Computer games design and technology research
Explore our work in computer games design and technology, one of our areas of expertise in Digital and Creative Technologies
As the games industry grows, products and player experiences grow too, catering for different audiences and gameplay tastes. Games now take many forms, from traditional console and computer-based to virtual, augmented and alternate reality, using new and emerging technologies.
Our research brings design theory and development together to produce relevant and practical outputs for people working in the gaming industry, alongside traditional academic-focused theory writing.
We combine game design, development and player psychology in a unified approach. We investigate what drives players and how players derive pleasure from play. This creates a focused design approach that produces games tailored to players' drives and desires.
We explore how player psychology and cognitive processes are involved in interpreting and understanding game content as it is experienced during play. We do this by observing games being played, interviewing gamers and holding focus groups for collecting gameplay data. We also explore how traditional narrative and story theory can be applied to games to produce more critically acclaimed and profitable titles.
We produce playable games to test our research. Often these games can be commercialised and sold to the public. 1 of our big commercial releases was a first-person horror adventure, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.
Our research into disruptive game design provided theoretical foundation for its development. It was developed by The Chinese Room, published by Frictional Games, co-designed by Dr Peter Howell, alongside 1 of our previous lecturers, Dan Pinchbeck. The game experimented with subverting knowledge of gameplay and story elements to explore how players respond to re-learning what they thought they knew about the game world and its inhabitants. The game sold over 120,000 copies in its first week of release.
Our research covers the following topics
- Game design theory
- Game development practice
- Player psychology and the experience of play
- Narrative and storytelling with games
Our facilities include an industry-standard motion capture suite, Virtual Reality suite and PlayStation 4 Development Kits for developing and testing new games. Our researchers have worked as game developers in the gaming industry and many still develop games.
Collaborations and funders
We have close ties to The Independent Game Developers' Association (TIGA), meaning we can attend TIGA member-only events, and have access to computer games development and policy discussion. We also share our research at trade conferences like Develop, and The Game Developers Conference (GDC), and regularly present papers at academic conferences – including the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) and Philosophy of Computer Games (POCG).
Our research has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the European Research Council (ERC), and our games are published on game portal sites like itch.io, steam.com, gog.com, humblebundle.com, PlayStation Store and Google Play.
Find out more about our latest projects and publications in the fields of disruptive game design, ambient gameplay, pervasive games and ambiguity, game development as playful practice, and cognition as play.
Disruptive game design
We're exploring ways to provide a deep, engaging game experience by disrupting player expectations of games and gameplay. We build this research on a foundation of cognitive psychology, coupled with existing models of gameplay, to create a new framework of ludic knowledge and a new model of ludic action.
- Disruption and cognitive engagement: 'A Theoretical Framework of Ludic Knowledge: A Case Study in Disruption and Cognitive Engagement' (2016), Howell, P.
- Disrupting player knowledge: 'Disrupting the Player's Schematised Knowledge of Game Components (2014), Howell, P., Stevens, B. & Eyles, M.
- Feature article on Gamasutra: 'Postmortem: The Chinese Room's Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs' (2014), Howell, P.
- Schematically disruptive game design: 'In Proceedings of DiGRA 2011 Conference: Think Design Play' (2011), Howell, P.
We've created a deeper understanding of computer games and given designers new ways of developing richer gameplay. Our ambient gameplay research is inspired by the composer Brian Eno and his ambient music compositions. It focuses on gameplay mechanisms that support different levels of player engagement.
Ambient music is a genre that emphasises tone and atmosphere of traditional structure or rhythm. We analysed 2 research games: Ambient Quest (using pedometers) and Pirate Moods (using radio-frequency identification technology).
The results contained properties of persistence, discovery, engagement, invention, ambiguity and complexity. We benchmarked these themes against existing commercial games to confirm the wider applicability of the result. Games developed using this research included: City Block Cats, Ambient Quest 2.2, Ambient Quest 1.0, and Ambient Quest Pirate Moods.
- Playful Ambience: In proceedings of DiGRA 2011 Conference' (2011), Eyles, M. & Pinchbeck, D.
- Using an RFID Game to Phenomenologically Test a Theoretical Systemic Model for Describing Ambient Games: 'In Proceedings of DiGRA 2009 Conference' (2009), Eyles, M. & Eglin R.
- A Systemic Domain Model for Ambient Pervasive Persuasive Games: 'In Proceedings of CHI2008 Workship: Surrounded by Ambient Persuasion' (2008), Eyles, M., Eglin R. & Dansey, N.
- Entering an Age of Playfulness where Persistent, Pervasive Ambient Games Create Moods and Modify Behaviour: 'In Proceedings of Cybergames 2007 Conference' (2007), Eyles, M. & Eglin, R.
- Ambient Role Playing Games: Towards a Grammar of Endlessness: 'In Proceedings of the Women in Games Conference' (2007), Eyles, M. & Eglin, R.
Pervasive games and ambiguity
This project explores games that are designed to blur the boundaries between playing and not-playing. For example, by using real-world settings, extended play sessions and actors mixed in with the general public. 1 of the aims of pervasive games is to create heightened engagement, and experiences that are hard to discern from real life. These games can also create the phenomenon of apophenia, where players begin to see a game where none exists.
Since creativity and ambiguity are closely linked from a cognitive psychology perspective, the project also covers games for creativity, in particular games that relied on ambiguity as a facilitator of creativity and introspective play.
- Emergently-Persuasive Games: How Players of SF0 Persuade Themselves: 'Cases on Societal Effects of Persuasive Games' (2014), Dansey, N.
- DiGRA 2009 Conference: 'An Exploratory Study in Contextually-Ambiguous Pervasive Games' (2009), Eglin, R. Eyles, M. & Dansey, N.
- CHI 2008 Conference: 'A Systemic Domain Model for Ambient Pervasive Persuasive Games' (2008), Eglin. R, Eyles, M. & Dansey, N.
- Breaking the Magic Circle Seminar: 'Facilitating Apophenia to Augment the Experience of Pervasive LARPs' (2008), Dansey, N.
Game development as playful practice
Typically, developers are focused on creating the best games possible, while avoiding unnecessary obstacles and wasted effort. But some developers enjoy placing extreme obstacles in the way, just to see if they can be overcome.
For example, in 'game jams', people challenge themselves to plan, design, and create games within a short span of time, sometimes within 24 hours. It is this practice of overcoming unnecessary adversity that can be seen a form of play, and can be observed in other disciplines, such as creative writing.
Our research explores the different ways that game development can be playful, to see how this compares to other media. Ultimately, we are identifying a new perspective on what is often assumed to be a long-practiced and masochistic pastime.
Recent talks on our research include 'Playful Developers: A Study of Artificial Constraints and Developer Experiences', at the DiGRA UK Conference 2017.
Cognition as play
We're exploring the role of comprehension and interpretation in digital games, particularly in walking simulators, they are the key interaction. This practice-based research is being undertaken by 1 of our PhD students, and combines narrative theory with cognitive psychology. Games developed from this research include 'White Lake', a minimalist walking simulator.
Animation and CGI
We're creating ground-breaking, award-winning CGI films, and investigating how film production can be used in education.
We're investigating the impact and application of digital technology in the cultural and heritage sectors to improve visitor experiences and conserve cultural and historical sites.
Digital User Experience
We're exploring the changing relationship between users and technology to develop new and better experiences for users.
We're analysing body and facial motion and cognitive signals to develop machine understanding of visual environments, through 3D reconstruction and modelling.
Music: Composition, Practices and Technology
We're investigating music and sound and creating new tools to enhance performance and creativity.
Cross Reality Applications
We're exploring how virtual reality (VR) can improve patient's physical and psychological rehabilitation, and developing VR simulations for a range healthcare applications.
Interested in a PhD in Digital & Creative Technologies?
Browse our postgraduate research degrees – including PhDs and MPhils – at our Digital & Creative Technologies postgraduate research degrees page.