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Study suggests game development demands more creative coders
Study suggests game development demands more creative coders
May 6, 2014 | By Alex Wawro

A recent study conducted by Microsoft Research in tandem with North Carolina State University suggests that contemporary computer science programs may be inefficiently preparing students for the realities of game development, where creativity and the ability to collaborate with non-engineers is more valuable than it might be in traditional software development.

The study surveyed 364 Microsoft developers, of whom 145 made games, 100 worked on Microsoft Office, and 119 worked on various other Microsoft software projects.

“We wanted to evaluate which skills are important to game developers versus other fields of software development,” stated NC State assistant professor computer science Dr. Emerson Murphy-Hill in a press release issued by the university. “These findings could influence how we teach aspiring game developers.”

The survey that each participant was asked to complete was created by Dr. Emerson Murphy-Hill in conjunction with two Microsoft Research representatives, Thomas Zimmermann and Nachiappan Nagappan, and was based on interviews the trio conducted with 14 developers from within and without Microsoft who had experience in the game industry.

Excerpts of those interviews are published in the paper, and they make for fascinating reading.

Based on the responses of those surveyed, the study authors concluded that game developers tend to work in more diverse teams that require more creativity and interpersonal communication skills than traditional software developers. They also tend to use development processes they perceive to be "agile" and iterate on their designs more often their compatriots in traditional software development.

"Our results suggest that special skills, beyond those taught to most computer science students, would be beneficial for students thinking about moving into games," reads the paper. "Chief among them is the ability to communicate with non-engineers."

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Ron Dippold
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Not to mention resource constraints. A lot of computer science education assumes you have a Java machine with infinite resources.

Jonathan Jennings
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I would agree, first let me say that I enjoyed my education but a lot of the core programming courses taught great logic, just in poor game development situations . I can't tell you all the ways in which I have had to utilize FOR loops or how useful virtual functions are when you are handling very Generic parameters and need to handle different items differently while trying to keep it to a minimal level of code .

I think teaching core code concepts is useful but I almost feel like the most useful thing any programming student could learn is what it's like to be given a situation you know nothing about and looking up the reference material, taking your prior knowledge, and continuously test your implementation until you come up with a valid and useful solution .

The hardest thing about programming is how many ways you can do something and finding which solutions work best for your project, so any game programming curriculum should be based on creating situations that let the users take those core fundamentals of knowledge and develop their very own unique and creative solution for them .

As programmers our job is to take other peoples dreams and visions and use our given tool sets to build a logical structure that brings them to fruition , Creativity is an absolute must .

Ian Richard
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I agree completely. I've been programming games for my entire life, yet even now the most important thing I've learned is "How to learn."

There are far too many things for us to ever learn it all. But, I don't need to know everything because I've I can answers when I need them.

El Winchestro
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With creative coding I associate processing. Libraries aimed to make coding simple and accessible to art or design oriented people (hey that's how I got into that habit). On the other hand there are these extremely skilled programmers, usually called Graphics Programmers even though they usually can do a lot more, since they already know all the math and all the programming techniques. They can create art so alien and beautiful people without their knowledge can not even dream of even imagining.

So if you already have a lot of theoretical knowledge, why would you want to ever become a dork like me and not strive to become an actual Graphics Programmer?

Kelley Hecker
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Creativity and being able to work with non-technical artists and managers are vitally important when working in the games industry, but I'm not sure if you need a special curriculum to gain those skills. I think the people who are drawn to the games industry tend to be more creative anyway. I'd be interested to see this survey performed on computer science students, to see if the answers of those wanting to work in the games industry already align with the answers of the industry professionals.

Jane Castle
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What you learn in Computer Science:

Calculate the time complexity for inserting n numbers into a binary search tree.....

Jonathan Jennings
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lol oh, you had that class too ?

Alan Barton
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I hate it when bosses think programmers are interchangeable.

Games programming has always been a specialist skill.

But then there are many areas of programming that require a lot of Domain Specific Knowledge because programming is such a vast subject.

Also true for other walks of life with a lot of Domain Specific Knowledge. For example, we wouldn't expect most brain surgeons to be a good taxi drivers any more than most taxi drivers could be good brain surgeons, yet both deal with networks (networks of roads or networks of neurons) and each have a lot of specialist knowledge. (Sure perhaps somewhere Set A and Set B may have a few people that overlap, but its not the general case).

Its profoundly ignorant of Domain Specific Knowledge to assume programmers are interchangeable, but like all bosses who think they are, the suits who commissioned this report can't have the first idea about programming.

Jonathan Jennings
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you make a great point Alan, I think a better analogy for programmers being interchangeable is more along the lines of a great taxi cab driver being put in an F1 racer position and vice versa .

They both drive sure but the skill sets , knowledge bases, and even job requirements are so drastically different that you would never take one and assume they would succeed in the others position .

Alan Barton
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Yeah I think you have a good point. Taxi and F1 drivers makes the analogy easier and clearer to explain. :)

Elizabeth Boylan
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More interesting, is how game development can be used to enhance the creativity of the more square type programmers who are conditioned to program in a flat linear manner.

Ricardo Hernandez
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I am all for making a study to check on hypothesis and gather data, but I also wonder why this seems to be so surprising. I think for the experienced game industry employee this should be kind of obvious.