3 Career Lessons From Video Games

Video games are more than just a hobby. In fact, studying them can teach us some valuable lessons for career growth.

Written by Todd Shepherd
Published on Aug. 25, 2021
3 Career Lessons From Video Games
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I’ve always enjoyed video games. I was fortunate to grow up in a time when home game systems were new, personal computers weren’t widespread yet, and the local arcade was the place to be. My youth was filled with a bevy of video gaming highlights. My dad brought home an Atari 2600 that I played all night. Every weekend, I hit up the game room at the mall with my friends. Everyone seemed to have Pac-Man fever. The camper we had when I was a kid even had a small black-and-white TV set that played Pong and had game paddles wired into it. So, one might say I’m a bit of an OG (original gamer).

Fast forward to today, and gaming hardware, graphical fidelity, and gameplay mechanics have made advances that practically have to be measured on a galactic scale. And, as we’ve discussed here before, you don’t have to be a seasoned programmer to develop an interactive experience. But like so many things in life, there’s more to learn from video games than just how to beat a difficult boss or how to hone your hand-eye coordination to levels that will make you romantically irresistible. Incidentally, don’t count on that last one. The likelihood of a person finding your Super Mario World speedrun time attractive is exceedingly low. 

I’ve followed a few game development cycles fairly closely and reflected on some of my gameplay experiences, and I’ve collected some of my own impressions and takeaways that have enhanced my overall project management approach as an application developer. Even if you aren’t into gaming, there are some games with development and release histories that can provide valuable insights into how you should (and should not) handle any professional project.

3 Career Lessons From Video Games

  1. Underpromise and overdeliver.
  2. Show end-users love.
  3. Stay flexible.

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To Thine Own Anthem Be True

Anthem (available on Microsoft Windows, Playstation 4, Xbox One) spent several years in development before its eventual release in 2019. The game allows the player to fly around a foreign planet and fight various enemies in one of four different types of armored power suits. Think of it as an Iron Man simulator of sorts. 

I remember watching the game's trailer at E3 in 2017 and being wowed by it. The scene opens in a marketplace teeming with characters whose design and animation quality are impressive. The camera tilts upward as a massive, mobile field base passes by. The game’s world and the people in it look beautiful. Then the player climbs into a power suit and starts flying. The world outside the marketplace hub area is breathtaking. The featured gameplay action is exciting, and the trailer ends with your fireteam flying into an otherworldly storm. I watched that video several times just to take everything in and appreciate the development work that went into making something this incredible.

Sadly, “incredible” is a fitting description of the trailer, and not in a good way. Upon the game’s release, players quickly discovered that it barely resembled the trailer at all. The in-game hub was larger than just the marketplace, but it was so sparsely populated as to feel almost deserted. Of the non-player characters present, players could only interact with a few. The world outside the hub area was quite beautiful, but there wasn’t much to do out there. The activities available were fun at first, but they grew stale. 

Because of the game’s uninspiring release, the development studio released a roadmap for additional content updates. Unfortunately, they routinely missed those dates, and the content that did get released was buggy and underwhelming. The studio seemed to go radio silent, no longer publishing any updates or even talking about any work in progress. Anthem is currently still a live game, but the vast majority of the player base has left it. Sadly, the development studio apparently left it before the players did.

It’s hard for me to imagine that the development team simply ran out of ideas to solve Anthem’s many problems and instead just refused to come up with new solutions. Problem solving and collaboration is part of the fun, after all. I enjoy the brainstorming elements of communication during technical projects. The creativity involved in developing solutions is one of the things that drew me to computer programming. That and 80s movies. As ideas form and we iterate on them, excitement builds around what’s possible. 

Despite this excitement, scope creep can sneak in and add layers of unnecessary complexity. This strains resources, reduces efficiency, and puts projects at risk for missed deadlines. Open and honest discussions are a must to protect against this dark side of project excitement. Playing Anthem felt like testing an unfinished project filled with simple placeholders that were meant to be much more complex in their final forms. The loot and progression systems are two such examples, and it’s a bad sign when some of the core game mechanics feel so unfinished. 

We IT folks can certainly do big things, but we often have to do them in small steps. Anthem made a great first impression, and it needed to. It had already been in development for so long that people were wondering if it would ever materialize. But the trailer wasn’t truly representative of the game, and it was shown far too late in the development cycle for the team to actually create what people saw in the trailer. Set realistic expectations and goals and keep to them consistently. As the saying goes, “underpromise and overdeliver.” You’ll find it easier to earn the trust of the folks who sign off on project budgets, and you’ll avoid the legacy of the worlds you build becoming beautiful ghost towns full of unrealized potential.

 

Much Ado About … This

Although I enjoy video games as a hobby and source of relaxation, I’m not on the cutting edge of industry reporting, release dates, or development studio news. Some things that certain studios are known for aren’t on my radar. One example started with me going down the YouTube rabbit hole one day and running across funny glitch videos for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

The game, often shortened to just Skyrim, is an open world sword-and-sorcery game that’s been around since 2011. People have written all sorts of mods for it that add or change content, often in humorous ways. One of the glitch videos included a scene using one such mod that turned a group of flying dragons into a swirling cloud of Thomas the Tank Engines. The glitches in the video were various bugs that weren’t game-breaking, but they were hilarious to watch. I found out some time later that these types of bugs are part of what the developer studio, Bethesda Softworks, is known for.

Bethesda is known for creating vast, incredibly complex open world games. As complexity increases, so does the potential for various bugs and issues. I was initially content to accept complexity and the neverending balancing act that is game development as the primary source of the Skyrim bugs I had seen and the hilarity that ensued. 

That was, however, until I found out about the numerous titles that Bethesda has launched in such a buggy state as to lead some gamers to suggest the studio releases these games intentionally unfinished. Post-launch fixes are normal, but this trend and Bethesda’s sketchy reputation is troublesome. Although the company does work hard to fix its games post-launch, the bottom line is that gamers have grown accustomed to Bethesda games being extremely buggy and unpolished at release.

Every project reaches a point when the excitement ebbs a bit and the grind of the work and testing is in full swing. Encountering a problem or issue during this phase can exacerbate the project team’s fatigue. At this point, everyone may say, “Let’s just get this project rolled out, and we can fix it later.” It’s possible this notion is part of the release philosophy behind Skyrim. Last-minute crunch to meet internal deadlines may have led to shortened or incomplete testing and a “release now, patch later” approach.

As we all know, there will always be plenty of things to fix after a project goes live. No matter how thoroughly something is tested, it’s practically impossible to replicate every single scenario that might arise. Those patches and hotfixes are part of any project. And, realistically, you could add some of the issues you encounter during testing to a post-launch patch. That’s one of the reasons day one patches are a thing. But keep a weather eye on your patch list and know when to dive in and fix the issue now rather than later. Many of the bugs players experienced at Skyrim’s launch may not have seen the light of day had more attention been given to fixing them prior to release.

No matter how amazing your final, polished project is, it can be marred by too many bugs and issues at launch. If people have to use workarounds, those workarounds get ingrained in their workflow, and it can be frustrating to them when they have to learn a new procedure once the issue is actually fixed. Show your end-users lots of love. One of the last things any of us wants to hear is, “Congratulations on your project going live. Let me know when it’s usable.”

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A Game by Any Other Name

I appreciate video games not only as entertainment but also as an art form. I find the style, story and art direction of a game are among its most appealing aspects. If all of those elements come together and produce a vibe I like, I get excited for the project and follow it more closely. And very few games have a vibe that I absolutely love as much as Sunset Overdrive (available on Xbox One and Microsoft Windows). 

From the first time I saw the trailer at E3 2014, I was hooked. The game is an open-world, post-apocalyptic, third-person shooter, but the color palette is bright and vibrant. The player has to keep moving in order to avoid being overwhelmed by enemies, the weapons are crazy (including a gun that fires LP records), and the humor keeps things light and fun. There’s also plenty of fake ad billboards all around the city, and I love that kind of thing. The development team also implemented a feature that allowed them to pipe YouTube videos into the live game and allow the players to vote on various features in-game, which they would then implement the following week. This was impressive and worked incredibly well. The gameplay was initially designed to be on the ground, with players gathering resources during the day and defending a base at night. Instead, the developers took it in a new direction, and I couldn’t be happier that they did.

That development studio, Insomniac Games, had been around for a while and was already behind some popular game franchises such as Spyro the Dragon, Resistance and Ratchet & Clank. I hadn’t played any of them, so I wasn’t familiar with the studio. But since I was drawn in by the E3 trailer, I started following the game’s development. Insomniac put an incredible amount of effort and thought into this one, even updating and customizing its in-house game engine for the Xbox One platform. 

The studio’s reputation was solid, and Sunset Overdrive was no exception. I experienced no technical problems that I can recall, either in the base game or in the two story-based DLC releases. Insomniac’s design, implementation, and game quality created an experience for me that easily tops the list of the most fun I’ve ever had playing a game.

Any project can be difficult to manage and get across the finish line, and none of us has an infinite amount of time or resources to get things done. As deadlines approach, crunch time can set in. People’s focus can turn from the overall picture to just getting their individual pieces done. It’s critical that everyone is plugged into a coherent overall vision and plan. Sunset Overdrive has an impressive number of moving parts, but they all balance out extremely well. This balance is the result of great vision, solid planning, and outstanding internal communication to keep everyone coordinated. The big payoff is a fantastic experience for players.

Even great projects like Sunset Overdrive go through numerous changes during development. Navigating such changes nimbly is a key to keeping any project moving forward. If a particular iteration isn’t working or doesn’t fit, don’t be afraid to lay it aside. That can be difficult to do, especially if it’s an idea you’re particularly attached to. Just because it may not work with your current project doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. IT professionals are an amazingly creative bunch, and we can produce some amazing solutions that work brilliantly when we all row in the same direction.

All this talk about video games reminds me that an arcade opened up the street from me not too long ago. I might have to take a roll of quarters with me and do some old school gaming, OG style.

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