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Simply put market research is the researching or gathering of information about your target customer's needs, preferences and expectations. You probably know this term as a feature of marketing and that is true, marketing teams will perform market research to understand a products position in a given market.
Market research is used for more than marketing and should be taken into account when developing and refining your game design.
Market research is something every professional in this industry should be investing some of their personal time in. Having a personal understanding of the market that supports the industry you work in is only common since.
Having said that professional market research is leaps and bounds more useful and allows you to make far more effective decisions earlier than the "arm chair research" we should all be doing. Check out our article on Sourcing Marketing to learn more about engaging a professional marketing firm.
First you need at decent understanding of what your game will be and who it will be for. This is important in that you will be researching similar or "liked" games, in particular their performance and impact with your "target audience"
With a hypothetical "game" and "audience" in hand you can get started gathering information from available sources. The information your after will depend on your objectives but for most indies its user reviews, unit sales and where possible revenue from a historical point of view. You might extend this to comparative research regarding features, modes, models or other factors of your project that your considering but not settled on.
"liked" games doesn't mean games you like (as in enjoy) it means games that are in some way relatable or are alike your game. This isn't to say "similar" simply that relevant factors are "comparable" such that you can use that same comparison to reasonably extrapolate how your game would perform.
For example, lets say your not sure what monetization model would work best for your game. To figure this out you can gather data on the performance of "liked" (F2P + DLC) games vs (F2P + MTX) vs (F2P + Sub) and of course traditional (Pay to Play) titles.
What we have described here is a Historical Market Research approach and this is most common for indies due to a lack of other affordable options. If you have the budget you should select a marketing partner studio who can help you perform more "intelligent" market research. You may be surprised at just how "indie friendly" marketing partners can be if you do a bit digging. As an added bonus having a marketing partner and a budget to fuel them with can significantly boost project viability.
Your first requirement of course is to find a source of information.
Their are plenty of resources available some free, some paid. VGI as linked above is a paid option and one we have used on several projects and is useful for PC games deploying on Steam.
Steam Spy is another option for Steam and has a free option.
Once you have a source you need to identify similar projects to yours in that source and understand the audience they hit and how well. It can be useful to take a look at the other projects that are not similar to yours but that hit the same sorts of audience targets.
Your goal here is to try and abstract out a "typical customer" or more commonly several that represent your "target audiences".
Early in design it can also be useful to abstract out the "typical game" relevant for your project. This could be variations similar to what you have in mind and or variations of games that overlap with your target audiences.
With the "Typical Customers" and or "Typical Games" in hand you pull hypothetical numbers from your sources to give a feel for the "best case", "worst case" and "most probable". This may also help you adjust any areas of your design that where more [ shrug emoji ] up to this point.