The Game Invaders
Who decides what the jet bomber is going to look like in Zaxxon or what kind of noise the blaster makes in Centipede? When you’ve got your quarter in and your hands are at the game controls, the game computer is trying to outsmart and destroy your play. But the computer has to be told what to do. This is called writing the game program, and it’s a more complicated process than you might imagine.
Game programmers are the unsung heroes behind the computer game revolution. Where rock stars and movie directors got credit in big letters, the game creators remain hidden from view, the only evidence of their genius being the success of a game like Yars’ Revenge or Pac-Man.
Most games are the result of a team effort, the same kind of teamwork that gets the space shuttle into orbit: in a way, the same kind of teamwork that produces a successful movie or TV show. Of course there are instances where one person creates all the game elements, but these days it often takes the power of a dozen human brains to give a game computer action.
The first and most important element in any game is the overall idea or premise on which the game is to be based. Here the powers of imagination are required, for while a new game may incorporate elements of already successful games, like the eye/hand action in Space Invaders or the maze in Pac-Man, it is what is different about a new game that will attract attention to it in the arcade.
Work starts on a new game with a game plan. During the Pac-Man craze, for instance, maze games became extremely popular. So the computer game people decide they want to develop a new game that incorporates maze or labyrinth play.
First they need a basic idea for the game: mutant flies attack the earth, your starship is lost over enemy territory, killer robots are chasing you through a haunted house. The basic idea for the game plan is like the producers and directors at a movie company deciding they want to make a movie about a particular subject.
Once the game idea has been thought up, the game director will call in the writers to work on the plot of the game. Sometimes, no doubt, the writers also come up with the basic idea, but wherever the idea comes from it has to be fleshed out into a story.
The writers don’t necessarily have to be computer wizards to do their work. They can come up with ideas and story lines out of their imaginations: every other person on the planet has been turned into a humanoid monster by the alien invaders; your job is to sneak into the master computer center, avoid the robot guards who guard the hallways, and eventually reach the master alien computer so you can shut it off and turn everyone back into real people again; you’re armed with a laser blaster, but it only has a limited number of shots available, and when you use them up you’re in big trouble.
It helps if the writers understand the possibilities and limitations of the computer game board and graphics—otherwise they’ll come up with plots and story lines that can’t be translated into computerized game play.
With a theme and story line chosen, the computer experts enter the picture. Their job is to turn a story like the one outlined .above into a computer game. This is the hardest part of the process.
Often several different programmers will work to develop a game. First there’s the programmer who sets up the rules under which the game will be played. This programmer must tell the computer what is going to happen, how often it will happen, and what to do about the responses to what happens that are keyed in by the player with his joystick controller and fire button.
Next the computer graphics must be programmed. This is very important, because the graphic the player sees on the screen often decides just how much fun the game is to play.
The graphics artists have a great deal of work to do to make a game. They must decide on what the elements will look like: should the robot be big or small, have eyes that glow. or five feet: what is the maze going to be—brick walls or just broken lines: what is the laser blaster going to look like and what will the player see happen on the screen when it is fired. Colors, designs, and the ability of the computer to produce them are to be taken into consideration. Also, the graphics artist must get the computer to generate action and movement on the various design elements.
As the graphics of the gameboard develop, another crew of computer wizards will be working on the computerized sound effects. All those zap, blast, boom noises that add to the excitement of play. Computer sound is as serious a creative process as computer graphics, although at this point most of the computer’s brainpower must go into generating the graphics and rules of the game.
The game director stays in touch with all the computer artists at work, meeting with them as the game develops. When the game has taken on form and design, everyone will play the game to make sure there are no bugs in the program. Subtle details of play, graphics or sound are changed at this stage until the director and his computer wizards believe they’ve got it exactly right.
Finally the game is packaged in a console (if it is an arcade game), hopefully with eye-catching colors and designs that will get the player to give it a try. Then it is ready to make an appearance in the game arcades, where all the work involved will be put to the test: how does it play?