These days, about half of my time is spent in management and collaboration, a fourth on writing code for a game and the remaining fourth on statistical analysis. This isn’t how I’d choose to divide my hours if I was in charge of the universe, but, that’s the way it is.
That is the mad scientist laughing sound I want to make whenever I hear someone cheerfully say,
“With the Internet and iTunes, the price of entry is so low, anyone can make a computer game or app and make a million dollars.”
Let’s start with that price of entry low thing. If you want to make a Bejeweled -imitation then maybe the price of entry is relatively low. Let’s say you want to make some kind of educational game. You need:
- A story – I’ll presume you’re a writer and have a great idea, since everyone I talk to assumes they are a writer and has a great idea.
- Artwork – drawings for everything from the splash screen to your characters to your scenes. Generally, great games have great art.
- Animation – either 2-D or 3-D.
- A game “world” – for some games this can be very simple, like a race track that your cars race down to the end of the game. This is different than animation itself. The world has to have rules. You can’t fly up off the race track. At some point the track ends, it doesn’t go into infinity. There are usually points and ways of getting points. All of that has to be programmed. The more complex the world, the more programming.
- A means of storing data such as usernames and game state so that if I am playing your game and come back to it later, I start in the same place I was before, while Joe Schmoe starts in the same place he was before. A game is not REQUIRED to have a database and many don’t but if you are going to have a game over the Internet that is not really simple, a database is probably necessary. Also, you need to communicate between the game and the database.
- Sounds. When a car crashes, an alien is shot, there should probably be a sound. You might also want a musical sound track that plays at different points. You have to get these sounds from somewhere. Then you need to add them in.
- Some knowledge of the content area for education. Say you are developing a science game for kids in grades three through six. What are kids supposed to be learning in science in those grades? What words are at a third-grade reading level? How will you route kids to the appropriate level? What prerequisite information can you assume they will know?
- Students and teachers to test your game. This is always a humbling experience as you find the parts you thought were so engaging are simply confusing. Someone needs to locate students and teachers at the right grade level, arrange for them to try your game and see what works and what doesn’t.
- Documentation. Surely you are going to write down somewhere the location of the databases, variable names, languages used, what the statements do. Some of that is in the code but not all of it.
- Project management. Unless you are amazingly talented, I will bet you are not a gifted artist, programmer, writer and also happen to have a background in K-12 education. So, you need to breakdown everything in 1-9 (and I’m sure some other parts I forgot about) into detailed of what exactly the artist needs to do to fit with what the programmer is doing and what the programmer needs to do to make sure the educational objectives are met.
So, yeah, every time I hear someone toss off, “You should make an app for that” like it is no tougher than sketching something out on a napkin, I want to slap them upside the head.
The Rocket Scientist and I laugh a lot over margaritas at people who think because they have an idea for something they should be entitled to 30-50% of the profits. As some brilliant person on twitter said,
“Imagine the most beautiful scene you’ve ever witnessed. Now imagine a painting of that scene. The difference between those two is why your idea is only worth 1% of the value of the actual product.”
This is also why, when people ask me if I am worried that someone else will steal our idea, I laugh. The idea is not what is worth the money. It is the design, artwork, animation, programming, soundtrack and the integration of all of those. Maybe $100,000 of our own money doesn’t sound like a lot to invest, but we’re a small company, so it is a lot to us. It was definitely a risk, although it gets to be less of a risk each passing day as we get it done bit by bit.
All of that said, if I knew when I started this project what I know now would I still have done it? Yes, absolutely! One of the biggest advantages and one that made it worth every dime we have put into this is that the Rocket Scientist and I have both learned a ton. We have worked with tools that interested us for years and we never had a chance to use as much as we liked and we have designed and written games kids can play using those tools. Unbelievably, I’m even getting to like SQL a little bit.
At this point, I would say we have a 50% chance of the game really working and making a lot of money and 100% chance of us having learned a lot and had a great time. I guess this explains why we funded it ourselves rather than giving up a share of the company to outside investors. I was at an angel investors meeting a while back and I asked a gentleman what were the most fun companies he had invested in. He looked puzzled and answered,
Fun? I would say the most fun companies would be the ones that make me the most money.
It reminded me of something my business partner had said years ago to one of our employees in a company I co-founded previously,
“Everything we do makes money but we don’t do just anything that makes money.”
That’s my take away message on game design and programming. It is not a way to get rich without working. It’s a way to maybe get richer with a whole hell of a lot of work. And it’s fun.