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Cowboys, ankle sprains, and keepers of quality: How is video game development different from software development?
Murphy-Hill E., Zimmermann T., Nagappan N.  ICSE 2014 (Proceedings of the 36th International Conference on Software Engineering, Hyderabad, India, May 31-Jun 7, 2014)1-11.2014.Type:Proceedings
Date Reviewed: Jul 10 2014

Occasionally, when reviewing a really bad paper, I will point out that its only redeeming value is that it can be used as a bad example in a research methods class. So, to be fair, when a really good paper comes along, I should point out that it can be used as an example of good research in such a class. This paper falls into that second category. It is an ethnographic study of video game developers, which attempts to discover if there are differences in software development approaches between video game developers and more traditional software engineering.

As the study reveals, video games differ from traditional software in several important ways. For example, video games live or die on user experience. They must be fun to play. In order to achieve this goal, it is very difficult to nail down requirements at the beginning, as you may not know how well something will work until you try it. The game evolves throughout the development process. Furthermore, you don’t know whether the goal of being really fun to play will be achieved until users actually start playing it. So during the development process, you don’t know if you are creating a game that will fade out quickly or be built upon for the next decade. Imagine a software engineering effort where you didn’t know if you were building a toss out prototype or the foundation for a system that will become legacy over time. These as well as many other observations were very revealing.

There are two main reasons why this is a good study. One is method, and the other is content. The methodology uses open-ended interviews followed up by surveys. And the results are mapped into the elements of software engineering, which organizes the results in a sense-making framework. The authors also discuss limitations, which are honest but not gratuitous. The second strength of the paper is content. One gets a good feel for the ground-level elements that make video games different. And although all papers gratuitously nod at possibilities for future research, this paper really does provide a solid foundation.

Generally, this paper would be of interest to researchers and practitioners in both software engineering and video game development. More specifically, it provides a good model for ethnographic research in software development. It is a well-written report on a well-constructed study, and a good read regardless of your interests.

Reviewer:  J. M. Artz Review #: CR142492 (1410-0866)
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