A rigorous, iterative product development cycle includes plenty of testing, early and often. But what about when there is nothing yet to test? The answer is discovery. Discovery typically describes an early phase in product design. Exploratory research is a type of research done during this phase. Also known as exploration, fuzzy front-end, foundational, problem space, or generative research, this phase provides a deeper understanding of a problem rather than an evaluation of the validity of a possible solution (e.g. testing a build of your game). Articles, podcast episodes, and books  describe how to evangelize for and then conduct this type of research. In a non-gaming context, the expected outcomes are clear: uncover latent needs in a population and discover the problems, pain points, or mindsets they have. In doing so, teams will reveal gaps in the market, opportunities to innovate, and ways to be more inclusive in their product design.
But What About Mobile Games?
With the exception of serious games and literal simulations used for training, games are not necessarily considered to be tools to get a particular job done. Players come to games for more aspirational purposes such as escape, relaxation, or competition. Many product research examples given to frame the value of discovery don’t quite translate to games (e.g. mindsets for doing laundry, pain points during commuting, the ritual of coffee making). Even so, there is absolutely a place and a need for discovery in game development. What then, is exploratory research in a game development context? How can we conduct aspects of exploratory research in an asynchronousand unmoderated fashion? Why should we as game developers be doing asynchronous exploratory research?
Exploratory Research in a Gaming Context
According to Wikipedia, exploratory research is "the preliminary research to clarify the exact nature of the problem to be solved." In other words, it is research that you do to understand something, anything, a bit better. In a non-gaming context, some examples of this type of research might be as follows:
- Participant interviews with patient groups to learn more about trust-building with healthcare providers for a future digital telemedicine application
- Doing a one-week diary study with coffee drinkers for coffee product innovation
- Learning what happens when listening to music while driving, so as to understand how to build better music listening experiences when on the road
Businesses would use the resulting information from the examples above to decide what to build next. As games are rooted in multiple creative practices, the initial seed of an idea often comes from something internal. The talented, creative people who dream of the digital worlds to walk through and puzzles to be solved come together through game jams, brainstorms, and workshops to create, mashup, and remix old and new mechanics and genres. Keeping this in mind, one might question the need for research in creative practices.
Beyond games, however, there are plenty of examples where creatives conduct research. Consider the examples of historical fiction or biography. They could not exist without research. Furthermore, games are often a simulation. In some cases, they are fantastical and metaphorical, and in others, they are quite literal. It is the choice of metaphors and visual symbology that could afford a better understanding of human experiences beyond our own. If game developers can root leveling systems, achievements, character classifications, and NPC identities in a multitude of lived experiences, the likelihood that games will innovate and speak to a wider audience will be much greater. On the highest level, game designers and developers that choose to do exploratory research will:
- Understand an audience deeply, their purpose in doing something such as playing games, and how to thus design more engaging games for them
- Gain expertise about a concept and thus bring nuance to a game that competitors have not thought of
- Uncover ideas that are outside of their own world and lived experiences that could yield inspiration on systems, mechanics, themes, and narratives in games
Here are some specific research project examples that might yield the high-level outcomes listed above:
- 1 on 1 interviews on the practice of a particular hobby or pastime that developers think would be fodder for a great digital game
- Capturing reactions to various visual stimuli of avatar systems or digital fashions so to inform the direction of identity creation in a future game
- A set of design exercises done with a group of participants (e.g. RPG players design their best battle team) followed by discussions with the intention to yield a new set of character attributes and item stats
- Extraction of insights from the above examples shared with your company in a workshop format so to build empathy and remove bias
The Value of Unmoderated Exploratory Research
Typically, exploratory research is conducted in real-time. Depending on the method involved, the researcher would need to visit someone’s home, rent a focus group facility or schedule a series of interviews to be conducted remotely through video or over the phone. While real-time research will always have a place in product development due to the ability to probe participant responses, there are many strengths to doing research in an unmoderated and asynchronous fashion. Positives to doing the work in this way include:
- Research participants can come to the project on their own schedule and in the comfort of their own home
- Researchers can avoid interview fatigue
- Observation of results can be more easily shared across multiple people since collaborators can conduct the analysis in a window of time that suits their busy schedules
- Researchers in opposite time zones as compared to participants can still conduct exploratory work
- Unmoderated research is leaner in that it is lower cost and doesn’t require travel of a team and the participants to a special facility
- Unmoderated research allows researchers to be extremely iterative in their approach rather than worrying about designing studies that capture all the right data in a single opportunity
Where do we start?
Ask yourself, what am I curious about today? Perhaps you are curious about a target audience or perhaps you are curious about a game concept idea. What questions do you have about these people or the concept at hand? Can you, with confidence, answer the questions you are asking? Do you find yourself in meetings making assumptions about people or concepts that perhaps you don’t have data to back up? Are there people and their behaviors or preferences that are quite different from your own that you would like to understand further? If the answer is yes to any of these questions then it is time to start doing exploratory research. Gather your team, jot down your questions and start thinking about how you can discover more about the people you will eventually be designing for.Don't know where to start? Check out our article on how to conduct an unmoderated exploratory study. It's great a step-by-step guide into exploratory research which equips you to run a study with useable templates, and it instructs you on how to structure your results in an easy to communicate way. Additionally, click on the link below to watch our webinar on this topic.