DATAx presents: The intersection of data and creativity in gaming

We sat down with Matt Howell, executive director of analytics at WB Games, about how creativity and data can go hand in hand when it comes to developing engaging gameplay


Gaming is experiencing a data revolution the likes that few industries have seen so far. With New Zoo reports showing that 2.3 billion gamers across the world are currently producing vast quantities of data with every login, the industry is being catapulted toward an innovative future.

With data changing the game for industry players, big and small, there comes with it an interesting question: How does the creativity that goes into game development play against the increasing requirement that data sculpts gameplay itself?

DATAx spoke with Matt Howell, who leads WB Analytics at WB Games (known for iconic titles including Game of Thrones: Conquest, Mortal Kombat and the Hitman series) ahead of his presentation at the Gaming Analytics Summit in San Francisco on May 14–15, about how data can help – rather than hinder – the creative processes.

He begins by telling us just how crucial data has become for developers involved in all aspects of constructing a game.

"In every one of our studios, we see data throughout the entire development process," says Howell. "It starts really early on with play testing and monitoring how players are responding to a new feature or a design change. This includes a combination of watching sentiment and having the right telemetry in place to see how a product is performing.

"We also use data for the evaluation of content ROI, asking questions such as: Did we overbuild certain types of content or characters? Is a world too big as no one ever goes to one particular corner? Based on the results, we may want to then reallocate resources and spend more time in areas that players naturally gravitate to," he explains. "There is also an emphasis on operational monitoring: Once a feature is out on a larger scale, do players reengage with it? And is the feature developing in the way the team expected?"

Data provides creatives in the gaming industry with vital context and a greater understanding of what their audience wants, giving their creativity the fuel it requires to take off. But what happens when gaming data takes the next logical step and becomes an intelligent creative force of its own? What does the implementation of AI mean for game developers in the industry of the future?

Howell quells some of these fears of displacement, stating that human creators will still be essential to the process for the foreseeable future.

"The most compelling stories are rooted in real human experience and tailored to a given audience, both of which are incredibly difficult to automate," he adds.

It is one thing to automate players who are participating in an economy but, according to Howell, it's a whole other challenge to generate and build out a new economy from scratch, and do it in a way that is actually engaging.

"There are many different disciplines both within a game team and within a publisher that's required to bring an engaging story to life," he says. "They all have to work together to build a shared context of what that narrative is and work out how it is being tailored toward the audience. In a lot of these disciplines, I haven't yet seen any measurable progress towards automation. Playtesting, for example, requires a really intimate understanding of the audience and how they are responding to content."

And this is where the context of simply being human comes into play.

"It's understanding the person's – the research subject's – life and why they respond a certain way. In order to get an engaging story out there, these partnerships have to be creative." And they have to be human.

Howell believes that rolling out AI and automation across his and other game teams will start with what he calls "human at the end".

"This is where we're generating insights, producing some kind of descriptive reporting for someone to see and better understand what happens," he outlines. "We typically evolve from there to "human in the middle," which is when we produce an insight. Someone reviews it, we input it into the machine, and then manipulate where that machine goes from there."

The final stage is "human on the side" where the machine is "finding the learning, adjusting, training, then applying it really quickly."

"We already have some machines that are bridging the gap between the "human in the middle" and "human on the side" to go fully automated," Howell says. "But I have seen very little efforts to attempt to automate the creative disciplines we're talking about because of the need for emotional intelligence, and that context is so important."

When asked whether he thinks AI will be able to take over the game development process entirely – including the creative elements – he is very clear in his beliefs: "When we get to the point where AI is able to synthesize new, engaging games on the fly, we're going to have bigger problems as a species."

We (quickly) move away from the idea that AI could turn our lives into one big game and finish up by asking Howell for some spoilers ahead of his presentation.

"I will be discussing the intersection between creative folks – the game developers themselves, who are working in a world of pure creativity without constraints – and my team at WB Analytics, who provide data solutions that very deliberately require constraints," he says. "It's absolutely possible to build a world where those two teams, who have very different incentives at times, can work together and build something really cool really quickly – without being at each other's throats."

Matt Howell, executive director of analytics at WB Games will be delivering his presentation: "Working cross-functionally to bridge the gap between creative and analytical teams" at the Gaming Analytics Summit, part of DATAx San Francisco on May 14–15, 2019. Check out the agenda and book tickets HERE.

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