Behind the Veil #1: A Computer Game You Say?

A Computer Game You Say?

A little over a year ago I was sitting around working on a Fantasy novel, when some friends approached me with their startup computer game company and asked if I wouldn’t mind joining them. They told me they were working on a great big huge game that would do all the things the other big games don’t. As an author and a gamer, this intrigued me, so I accepted, dedicating my weekends to the pursuit of fame and stealing people from EverQuest. I’m sorry this is so ambiguous, but I have an NDA to consider.

After being brought on as a coder I ended up switching to concept, then being bumped up to Director of Art and Music, where I am now. I’ve now been working on this game for over a year, and I’ve noticed a whole bunch of things, both little and big, that weren’t obvious to me when I was on the outside of game development looking in. In this column, I will let you all in on the things I’ve learned (and am still learning).

Let us begin with the hidden obvious.

One thing that immediately struck me was just how hard it is to actually make a computer game. At least, it’s hard now. Not like it was when Pong was all the rage. Though at the time, Pong was the EverQuest of the gaming world too.

So what’s actually involved in creating a computer game? If you ask most ShareWare developers, they’ll say it takes passion, pride, and persistance. I recommend visiting for a perfect example of coder dedication. If you ask professional software developers, you’ll have a hard time getting the same answer from more than three of them. Well, you’ll hear ‘money’ a lot, but beyond that it’s very divergent.

If you take the answers and try to group them, and then group them again, and do this a few more times, you’re likely to end up with four key elements: money, intelligent people, a solid game design, and strong code. Now, before you make the same mistake as thousands before you and say “I can get all those things, I’m good to go!” there’s something you need to realize: this is only for the creation of the game. Releasing it to the public is another matter entirely.

For instance, it costs more money than you might think to get a game out on the shelves. Take-Two dropped WolfPack’s “Shadowbane” in 2001 when they discovered it would probably cost over $5 million to launch, following the millions already invested in designers and coders (UbiSoft picked it up a year later and launched it).

Shadowbane is actually a great example of how games can take on a whole life of their own. It was a game designed around Player vs. Player conflict, but the first time they launched it world peace broke out in less than a week. They had to restart the server in order to get the game’s concept to actually take hold. You can read all about the game at (which will forward you to some page with a really long url).

All in all, depending on what type of game you’re making, it takes dozens to hundreds of people to design and program a computer game, up to dozens more to handle the public in that mythical system called “Customer Service,” at least five dedicated graphic artists, and usually millions of dollars. Sony shells out $1.5 million a MONTH in Customer Support for EverQuest.

Compare this to what it would cost to make Pong today: One programmer with a free hour on his/her hands. I feel it’s safe to say computer games have gotten more complex as time’s gone on. Pong was cutting edge when it came out though, since nobody had ever done that before. A graphical computer game was almost unheard of as far as the general public was concerned, and one where the computer could actively play against you was almost beyond conception.

When Nolan Bushnell asked recent college grad Alan Alcorn to make the simplest game possible (table tennis), Alcorn jumped right in to the transistors (there was no such thing as C back then, or even Basic), and made it project on a TV screen. Bushnell’s Atari, founded for $250 in 1972, sold to Warner Communication for $28 million in 1976.

Over time computer games have gotten more complicated, more involved, prettier, and harder to create. Computer technology is an ever-evolving field, with new processors and new video cards allowing game developers more power to create an immersive world. With power comes the need to use it, so companies literally hire hundreds of people to create a single game, when twenty years ago three people could finish an entire game.

The ironic thing is that Pong is making a return. Remember Commander Keen? His watch would play Pong against you. Remember Mortal Kombat II? If you played well enough, you were rewarded with a game of Pong. When I was at the University of Waterloo, someone brought in an old Pong unit and hooked it up to the big screen, and we watched and played all night.

Perhaps the simplicity of games like Pong has been lost on developers nowadays, but this loss has created an overall gain in how much you can get lost in your game. I still stay up all night on occasion to play Master of Orion. However, as games become more complex, their design becomes complex.

So what’s my point? It takes a lot to create a computer game, much more than most people think. In this column I will give you an insider’s view of the process, starting next month with an in-depth analysis of the money required just to get the game on the shelves, and the profit to be made.


Disclaimer: Behind the Veil was written by Chris Marks and hosted by The opinions expressed in these columns are those of the author, and not necessarily those of

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