Do you REALLY want to make computer games?

Occasionally my friends and family will let their guard down and forget to lock the cage door … and I’ll enjoy a quick spell of freedom and get to harrass meet “normal” people. By “normal”, I mean “people who don’t get paid to play games all day”.

Inevitably, on first meeting they will ask what I ‘do’ for a living. “I’m a computer programmer” I reply.

Usually this triggers a fog of disinterest behind their eyes, and they will end this line of conversation with a dismissive “oh”. But occasionally they will have had a strong coffee and continue to feign interest. If they do, I will follow this with “I make computer games”.

Though the universe is infinite, the human-intellect practically boundless and tornado-causing butterflies still abundant, I usually find that their response will be one of quite a small number of possibilities. The top four normally include:

  • “Did you make Tomb Raider?”
  • “When are you going to get a proper job?”
  • “Do you need anyone to test your games? You can pay me in coke and chocolate.”
  • “Ooh! I love playing games! I’ve always wanted to make one! How can I do it for a job?”

The first three can be easily answered: “No.”, “Get lost.” and “You’d hate it.”.

The last question, though, is a difficult one to answer.

“Ooh! I love playing games! I’ve always wanted to make one! How can I do it for a job?”

If you think this is a question you might ask in similar circumstances, then it is time for you to think hard about exactly why you fancy making computer games. What is it that appeals to you?

When I were a lad (and all this were fields) I got hold of a piece of software called Vista Pro for DOS. This software generated “realistic” landscapes, complete with sky, trees, rivers and coast lines. You could place your viewpoint from anywhere, and look anywhere. Then it would render the image:

Now this is well over a decade ago, so the above screenshot probably took about 10 minutes to calculate and render. Today’s graphics cards can draw better views than this in 1/60th of a second. Nevertheless, it still looks pretty good.

Obtaining this software started a fascination with virtual worlds and 3D environments that I still have today. Magrathea on my desktop! A complete world in a box! My computer became a portal to a new world; to my very own landscape. I could wander round it and explore it to my heart’s content.

But even then (graphics standards being considerably lower than today) why was I so willing to ignore its low-poly shortcomings and too-angular terrain? Why was I happy to treat it like a ‘real’ environment?

Anyone who has studied narrative and creative writing will recognise this as the Suspension of Disbelief; the art of making a fantastical world consistent and believable enough that the reader (or in our case: the player) willingly chooses to ignore any shortcomings – in exchange for some entertainment and escapism.

Now lets look at a game; and because this is a waffly-article with pretensions of historic reference, we’ll talk about Elite on the BBC Micro.

If someone doesn't buy a docking-computer soon, there'll be trouble.

Elite was a special game for many reasons; but for the purposes of this discussion we’ll concentrate on how unimportant you felt as a player. Most games (both then and now) embrace the concept of the player as the “hero”, and the rest of the game effectively revolves around that. The player has a finite number of lives, things to collect and brainless enemies to despatch.

But Elite wasn’t like that: you didn’t have lives or levels. You were made to feel as if the Elite universe was very real and would continue to exist even without your input. Even the wireframe graphics, simplistic shapes and transparent ships did not detract from this.

It was very successful at conveying the feeling that you were only as “important” as everything else. This brought with it a curious sense of realism that you didn’t get from conventional hero-centric games.

This feeling was reinforced even by the manual (and the novella that came with it). This illustration always sticks in my mind:

The artist has drawn the inside of your spaceship, with your main console looking suspiciously like … a BBC Micro. Just like the computer you’re playing on. A little extra touch to blur the line between what you’re actually doing (playing a game on a home computer in your bedroom) and what you want to believe that you’re doing. You’re in your own spaceship, trying to make your fortune in a big galaxy. You want to believe it, and the illustration helps reinforce it.

My point from these two examples is that we should note that this escapism and entertainment works for us as players but is next to impossible for the developers. We are able to suspend disbelief because we are playing the finished product. We see it at its most consistent and polished. We take it all at face value.

But what of the developers? How can they possibly suspend their disbelief? They built it from nothing. They saw it at its worst. They saw the glitches, the map holes, the malfunctioning AI. They know all too well that their game is all smoke and mirrors. Those buildings are only polygon-deep. They’re highly-textured fakes.

I am 100% certain that Braben and Bell could never have played Elite and experienced the same mystery and suspense as everyone else. For them, Elite’s ‘universe’ was a series of processor instructions and a random-number generator. The sight of other ships zipping around the galaxy on their own business merely a weighted-probability. There is no mystery. There is no suspense.

I bet Terry Pratchett doesn’t feel the same way about his books as I do. Whilst I’m sure he has enjoyed writing them immensely, he has never experienced the feeling of mystery or entertainment at what is going to happen next. (Any author who says “It’s as much a mystery to me, the books just write themselves!” needs a damn-good slapping.)

We could almost feel pity for these creators … they are not getting the same pleasure from their work as us. But we don’t need to. They take pleasure of a different sort from their work. They have created. And they have been well-rewarded for it, too.

Why do you want to make computer games?

If you love games because you love the feeling of being in another world, as another person, embarking on a strange and magical adventure … then your narrative-bubble will burst as soon as you start making your own. If this is you, then do yourself a favour: go to the cinema, buy books, subscribe to World of Warcraft … enjoy the myriad of universes that others have created.

On the other hand … If you want to write games because you enjoy the task of problem solving, logic and mathematics wrangling, making challenges for your friends, getting a handle on the mythical quality of “fun”, discerning the fine-line between what is a fair challenge and what is an unfair one … then welcome aboard! Start reading about Ludology, put your creative-head on, and join in.

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posted in Games, Ramblings, Work by Oddbloke

6 Comments to "Do you REALLY want to make computer games?"

  1. Eileen wrote:

    Hmmm… goes the job hunting then?

  2. admin wrote:

    Not that great, I’m afraid. The initial chaos has subsided, and now depression is setting in. It’s getting difficult to motivate myself to write, which I am finding particularly frustrating as before this kicked off I I was REALLY beginning to enjoy myself.

    Oh, well. Hopefully a couple more interviews this week, and with a bit of luck normal service will be resumed here shortly!

  3. Eileen wrote:

    I shall resist telling you to “chin up” and all that. Very annoying.
    Instead I shall press my forehead to the screen and hum commiseration chants to you.
    It could work you know 🙂

  4. fortywinx wrote:

    I *think* I would very much like to get into making computer games, however I suspect that by the time I finish my part-time degree in about 4 million years, I will have given up this dream and instead opt for teaching arsey teenagers IT and Maths because it’s easier to get into =S

    One day, I will learn how to make shiny 3D graphics though!

  5. Spud wrote:

    I just stumbled across your site looking for that very picture of the Elite cockpit with the integrated BBC Micro – it always stayed in my mind too. I remember when my 5.25″ Elite disk died and all I was able to do was mournfully look through that manual!

    Although my Model B 32k has long been gathering dust, I rescued it from the attic recently and it is sitting behind me now – at least it still worked the last time it was used!

    Very few games have fired my imagination in the same way as Elite did when I was a kid, and been so simple, yet so immersive…so thank you for the picture!!! 🙂

  6. Oddbloke wrote:

    No problem! Glad it’s not just me! 🙂

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