A year or so after graduating from my Bachelor’s degree from Sussex University, I secured a role at a company called Vertical Slice, later known as Player Research. This startup consisted of just me and three other people, all PhDs of some kind or other. These guys, under the supervision of their professor Graham McAllister, had come up with a smart way to improve videogame playstesting.
We used all kinds of innovative kit to get a better understanding of how good a videogame was. That included gear that allowed us to measure heart rate, respiration rate, eye tracking, micro-sweat response and even brain activity. Coupled with visual analysis and verbal feedback, we were able to produce data-driven reports about the quality of a game.
Big publishers like EA, Disney and Sony used our services to get a much richer perspective on the success of their titles before they were released. That’s because in the games industry, unlike Hollywood, there is a reasonably tight correlation between the critical and commercial success of a title. Squeezing out a few percentage points of improvement on a game can mean millions of dollars difference in sales. So what better way to do that than get scientists to empirically show which parts of your game were confusing, frustrating, scary, enjoyable or just plain awful.
My job was to market the business, helping win new customers and increase our profile in the games community. We didn’t have much of a budget, but we did come up with some cool programs like creating a ‘scariest game of all time’ feature for Xbox360 magazine, or mailing out custom-made chocolate Wii controllers to publishers we wanted to work with, complete with tailored Christmas messages.
We were able to work on some well-known titles in the 18 months I was there, such as the iconic Aliens vs Predator, the innovative racing game Split/Second and the highly acclaimed Crysis 2. We also got our hands on the Xbox Kinect way before its retail release and were regularly featured in print and on stage at places like Develop and Edge magazine.
After I left, Player Research would go on to be acquired by Keywords Studios.