Expert Interviews > Jacob Habgood

Jacob HabgoodJacob Habgood is now a Senior Lecturer in Game Development at Sheffield Hallam University. His games industry career spanned 14 years and includes a dozen published titles for all the major console gaming platforms. He studied his PhD in game-based learning at the University of Nottingham and was awarded his doctorate in 2007. His research interests focus on harnessing the motivational power of games for learning, as well as the affective motivational components of digital games themselves. He is the author of a popular series of books on hobbyist game development, beginning with The Game Maker’s Apprentice.

What is it about (computer) games that interests you most?

On a practical level it’s actually the process of making games that interests me the most. I’ve always been fascinated by the power of computers to create things which seem to take on a life of their own. As such the process of developing my own games has always been more alluring to me than playing someone else’s.
From an academic perspective, the psychology of creating absorbing game-mechanics really interests me. How you create something which creates fun from a small set of interactions, rules and goals is a fascinating art which is still poorly understood. I really relish the challenge of applying the motivation created by games to learning goals, which is the main focus of my research.

What do you think makes a really good (computer) game?

There are plenty of answers to this that you might get from standard references on game design theory. However, I’d suggest that time is the most important ingredient for making a really good game. Good gameplay comes out of an iterative, exploratory approach to development in its early stages and polished gameplay comes out of a rigorous finishing process at the end. Both of these require plenty of time, and without it even the best game idea in the world will not fulfil its potential. It sounds obvious, but most bad games are bad because they weren’t given the time to become anything else.

What are the most important lessons you have learned about how to engage players in (computer) games?

To invest your best efforts in engaging players at the start of the game and not the end. There’s no point creating an amazing finale for your game if players are struggling to get past the first level. It might sound obvious, but it’s a surprisingly common mistake made by many commercial games – including some I’ve worked on!

How do you go about designing a game? Where do you get your ideas?

These days I usually start by creating a rapid prototype of my idea in Game Maker, and then changing it until it seems to have some potential for being fun to play. I try not to start with a concrete storyline or context as this often restricts where I can take the game mechanics. I then try and reverse engineer a storyline back onto the game once I know roughly how it would play.
My ideas usually come to me when I’m walking, driving, swimming, showering or bathing and almost never when I’m actually at a computer. Therefore, designing a new game involves rapid development interspaced with periods of reflection away from my desk.

What advice would you give a novice (computer) game designer?

To remember that the player is not your opponent, and that the job of a game designer is to show the player how to succeed at your game rather than defeat them. It’s a very common mistake made by novice game designers and one which can completely ruin a game.

Do you think that games have a place in education? If so, how do you think they can most effectively be used? If not, what are your reservations?

I certainly think that games have a place in education as another kind of tool available to teachers to stimulate learning, but I would have great reservations about replacing traditional teaching activities with game-based learning. Nonetheless, I’m confident that one of the most powerful educational applications of games is actually creating them. I wholeheartedly support recent lobbying by the UK games industry to get programming on the National Curriculum and games provide a very engaging medium for teaching this. It goes without saying that this is much easier to say than do, but the consequences of not doing it will have a tragic effect on the UK software industries of the future.

How important do you think that graphical quality, and realism, is in computer games?

Graphical quality is extremely important for selling games, and has a big effect on success in the market place. Nonetheless the perpetual arms race for better graphical quality takes development time and money away from other aspects of a game. Realism can add to the immersive experience created by a game in some contexts, but if the gameplay is good enough then I think players will always willingly suspend their disbelief.

Where do you see the future of (computer) games?

I would like to see game development become a more ubiquitous ‘art form’ of the kind which everyone can have a go at – and I think that’s already becoming a reality. I think in the long-term it is open-ended development tools that are best placed to facilitate this rather than tools based around a specific game or franchise.

Return to the list of experts.