Computer Game Design: What I Know Now

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Artwork – drawings for everything from the splash screen to your characters to your scenes. Generally, great games have great art.
  3. Animation – either 2-D or 3-D.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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?
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

For an eight-month project, we will incur costs of over $200,000 and we have kept our budget very tight. We paid graphic designers, artists, an educational specialist, programmers, a project manager. We used PHP, Javascript, C #, SQL, Photoshop and Dreamweaver. We put in $100,000 from The Julia Group, received another $100,000 in external funding and already had in place most of the hardware, software, office and testing facilities. AND STILL — if we had another $100- $150,000 we could make it a lot better. AND we are only developing for two operating systems (Windows 7 and Mac OS 10.7) at the moment. Although we are working with an eye to ease of portability to the iPhone, iPad and other mobile devices, we haven’t got there yet.

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.

Act accordingly.


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  1. Totally agree about ideas worth not a lot and it’s about the execution.

    However, seems like a large cash outlay for a game. Maybe some sweat equity/royalties for the devs/designers would’ve lowered the cost?

  2. That does include sweat equity for the devs/ designers. However, that is still a COST. If I am working for $100 an hour and I work 20 hours a week on this game and bill $2,000 less to clients it has cost me $2,000. If two people do that, it has cost $4,000.

    The only way that is not a cost is if you had extra hours you were not working for pay anyway. We don’t have any of those. Some of our costs have come in the form of “sweat equity” but that is still cash really because we are taking in less cash as we work on this instead.

    Some days we can work more hours – work 8 hours a day for clients and add another 4 for the game – but that is just hiding the cost because we could work more hours for pay if we wanted, so now we are working OVERTIME hours for free.

    Whether the cost is high depends on the type of game you are making. I’m pretty sure development costs for Zelda, World of Warcraft far exceeded $200K

    A good amount of our cost is for testing the educational component. If it works to educate students, they should know more after using our game and not just more but more than the kids who did not use it. Presumably all kids during the school year show progress

  3. It’s like having a great idea for a book or movie. Once you have the idea you need to actually make the thing.

    That’s not to say that an idea isn’t valuable: “People would like a movie with approximately this storyline” may be really important. Since people judge on titles, cover photos, and one-sentence summaries, getting the general idea right might be crucial. But without a finished product there’s nothing to sell, so the value of the idea goes unrealised.

    As far as valuing your own time: do you use your client rate? your teaching rate? Or admit that there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing so cost your time at half of minimum wage?

  4. I use my regular client rate although the discounted rate we give for contracts over 100 hours is probably more appropriate because this is way more than 100 hours.

    As far as valuing my time at half minimum wage – there is a lot of stuff I like doing that pays money. Most of my day is spent with really smart people I like a lot doing interesting work, often in pretty nice places.

    So, the fact that I like the game programming is a plus, but doing it still counts as lost income. It’s like my accountant says about business trips to Hawaii or Halifax – just because you enjoyed being there doesn’t make it non-tax-deductible.

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