The games people play

Thousands of Xbox 360s found new homes in North American living rooms this week, but games may have been playing a role in the enterprise for a lot longer than most people suspect.

That used to mean employees who would sneak the occasional game of Minesweeper when they should have been finishing up a report or calling customers, but now games are beginning to permeate applications that were traditionally considered all business. Specifically, a number of developers point to the way in which games and enterprise applications are built: the process behind the final products is becoming more similar.

“In the business area, they’re focused on business issues or integrating applications,” said Jeff Zado, senior product manager, development tools, Microsoft Canada. “Game development is about writing very, very rich (applications), but they have to look at network capabilities and the same challenges that businesses have in connecting their people together. At its core, they both have to consider the same factors when developing.”

Microsoft occupies a nexus between gaming, enterprise and personal computing, catering to all three markets in various ways. The next-generation Xbox 360 console launched on Tuesday and has been greeted enthusiastically for the most part, with reports of the unit selling for double the retail price on eBay. The only bigger launch on the horizon for the Redmond, Wash., giant is Windows Vista, due next year. While gaming may not be Microsoft’s first consideration when it creates a new operating system, the company is pushing to take advantage of inherent improvements in graphics and user interface.

“With Vista coming out next year, you’re going to see much more opportunity for people to change their business software and a have it be much more visually stunning with a strong user focus – whether it be video or graphics capabilities, which the gaming industry has been doing for a while,” said Zado.

Denis Dyack, president of St. Catharines, Ont.-based video game developer Silicon Knights, is more bold in his interpretation.

“(Microsoft) is looking at the convergence of media and hardware. They realize the direction we’re going in, so it doesn’t make any sense to keep them separate and apart,” he said.

“Things like Word, PowerPoint – all these interfaces in general have derived a lot from video games. What’s the quickest, easiest way to get things in there and get things done? Because that’s what video games have to do.”

David Wu, president and director of technology at Pseudo Interactive, a Toronto-based game developer, has worked in both gaming and enterprise development. It’s not uncommon for developers to have experience in both disciplines, he said. A lot of people go into enterprise software then migrate to gaming, since it can be a difficult profession to break into. His firm is currently working on Full Auto, a driving game for Xbox 360 which is due for release early in the new year.

There’s definite overlap between the two types of development, he said. Development cycles for both enterprise applications and games are, in general, a lot shorter today, requiring that development stages occur concurrently. The older style was more of a plodding process, happening slowly over time.

“The current trend in games and a lot of business software now is to just do everything at once and iterate on it. You’re constantly going back and forth between analysis, design and development, then getting feedback on it,” said.

Play-testing, a common practice in video game development, is becoming more common for business software, as well, he said. Rather than just smooth out any programming wrinkles and hunt for bugs, testers need to thoroughly explore the usability and ergonomics of enterprise applications, particularly as interface takes on a more prominent role in business software.

It’s this desire to simplify interface and make business applications more intuitive that is causing more of an overlap between development styles, said Zado.

A lot of the R&D for Microsoft’s upcoming Word 12 was around improving the interface and overall design, he said. Customer feedback from previous versions of Word suggested that people had difficulty locating some of the application’s features. The interface is being tweaked to make it easier to use.

“With the advancements in hardware and DirectX and the graphics inside of current machines, we’re able to create a visually stunning presentation for users which is dramatically improved over what we have today,” he said.

“Video games don’t really have a choice,” said Dyack, noting that the gaming industry is so competitive, it’s essential that a player be able to understand a game, or at least be drawn into it, almost instantaneously.

“They have to grab people within the first five minutes of game play. If they don’t they’re not going to get sales. Without question . . . the interfaces have to be slick, and I think that’s influenced software across the board.”

Part of the reason elements of game design and parlance are creeping into the enterprise is that so many decision-makers grew up on games, said Sara Diamond.

Diamond was recently appointed president of the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto. Before that she founded the Banff New Media Institute, where she conducted research into the relationship between art and technology.

“What I found interesting is the way the metaphors in the business community have begun to be governed by game design,” she said. “Also how businesses are looking at computer games as part of their strategy.”

A large part of gaming is about puzzle-solving, she said, which can have obvious benefits for enterprises.

“There’s a whole generation of people entering the business world who have grown up as game players. Part of it has to do with the ability to have quite focused attention for long periods of time in front of the computer screens and, in some ways, to work through problems,” she said.

There is a whole area in games development devoted to applying game mechanics to real-world disciplines. Called “serious games,” they can be used as training tools to help relief workers prepare for environmental crises or hospital workers deal with patients.

A developer called Simulearn, based in Norwalk, Conn., has a piece of software called Virtual Leader, which treats business meetings as though they were literally a game. A player has to manage a set of interpersonal relationships in an office setting as though they were playing a game like the Sims. The two aren’t that different: In the popular PC game the Sims, players are encouraged to manage a social network of friends and family by manipulating characters. The object of Simulearn is to balance relationships with employees and customers.

The Serious Games Summit was held earlier this month in Washington, D.C. Some of the sessions held included: Beyond Games as Practice: A Pedagogical Pathway and Creating Life Experience Through Dramatic Simulations.

Now that the appeal of games has broadened to be more gender- and age-inclusive, people are more accepting of them in areas of life beyond just entertainment, said Michael Katchabaw, a professor in the computer science department at the University of Western Ontario in London.

“You’ve got people who are more accustomed to using their computers,” he said. “It’s breaking down barriers that people have between accessing technologies. Sometimes this stuff can seem a little daunting. By breaking down some of those barriers in a fun and entertaining way, it opens up new possibilities for people to use this software for other applications.”

Sometimes the overlap between work and play is more subtle (like more gamers working in offices) sometimes it’s more obvious (take the wraps off Microsoft’s game development tool XNA and you find a version of Visual Studio 2005) but it’s definitely there.

“I do think it’s having a massive effect,” said Dyack. “When you’re getting to the point where videogames are becoming the dominant art form, it comes down to there’s not going to be too much we don’t influence.”

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