The Science of Fun: Player Research on the profit of putting the player first

How do players play games?

The Science of Fun: Player Research on the profit of putting the player first
Graham McAllister runs Player Research, a Brighton-based company specialising in video games playtesting and user experience analysis.

Using a variety of techniques, Player Research offers developers an insight into how players think and feel as they play their games. It's a fascinating field.

We caught up with McAllister to discuss just how this kind of analysis can benefit mobile developers, the secrets of a successful title, and why biometrics could help create the ultimate free-to-play game.

Pocket Gamer: Why did you establish Player Research?

Graham McAllister: I started Player Research as I felt that, although games were progressing technically each year, the actual player experience didn't seem to be progressing along the same trend line.

We did research into why games are criticised by reviewers and players, and what came out top was not the technology, but those aspects of the game that directly affect the player experience.

This would include things like controls, user interface, interaction, expectation, emotions, difficulty balance, perceived fairness etc. This is precisely what my research was in, and I thought this could be applied to games to help studios deliver more engaging experiences.

What games have you worked on?

On mobile we've worked on CSR Racing which is still one of the top grossing apps, and we've also worked on RAD Soldiers and Clay Jam, both of which were Editor's Choice on the App Store.

Broadly speaking, what does Player Research do?

Overall, we help studios deliver better game experiences. We do this through a range of approaches, and what they all have in common is that they focus on understanding human behaviour and emotion.

Or put another way, we focus on the player experience. The results we deliver are always supported by evidence, giving the studio a clear path on how to move the game forwards in the right direction.

How does biometric analysis work?

So, one of the methods we use is biometrics, or psychophysiology. This means we attach small sensors to the player which allow us to measure when they are aroused during gameplay.

This arousal can be positive - such as excitement - or negative - such as frustration - and we find out which by interviewing the player immediately after the playtest session.

Why biometrics is useful is that players are typically quite bad at remembering how they feel at any particular moment, so being able to determine that they felt something at a particular point in the game is a useful indicator for further analysis.

Biometrics has helped us to better understand how players feels about different weapons in games, attack strategies of enemies, perceived threat of an enemy, reaction to art style or change of environment, and many other areas of gameplay.

We often combine biometrics with eye tracking and other forms of analysis for an even deeper understanding.

At what stage of a game's development is biometric analysis most useful?

Towards the end of development. Only then, when the final assets are in; the final art, the final music.

All that stuff really affects how you react and how you feel. Especially music, I have to say, music makes a big difference. So if you're interested in how someone feels about your game through biometrics, it's better to do it towards the end.

The only time when you can do it earlier with biometrics is with co-op. Because when another player's present, your body doesn't care about your music or your assets. All the fun comes from your mates, your girlfriend, or whoever it is.

So we have done biometrics in, when it's a two-player or four-player game.

What has your research taught you about free-to-play titles?

There are many challenges here, one of which is the player's initial experience. Barrier to entry is really low, no cost to the player and quick to download, so you'd better create a good impression quickly.

We did research a few years back that showed players are able to separate a good game from an average game within 30 seconds, so if you are competing in a market with similar games, how are you going to engage with the player from the outset?

It's at this very point when the game should be incredibly polished that many games fail, the tutorial and early experience is often awful, if anything they simply push the player away, never to return.

The other challenge of course is how to monetise, but it's always worth remembering that first the game has to be engaging. You could have the best F2P model around, but no player is going to pay if the game isn't engaging.

How does the service provided by Player Research assist in in-app purchases implementation?

We approach in-app purchases from the player perspective. We often bring in players early on in the development process to understand what they could expect from IAPs in a game of a certain genre.

This sort of information can reassure designers that the items for sale are those of genuine value and interest to potential players. Sounds obvious, but in some games the items for sale are just not desirable.

The next stage is to make sure that the store is as friction-free as possible, this means ensuring that it's really easy to get to the store and complete a transaction. Again, it's amazing how many games make it difficult for players to hand over cash.

From the player perspective, we're looking to understand how players think the store should work, and refining the design until it's an ideal match. When games work just the way you think they should, this is also likely to produce delight, a great indicator of engagement.

Getting this right requires effort though, you'll be amazed at what players really do or expect.

With regards to progression, one of the games that does it the best is Plants vs. Zombies. It's not a freemium game, but it has a similar effect in that at the end of a level you get a new plant. And that makes you want to play again. The game has rewarded you.

It also does a little trick where it makes it hard to leave the game, so it sort of hides the exit point. So it's basically pushing you down this road of "Hey, play more, play more."

Some developers of F2P games that have failed to monetise successfully have spoken of their reluctance to engage fully in the model. Is that something you've come across?

This is a grey area for most freemium games.

Should you ask players to buy cosmetic changes or performance enhancements? A lot of the time developers will say they're not going to ask players to pay for performance enhancements, because it's unfair. Instead they want to offer purely visual upgrades.

But then when we interview people, some players - especially mid-core - would not pay for cosmetic items. They say they want to pay for performance and stat benefits, but they may want to get visual items for free as a little bonus.

These are the sorts of things that players are telling us in the interviews. Different people want different ways of buying.

I think most developers don't understand it yet because they don’t talk to players enough. They just think from a game design perspective and not from the player’s perspective.
Thanks to Graham for his time.

Contributing Writer

A freelancer for just about anyone that will have him, Lee was raised in gloomy arcades up and down the country. Thanks to this he's rather good at Gauntlet, OutRun and fashioning fake pound coins from pennies and chewing gum. These skills have proved to be utterly useless in later life.