perjantai 6. kesäkuuta 2014

Many-faceted Game Research (Jouni Smed)

When I started researching game development in the late 1990s, many colleagues wouldn’t take me seriously. Although nobody argued that games aren’t worth studying academically, there was a general feeling of dismissiveness and marginality. Sometimes you couldn’t even mention the words ‘computer games’, for example, in a grant application but talk vaguely about ‘virtual environments’ or ‘simulated worlds’ or ‘real-time interactive systems’. Over the years I’ve seen more and more colleagues getting interested in game research (or maybe the students they are supervising are picking more topics on that area). And, on top of that, researchers from totally different fields are approaching me wanting find out more what games could do for them.

What has changed in two decades? Firstly, games and game playing has become more common and pervasive. It’s intruding new areas of life as game-like thinking finds new application areas. Secondly, games have become an important part of the entertainment industry – it has already passed the music industry and is steadily narrowing the gap to the film industry. Thirdly, we who started playing computer games in the 1980s are still playing them today, and we forty-somethings are pushing the demographic wave for game players. The average age of a game player today is 35 years – and in the future everyone will be playing games.

No wonder that academic game research has skyrocketed. One reason is the inclusion of game-inspired design and gamification, which uses  game thinking and game elements in non-game contexts (see more). It’s difficult to foresee where this will be taking us. Maybe it’ll help us to lead a healthier and more active life or maybe it takes us to an escapist dystopia, which is illustrated brilliantly in the short film Sight.

I still find myself often wondering, why researchers are approaching games from their narrow corner. If you are interested in game research, why don’t you want to find out more about its practicalities – how games are created – because there’s a wealth of knowledge to be learned from the professionals in the game industry. Also, if you are interested in game research, why don’t you try to find other researchers with a similar mindset.

Game industry disciples

In game industry, the production process of games is called game development and the people participating in this process are collectively known as game developers. This group is diverse and houses talents with different skills and backgrounds, but typically game industry recognizes six professional disciplines:

        Production: managing the practical challenges of the game development process

        Design: handling the mechanics behind the rules and play of the game

        Art: creating the visual components of the game

        Programming: implementing the game in a digital form

        Audio: creating the sounds and aural environments for the game

        Testing and Quality Assurance: ensuring the playability of the game

During the game development, the producer and game designer play the pivotal roles. The game designer is the one with a vision of the game, which is to be carried from inception to the finish. The producer is the counter-part who has to work with the realities – schedule, budget – to allow the project to materialize. They often work as a tandem, the producer being the surface to the outside (e.g. customer or publisher) and designer to the inside (i.e. the rest of the development team). The artists (both visual and audio) design and create the assets that the game uses, and the programmers’ task is to implement the game mechanics and the user-interfaces. The game testers and QA provide feed-back the development team by taking care that the game is playable, bug-free and enjoyable.

A large commercial game project can take 2–4 years of work, throughout which the game development involves 50–150 people possibly in several countries and production sites. Requiring both technical and artistic competence, even smaller projects require co-operation between several specialized professionals. Still, the finished game should be a cohesive whole, which delivers the vision of the game designer to the players. To achieve this a game development project is built upon game documents, which provide all the departments – from management to engineering and arts – with a single vision

The figure below illustrates the phases of a typical game development project. In the concept phase, a game idea is concretized into a concept document, which is used (as a sales pitch) in order to raise funding for the production. If a publisher accepts the concept, the game idea will be refined in the pre-production phase, in which the game designer creates a game design document. This represents a “blue-print” of the game for the production. Additionally, other documents such as a technical design document, an art style guide or a production plan can be generated during the pre-production phase.

After the pre-production phase, the project must get approval from the publisher before entering the production phase, where the actual game development takes place. Once the production phase is over, the game moves first to the alpha phase, which concentrates on ensuring playability, and then to the beta phase, which aims at stabilizing the game by eliminating bugs. Finally, in the gold phase the game code and other assets are finalized before publishing. The game might also require a certification of the game console maker for market acceptance. At the same time, the game can be localized to other languages so that all the versions can be published simultaneously. In order to market the forthcoming game, playable demos can be made public before the final product is ready.

Academic Connections to Game Development

To map the connections of game development to academic research I have created the figure below. It illustrates the main areas of game development as trees, which divide into four focus areas:

        Game as Content focuses on the artistic assets (e.g. graphics, animation and audio) needed in the game.

        Game as a System focuses on the implementation of the game mechanics and interfaces utilizing game technology (e.g. game engines).

        Game as a Product focuses on the productization of a game (e.g. the production process, marketing and business aspects).

        Game as a Creation focuses on the analysis of games in different contexts and on the design of games.

Before I continue, a word of warning: The borders of this classification are not clear-cut and reflect my personal views. One can argue, for example, that procedural generation (e.g. in graphics or audio) blurs the line between Game as a System and Game as Content, or that software development could also be located in Game as a Product. And the biggest challenge, of course, is placing game design in such a broad picture, because it is a discipline that encompasses many (if not all) areas of game development. But, for the sake of argument, let’s use this classification to clarify our thoughts.

The four focus areas give us an interface to connect to the academic research, which is illustrated in the figure below. Game as Content sees the game as an artistic endeavour, which is a natural point for related studies. If we look at the Game as a System, our natural reference fields are those related natural sciences and engineering. Game as a Product connects mainly to economics, but, for instance, localization and metrics requires knowledge from translation studies and statistics, respectively. Game as a Creation has the broadest set of connections, because we can apply games in many fields from education to medicine and we can study games and their effects and implications from various fields.

As we can see game development is a meeting point for different disciplines, and, in the long run, it’s not fruitful to conduct research without collaboration. The interconnectedness means that a research group should be heterogeneous; by working alone you are bound to omit knowledge that makes a game playable. I have seen, for example, many badly working educational games – created without knowledge of how game mechanics work – which have been rendered useless regardless their pedagogical ideas.

Domain-specific knowledge can be conveyed into game development in two ways. Firstly, the experts can act as a client who places an order to the game development team and provide feedback during the development. This works well if the experts aren’t familiar with the development process or can’t take part actively in it. Secondly, the experts can become a part of the game design team, which allows them to participate throughout the development. This also requires that they can spend time and effort in working – and learning how to work – with the rest of the game development team. 


Nowadays nobody is questioning why I am researching games, but people see their value and influence. Regardless whether games are your primal focus or just intersecting your actual research interests, you shouldn’t limit your view on game research. As researchers, we should actively work together or, dare I say, play together. Human beings are apt to play from the early age and we never really lose that skill – I hope not even as jaded academics.

Jouni Smed


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