What is it?
Trespass at your peril. Here be dragons (not to mention dungeons, orcs, goblins and a host of other fantasy life-forms). According to the excellent GameDev.Net Web site, between 1,200 and 3,000 new games are released every year. Most of these are "first-person shooters" or "real-time strategy" games, genres which GameDev's Francois-Dominic Laramee recommends would-be games entrepreneurs "avoid like the plague", because demand is satisfied by the current market leaders.
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Where did it originate?
When man devised the wheel the skateboard was bound to follow. Similarly, the development of commercial computing opened up the possibility of games. However, it could equally be said that games drove the development of home microcomputers, which evolved into the business PC.
The two early strands were text-based role playing games (RPGs), and crude graphics-based games such as space invaders, which involved shooting down jerkily flying sugar cubes with very slow bullets.
Around university departments, where equipment was relatively powerful and networked, RPGs could involve multiple players in games that could go on for months. The breakthrough into the popular market came with first colour then 3D graphics.
What tools do you need?
"Unfortunately, there is no solution that is optimal for all applications," says GameDev contributor and Watauga, Texas, software magnate John Hattan. "C is suited for fast and small applications, but doesn't support OO programming well. C++ has very complete OO support, but is frighteningly complicated. Visual Basic and Delphi are easy to learn, but are non-portable and proprietary. Java has a lot of neat features, but is slow. Authoring tools (like Hypercard) can get your application working quickest, but are only useful for a narrow range of applications."
The key skill at the moment is DirectX, Microsoft's all-singing, all-dancing set of APIs and drivers, which is an integral part of Windows 98 and 2000 and Internet Explorer, It is also downloadable for those early versions of 95.
DirectX gives developers a single set of APIs for improved access to 3D graphics acceleration chips, sound cards, and so on.
What makes it special?
For a very few, games are a ticket to millions. For most they provide the chance to make a living doing what they enjoy for rather less money than they would get for their skills elsewhere.
How difficult is it?
"Beware of people who sneer at designers because they don't code or can't animate. Design is a very difficult job, and requires far more skill than most developers are willing to admit," says Laramee.
Where is it used?
From solitary practitioners with handhelds to Internet-wide groups.
Not to be confused with
Search engines cannot distinguish between games programming (computer development) and games programming (sports scheduling).
What does it run on?
Everything from alphanumeric green screens (for text-based RPGs) to the latest hybrid multimedia mobile phones and PDAs.
Few people know that
There are online Java versions of Space Invaders for those who want to relive those innocent days on the Commodore Pet.
What's coming up?
Interactive games on Digital TV, thereby completing a circle - early games consoles used the TV as a monitor.
You can build games with standard development and authoring tools. It is easy to assume that anybody can create games, but Francois-Dominic Laramee of GameDev warns against overestimating yourself. "If you want to become a game designer, work with a pro, and learn your trade," he says.
There is no shortage of books with titles like Tricks of the Windows Game, Programming Gurus, and Real Time Strategy Game Programming Using DirectX. The GameDev site has an exhaustive selection with hyperlinks to Amazon.com. This site also has a huge archive of technical and how-to-do-it papers, and there are also other games resource sites.
Rates of pay
Games developers tend to be lower paid than business developers. They are also more likely to be offered less in return for a cut of future profits, but, given the odds against success, this is usually not a good deal for the developer. Datascope has a huge listing of games developers jobs; the range of salaries for "programmers" goes from £12,000 to over £40,000.