Game developers say success hinges on more than just programming skills

May 5, 2014 by Matt Shipman

Aspiring game developers may want to bone up on their interpersonal skills. A forthcoming study from North Carolina State University and Microsoft Research finds that game developers need a suite of non-programming skills – including communication skills – that are considered less important in other fields of software development.

"We wanted to evaluate which are important to versus other fields of software development," says Dr. Emerson Murphy-Hill, an assistant professor of computer science at NC State and lead author of a paper on the work. "These findings could influence how we teach aspiring game developers."

Murphy-Hill and two co-authors from Microsoft Research conducted in-depth interviews of 14 experienced developers, including some not employed at Microsoft. These developers had at least two years of experience as game developers and at least two years of experience developing other types of software within the previous 10 years. The researchers used information from these interviews to create a survey that asked programmers about various aspects of their jobs, including which skills they found to be most valuable in their careers.

The research team then surveyed 364 Microsoft developers: 145 game developers, 100 developers who worked on Microsoft Office, and 119 developers who worked on other Microsoft products.

Game developers stood out in several ways.

Almost all of the game developers reported that the ability to communicate with non-engineers was "highly valuable." Similarly, game developers said that their work required a "more diverse team," drawing on expertise from artists, writers, and other non-engineers. Not surprisingly, game developers were more likely to value creativity on their teams.

Game developers were also significantly more likely to report using what they term an "agile" approach to software development – embracing an iterative process in which a project's design is frequently modified during development.

"One of the ideas that came out of this work is to include non-programmers in computer science group projects, so that students can get used to that dynamic," Murphy-Hill says. "Similarly, these findings highlight the importance of helping students develop their interpersonal , since that would be valuable for them professionally."

Explore further: 'Journey' sweeps Game Developers Choice Awards

More information: Paper: "Cowboys, Ankle Sprains, and Keepers of Quality: How Is Video Game Development Different from Software Development?,"

Video games make up an important part of the software industry, yet the software engineering community rarely studies video games. This imbalance is a problem if video game development differs from general software development, as some game experts suggest. In this paper we describe a study with 14 interviewees and 364 survey respondents. The study elicited substantial differences between video game development and other software development. For example, in game development, "cowboy coders" are necessary to cope with the continuous interplay between creative desires and technical constraints. Consequently, game developers are hesitant to use automated testing because of these tests' rapid obsolescence in the face of shifting creative desires of game designers. These differences between game and non-game development have implications for research, industry, and practice. For instance, as a starting point for impacting game development, researchers could create testing tools that enable game developers to create tests that assert flexible behavior with little up-front investment.

Related Stories

Game group gets word on Intel's new extensions for rendering

March 31, 2013

( —Intel was not going to let an event like the Game Developers Conference from March 25 to March 29 in San Francisco, described on the conference site as the world's largest professionals-only game industry event, ...

Apple software developers site hacked

July 22, 2013

Computer and software giant Apple said it took its software developers website offline after it was hacked, warning that personal information about its users may have been stolen.

Google+ boss leaving the company

April 25, 2014

The executive credited with bringing the Google+ social network to life is leaving the Internet colossus after playing a key role there for nearly eight years.

Recommended for you

The ethics of robot love

November 25, 2015

There was to have been a conference in Malaysia last week called Love and Sex with Robots but it was cancelled. Malaysian police branded it "illegal" and "ridiculous". "There is nothing scientific about sex with robots," ...

Nevada researchers trying to turn roadside weed into biofuel

November 26, 2015

Three decades ago, a University of Nevada researcher who obtained one of the first U.S. Energy Department grants to study the potential to turn plants into biofuels became convinced that a roadside weed—curly top gumweed—was ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.