What is it?
Everybody dreams of making a living from doing what they enjoy most. This must be what drives people with otherwise highly-paid skills into the often under-rewarded and uncertain field of games development.
The days when two people in a garage could create a bestseller have gone. Computer games are part of the big leisure-business machine, with leading titles including games based on the Simpsons, James Bond films and Tom Clancy novels. Customers expect a rich multimedia experience, and that can involve budgets that would not look out of place in Hollywood. The Department of Trade & Industry supports the UK games industry, which makes a significant contribution to the economy, and now Europe is taking an interest too.
There is a flood of new talent into the business, with many new start-ups every year - even if the prospects for most of them are bleak.
Where did it originate?
In 1958, US nuclear researchers devised a form of screen tennis, and slowly-bouncing balls were a major feature of games for the next two decades. Role-playing games evolved at places such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where researchers had access to powerful machines out of hours.
Games for the masses arrived with the Apple II in 1981, and home computers from Commodore, Tandy, Atari and the BBC Micro. Nintendo launched the first dedicated games console, the Gameboy, in 1989.
What's it for?
Computer games are also used in school education, therapy, conflict resolution, sales training and teaching people to program.
What makes it special?
The chance to use imagination, story-telling and graphics skills - or to develop a lucrative new market for book, film and TV properties.
How difficult is it to master?
Many job adverts for games developers want C/C++ skills, or Java, with 3D graphics experience. There are tools such as Microsoft DirectX and OpenGL to learn. Microsoft is launching a development platform called XNA which will be used for both XBox consoles and Windows PCs. Some authoring tools promise non-programmers can create games, but there is a limit to what you can do without coding.
Where is it used?
Opportunities range from secure but unadventurous work in development teams with large established, quoted companies, to exciting but financially risky work with start-ups.
Role-playing games (RPG) with IBM's RPG (Report Program Generator), the old language for AS400s.
What systems does it run on?
Dedicated consoles, PCs and mobile phones. The handheld console market is likely to be lively this year, with Nokia, Nintendo and Sony-Ericsson all planning major launches.
Not many people know that
Nintendo was founded in the nineteenth century as a playing card company.
What's coming up?
The government's UK Trade and Investment programme is providing promotional and market access support to UK games developers. The European Federation of Independent Game Developers has also been founded, to work with the cultural and trade and industry commissioners in Brussels.
The web is full of teach-yourself games development sites. There are two UK organisations for games developers: the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association and the Independent Games Developers' Association. Both are a useful source of information on training and careers in the industry.
Rates of pay
Salaries for games developers are generally lower than average industry rates - a senior C/C++ developer with 3D programming experience and knowledge of low-level graphics could be paid as little as £24,000. Rates of pay are generally higher for developers working on mobile gaming technology.
This was first published in April 2004