needs and understand the problems that exist” before they begin production. Imagine someone making a taxi booking app, for example. “They might want to understand how people book taxis currently in order to come up with a new app that helps you book a taxi better,” Steve suggests. “Games haven’t traditionally had a history of doing that, partly because games are a creative art form and design is very strong there.”
While some developers might think that making fundamental design decisions based on user feedback might limit their creativity, Steve says this isn’t the case. Instead, effective user research can actually enhance it. “We’re helping the design vision be realised in the way the designer intended, not trying to change the design vision,” he says.
A happy accident
To be fair, Steve Bromley didn’t know very much about his job either until he stumbled upon it by accident. Steve went to university to study history, where he wrote his dissertation on science fiction and utopias. After struggling to find a career that suited his skills, he went back to university to study a masters in human-centered computing, a discipline that combines software design and psychology to better understand how people use computers. One of his lecturers was Graham McAllister, the director of Vertical Slice – the UK’s first games studio dedicated specifically to user experience. Through McAllister, Steve was given the chance to work with Black Rock Studio on Split/Second as part of his studies, opening his eyes to the world of games user research. “As I imagine everyone has, I had childhood experiences of growing up being interested in games but I’d never really considered it as a career until the opportunity came up,” he says. “So when I recognised that those user research skills and the ability to be a user researcher enables you to do that inside games, I was just very lucky.”
Something else that Steve did while studying was approach indie developers and offer to conduct usability tests for them as practice. “Obviously I made all sorts of mistakes in the usability reviews and [the reviews] were probably failing to find all the issues that did exist, but it was good practice for talking to real developers and understanding what a real game halfway through [development] looks like and what kind of feedback is useful and relevant for these game developers.”
Showing your experience
Between his masters degree, his placement experiences and his extracurricular activities, Steve Bromley’s CV clearly demonstrated not only a well-rounded understanding of user research but a passion for it by the time he finished university. Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe certainly thought so – not long after graduating, Steve landed a Junior User Researcher role at the home of PlayStation. He worked for the company for the next five years, assisting in the development of games like Horizon: Zero Dawn and No Man’s Sky while rising in the ranks from a junior to a senior position.
Though Steve does think his degree was a key part of why Sony chose to hire him, he also thinks it’s possible to work in user research without one. “It’s just one way of demonstrating that you have a background in user research or that you understand how to design a study. I know lots of people who work in the field who don’t have a formal qualification for it,” he says. “If you don’t have that qualification, you might want to have a history of doing a similar role outside of games or have a lot of practice on your own terms and be able to say, look I’ve done all these projects with these teams.”
Infectious energy and “suspicious stains”
So – what was it like being part of the PlayStation family? “It didn’t disappoint,” he says. Of course there were the launch parties and big events, but what excited Steve the most was working with passionate people – both the developers and the players. While user testing a finance app probably isn’t going to set anyone’s world on fire, participants are generally really enthusiastic about testing games, he says, and that enthusiasm is infectious. “If you bring in someone to play a game that perhaps hasn’t been announced or is years out from being finished and it’s part of a franchise that they care about, that’s definitely the most exciting that a person has done this month or possibly this year. There’s just really great energy in those playtests.”
That said, it can be repetitive work. Steve says he’s watched hundreds of people play through the same tutorials, for instance, and estimates that he’s conducted about 20,000 combined hours of playtesting sessions. And as with any job involving the general public, it can be a bit unpredictable. “Especially working with kids games, I’ve had suspicious stains after they’ve left where maybe they’ve needed to go to the bathroom and didn’t want to stop playing,” he says. “Maybe that’s a good review for the game!” He’s also conducted sessions where participants have turned up drunk or high, and says that colleagues have even had brawls break out during tests.
A supportive community
Nevertheless, he loves the job – so much so that he’s written a book about it. How to Be a Games User Researcher collects all of Steve’s experiences in user research to date – from his time at Sony, and his time mentoring through to the consulting work he currently does – and turns it into a digestible guide on how to find a career in user research. It covers the kind of skills you’ll need, offers advice on how to design a good study and outlines ways of getting the experience you’ll need to get your first job.
Steve Bromley also started the Games User Research Mentoring Programme with IGDA, which connects prospective user researchers with professionals from big names companies like Sony, EA, Valve, Ubisoft and Microsoft. The scheme is a great way for anyone interested in user research to get some support and advice about conducting their own studies and to develop their skills.
So, hopefully you know a lot more about what a games user researcher does now than you did at the beginning of this article. If you are interested to learn more, Steve Bromley’s book is the obvious place to start, but he also suggests the book Just Enough Research by Erika Hall which he recommends not just to prospective user researchers but to anyone interested in design. Furthermore, there’s a lively Games Research and User Experience community (“grux” for short) that has its own Discord channel, LinkedIn community and more. Get it, get involved and who knows? Maybe you too could soon be making someone’s year by letting them play an early build of the next big PlayStation title.