Chapter 6

Writing Your Next Game

Fame, glory, money, caffeine, caffeine, caffeine.

Okay, let's assume you have finished your first game. Congratulations! You are well on your way. The question is, what do you do next?

The time has come to make some decisions about your career. Do you want to be a full-time game developer, or do you want to do this as an income supplement or a hobby? Do you want a secure job where you get regular paychecks, or do you want to experience the risks and benefits of being self-employed? The answers to these questions will affect the types of games you will write in the future.

Let's examine some of the strategies you may want to consider as your career advances. Again, I am going to focus on the career of the lone wolf, because let's face it -- being an employee is a no-brainer. You do what you're told and you get paid for it. Not much room for strategic choices there. The lone wolf, on the other hand, has to be smart to survive, and that means weighing your options and making intelligent choices.

Career Strategies of the Lone Wolf Developer

Growing Remember how I told you to make your first game a simple game? You can make your second game an easy game, too, but you don't want to keep doing simple games forever. Now is time to flex your muscles. Every game you make from now on should teach you something. If you were a BASIC programmer before, it is time to learn C. If you were a DOS programmer, it is time to learn Windows. Don't take on too much all at once. Learning should be an incremental activity. But it should be a lifetime activity. All game programmers must learn new skills all the time. It is the only way to keep up with technology.

Every game programmer begins their career far behind the "cutting edge" of technology. Every game programmer's goal should be to catch up with technology. It is an unreachable goal. Technology is a moving target. As soon as you get close to it, it changes again. But that is what makes this industry so dynamic, and so full of opportunities. Choose some aspect of technology that interests you, and aim for it.

Choosing a Genre What kind of games do you like? Do you like multi-player games? How about 3D games? Strategy games? Let your personal interests guide your career. If you are a sports game fan, don't try to write an RPG. It will only result in an inferior game.

Think about time constraints. Do you want to spend two years writing your next game? What if it meant you could write two games in three years?

Try to guess where technology will be next year. Will a Windows 3.1 program sell in a Windows 95 world? Is mode X too primitive? Are hardware-accelerator cards too non-standard?

These are hard questions. But think about what you are doing. Writing a game is a huge investment. Don't just clone your favorite game. Try to write something that will provide you with some long-term benefit.

Finding a Niche The really successful lone-wolf developers are the ones who have recognized a niche and exploited it. A good niche will have a large audience, and little competition. It will have avenues of communication available so you can reach your audience. It will lend itself to addicting (or educational) games, and it will allow plenty of add-ons.

My most successful niche is gambling games. Millions of people love to gamble, and there are lots of way to write new slot machines and card games. I can sell new software to the same people over and over. I can also sell software in non-traditional markets -- gambling magazines, for example. Instead of being the 500th shareware game in a collection of shareware games, my game will stand out as the only gambling software in a collection of books and videos. This niche works well for me.

I know authors who have been successful in the educational market, in fonts, in fortune telling and the occult, and in jigsaw puzzles. If you can spot a niche and fill it, you are in good shape. You can make money for years that way.

Untapped Markets The computer game market is so flooded, just getting a new game noticed is a challenge. But with cleverness, you can put your game where there are no games. I have games running on seat-back computers on America West Airlines airplanes. This is an interesting market. Consider that it is a captive audience, relatively bored, that is staring at my games (and my name) for the duration of a flight.

As technology advances, look for opportunities. They don't always pay off, but consider them anyway. I have seen games sold in vending machines, on television, in books, in bookstores, in gift shops, and in non-software magazines.

If you write bowling games, advertise in bowling magazines. You might be surprised at how cheap such advertising can be, and how well it can pay off. If you write a sports simulation, try to get your software in a sports memorabilia/cards store.

Look around you, and try to come up with an idea nobody else has thought of yet.

Recycling Think in terms of your current game evolving into your next game. While very few game engines are actually reuseable, a great deal of game code is used over and over. You can write a "new" game engine incorporating a lot of functions of your last game engine.

Always, always always keep your code clean. Indent carefully, pay attention to comments, organize your functions thoughtfully in source code files and libraries. Think of it in terms of being kind to your future self. The future you will be grateful to the past you for leaving such a clean, useful legacy.

Hired Codeslinger As you gain a reputation for being a hot-shot game developer, you may find yourself presented with opportunities to work on other people's projects. Again, choose carefully which ones you will accept. If the money is good, the genre is one you are familiar with, and the title will look good in your portfolio, then by all means take the job. If, on the other hand, the work is in an area that is completely unfamiliar to you, the only compensation is a promise of future royalties, and it looks like you could get bogged down in the project for months or years, then walk away. You will be better off starting and completing your own game than to get sucked into a loser project like this.

Form Alliances As mentioned before, programmers need artists, and artists need programmers. Publishers need developers and developers need publishers. The whole game development industry is an interconnected fabric. It is absolutely essential to have positive, professional relationships with others in the industry.

Always be ethical in your dealings with others. Do not make promises you can not keep. Do not give away secrets. Be reliable in financial matters.

Do not flame people you don't know in a public forum. Only amateurs do that. Professionals in the industry know they will run into each other over and over. The person you flame this year may the person you want to do business with next year. Don't burn your bridges.

Look for new ways to work together with the people you already know. This may be something as simple as a web page link or as sophisticated as a marketing co-op. If you happen upon an excellent opportunity, share it with your friends. They, in turn, will share valuable information with you.

Encourage your peers in their careers. The threat of competition is not nearly as damaging as the threat of isolation. You want the industry five years from now to be filled with people you know well. Form long-term relationships.

Portfolio Building Lone wolf developers generally don't have resumes. They have portfolios. A portfolio is a collection of titles that you have worked on and completed.

Pay attention to your portfolio. Try to choose projects that will look good on your record. Having one best-seller, or half a dozen completed and released titles, will earn you respect in the game developer community. This translates to better projects and job offers.

Distractions Distractions are a trap. You may find yourself offered work that has nothing to do with game development. Maybe for some quick cash you agree to write the database program for an auto repair company. Be careful. You will be expected to support and maintain this program for years. Meanwhile, your portfolio is not growing, technology is advancing without you, and the new skills you are learning have nothing to do with game development.

Distractions trade a short-term gain (quick cash) for a long-term asset (career advancement). Be careful.

Courage Being a game developer is hard. It is a long-term commitment involving considerable risks. It means working long hours and making hard choices. Sometimes it means throwing out months (or years) of work and starting over from scratch. Game development is not for the faint-hearted.

Have you finished your second game yet? You have? Great! Email me and tell me about it. But don't just tell me -- the world deserves to know. In Chapter 7 we will talk about some ways to promote your game, and more importantly, yourself.


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