PlayAway: William Kavanagh

Why is it that some multiplayer games see an explosion of popularity at launch only to fizzle out six months later, while a select few seem to stick around indefinitely? How is that games made decades ago are still some of the most popular games today and, in many cases, far outperform their technologically superior successors?  

“I’m thinking now of games like Age of Empires II, which they re-released and suddenly people are playing it again and it’s this really old system,” games researcher William Kavanagh told us over a recent video call. “You know, StarCraft II is the obvious one. Or Rainbow Six Siege, which keeps getting more and more players even though it’s five years old and it’s the same engine.”

Kavanagh, who is a PhD student in Computer Science researching game balancing at the University of Glasgow, has a theory.

“It’s something about those systems and the interplay between the characters that has people still playing. Because what is difficulty in a competitive game? It’s the ways of playing, the people you’re matched up against and that kind of stuff. There has to be some mathematics underlying it – let’s try and find out what it is.”

Subterranean Joystick Musings

Given that Kavanagh is chairing the Paths to Research Panel as part of the University of Glasgow’s Games and Gaming Lab’s block during the upcoming PlayAway Festival, we thought now would be a good time to find out what it is he gets up to in the hallowed halls of that esteemed institution. Lots of “thinking about games in a basement”, it turns out.

Since completing a successful undergraduate project with Brighton-based developers StudioGobo, in which he helped tune the difficulty curve and progression system in a mobile racing game, Kavanagh has made it his mission to understand the mathematics behind successful multiplayer games.

As part of the Formal Methods Research Group in the University of Glasgow’s School of Computer Science, Kavanagh found himself dealing with formal verification, which is a way of proving that a system (like a piece of software) is functioning correctly. 

A common use for formal verification is in safety critical systems – things like the braking mechanism on cars or air traffic control systems that could cause fatal injuries if they fail. Kavanuagh, however, speculated the process could also be productively applied to game design.

“[Formal verification tools] do all this rigorous mathematics and I’ve found a way of applying them to games to generate effective strategies,” he explains. 

Solve for X-citement

Just like formal verification tools can “solve” the question of how the brake pads on a car will perform in certain conditions, so too can they “solve” games, i.e. devise various optimal ways of playing games (“pro strats”, if you will). 

“It’s [about] solving games, it’s coming up with ways of playing games. And I use that for game balancing. So – you have a game, you have multiple ways of playing the game and you want to see, ‘do all of these [ways] have a decent relationship between them?’ None of them can be too strong and none of them can be too weak because otherwise what’s the point in having them? So they all have to exist in a friendly ecosystem. And can we come up with any sort of formal objective values for this sort of ecosystem between all the ways of playing.”

As much as he believes in the hard maths behind the magic of our favourite multiplayer games however, Kavanagh stresses that there’s not one catch-all formula that will work in every circumstance for all kinds of players.

“What I love about this is this subjective/objective juxtaposition that we have. So game balancing is, I think, artistry. It’s a real subjective, fine-tuning thing, because what you want from a balanced game is you want a game to be interesting, you want a game to be fun. These aren’t objective qualities, these aren’t the same between people. So how can we get there using maths, essentially? There isn’t a formula for fun, or for interestingness.”

Age of Empires

Paths to Research

Kavanagh’s work on the intricacies of game balancing are of course just one of the many avenues of research that are possible in the growing field of games research. Exactly what games research entails and how you might get into that line of work yourself is the subject of his panel at the upcoming PlayAway Festival.

“We’re going to look at people who’ve done that as a job and what that’s actually like. Is it true that you can just think about games and get paid? How did they get into their positions, what were their unique ways into it? Because there are a load of different ways into it, into games research. It’s a new field. And it’s expanding. It’s growing really, really quickly. In Scotland, it’s growing faster than in most places.”

His guest panelists include essentially a who’s who of games research in Scotland, boasting “50 to 60 years” of games-related academia between them.

“We’ve got David Farrel, PhD in games, we’ve Romana Ramzan, PhD in games, and Robin Sloan, PhD in games. We’ve got senior lecturers, professional games researchers, people who’ve worked in serious games for years. They’ve all got experience of teaching, of research, of development. They’re all people that you know in terms of big hitters of the games research scene in Scotland. All three of them are right up there. I’m very excited about this actually.”

Kavanagh is also excited by the prospect of something of a friendly ruckus between his guests, who he suspects might not share the same rosy view of games research in the current climate.

“There’s one small point of contention which is a bit of fun in this panel. Of the panelists, one of the questions I’m wanting to ask is, would you go into games research yourself? The climate is interesting already for jobs across the UK, obviously in Scotland too, essentially also for academia. Academia’s going through a bit of an interesting period now. It’s the same question everyone is asking, right? Where’s the money coming from, as the shareholders change?”

“Some of the panelists have recently left academia and moved into industry. So I’ll be asking, would you do it again? Would you advise other people to do it? Is it rewarding as a career? And it may well be that the answers are not uniform, that there’s not much agreement there. So I tentatively look forward to seeing what kind of discussion we get around these questions.” 

The Paths to Research Panel takes place during the Games Research block of the PlayAway Festival at 14:30 on Thu 25th Feb. We’ll bring the popcorn.

To keep up with William Kavanagh’s work, follow him on Twitter.

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Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

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