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The video game industry’s problems are mostly due to people, not technology, Concordia researchers argue

Cristiano Politowski and Yann-Gaël Guéhéneuc studied 200 game post-mortems to identify the widespread challenges developers encounter
April 7, 2021
Generic gamers playing video game soccer
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Like many other multi-billion-dollar industries, the video game field has its share of problems. Keeping up with new technology, managing human resources, meeting market demand and expectations — these are all familiar challenges not unique to game developers.

However, the industry does have a tradition that is rarely found elsewhere. Developers often engage in what is known as a post-mortem: an informal and (ideally) honest and frank post-launch assessment of what went right and what went wrong over the course of a game’s development. Post-mortems often take the form of personal blog posts appearing on the video game industry news website Gamasutra.

PhD student Cristiano Politowski and Yann-Gaël Guéhéneuc, professor of computer science and software engineering at the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science, recently published a new paper in Information and Software Technology on the topic. In it they examine more than 200 post-mortems to study the kinds of problems developers encountered, how they evolved and their root causes. They hope that their work will help developers find solutions to the problems they identified. Fabio Petrillo of the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi and Gabriel Ullmann of the Universidade Regional do Noroeste do Estado do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil (who will begin his master’s at Concordia this fall) co-authored the paper.

Young man with dark hair and dark shirt standing next to middle-aged man with glasses and striped sweater Cristiano Politowski (left) and Yann-Gaël Guéhéneuc looked at post-mortems across more than two decades.

Games change, problems remain

The post-mortems the researchers looked at date from 1997 to 2019, a span that gave them a perspective on the trends, changes and chronic issues developers experienced as the gaming industry exploded. They identified 927 distinct problems, which they further categorized into 20 different types.

After analyzing their data, they concluded the following:

● The industry’s problems can be split almost down the middle between management and production problems. Production problems are mostly limited to design and technical aspects of games, while management problems are present in all aspects of development;

● Production problems have remained constant, while management problems have decreased. However, this decrease is offset by urgent business challenges including marketing and, especially for the growing mobile game market, monetization;

● Over the past decade, there has been a steady drop in technical and game design problems, but an increase in challenges involving team cohesion and harmony;

● Most of the problems’ root causes are human-derived, not technological.

Having identified common problems, the researchers further classified the problem types into 105 separate subtypes — and they offered solutions to some of the more common ones. Not enough workers for the task at hand? Consider outsourcing. Your team members aren’t getting along? Try balancing expertise levels and keep teams small and focused. Does the game risk being overly complex or suffering from feature creep? Remember to keep it simple, continue playtesting, value user feedback and manage players’ expectations.

Healthier industries make better experiences

Politowski says he was drawn to the subject of video game problems both because he loves playing them and because the issue is understudied.

“It’s very hard to understand what is happening behind the curtains,” he explains. “Why are these issues affecting video game companies? Normally, software engineers work regular hours. Why is the game industry so different?”

Guéhéneuc adds that with this and future papers, they hope they can pinpoint some of the problems the industry can focus on. “We know there have been issues with ‘crunch time,’ but we are also finding that workers are still struggling with tools and programming languages.”

Politowski plans to continue his studies of the video game industry under Guéhéneuc’s supervision. He is looking at the testing process and how companies can avoid high-profile fiascos like the premature release of 2020’s highly anticipated Cyberpunk 2077. He is also just as interested in studying game companies’ strengths as he is their weaknesses.

Read the cited paper: “Game industry problems: An extensive analysis of the gray literature.”

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