Monday, March 26, 2007

Game Research Case Studies

There isn't a lot of academic research in the field of game design, and what little there is, I have trouble relating to. At the IGDA Educational SIG at GDC, it was refreshing to see a number of different takes on research that focus on gameplay -- exactly the type of research I'd like to do myself, in those hours when I'm not teaching. Here are my notes from the session:

Jesse Schell (CMU ETC):
  • Industry/Academic bridges are mostly 1:1.
  • One major problem: many universities can’t hire people with just a BS/BA degree, regardless of industry experience. (Example from last year’s GDC: the Lead Artist for World of Warcraft is unqualified to teach art at many universities. Wait… unqualified?)
  • There’s a huge bonus on both sides if this problem can be solved. As people cross borders between Industry and Academy, there is a transfer of technology and information.
  • The universities that build the best programs will likely be the ones that are able to find loopholes in the system, creative ways to get experienced industry people teaching their students in some capacity.

James Dargie (EALA):

  • Internally, EA has a process that’s something like rapid prototyping, but with artists instead of technical designers.
  • Pre-rendered trailer video, takes 1 to 3 months.
  • Shows visual style, quality bar and gameplay features at the start of a project.

Jeremy Gordon (Secret Level / SEGA):

  • Undirected R&D is attractive to industry since we’re all trying to solve the problems we don’t know about yet.
  • But… it requires overtime or extra funding (or both), and there’s no immediate ROI.

Doug Whately (Breakaway Games):

  • Breakaway has an interesting funding model internally: Serious Games and Entertainment Games divisions. Serious provides funding for Entertainment, which is treated as funded R&D whose results can be used by Serious.
  • (I found out later that there’s a similar symbiotic relationship between Wahoo Studios and NinjaBee, with Wahoo creating AAA games that fund NinjaBee’s low-budget indie games, which in turn are treated as R&D to help Wahoo.)
  • Working with universities is hard because of scheduling. Universities work around the academic calendar; game studios work around fiscal years.
  • Suggested that some studios might do better if they have rotating undergrad internships throughout the year, encouraging Seniors to take a quarter or semester “sabbatical” to work in the industry for 3-4 months during the school year. In this way, a company can have a steady supply of student interns year-round… not just in the Summer.
  • In classroom learning games, expect to see a huge battle between professors. Half will love it because it gives them new tools to teach; half will hate it because it’s an outside intrusion into their acutely-honed, time-tested lesson plans.

John Hopson (Microsoft Games User Research Group):

  • Developers are inherently distrustful of anyone trying to tell them how to do their job. This includes academic researchers. If you approach a studio saying “my research shows exactly what you’re doing wrong”… prepare to be ignored.
  • Start out with one-on-one: “Give me half an hour of your time, and we’ll show you how to make a better game.” After that works and you’ve built up a small amount of trust, ask for a little more… one baby step at a time. Build long-term trust.
  • Schools need to promote their technology to the industry: make sure you show up on a Google search when the industry is looking for you!
  • Build cool stuff. If you write a paper for the industry that you think is so great, why don’t you use it? Better to make a working demo, then write a paper that explains how you did it. (Fa├žade is a good example of this.)
  • We all have the same concerns as any other field of research that tries to interface with industry. The only difference is that our industry is relatively new.

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