After Hours

Do you have what it takes to break into the computer game industry?

What does it take to succeed as a computer game designer? Bob Weinstein shares some insights from "Age of Empires" designer Bruce Shelley.

Most people have never heard of Bruce Shelley. But he's the computer game world's equivalent of Steven Spielberg. The Chicago native, who commutes to Dallas-based game design company Ensemble Studios (of which he owns a piece), ranks among the computer game industry's superstars.

Last year, the computer games market exceeded $7 billion, versus $6.3 billion in 1998, according to market research firm PC Data. And Shelley has a share of it.

Shelley's latest epic creation, "Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings," published by Microsoft, was the top seller in the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany in the first four weeks after it was released last year. “My game will make more money than most films released last year,” he says modestly. Shelley’s predecessor game, “Age of Empires I,” sold 3 million copies at $40 apiece, grossing $120 million.

Producing “Age of Empires II” was a Herculean effort costing under $10 million (Shelley wouldn’t divulge the exact figure), taking two years to complete, and employing 50 full-time employees. All that to turn out a game that takes two hours to play.

The computer game industry is similar to the publishing industry. The game designer (Shelley) has a contractual relationship with a publisher (Microsoft) to publish the software. When sales exceed money advanced to produce the game, Shelly earns a royalty. Like the publishing industry, the odds of scoring a success are precarious.

“There are between 1,000 and 1,500 new games published each year,” Shelley explains. “The vast majority don’t do well. Maybe 500 of the games make some money; 50 earn a lot of money; and about 20 earn a great deal of money.”
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Producing “Age of Empires” required a smorgasbord of staff skill sets, including programmers, artists, animators, composer, and sound effects people. As the game designer, Shelley spearheaded the project. Although he understands technology, he's not a techie. “Designers are essentially writers and researchers,” he says. “We write specifications explaining how a game works. It’s usually a 200-page document written and updated throughout the production. We start with a vision for the game. From that, everything flows.”

A large production game like “Age of Empires” employs a few designers. Shelley coordinates the entire project, but other designers are in charge of the technical production.

The programmers make everything happen, coding from the moment the project begins until it ships.

The computer game industry has spawned a small army of talented programmers. “Essentially, we need the same skills any business needs, particularly database and AI [artificial intelligence] programmers,” says Shelley. “The big difference is we need people who are exceptionally creative and can produce something no one has done before. The market demands new and fresh products. That’s why this industry attracts the best programming talent.”

Shelley looks for people who can program graphics. “A big part of computer games is the look and feel of the game,” he says. “Graphics must look great, but they can’t slow down the game. Most of the programming is done in C++, and some of the graphics are written in assembly language to speed up and optimize the graphics. Good programming means you can run the game on any machine.”

When the game is finished, it’s debugged, a tedious process that requires programmers to work around the clock.

For their hard work and creativity, experienced game programmers can earn $100,000, sometimes more.

Finding jobs isn’t hard either. If you have advanced programming skills, Shelley advises checking out the Web sites of top game developers. “Every company in our business, including Ensemble Studios, is always looking for top talent,” he says.

If you want to break into the business, Shelley advises starting in the entry-level job of play tester. “Games undergo thousands of hours of testing for content, game play, and technical issues,” he explains. “Play testers usually go on to jobs as producers, designers, and programmers. Some companies look for assistant designers or level designers [for the levels or layers that some games require a player to advance through]. To land a job, you had better be a game freak with plenty of playing experience and also have design samples to show.”

Once you break in, your future is secure—as long as you can stay one step ahead of the market.

Bob Weinstein's weekly syndicated column, Tech Watch, is the first career column covering the exploding technology marketplace. The column appears in major daily newspapers throughout the U.S.

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