What is it?
Competition in the games business is hotter than ever, with Microsoft's XBox and Sony's Playstation 2 due to be joined by Nintendo's Gamecube on 3 May.
Microsoft's arrival in the games console market means that all three platforms are under pressure to find new, "killer" games.
Wireless games are being talked up as the "next big thing" by mobile telcos, which are looking for a way to recoup the money they spent on 3G licences. Some delirious forecasters have predicted that games revenues will overtake those of Hollywood's film industry within five years.
However, industry analysts from Ovum suggest that few consumers will pay more than a few pounds a month for mobile games, and even hardcore gamers are unlikely to stretch to more than £10 a month for what are essentially very basic offerings.
Where did it originate?
As early as 1958, US nuclear researchers were playing crude games of screen tennis. By the 1960s, text-based role-playing games were springing up in US universities and research facilities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Kit microcomputers such as the Altair brought gaming to home hobbyists. Then consumer games took off in the late 1970s with the
Apple II, Tandy TRS-80 and Commodore Vic-20. Nintendo (originally a 19th-century playing card manufacturer) launched the Gameboy in 1989.
What's it for?
There are games for filling a few slack minutes, a dull evening, or the gaps in lonely lives. Games can also be used to teach school subjects, sales skills, conservation techniques and, of course, programming. Older readers may have cut their teeth making a ball bounce around the screen of a Commodore PET.
What makes it special?
For many, it is the chance to make a living doing what they would be doing in their spare time anyway. A few make a fortune. Most do not.
How difficult is it?
You can use C/C++, Java, Visual Basic, Delphi, Pascal, or authoring tools such as Apple's Hypercard and Macromedia's Authorware.
Some authoring tools promise to enable non-programmers to create games, but there are limits to what you can do without coding. There are suites of APIs (application programming interfaces) which take care of a lot of the nuts and bolts of games development on both PC (Microsoft's DirectX) and Mac (Apple's Sprockets).
Where is it used?
Some best-selling games have emerged from small teams working in their own time in somebody's garage. But as machines have grown more powerful, sound and graphics more sophisticated, and consumers more demanding, game makers are increasingly likely to be working with multimillion-dollar budgets. The growing association of games with other forms of branded entertainment also favours large, established software houses.
Gameboys with boys who are on the game.
What does it run on?
Games consoles, PCs, Macs, handhelds and mobile phones.
Few people know that
According to Gartner Dataquest, 75% of people who buy a games console already own one.
What's coming up?
Competition between Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo may lead to the early release of Playstation 3, cutting the platform lifecycle from five years to three years.
Rates of pay
Games developers' pay is usually less than industry rates for their skills, even though they tend to work very long hours. One recent advert offered just £20,000 to £25,000 for Java 2 Micro Edition and Wap skills. Some offer royalties, but this is a very uncertain market.
If you want to get into games programming, www.gamedev.net/ and www.game-developer.com/ have resources for beginners.
Amazon's best-selling "how to" book is called Tricks of the Windows Game Programming Gurus, by Andre La Mothe.
This was first published in March 2002