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Becoming a Game Developer – Not That Simple, After All

2018/19 Intern Tim on finding a career path in the gaming industry, and using his research to help others.

As a young starry-eyed country village boy going to a big city university, I dreamed of developing  worthwhile and meaningful video games that would challenge and move my audience. This was perhaps a bit naive, and I soon had to face reality – it is extremely difficult  getting into this niche development industry. In fact, finding a clear path into game development has proved elusive, not only to me, but to many of my peers.

Inspiration for Action

No one seems to know what game studios want in graduates (in terms of skills and experience) or how games are developed here in New Zealand.

During my final year of uni there is a year-long Honours research project which is normally related to industry or internal work. I decided this would be a great opportunity to take the initiative in answering some of these questions, making game development the topic of my research. As a software engineer, I have been taught to value Agile principles and follow good development methodologies like Scrum and Kanban. I have been told that game development has a very different approach to process, in that much work goes into planning and pre-production. Thus, my research is geared into answering two questions:

  1. What are the methodologies that the Game Development Industry uses here in NZ.
  2. How do they perceive they align to traditional standards of professional practice.

I have been very fortunate that the pursuit of this topic has the support of the university and the School of Product design (which offers a degree in immersive game design). They are very interested in knowing how the industry works, in order to better harmonise the university’s course content with what is actually being done in the real world. I have attended various Meetups in game development and have spoken with several game studios here in Christchurch, such as Cerebral Fix and Digital Confectioners.

Curiously, they are also very interested in this research, because a whitepaper on industry practices hasn’t been done here before. Hence, the students, the university, the industry, and me personally all benefit from this research project. It is particularly encouraging for me to know that other students with an interest in gaming will be able to make more informed choices and have a clearer road map for their careers.

The Three Stages of Research

The research itself is going to be based on three stages.

First: Question

An anonymous survey will be carried out across the industry to find out exactly what development methodologies they are actually using (versus what they think they are using). They will be asked in general terms what their various processes are for different phases of development, in the context of a client or internal project. Questions include things like, how they test, how they organise their teams, and what coding practices they use – for example. They will also be asked what development methodology they believe they are using. Using the answers from these two perspectives on the same question, I will be able to infer how closely they are following ‘standard’ software development practice. The survey will give insight into the day-to-day work that is required to develop a game in a modern studio, as well as identify commonalities and trends in studio practice.

A lot of effort has been put into the survey to ensure that it is clear and that the data drawn from it will be valid. Investigation into the game development domain itself draws out its key elements so there is meaningful thought behind the survey questions. It turns out that there are strong psychological aspects to surveys that can easily cause them to go wrong. For example, the length of the survey, the number of multiple choice and matrix questions, and the positioning of questions all have an influence on the quality of response data. Long surveys lead to low completion rates, Matrix questions often lead to ‘averaging’ behaviour, and its shown that large number of question choices puts off participants. For those interested, the following sites offer insights to these biases and survey considerations:

The survey will also be pilot tested, and I have consulted with the industry about how best to ask or frame certain questions to get the best, most accurate data.

Second: Investigate

The second part of the research involves going into the studios and interviewing the developers themselves to learn about the challenges and issues they face. This is to get a deeper understanding of day-to-day game development experience, and the reality of the difficulties. This part of the research is not independent of the first. Every studio will have its own context and problems with its projects and there may be a relationship between their issues and the degree to which they follow Agile methodologies. Of course, it’s not a given following methodologies like Scrum results in high performing studios. Agile, by its nature, is designed to be adaptable, and so adapted to whatever configuration that works best for the project at hand. But, Agile is used across the industry for a reason, and so determining whether there is a measurable detrimental effect rejecting Agile practices would nevertheless be a worthwhile inquiry to make.

Third: Analyse

This link between a game studio’s development methodology and the challenges they face flows into the third part of the research. This will involve finding potential solution candidates for the various common issues that were raised from the survey and the interviews. It is not the intent of the research to present ideal answers to the problems, nor to just bring optimisations to their processes. Rather, it’s about investigating the issues that the Kiwi studios all face, and the different strategies they have employed to address these problems. It’s quite possible that different studios have come up with novel solutions that would be beneficial for others. Thus, it’s about information sharing as much as it is about finding answers. A natural outcome of this research will be something of a snapshot of what game development is about, and, a roadmap into the game industry itself. This will hopefully give assurances to other students that are in my position.

Where to From Here?

I have a busy year ahead, getting all this research completed by September. Every year, the New Zealand Game Developers Association has a conference which most of New Zealand’s game development industry attends. This year it will be hosted in late September – right when I am concluding my research report. It is intended that I will be one of the keynote speakers for this event in order to present my research findings directly to the industry. That I may have this opportunity is both exciting and humbling – and way beyond my original plans for this project. This opportunity is thanks to my supervisors, who have been quite supportive and share my enthusiasm in the success of this project.

I will keep you all posted as the project progresses.

Tim is entering his fourth and final year of his undergraduate degree in Software Engineering at University of Canterbury. While interning at Media Suite, he worked on a building a complex project management tool for an existing Media Suite partner, working through the complete concept>design>build>test phases of the project alongside senior developers, user experience experts and problem solving specialists.

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