Yiota Demetriou
CX & UX Designer // Service Designer // Strategist
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UX Research: Increasing player engagement in F2P multiplayer games

Learning about player motivations to expand the audience

Background

My client was developing their first cooperative (F2P) free-to-play adventure game. They were interested in finding out how to expand the design and functionality in the given game genre. 

Objective

To discover the prime causes of players' behaviour, in order to gauge player interest and contribute to advancing the gaming ecosystem.

Research Approach 

I took a generative research approach in order to explore a deeper understanding of players’ psychology, and uncover the causes of their behaviours related to gaming, leading us to discover opportunities for solutions and innovation in the gaming genre. 

Learning about the prime causes of players’ behaviours in relation to the game’s features and factors, enables strategic growth and capital, as this information can be used to expand audience demographics, to recruit, engage, and maintain players, as well as advance the game content, design, and functionality. I selected a generative model as this method called for more strategic user understanding, enabling the direction of how the company can innovate further and how it can drive and influence the market, which is important especially in the early stage of a product’s life, as is with the (F2P) free-to-play action game that my client was building. 

I firstly revisit the company’s objectives, values, mission, KPIs and SROI. This ensures that my ideas are aligned with its strategies, and echo the company’s brand.

UX Research: Increasing player engagement in F2P multiplayer games

Talking to the team

facilitated a cross-functional workshop with my colleagues from different teams in the company (engineering, creative, marketing, etc.). This enabled brainstorming through diverse perspectives shedding light on challenges, reviewing existing research, increasing the momentum of change and innovation.

Involving the team with different areas of expertise from the beginning of the research process secures ownership, agency, empathy, and trust. It cross-pollinates knowledge to help everyone understand how their work fits into the bigger picture of the research, with a shared understanding of the assumptions that our team will be working with.

Interviews

At the discovery phase of this project, I conducted interviews with my team to better understand their ideas. 

Here, it is was especially important to ask my teammates: 

  • Who do we want to play our game?
  • What do we think we understand about our players?
  • What do we want to learn from the research?
  • What are we expecting from the research?
  • What KPIs are we hoping to impact?
  • What exactly do we want to find out from looking at the prime causes of players' behaviour?

UX Research: Increasing player engagement in F2P multiplayer games

Brainstorming

By defining the research and its objectives with the team, and by looking at existing trends in game design, reading relevant literature — it was easier to construct various assumptions. 

Apart from case studies, useful sources also include game development websites such as Gamasutra and video game journalism website Eurogamer.

From a brief brainstorming session, the benefits offered by the game’s existing resources (features and functions) not only become transparent but can help set assumptions. To understand how they can be deployed towards widening the target audience, driving the formulation of hypotheses that were verified at a later stage.

How the role of players’ social motivation, the sociability of gamers, network effects, and players’ relationship to their gamer identity in F2P, cross-platform, multiplayer co-op games, can both attract and retain players?
Rather than looking at how to balance Ad placement for maximum monetisation in F2P without dissatisfying the player — at this first stage of the research, I moved from the more product-centric views toward a more user-centric view.

The Theory

I explored what is so appealing about games, and, why we play and continue to play. Extensive research in the field of gamer psychology over the last years has demonstrated:

  • Players are motivated by enjoyment and relaxation, and game’s achievement component, which includes the want to advance in the game, the interest in the rules and system of the game, and they want to compete with others.  Ryan and Deci’s Self Determination Theory states that human behaviour is driven by the need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness, argues that if those needs are met, we enjoy activities more, even in gaming. 
  • Players are engaged via the social component, which is the want to form connections with others, and they want to be a part of a group effort. For instance, if one has achieved a lot, gained recognition, or has made many connections with players, those play a significant role if one will continue to play a game, and player referral. Players want to be immersed, creating and customising a character to play in the unique story of the game as well as wanting to escape from the routines and troubles of real-life. Research into WoW, and, Final Fantasy, show us that the network effect of coop multiplayer games also leads to further player immersion. 

Ryan, R.M., and Deci, E.L. “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being.” American Psychologist 55.1 (2000): 68-78. Web. 17 Oct. 2016

Yee, Nick. “Motivations for Play in Online Games.” CyberPsychology & Behavior 9.6 (2006): 772-75. Web. 17 Oct. 2016

Chang, Chiao-Chen. “Examining users′ intention to continue using social network games: A flow experience perspective.” Telematics and Informatics 30.4 (2013): 311-321. Web. 17 Oct. 2016.

(RO) Research Objectives & (H) Hypotheses 

The ideas above barely scratch the surface, but nevertheless urge us to think critically beyond the economically-influenced behaviour factors and leisure pursuit, and more into gaps and opportunities for future development and innovation in the given game genre. 

I proposed to dive deeper to explore the prime causes of players’ behaviour in response to a lack of diversity and identity representation in a F2P action game narratives.

(H) Females are a growing group of gamers, especially on console and mobile systems. However, there are still clear differences between this target audience and male-identified engagement; and even more in the video games enjoyed by LGBTQ+, Non-binary persons. These views could suggest that these communities are particularly underrepresented in storylines, which can impose a disengagement and loss of interest. If game narratives and their design become more inclusive and accessible by drawing on myriads of cultures, lifestyles, and experiences of underrepresented individuals, games will effectively appeal to broader diverse communities of players; and retain their engagement by capturing the imagination of these players, driving the sector forward. This is a component that can also be supported by photogrammetry to create realistic diverse personas that can attract a diverse cohort of players.

  • (RO1) Understand what games and gaming features and functions attract female, LGBTQ+, Non-binary players.
  • (RO2) Discover these target users’ motivations behind playing, both F2P action co-op games, and outside this genre to find differences.
  • (RO3) Uncover other games in these communities.
  • (RO4) Identify the competitive landscape of what additional games these players are currently playing, and why.
  • (RO5) Learn and evaluate any pain points users are encountering during their gaming process, and what improvements they might make.

Different stories than the well-worn power fantasy are being told through the medium – take last year’s anti-colonialist sci-fi Falcon Age, or the forthcoming Tell Me Why, whose lead character is a trans man – and female avatars and a range of skin tones have become an expected requirement for any game that lets you create your own character.
Keza MacDonald (Feb, 2020)

Method: Interviews

I used 1-2-1 generative research interviews (60-min each). This method enabled digging deeper into empathising with this specific target audience of players, fostering a strong sense of understanding, allowing for strategic responses to the objectives. Structured interviews can effectively, quickly, and inexpensively reveal the desires, experiences, and attitudes of a target audience. Actions for this include:

Interviewees were recruited to have diversity in mind, to avoid sample testing, which would go against our objectives.

I wrote interview guides, and interview questions using the TEDW question method (“Tell me more…”, “Explain…”, “Describe what you mean by…”, “Walk me though…”)

Synthesising & Sharing

After running generative research sessions, all of this information was collected to spot different trends and patterns in the data. My process included interview transcription, labeling the important lines with tags, such as ‘pain points’, keywords for what users were talking about, motivations, or suggestions.

Then, when I looked across my notes written during the interview process, I compared common threads and patterns. For each interview session, I wrote a brief research summary, and with this proceeded to complete empathy maps; also transforming these into personas. 

UX Research: Increasing player engagement in F2P multiplayer games

This practice helped solidify what was discussed and better enabled me to connect the dots between participants. Research summaries also highlighted the most important trends or themes from a session, which gives the different teams I worked with an accessible way to digest the user research. After I completed several research sessions, I make sense of data by looking for patterns using the affinity diagram approach. This helped me analyse the contextual inquiry by data clustering user attributes into profiles, and/or requirements, problem-framing, and idea generation. 

The next steps of the research included:

  • turning core findings into actionable insights

  • sharing this knowledge with my team through visual storytelling approaches

  • after user feedback had been taken into account and implemented, we began another round of user research. 

  • adopting a more evaluative model included mixed-methods (qualitative and quantitative), such as usability testing in order to gather UX metrics (inc. Game telemetry and game metrics), with user benchmarking, card sorting, surveys, and A/B testing.