Microsoft: The

Microsoft: The "X" Men
The Perception Engineers

Spanner | 28 Nov 2006 11:04
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"Unfortunately, when there is an unintentional difficulty in the game (a 'usability' problem), there may not be a 'eureka moment'; the problem might just be really, really hard to solve. In these cases, users sometimes continue to bang their head against the wall, trying to 'solve' a usability problem. The end result is that the user will eventually look up from their bleeding fingers and mangled controller, realize that the game is not fun and stop playing - even if they managed to solve the problem.

"We want to avoid these experiences at all costs. Psychology is a behavioral science, and while there's a certain degree of peering into the black box, it's definitely not a crapshoot when trying to figure out why people behave the way they do."

Although they work this closely with designers and development teams, both Tim and Dan spend a lot of time with individuals outside of Microsoft's user research program. Inevitably, these testers are also people keen to get involved in the dynamic area of engineering psychology and the gaming delights it brings. But, as Tim explains, a long history of videogame playing isn't really what their bosses at Microsoft are looking for.

"I have friends with similar educational backgrounds who are testing how users interact with copiers or microwaves. Now, I have nothing against microwaves (Hot Pockets are a nutritional part of any meal), but I get to do the same work, only with space marines and RPG skill trees and awesome graphics and technology. This field is just fun to work in!" he says. "And inevitably, when I walk a usability participant to the exit, I'll be asked about job opportunities. I don't blame them; I'd want to do my job, too."

Dan has an equal passion for his job:

"If I wasn't working in the Games User Research Group," he told me, "I'd be dreaming about having this job! I'd be doing something that involved helping to make some sort of technology or device more user friendly, but it definitely wouldn't be as cool as games!"

I may not get to use my Xbox 360 as much as I'd like (or at all) due to the long line of "the recently converted" sampling their first taste of videogame enchantment, but it's certainly a testament to the hard work of the people at the Games User Research Group the way they wait on my doorstep and huddle around my TV.

Fun, it seems, is a serious business, and it's reassuring (especially for those of us who stretched our bank account to its elastic limits in order to join the next generation community) to know there are people like Tim Nichols and Dan Gunn at the User Research Group working hard to realize our wild and varied perceptions of great videogames.

Special thanks to Randy Pagulayan, Tim Nichols and Daniel Gunn for their help and enthusiasm.

Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.

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