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The Making of Videogames

by Richard Meyers

How and Why Games Are Manufactured

You’ve just sent your twenty-fourth idea to a videogame company after receiving your twenty-third polite form rejection letter. Did you every stop and wonder why the manufacturers can’t afford to work on every idea that comes their way?

“The companies are deluged with ideas,” chuckles Joe Cicak, the chief of Gamexxx, an independent game designing company. “They have drawers full of ideas. Everybody in the world has an idea for a videogame. What they need to know is that the person can carry the idea out from start to finish.”

The process of assembling videogames for home or arcade is long and arduous. Here, at Exidy, a technician solders a printed circuit board. Other boards, stacked in a rack to her lefl, await the woman’s attention.

It seems as if the video industry is the same as any other business. Everyone has ideas. The trick is making them reality — and, more importantly, from a business point of view, a practical and economically feasible reality. The idea is important, of course, but it’s just the first step in the lengthy process of video creation.

“It is vitally important to have contacts within the industry,” Cicak points out. “Whether you are an ‘in house’ designer or an independent, there has to be someone receptive to whom you can present your ideas. There has to be someone you can approach with ideas and with questions, questions like, ‘Is it possible? Is it too expensive? Am I crazy?’”

Contacts within the companies are even more important. Most manufacturers won’t even listen to ideas for videogames for fear of lawsuits if a finished game is similar to an unsolicited idea which came from an avid video enthusiast. They will return the idea unread and untouched rather than run the risk of coincidentally or inadvertently “borrowing” a concept from an eager writer.

Once the reception of an idea is positive, there’s a lot of work the designer has to do before his or her contact can even approach other people in the company. Cicak starts his homework with extensive storyboards.

“The storyboard is the standard way of presenting any moving picture,” he explains. “If you want to give someone an idea of how something is going to look you draw it in storyboard form — showing action that occurs every five or ten seconds … or every key event.”

A storyboard looks like a series of comic strips. Beneath each uniformly-sized drawing is an explanation of what is going on. “I have all the possibilities included,” Cicak describes, “what would happen is this gizmo attacks that watchamacallit. The whole thing is plotted out from beginning to end.”

Assuming you can get in the front door, a basic, very amorphous idea is not enough for videogame companies even to consider. It’s not enough to tell them that Star Trek would make a great videogame. The manufacturers need to know what the starship Enterprise can do, what the Klingons will do, what Mr. Spock would do, and so on. Just as importantly, as Cicak points out, the designer has to know what he or she can’t do.

“It is not only a matter of what has to be included,” he says, “but what has to be cut out. You have to look critically at your concept and inherently know what is or isn’t going to work from both a technical and aesthetic standpoint. That takes a knowledge of technology as well as common sense.”

After the boards are assembled, technicians check them under conditions which simulate actual operation. The TV screen informs the operator whether or not all systems are functioning smoothly.

The common sense comes in handy when a designer is trying to figure out what each aspect of the game has to do in order to make the whole thing a success. But the scientific approach is even more important. The greatest gimmick in the world is useless if existing equipment can’t make it work.

Cicak gets around the question mark of developing technology in a clever and effective way. “I storyboard it all out in the sense of what may be possible for present systems. Then I do some storyboards that are based on what will be possible a year or two in the future.”

If an intrepid new designer has gotten this far, hit upon a million dollar game idea, storyboarded it out to perfection and convinced a manufacturer that it can be mass produced at a decent cost — what then? Joe Cicak has the answer, and as usual it’s anything but simple.

“Once everyone has agreed that you’ve got a good idea, the company gives you authorization to set up a ‘design team.’ If you are off on your own somewhere, say Kansas or Melbourne you can set up a design team too, only you’ll probably run into a lot more problems working outside the facilities of the manufacturers. Things that would take you months, maybe years to figure out have already been perfected by the majors.

A look inside Midway’s Kickman. Everything you see on-screen, all the graphics and every bit of the players input, is controlled by this small compartment laden with wires and circuits.

“In my case, since I have a decent track record,” Cicak elaborates, “they feel confident enough to provide the vital financial and technological support I’ll need to get my machines off the ground. There is an awful lot of trust involved here because you are privy to their methods and they are privy to your ideas.”

These “methods” are the stuff on which success or failure is based. These methods are what make Pac-Man, Dig Dug, and the Stargate ships do their things on the small screens.

Cicak explains, “You have to spend months and months programming on one of the companies’ or on your own graphic video animation devices, units which are controlled by microprocessors. What we’re doing is computer animation, just like the stuff you saw in Tron. In fact, Tron is a motion picture which exemplifies what video design is all about. We’re playing around inside a video cartoon.”

Utilizing a computer language which controls the electrical charges that serve as the computer’s thinking process (see “Close Up” in our October issue) programmers translate concepts by Cicak and other designers into technological existence. “Half the time we’re programming,” Cicak reports, “the rest of the time we’re ‘de-bugging’ what we’ve done. You have to make everything go the way you want it without creating kinks or loopholes that can certainly be exploited by a clever player.”

To make it work requires the all-out efforts of the design team. At its most basic, this team consists of personnel in three departments, hardware, software, and what Cicak calls “conceptualization.”

Unusual control panels, as in Atari’s Starship I arcade attraction, may require some extra testing. Rough, down-to-business play sessions in actual arcades are required to iron out the kinks in any new design. These are the kinds of discoveries designers can’t make in their cool, easy workshops.

“The hardware is the brains, the body, the guts, of the arcade machine,” Cicak defines. “That means the wires, the chips, and almost everything that goes into the machine. The software is the computer program that someone has written which will function within that hardware system. That’s what makes the pictures appear.”

In non-technological, perhaps more understandable terms: the hardware is the brain and the organs. The software is the collection of thoughts that make the whole thing work. “The intricacy and look of the software depends on whether you are using the company’s computer system, whether you’re using a satellite (ie, comparable) system, or whether you are using a system totally independent,” Cicak adds.

The conceptualizer is basically the idea person — in this case, Joe Cicak himself. “I think of video game design like a movie,” he says. “A movie is the result of many minds working to realize the images of a few. The best results come as a result of a solid team toiling toward a single person’s inspiration. They all work toward a striking look, great action and a good story.

“Since video games are smaller than movies, one person can take on several jobs. I would be considered the director and scenic designer. The programmers would be my camera, lighting and sound personnel. The hardware people would be everyone else.”

While the design team toils, the company is taking care of business. They want to make sure that everything is ready on their end when the conceptualizer arrives with the finished machine. “The companies usually handle the cabinet and the various ‘interfaces,’” Cicak maintains, “meaning the control stick and that sort of thing. They look at it from a manufacturer’s point of view. They have to be sure that they can mass produce it efficiently which is why they handle all the peripheral things like the outward appearance of the cabinet. The designers handle everything on the screen.”

For reasons explained by game designer Joe Cicak, the cabinets and artwork which adorn them are standardized for a very good reason: they must be mass-produced as quickly and as inexpensively as possible.

It all comes together at this point. The team sticks their hardware and software into the company’s cabinet and thus a videogame is born.

One, lone machine that has hopefully lived up to all the creators’ expectations.

But the process does not stop there. Manufacturers have learned the hard way not to be content with their own tastes. The final judge has to be the player — the person with the coin. In other words, you.

“The company makes a few machines and puts them on test in various secret locations all over the country,” Cicak reveals. “Sometimes they don’t even reveal the name, to make it more mysterious. After all that time, effort, and money, they don’t want their competitors to steal any thunder.”

All the secrecy is understandable given just how expensive that thunder can be. Cicak says that a minimum price tag for the development of a single new videogame is a half-million dollars. There have been cases on record where the cost has gone as high as three million dollars. And if new technologies are researched and forged, new kinds of chips or controls, the expense may soar ever higher.

“The company will watch the prototype games in the field, and keep records of the two ‘M’s,” Cicak continues, “money and maintenance. Depending on that they will make their final decision, which is usually one of three. One: it’s ready to go. Two: it needs changes. Three: it’s a worthless idea.”

Thankfully, Cicak has never had many worthless ideas.

Although he and his contemporaries work well under the present conditions, Cicak is looking forward to a future of even greater accomplishment and challenge.

“The systems we’re working on now will become more and more flexible until even someone with no programming experience and only a basic understanding of the equipment — like me — will be able to sit down and make it almost all work. That is some years away yet, but not as many as people seem to think. You’ll be able to invent arcade games at home before long.”

So, hopeful designers you have a choice. Either start making your company contacts now or sit tight and wait for the fast-approaching future. It will be glorious, it will be invigorating, and it will never be boring.

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