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Anatomy of a Video Game

Vol. 2, Issue 8
January 10, 2000 


The differences between Console and Arcade development are a bit subtler. The first thing is that Arcade machines tend to be built around the demands of the game. If you need to put 100,000 polys on the screen each frame, then a machine can be built that will let you do that. However, it will be expensive, which affects the final sales price of the game, which directly affects the numbers you will sell. I’m sure you can all see the implications for cabinets, monitors and so on. Another point is that arcade machines are what are called “pick up games”. This means that there is no save function, little in the way of cinematic eye candy, and you have to be able to be able to play an entire game in 2 minutes. The idea of an Arcade machine is to provide a 1 to 2 minute experience that the player wants to repeat, paying for the privilege. You don’t have time for long exploration games, or anything that requires too much reading and so on, although we are starting to get into the topic of design rather than implementation here.

How to get into games development

The simplest way to is to write a hit game :)

Seriously, we’ll start with the skills you will certainly need if you want to be a coder. C is a must, preferably C++. Assembler is never a bad thing, since it gives you an idea of what’s going on at the CPU level. A grounding in trigonometry is helpful, so you know what’s going on in 3D translations and transformations, as well as perspective correction and so on.

Understanding memory management is useful, and having at least a passing knowledge of physics works too. Something that’s indefinable but always helps is having a passion for games. Knowing what games are hot and why is a must if you want to create one yourself. There are some obvious things that most jobs require, time management and so on, but it’s more important that you have a passion to do this, so you bring something to the table.

These days you can afford to specialize a bit, so if you want to do network programming, deciding that you want to know more about how the Internet works, and how others have solved the latency and lost packet problems would be a good start. Whatever you decide to specialize in, know your subject cold. This I can’t reiterate that enough. You may come in my office telling me you know all about renderers, but if you don’t know how a BSP tree works, then your going to get tossed out on your ear.

To get your foot in the door, have a comprehensive one-page resume. Have some examples of your work. We can all talk a good game, but if you can provide a little demo that exemplifies some point you are trying to make, it looks very good on you, both that you can do it, and that you have.

Don’t be afraid to email some of the more notable examples of industry gurus. I did this myself when I was a kid, and I leant a ton! Most will respond to your emails since they remember when they were learning too. Plus, this builds up your list of contacts in the trade, and in this trade, just like any other, a lot of it is not what you know, but who you know.

The last thing that you should know is that you aren’t going to be a millionaire over night. Everyone makes a lot out the amount of cash John Carmack has made by owning Id software. Well, he’s the odd one out. Most of us aren’t millionaires, or even in the neighborhood. We just scrape by like the rest of the world. However we do have at least the opportunity to make a ton of cash should lightning strike. Which brings us on to....

Pros and Cons of the trade.

Well, being in the right place with the right product can make you heaps of cash. And lets face it, if that isn’t a Pro, I don’t know what is :) There are other less life changing pro’s too, like casual dress. Most game developer houses I know don’t expect you to come to work in a tie, you can get away with shorts and T-shirt almost all of the time, even at trade shows.

Another thing that most game houses offer is flextime. This is a huge bonus, and is very helpful when developing games. Often, it’s passion that keeps you going, so you’ll end up working till 4 in the morning trying to get something finished. Flextime gives you the freedom to do this, and not worry about being in to work by 9 the next morning. Traditionally, games houses have always been very flexible about stuff like this. They need to, for reasons that will become obvious in a moment.

Financially, besides the whole royalty deal, you can get paid pretty well in this industry. To start with, you won’t, but that’s the same with all industries. Once you have a title or two under your belt, your bank ability goes up, and you can start racking in the cash. It’s no unusual for you to be earning plus 50k after a few (5+) years of experience. To a certain extent, it’s the same as other industries, where you don’t get what you are worth, but what you negotiate.

Another nice thing is the games playing. You get to play a ton of games, and get paid for it. We call it research. My wife calls it goofing off. The atmosphere at most developers is like a bunch of kids with really cool toys. And when I say toys, I mean it. Most people are rabid star wars of Sci-fi fans, and deck out their offices with action figures and so on. And the toys do get more exotic – many of my friends own Harley Davidson motorcycles.

Occasionally, if you have a movie tie in, you can get to meet famous people too. When working at Midway, we had Aerosmith come in for a game tie in, which was fun.

Con wise, the work is hard. It’s fun, but it’s hard. In crunch mode, - the weeks before the release of a title – we put in16 hour days for weeks on end, weekends too. I would say we think nothing of it, but I certainly do. Friends think you’ve dropped off the face of the earth, and home life can be severely disrupted. You don’t see the sun for days on end, and you end up pasty white.

You must be on top of your game. This industry changes month to month, and for you to still be useful, you must keep track of technology and new techniques. There are other things, but I don’t want to put anyone off this industry, since it can totally rock if you are the right person for it.


- Jake Simpson is a code monkey for Raven Software. He's badass.



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Credits: Illustration © 2000 Durrenberger David (dines). This article is © 2000 Jake Simpson. All other content is © 2000 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited. So don't do it, or we'll dissect you.