interest in games has risen quickly over the past decade, but the games
industry has never shown a similar interest in academic work. Every
year there are books, journals, and conferences dedicated to studying
games and how people play them, but most games professionals never read
this work nor attend these conferences.
individual designers, producers, and developers listen, but the
industry as a whole has ignored an entire field of study dedicated to
studying it. There have been academic panels at industry conferences,
but the vast majority of the conference attendees have walked right on
past. I’ve sat in these sessions and heard the researchers vent their
frustrations: They’re doing wonderful stuff, why won’t the industry
We have scores of smart, professional
academics out there doing great work, learning and thinking new and
fascinating things about games every day. This work should be having a
huge impact on the games industry, the kind of impact that university
researchers in chemistry or computer science have on their own fields.
Why aren’t we seeing those sorts of breakthroughs improving our ability
to make better games?
I often refer to myself only
half-jokingly as a “recovering academic.” I received my Ph.D., did my
research, wrote journal articles and grant applications, taught
undergraduates, and attended academic conferences so dry that any
normal human being would have died of dehydration. However, on the
brink of diving into a full-blown academic career, I wrote an article which drew some attention from the industry and I jumped at the chance to impact games directly.
For the past several years I’ve worked as a professional games researcher on major titles such as Halo 2 and Age of Empires III.
I’ve been in the trenches, doing applied research on how people play
games and then have been working directly with development teams
helping them to use the results of that research to make real changes
happen in real games.
But honestly, even I walk
past most of the academic presentations at industry events. Even I have
trouble really getting excited about most of the games research being
done out there. From the perspective of someone on the inside, the
average piece of academic games research just doesn’t get the job done.
It’s not a question of the quality of the research or the intelligence
of the researcher or the game makers; it’s a question of bridging the
gap between the academic and business cultures.
the purposes of this article, I’m going to make a couple of
assumptions. First, this article is for researchers who want their
ideas to be taken to heart and implemented by non-academics in the
games industry. Pure research and theory are beautiful things, but
they’re outside the scope of this article. I’m not saying that
academics have to care about what the industry thinks of them, but for
those who do this is the best advice I can give on how to make sure the
industry takes your work seriously. Secondly, I’m going to assume that
you’ve already done your research and have the findings ready to go.
This article is about the final mile, going from finished research to
real implementation in a shipped game.
Rule #1: Return On Investment
in the games industry make games because they love games, but it’s
still a business. Every person working on a game can justify their
existence on that project in terms of their impact on the final
product. This is not necessarily in strictly monetary terms (“If we
hire another tester, we’ll up sales by 3%.”) but generally more in
terms of final game quality. (“Our testers are stretched too thin, if
we hire more we’ll catch more bugs and ship a better game.”) Every
employee, every computer, every meeting, every stapler in a game studio
is a tool for making the final game better. If games researchers,
inside or outside the industry, want to be taken seriously, they have
to justify themselves and their work the same way.
a researcher presents a product team with a set of research findings
and recommendations, they are asking the team to invest time and money
implementing their proposal. In order to convince the audience to spend
that time and money, the researcher has to show clearly how that
investment is going to pay off. This needs to be something beyond “this
will help players identify more strongly with the main character”.
researcher must lay out the entire impact of the idea, from the cost of
implementing the proposal to the resulting changes in player experience
and the metrics for measuring that impact. Getting players to identify
with the main character is great, but researchers have to finish the
rest of the sentence: “This will help players identify more strongly
with the main character which will result in an improvement in measures of overall player satisfaction and an increase in total playing time.”
the way, if the research doesn’t include specific practical
recommendations or a measurable impact on the final product, don’t
bother trying to sell it to the industry. From the average industry
professional’s perspective, there are only two things of value being
said in a research presentation: the recommendations and their
predicted effects. Everything else, the background research, the
brilliant theoretical breakthrough, the clever development of the
ideas, falls on industry ears like the “wah wah” noises made
by Charlie Brown’s teacher. I’m not saying that qualitative or
theoretical work isn’t worthwhile; I’m just saying that the industry is
generally not going to listen.