Programming for Dollars
There’s games in them thar brains. Now take that brilliant idea, write it up on a computer and send it in to a software firm or APX. What’s APX? Better read on.
Once upon a time, young Greg Christensen built electronic gizmos like amplifiers and sound generators from scratch. Ready to take on another challenge, he bought an Atari 800 computer with his savings. After Greg taught himself the basics of programming, he decided to have a go at designing a computer game.
Six weeks later, the high school senior had developed Caverns of Mars—a game in which the player flies a spaceship down through the twists and turns of a cavern while battling enemy craft and blowing up fuel dumps. Why not, he thought, send the program to the Atari Program Exchange (APX) in Sunnyvale, Calif. and see what happens?
Two months later, Greg received a call from an Atari executive who raved about Caverns of Mars. Not only did APX accept it, the company wanted permission to market the game as one of its upcoming products. In the fall of 1981, Caverns won an APX contest. The prize: $3,000.
Now an 18-year-old college freshman, Greg received his first quarterly royalty check this summer—for $18,000! Atari has told him he might eventually earn as much as $100,000 in royalties from Caverns of Mars.
Greg Christensen is not alone. The video game boom has spawned its own breed of Horatio Algers. Though selling a game is a long shot, the combination of an inspired idea, the right technical know-how and a few helpful contacts is sometimes all it takes to strike it rich in computerland. And, contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a degree in computer science or decades of experience in the field in order to make your break. In fact, says David Lubar, a 27-year-old game designer who writes Atari VCS-compatible programs for Sirius Software, “There are very few programmers I can go out to drink with.” Most of his associates happen to be under 21.
Okay, so you have an idea for a game. How do you get started on your road to fame and fortune?
The consensus among industry veterans is that cooperation—unlike Christensen’s solo effort—is the key. Just as there are thousands of “idea people” who haven’t the faintest knowledge about programming, many a programmer wouldn’t recognize an imaginative game if it struck him like an asteroid. Explains Lubar: “It’s just like you have people who can write great lyrics, but can’t write a melody. I think partnerships and teams are going to become more common in the future.”
Lubar is talking strictly from experience when he says, “The day of the game designer in a vacuum is over.” Sitting in a lab crowded with computer equipment at Sirius’ Sacramento (Calif.) headquarters, the 27-year-old philosophy major and former freelance writer lays out his thoughts on ideas.
“An idea by itself, as opposed to a program, is not a good way to go. Although a good idea can be valuable, ideas are cheap—really. An idea—in the form of a program—even if it needs work—is more valuable to us than just a raw idea.”
Since most companies won’t even look at a game idea unless it is presented in a computer language, Lubar suggests that “idea people” join forces with technical experts. One of the best places to do such “networking” is at computer clubs, he says.
If this doesn’t work out, however, you might want to draw up a series of sketches that show how the game will unfold. This process—known as story-boarding—is a standard practice in film and video and is becoming more popular among game designers. “First of all, this shows a little more professionalism,” Lubar advises, “and second, gives a better visual representation. The visual aspect is really the name of the game.”
But wait a minute—how did David Lubar figure all of this out? Wasn’t he a writer/philosopher in another lifetime three short years ago? The California programmer leans back in his chair and flashes a broad smile. “After graduating from Rutgers (in New Jersey) I began writing fiction,” he recounts. “One of the first stories I sold was to Creative Computing. At the time I had never even read the magazine. Well, I went and bought a copy and soon enough I was hooked on computers.
“Mostly because I was into games, I became totally enthralled with the concept of owning an Apple. When I bought one, I really wasn’t thinking about programming. But then I discovered it was a lot of fun.”
Lubar became a fanatic. By studying books and magazines and conducting his own experiments, he learned how to write graphics programs and work on small graphics utilities. Then, in 1980, he was hired by Creative Computing, where he wrote prolifically until Sirius contacted him last February.
“As it turned out, I wanted to devote full-time to programming and write more as a hobby,” explains Lubar, whose first game Worm War I, distributed by Fox Video Games, should hit the stores early in the fall. “The opportunity to work at Sirius on the VCS was exactly what I was looking for.”
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We’re looking for a few good designers. We’re always on the lookout for high-quality games from independent designers. If you have game programs that you’d like SSI to publish on a royalty basis, give us a call…
—Strategic Simulations’ advertisement
SSI President Joel Billings says his company gets “all kinds of things” as a result of this type of ad. “We’re mostly looking for programs. We can’t do a whole lot with ideas because we only have two in-house programmers. About 80 percent of our games come from outside.”
First, though, the designer must make contact with SSI. “What we will do if they have a product they want to submit is send them a non-disclosure agreement (a guarantee that the company will protect the submission with the same degree of confidentiality as its own proprietary products). They have to sign it and send it back along with a copy of the game and a rough draft of the rules. At that point we play the game.”
SSI then tests the program on either an Apple, Atari 800 or TRS-80 computer and tries to get back to the author within a week. Generally, whenever the designer is given a go-ahead, he is asked to make numerous alterations. “We’ll suggest changes on all kinds of things—graphics, gameplay, whatever,” says Billings. SSI also supplies the designer with a few computer subroutines which helps to speed up his programming chores.
As in book publishing, pay is based on a royalty scale—from 10 to 20 percent of the net revenue. But unlike the book-publishing process, SSl’s designers usually don’t see cash up front. The game must first be published, at which point the designer receives the minimum percentage. Once sales reach a certain level, the percentage increases.
There are other ways, Billings admits, to get your foot inside SSl’s door. Occasionally he’ll match up an “idea person” with one of the firm’s royalty authors. (In such cases, the royalty agreement is hashed out by both parties.) Billings also hires programmers specifically to convert existing games for other machines into Atari Software. “It’s really like taking the rulebook and writing another program from scratch,” he notes. Incidentally, converters earn 50 to 75 percent of the total royalty.
Strategic Simulations, however, isn’t the only software house reaching out for help. “Wanted: Software Authors!” screams Broderbund’s ad. “If you have a product for the micro market, let us show you the advantages of working with our team of design, production and distribution specialists.”
Broderbund, founded in 1980 by Doug and Gary Carlston, is one of the fastest-growing software outfits in the burgeoning computer arcade game business. A game designer of the first order, Doug maintains there are three essential ingredients when it comes to programming: creativity, machine language programming ability, and a strong artistic bent in computer graphics or animation.
“We’re not only looking for a program that is publishable,” he maintains, “but for programmers who will be able to work with us. We have strong opinions about what the market wants and needs. When we find someone who’s willing to work with us, we get very excited. We’ll make an offer on the phone and send a contract off the same day.”
On an average day, five programs turn up in Broderbund’s mail pouch. At this point, they undergo what Carlston describes as a kind of triage. In other words, some survive, most don’t. Only two percent of the victims make it through the company’s rigorous testing procedure.
But when the right program comes along, Broderbund gets down to business. The designer is free to accept a royalty plan similar to SSI’s or a lump sum in the neighborhood of $15,000 once the game is completed. Interestingly, Carlston reports that no one has ever taken the company up on the cash offer. It seems that almost every designer has been better off collecting royalties.
And what about ideas? Carlston couldn’t be more blunt when he says, “We have a stockpile of ideas and not enough good graphics programmers to program them. We will only look at fully implemented programs.”
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We’d like the opportunity to look at well-written software you’ve created for Atari home computers. We’ll send you a quarterly payment for programs accepted by APX…
—Atari Program Exchange Software Catalog
Here’s even more bad news for you “idea people.”
As noted above, Atari welcomes game designers. But the company just won’t touch an idea. Warns APX general manager Fred Thorlin: “When someone sends in an idea, as soon as we recognize that that’s what it is, we don’t even read it. We’ll send it over to legal and they may send back an idea submission form (this essentially frees Atari of any liability if a similar idea happens to already be under development in-house), and it goes through a completely different mill.
“If you’re not committed enough to the idea to implement it,” he adds, “then we’re not interested in it.”
But let’s assume you are committed enough to your idea to develop it for the Atari 400 or 800, and you have a program. Contact Atari and ask for the APX Program Author’s Handbook and the APX Submission Materials. The handbook includes suggestions on how to prepare your program, what your program should be about, generally how it should operate, how to document it, and some helpful hints on the coding procedure.
When the idea is submitted, the first thing APX staffers do is look for the signature on the bottom of the submission form. If that’s not there, back it goes. Explains Thorlin: “The paperwork has got to be square.”
After testing, rejected programs are returned within 60 days from the time they came in. Accepted programs are accorded significantly better treatment. Some polish is added to the program, and a description is written up to be included in the next catalog. (“This game is sensational!” is but one of the superlatives that describes Caverns of Mars.) APX pays a 10 percent quarterly royalty. The deal is nonexclusive, meaning the designer can sell it elsewhere—often for more money—even while it’s being sold through APX.
Another feature of APX is its quarterly software contest which carries a $25,000 ( cash) grand prize incentive at the end of the year. Every three months, the top 12 programs accepted that quarter are reviewed by some 100 Atari managers. These people evaluate them and decide the first, second and third prize winners in several categories. Winners in the consumer programs category (such as Christensen) can earn up to $3,000 in Atari merchandise. Top prizes in the three remaining categories—education, business applications and system software—are worth up to $2,000 in merchandise. The total amount of prizes in a year is approximately $100,000.
With the demand for creative game designers and programmers rising steadily, the rewards can be substantial indeed. A century ago, Horace Greely coined the phrase, “Go West, Young Man,” as an adage for opportunity. Today, the maxim should simply read, “Go Game Design.”
Four Slick Tips for Computer Arcaders
What does it take to write a successful computer arcade game? Broderbund’s Doug Carlston should know. His company has published its share of arcade-type hits, including Apple Panic and Snoggle. Here are four of Carlston’s basic rules:
- The game should have increasing levels of difficulty.
- There should be plateaus for the player to reach, each with a qualitative difference. In Broderbund’s popular Choplifter, the first enemy is tanks. Next comes a battle with tanks and jet fighters. After that, you’re confronted by tanks, fighters, and smart bombs and so on.
- When the player suffers a defeat, it should be the result of something he did or didn’t do. Never escalate the difficulty simply by programming in random events that a person can’t respond to.
- The program should project a personality. One way to accomplish this is by identifying objects rather than by working with abstract shapes. This, Carlston insists, is the key to sustaining people’s interest.