Helping video gaming companies level up

University of Saskatchewan computer scientist Regan Mandryk has developed a testing tool to keep Canada’s booming indie video game industry thriving
University of Saskatchewan
Computer Science
An oversized video game controller appears to lounge on a couch looking toward a coffee table with drinks and snacks

Video games are big business in Canada, and levelling up every year. According to the Entertainment Software Association of Canada, which represents video game developers, publishers and distributors, the industry added $3.7 billion to the country’s GDP last year, an increase of 24 percent since 2015 and it is responsible for nearly 22,000 full-time jobs. Canada is the world’s third largest video game producer after the U.S. and Japan.

But with the advent of online games over the past decade, it is also an industry in flux, and to remain competitive, companies need to adapt quickly.

Regan Mandryk, from the University of Saskatchewan’s Interaction Lab, is doing just that. She has developed the gold standard for measuring the physiological responses people experience when engaged in the emotional experience of gaming. By monitoring things like tone of voice, speech patterns, blink rate, heartrate and facial expression, Mandryk and her team can determine how frustrated, disheartened, engaged or rewarded a player is at a particular point in a game. It is highly valuable insight for an industry that depends on play testing to make their games stand out in the marketplace.

Last year, she worked with a game development incubator in Montreal to migrate these capabilities to an online playtesting platform that would allow small gaming companies to crowd source a test group, rather than incur the expense of bringing people into a physical lab to test the games. The platform is especially valuable to the Canadian gaming industry: of the country’s nearly 600 active gaming companies, more than half are small “indie” enterprises that don’t have the development resources of the heavy hitters like Sony or Nintendo. In order to remotely measure the tester’s emotional responses, the technology uses a web cam to monitor blink rate, which is associated with the release of dopamine, or movement of blood vessels in the wrist which indicates heartrate. Game developers can use the results to pinpoint how to tweak the game so players have the optimal emotional experience.

According to Pejman Mirza-Babaei, the User Experience Research Director at the incubator, this capability is more important than ever for the success of indie gaming studios. With the increase in online game distribution, consumers have far more options than they did when they needed to purchase a packaged disk to play. In addition, the business model has changed so that companies offer the game for free or for a nominal fee, and instead earn money through ad sales and in-app purchases. So if a player is not entertained, they’ll stop playing even before reaching those revenue sources.

“If a game is too easy, it will be boring,” Mirza-Babaei explains. “Developers want players to struggle a bit, or even be a little scared. But they also need to have fun. Knowing whether the game makes people feel the way it was designed to make them feel is crucial to the success of those companies.”