Here's entertainment

XIII.4 July + August 2006
Page: 18
Digital Citation

What works?

Dennis Wixon

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In a previous column, I addressed the question "What is a game?" In that column, I reviewed the essential characteristics of games that differentiate them from productivity applications:

  1. Games focus on activity and not results.
  2. Games focus on rules and not scenarios.
  3. Games are designed with chance elements.
  4. Playing a game is its own reward.

Given the differences between games and productivity applications, one might ask whether any of the methods and techniques that have been developed for productivity applications apply to games. Fortunately the answer is yes, although there are some differences in how these methods are applied and who composes the audience for research.

One of the most interesting aspects of working in games is the people with whom you get to work. In the games world, the most important person is the designer. It's widely recognized that great design is the key to great games. Great game designers like Will Wright (creator of The Sims) and Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Mario, Zelda, and Donkey Kong) are universally recognized as the source of product success. It follows that the most important person for user researchers to influence is the designer. This means that the primary question behind all user research in games is: How well does the game reflect the designer's original intent when users play it? The role of the user researcher is to create an empirical way to assess the extent to which the game as played reflects the game as designed. In a sense, user research provides data on how well the designer's vision is realized in the actual game. The challenge for the user researcher is to find an empirical way of assessing this relationship and uncovering elements of the design that unintentionally block users from playing the game as it was intended. Fortunately, some of the tried-and-true methods of user research are well suited to this problem.

One of the best methods for quickly assessing and addressing "mismatches" between design intent and actual behavior is Rapid Iterative Testing and Evaluation, a.k.a. RITE. In addition to being highly effective in improving designs, the RITE method serves to quickly establish a collaborative relationship between research and design. Many usability methods have overlooked the fact that their overall effectiveness rests on their relationship with decision makers. Because it involves close collaboration between user research and design, RITE is a natural way for user researchers to establish both credibility and effectiveness. Its flexibility and its focus on quick results are well attuned to the needs of the game development teams. Fortunately, many game design teams have powerful development environments that allow them to make changes quickly. This creates the perfect environment for RITE testing.

Besides RITE, other methods work about as well for games as they do for other applications. Heuristic evaluations, survey methods, and extended testing are examples. The same factors that make them successful for productivity apps, i.e., expertise of the practitioner, quality and timeliness of the work, and communication with the design team, are also factors in making these methods work well in games.

In contrast, some methods that are very important tools for productivity applications play little or no role in user research on games. Most prominent among these are ethnographic and field-research methods. While some of this slowness to adopt field methods may be due to the relative newness of applying user research to games, another important factor lies in the essence of games themselves. Productivity applications are designed to facilitate some task in the real world. Studying tasks in the real world is a way to get a better understanding of both required features and scenarios. Games either attempt to recreate or simulate the real world—for example, Flight Sim—or they create an artificial world with its own rules—for example, World of Warcraft. In both cases, studying work or tasks in the real world is irrelevant. Over time ethnographic methods may become more relevant. For example, it may be relevant to study how people actually play games in order to develop the next version or a competing game. But for the time being games are created by an inspired designer or are copied from the real world (or another game).

Applied user research on games is a relatively new field. As such it's ripe for innovation. The RITE method was originally developed for Age of Empires II. In the future we can expect to see both innovation in research and cross-pollination between user research in games and user research for productivity applications. Given the increasing cost of games, the expanding games market, the flexible development environment for games, and the interesting challenges that games present, we can expect more continuous innovation in methods and techniques. In other words, the future looks bright.

Life is short; have fun.

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Dennis Wixon
Microsoft Game Studios


Dennis Wixon leads a team of over 20 at Microsoft Game Studios which provides consulting and research to make games fun. He is also a member of the User Experience Leadership Team, a corporate steering group. Dennis previously worked at Digital Entertainment Corporation and has been an active member of CHI. He has authored many articles on methodology and co-edited Field Methods Casebook for Software Design (John Wiley & Sons).

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