IN THIS ARTICLE
- Software Engineering in the Video Game Industry
- Data Analytics in the Video Game Industry
- Machine Learning in the Video Game Industry
- UX Design in the Video Game Industry
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In the last year and a half of the pandemic, video games have come to serve as a release valve for the cooped-up populace, enabling players to vicariously experience things they no longer could in the real world. “I thought a lot about how Animal Crossing: New Horizons might actually be improving the world,” Mike Odom, a longtime game developer and a mentor at Springboard, said of the Nintendo Switch game that became a cultural phenomenon as much of the world went under lockdown due to COVID-19 restrictions. The game sold over 31 million units, making it the second best-selling title on the Nintendo Switch.
For most people, life simulation games like the iconic EA franchise The Sims were the only way to experience cherished traditions such as Christmas, Halloween, and Thanksgiving—not to mention banalities like interacting with other humans and general gallivanting without fear of contracting a deadly virus. Before Nintendo cracked down on advocacy groups and political candidates using Animal Crossing for political activities, the Biden campaign live-streamed events and fundraisers in the game in lieu of in-person rallies.
In 2020, there were 2.7 billion gamers across the globe. Before the pandemic, the gaming industry had already surpassed the value of the music and movie industries combined. To put a number to that, the video game market is on track to reach $200 billion by 2023, up from $75 billion in 2013, when the Playstation 4 and Xbox One consoles launched, marking a 167% increase.
Thanks to this meteoric growth, the gaming industry is becoming increasingly complex. In the era of CD-ROMs and game cartridges, developers were concerned with shipping a fully formed game and selling as many copies as possible. Now, with the prevalence of new business models like free-to-play, freemium, and pay-to-play, gaming companies strive to keep players engaged (and spending money) long-term with DLC (downloadable content), in-game purchases, free updates, in-game events, developer live streams, and more.
To accomplish this, they’re using complex gaming analytics and telemetry data on user behavior to mold games around the player and adjust advertising, in-game promotions, and even game difficulty based on real-time business intelligence.
“Before I started working with gaming data, I had my doubts in terms of how serious it might be,” said Edoe Balint, an analytics consultant at Redemption Games and former Springboard mentor. “But I find analyzing datasets from video games to be the most comprehensive datasets I’ve worked with so far.”
Consequently, games have become living, breathing worlds that are constantly evolving, thereby generating demand for professionals in UX design, data science, machine learning, and software engineering to create new games and maintain existing ones.
Software Engineering in the Video Game Industry
Game developers are responsible for designing, programming, and testing games. They create the visual content of the game and write the code that supplies the logic necessary to implement its features. But game development isn’t as cut-and-dried as traditional software development, where the objective is to create solutions that enable users to achieve their objectives, even if they’re not “fun.”
While developers were once charged with concept and story development, roles in the gaming industry have grown more specialized, with designers, animators, artists, and creative directors overseeing the technical and creative process—thereby bifurcating the roles of game developer (the person who writes the code) and game designer (the person responsible for story development and character creation). In some companies, one engineering team will be in charge of making new games, while another team maintains existing games—QA testing, debugging, and resolving tickets.
What do software engineers in gaming do?
The main responsibility of a game developer is to create a base engine such as an in-editor tool (a low-code or no-code interface) that can be used by designers to create the world. Developers also build tools and programs that can be used to fix bugs and troubleshoot design issues. In this sense, the game developer’s role is analogous to the way data engineers build ETL pipelines that allow data scientists to store and extract data in order to derive meaning from it.
While video games have grown more complex as computing power gets cheaper and more accessible, the advent of game engines has made it easier than ever to create a video game, even for less advanced programmers. A game engine lays the software framework to create and build video games, providing features from animation to AI. While some gaming companies build their own game engines in-house, they can be reused for different games, and engine development is but a small part of the overall budget. Custom game engines are useful for rendering unusual gaming situations, such as the ability to destroy entire buildings or program rockets to explode, and make debugging easier since developers can access the source code.
However, general-purpose game engines like Unity and Unreal are available for free, with game-ready templates that make it easy for anyone to build their first microgame.
“Game engines make it so that you don’t have to be a hardcore physics major to know how to program a game,” said Odom. “You don’t have to really figure out how to render a polygon; you just have to know some basic programming, how to animate it, and how to work with the software.”
Before game engines existed, game development involved intricate mathematical calculations. Developers used to build their own physics and graphics engines to establish things the rules of gravity in a game, ranging from realistic simulation physics that enables footballs, grenades, missiles, and other projectiles to behave in predictable ways to the gravity-bending physics common in platform games that allows characters to double-jump in mid-air.
Now, many of the low-level physics problems in games can be abstracted using the graphics, lighting, and physics engines provided by game engines. Developers can integrate more advanced 2D and 3D assets using animation software like Maya, Blender, and RealFlow without the help of an artist.
Odom says this has rendered the mythical “super engineer” obsolete.
“You still want to have a super engineer around, but you can have plenty of people in specialized roles to delegate tasks to,” he explained. “There’s more opportunity for entry-level people to get into video games, I think.”
How can you land a job as a coder in games?
Indie game studios tend to outsource smaller tasks like UI design, which creates opportunities for freelancers or entry-level game developers who want to sharpen their skills and build a portfolio.
“Sometimes I’ll contract out tasks on UpWork or Fiverr for something that’s not quite in my wheelhouse,” said Odom, a former EA staffer who runs his own mobile gaming company called D11 Games.
That said, aspiring game developers must master at least one programming specialty. For example, if you’re interested in working game mechanics, you need to know animation and physics. For multiplayer support, you need to master web services and networking. Creating mods for existing games, participating in game jams, or building microgames is the best way for software engineers to break into game development.
Most programming languages have game development libraries that enable you to build basic games, but most game developers now use object-oriented programming languages, especially C++ and C#.
Odom described working at EA in the early 2000s as being like a bit of a “clubhouse” or working on a trading floor, with a fast-paced, noisy office environment due to the highly collaborative nature of the work.
“We’re using Scrum, we’re doing sprints, we’re passing tickets back and forth. So I’ll get a ticket, work on it, and when it’s ready I’ll mark the ticket as ready for quality assurance (QA),” said Odom. “Sometimes I would just yell across the room at the QA guy, like, ‘Hey Omar, check this thing out. Can you see if I broke it or not?’ Then he’d check it out and yell back at me, ‘No, it’s still broken,’ so I’d go and fix it.”
This laid-back atmosphere is what drew Odom to the gaming industry in the first place. “I loved that high energy, and that’s part of why I was drawn to the gaming industry. It wasn’t stuffy or suit-y.”
Despite a lax dress code and the privilege of playing games at work, the gaming industry’s notoriously long hours are no joke. A recent GSC State of the Industry survey found that just over half of game developers reported working 40 hours or less per week, with the remaining 44% putting in an average of 41-60+ hours a week. Thirty percent of respondents reported working more than 60 hours over at least one week, and 17% reported working more than 70 hours.
Data Analytics in the Video Game Industry
The gaming industry has become so reliant on big data that data scientists now play a key role not only in optimizing games after they’re shipped but determining how games are conceptualized and developed in the first place. Balint says the datasets he’s worked in the gaming industry are far more comprehensive than those generated by SaaS companies.
“Our average user sends a thousand events a day to our database, as opposed to Netflix, where the top user sends around 150 events,” said Balint. “So just with one million users, we collect, on average, 1 billion rows of data per day, so we deal with massive, complex data sets to understand what users are trying to achieve.”
What do data analysts in gaming do?
Companies analyze moment-to-moment gameplay, such as the way a user moves through the game world, to assess whether the game is sufficiently challenging yet easy to understand based on the player’s gameplay references, gaming style, and skill level.
“We even capture data on which keys are pressed at specific intervals of time and using that, gaming companies can make decisions to optimize their strategy,” said Zuraiz Uddin, a former engineer at GorillaBox and a mentor at Springboard.
A single telemetry data point can tell a vast story that determines whether a new game will be a success or a flop. For example, if the data shows that the majority of users are pressing numerous buttons repeatedly at a specific juncture of the game, it could indicate that players are unsure of what to do, thereby raising the risk of churn. Or, if most users tend to exit the game instead of watching a rewarded video ad to gain a power-up, perhaps the reward isn’t sufficiently enticing, or the ad was shown too soon.
Gaming analytics is the process of applying user behavior data to guide marketing, product, and business decisions. The point of all this number-crunching—especially when it comes to free-to-play mobile games—is to make the game “stickier”—for the purposes of retaining players, encouraging them to spend more money on DLC and in-app purchases, and watch in-game advertisements. Data insights can reveal if a game is too dull or too challenging.
Game developer King Digital Entertainment ran into a problem with Candy Crush Saga. Players were abandoning the game en masse at level 65 for reasons unknown. The game had 725 levels, so this was a problem. Data analysts found that a particular gaming element didn’t let users advance past level 65. Once this obstruction was removed, user retention recovered.
User’s playing time, interaction time, quitting point, peaks of activity, and so on present vast material for analytics. Game developers need to track KPIs such as:
- What is the number of daily active users (DAU) in a game?
- How many active players are there in a month (MAU)?
- What is the average revenue per user (ARPU)?
- Who were the new users last month? How often did they return?
- At what game level do players get stuck? Does this cause a drop-off in-game usage?
- What in-app or in-game purchases were made? What kind of events triggered a purchase?
Odom, who was the lead engineer for two Facebook games, Superhero City and Age of Champions, says the advent of mobile games has turned game development into something like “running a casino,” where the primary focus is on creating and iterating an addictive product that keeps advertisers happy and players spending money.
Games like Candy Crush operate on an unexpected reward schedule that keeps people coming back for their next dopamine hit. This strategy is known as a variable ratio of schedule reinforcement—the first few levels are easy to win and provide a dopamine high, but the game gets progressively harder, leading to an unpredictable reward schedule. Coin Master, the top-grossing mobile game in the UK and Germany, is a slot machine game that uses gambling mechanics. Players spin a wheel to earn coins or gold sacks which they can then use to build their own virtual village. The lure of these games comes from convincing players that they can win with the right strategy, when in fact the outcome of the game is determined entirely by luck.
“A proper game designer trying to make something fun wouldn’t have made this,” said Odom. “This came from someone iterating over time by pulling elements from different games that they know are profitable and that would get the best numbers.”
How can you land a job as a data analyst in games?
Developers monetize video games using three different monetization models: pay-to-play (a one-time payment), free-to-play, and freemium (tiered levels of access starting at $0). Data analysts ensure the game is profitable by enabling companies to identify their most valuable players and understand how they respond to offers, ads, and in-game mechanics. Data analysts may also monitor players’ social network activity, general playing habits, and customer feedback to study their preferences and behavior.
When it comes to in-app advertising, there are several models to choose from, such as rewarded videos, banner ads, interstitials, and offer wall ads. The data analyst’s role is to maximize both monetization and player engagement by showing the right ads at the right time while ensuring the player is enjoying the game.
“Sometimes you want to make a game free so that you can reach a lot of people, but you don’t want to monetize it in such a way that every five seconds there’s an advertisement,” said Volkan Kantar, a UX designer at Microsoft Casual Games and a graduate of Springboard’s UX Career Track. “So the best-case scenario is to make the gameplay as fun and extended as possible before offering the first 30-second commercial.”
Gaming analytics shows what features players like and are most willing to pay for. For example, if many players in an MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) lean toward customizing their armor or weapon, it’s reasonable to offer in-game armor and weapon enhancement. Big data is used to predict behavior and optimize games so players will remain engaged. For example, you might identify players at the highest risk of churn and create a personalized offer.
Game developer Zynga found that in the first version of Farmville, users liked interacting with animals that were initially just decorations. Some users even started purchasing animals with real money, so in the following version of the game, Zynga made animals a central feature, thereby driving up the number of paid subscribers.
New game features are A/B tested for stickiness, where half the sample trials a new feature while the other half plays the old version of the game to see which variant makes more money. Only 5% of players actually spend money on mobile games, so the vast majority are monetized through ads, but this process is far from randomized.
“When we get the sense that the user is not going to monetize through in-app purchase, we show them rewarded videos,” said Balint. “So let’s say you’re playing a match-three game and you’re out of moves and you don’t have any lives anymore, you can watch a short video in exchange for extra lives and continue playing.”
In addition to shaping game development, data analysts also help game publishers optimize their advertising spend. About 80% of the total marketing budget for a game is spent on paid media, such as social media advertising, streaming advertising, and influencer marketing.
“You can develop the best game in the world and no one will play it without advertising,” said Balint.
Major franchises with an established fanbase like Call of Duty, Final Fantasy, and Grand Theft Auto practically market themselves. But for indie games, studios spend $50,000 on average for marketing and advertising, with robust data analytics to measure, evaluate, and optimize the performance of different ad platforms. Paid media usually comprises 80% of the total marketing budget because the outcome is guaranteed, especially if the company is paying for impressions.
Balint works on a number of forecasting and prediction models for ad spend at Redemption Games. One of these models is known as ROAS, short for “Return on Ad Spend,” which enables companies to measure how quickly they can recoup their investment. An important metric in determining ROAS is IPM, which stands for Installs Per Mille, where ‘Mille’ refers to 1,000 ad impressions. The purpose of IPM is to determine how many people install the app per one thousand impressions.
“Let’s say I’m using two creatives at the same time, and one of them has an IPM of five, while the other has an IPM of one; I would take down the second creative and go with the first one,” Balint offers by way of example. “Then I would test it out on different platforms such as Google and Facebook to see how they perform.”
Machine Learning in the Video Game Industry
The use of machine learning in gaming results in dynamic games that can respond to a player’s actions, changing how the world, non-player characters (NPCs), and objects react in real-time. The main use of AI in gaming is programming NPCs to react to players’ actions, such as avatars in racing games, adversaries in first-person shooters, and general inhabitants of open-world games. Some gaming companies are even developing AI algorithms that can alter the strategy or tactics based on the player’s skill level.
The NPCs in Red Dead Redemption 2 by Rockstar Games hint at what’s possible when deep learning is used to enable in-game characters to respond to player actions while assisting in a shootout or tagging along on a horse. In one scene, an NPC tries to dispose of a dead body in a swamp and accidentally drops it on the ground. The NPC realizes its mistake, turns around, and tries again.
What does a machine learning engineer in games do?
Machine learning engineers in the games industry look after a number of key roles and responsibilities, including:
- Algorithms playing as NPCs
- Modeling complex systems where the game can predict and alter downstream effects
- Making games more beautiful—textures and objects will render dynamically as you get closer
- Universe creation on the fly in open-world games
Reinforcement learning is a type of machine learning where a model learns a certain behavior based on feedback from the environment. For example, advances in natural language understanding enable NPCs to engage in dialogue with players and forge an emotional connection.
The idea is to create game characters that can be a player’s “in-game component or collaboration partner.”
The experimental text adventure AI Dungeon, inspired by Dungeons and Dragons, uses OpenAI’s GPT-3 natural language processing model to create new narrative experiences. When players type out an action or dialogue they want their character to perform, the algorithm crafts the next phase of their personalized adventure.
Image recognition technologies are predicted to revolutionize the gaming industry. Developers use object detection models to create a natural change of scene and movement in the game. Before Your Eyes, an immersive storytelling experience developed by indie studio GoodbyeWorld Games, has players control the game by blinking. A webcam is required to play the game, which registers the player’s retinal eye movements. Each time the player blinks, the scene morphs, and time advances—a metaphor for the impermanence of life itself.
When it comes to VR-supported games, object identification algorithms are used to identify body movements to transmit and reflect these actions on the screen.
How can you land a job as a machine learning engineer in games?
Machine learning is also a potent tool for enhancing a game’s realism. FIFA 22, due for release in October by EA Games, uses HyperMotion, a machine learning technology that enabled the motion capture of 22 professional footballers playing at high intensity. The machine algorithm learned from more than 8.7 million frames of advanced match capture, then wrote new animations in real-time to create organic football movement across a variety of interactions on the pitch while adding another level of humanization to FIFA 22’s players.
“This is an example of image-to-image translation,” said Uddin, referring to a subset of computer vision that involves taking images from one domain and transforming them so they have the style or characteristics of images from another domain. “Human pose estimation is another important skill to have. This is what allows you to mimic real human behavior in games using video footage of a live event.”
UX Design in the Video Game Industry
UX designers ensure players’ needs are represented in game design. Seemingly small choices made by game developers impact how the game manifests for players. For example, determining when and how to display hints in a point-and-click game, or choosing a UI grid layout over a list, or how to structure a tutorial.
Consequently, every game dev team can benefit from being shown the actuality of their choices on how players truly perceive the game. UX provides constant guidance, going back-and-forth between aiding the design and testing it on real players.
“The UI of a game can sometimes make or break the player’s experience or enjoyment of the game,” said Sharon Yi, a UI design at Gamevil and a graduate of Springboard’s UX Design Career Track. “Because we’re constantly working towards immersing the player into the universe of our game, the UI should work in balance to support the narrative of the game while making sure to provide usability and accessibility.”
What does a UX designer in games do?
The most common roles for UX designers in the gaming industry are:
- Working on a game dev team
- Supporting the game dev team
- Working in esports
The problem of not knowing if players are experiencing the game as intended can result in unnecessary confusion during the already challenging process of development. For example, do players understand the rules? Is the friction in the game where we intend it to be?
“Some days on the job are spent on research: playing relevant games, looking at the UI of other games, and reviewing trends and styles,” said Yi. “I spend most of my time in Photoshop mocking up designs for a specific section of the game, for example, the ‘skills upgrade page’. Once my drafts are done, I present and review the designs with our team director and the game development lead and make revisions where needed.”
Yi says the design iterations continue through multiple cycles and even post-launch as games are continuously updated.
Also, a significant chunk of the gaming experience happens outside of gameplay. Game developer Riot Games calls this the “around-game experience.” This includes things like onboarding, progression, identity customization, friends lists, and even monetization.
“I became a UX/UI designer so that I can become a better game designer,” said Kantar, who started his career in game development. “You need to be more than just a gamer to make good games. You need to understand how interactions need to happen and combine all of this to make an experience that is easy and functional.”
Game designers and testers have historically done the work of UX designers—understanding player behaviors, test games on real players, and iterate based on feedback—but gaming companies are recognizing the importance of UX as a specialized role.
What is the role of UX design in gaming?
In video games, UX design can help on a number of key things, including:
- Making sense of a game: Onboarding, tutorials, hints
- Reducing cognitive friction: The art of creating challenges for players while removing the underlying complexity
- Usability, accessibility, and ergonomics: Games can present unique accessibility challenges because they engage players both mentally and physically.
- Keeping players engaged: Progress bars, badges, and other gamification elements keep players coming back for more
Lots of games lose revenue because of a poor user interface. If a player has trouble onboarding, accessing in-game objectives, or using the controls, they’ll jump ship.
“We have to think about how we can make interactions keyboard-ready. How can we [create interactions] using verbal cues? A lot of things need to be considered and UX/UI really lands in the middle of it,” said Kantar.
How can you land a job as a UX designer in games?
Inclusive games are designed to be accessible to everyone through mechanics, messaging, and user experience. This means having a diverse cast of characters, game controls that can be used by the able-bodied as well the disabled, exhibiting cultural sensitivity, and so on. Inclusive gaming also means reforming the gender makeup of the industry itself. 46% of gamers are women, yet they comprise just 22% of the industry’s workforce.
“Inclusive game design is about having characters that accurately represent everyone so that they can feel included by seeing characters that look/behave/sound like them,” said Kristen Hickman, an inclusive game designer at EA and a graduate of Springboard’s UX Career Track. “The Sims has been fantastic for being inclusive. There are so many customization options that almost everyone can see themselves the way they want to. And they are still adding more options.”
The Sims 4 has always prided itself on being inclusive and diverse. However, the task of enabling all players to accurately create their own lookalike avatars isn’t easy. EA has released many updates over the years for new skin tones and makeup options. However, players complained that the darker skin tones were “blotchy” and “ashy.” Players applauded the game’s gender customization feature, released in 2016, which allows players to adjust sex-specific features and removing masculine and feminine tags from clothing options.
Games that enable players to build their own content like Minecraft and Roblox empower players to express themselves through their creations. Also, games that promote collaborative play. Online games like Fortnite are all about social interaction. Finally, providing a friendly learning curve through principles of progressive disclosure is key—hence why UX designers are important.
Yi advises those who aspire to work in the gaming industry to familiarize themselves with a range of game genres.
“Because we’re constantly communicating with other teams, being able to reference games quickly to help convey your thoughts can make you a valuable asset to the team,” she said. “It’s important to be flexible in game design as new features are constantly added as the game progresses.”
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