Giving Birth to Games

SAN FRANCISCO (05/30/2000) - The subject of s-e-x was never d-i-s-c-u-s-s-e-d by my family. Consequently, I, like many of my elementary-school colleagues, relied on the playground network to glean the facts of life. I examined and rejected many theories in my pursuit of the truth: I was fairly certain my suburban community was well out of the range of the white stork, and I knew for a fact there wasn't a cabbage patch within 50 miles of town.

The most improbable hypothesis came from Vince, a new kid who described a process so bizarre, so disgusting, that my classmates and I banished him from the four-square court for the better part of a week. It wasn't until George, a boy we'd known since kindergarten, smuggled in a book titled Sex and You that Vince's incredible tale was confirmed.

That search for the origins of life-or at least the origins of Petey Johnson's colicky little brother-changed my life. From this simple quest I developed a yearning to learn how things are made.

Because that yearning is so strong, it shouldn't surprise you that I've spent the last few weeks questioning several big guns in the Mac gaming business about how games are conceived and brought to market. Although the answers aren't as shocking as those from my elementary-school days, many are just as unexpected.

Conception and Birth

If you have an iMac or iBook, you have not only a cool computer but one that contains the work of Brian Greenstone, creator of the delightful 3-D games Nanosaur and Bugdom-games that are bundled with the iMac and iBook. Brian's company, Pangea Software, is one of the few outfits creating commercial games for the Macintosh only. I couldn't think of a better person to ask about the genesis of a Mac game.

The first startling revelation was that, at least in Brian's case, games don't begin with a concept or plot-that this game will be about a bug that dashes through various levels avoiding enemy insects and freeing the fair ladybugs-but with the tools used to create the game. I'd always assumed that writing a game would be like writing a screenplay-come up with a story, map out scenes, write it up, and lose your profits to a collection of Hollywood sleazebags.

Apparently not.

"I typically get the inspiration for the game from the code itself," Brian explained. "I usually just start writing an engine and come up with interesting effects. Then the game ideas form from what I see the engine and effects can do."

OK, fine, the concept comes from the engine. Now that you have the concept, it's just a matter of refining it, right? Wrong again. According to Brian, a game's story line is a very fluid thing.

"Mighty Mike [sold as Power Pete by MacPlay] was originally a penguin game, Nanosaur was a descent-into-hell-with-various-weapons game, and Bugdom was originally a pinball game," he said.

I was also mistaken when I imagined that game designers spend most of their time sitting around spinning "Wouldn't this be cool!" scenarios.

Brian corrected me: "Since everything now is 3-D, the biggest obstacle is performance. This is really sad, actually. When I was doing 2-D Nintendo games a few years back, the biggest obstacle was making a game fun, but these days there's little time for that-dealing with the technology seems to gobble up all the time."

Brian and other game designers want their products to be entertaining, of course, but he's right. Computer gamers expect their diversions to be eye-catching and to play smoothly. It's no longer enough that a game be just fun to play.

Adoption

Because Pangea self-publishes and produces only Mac games, its products go from lab to duplication with few intervening steps. Most of today's Mac games, however, are ported from the PC. How did they get here, and what factors do Mac publishers consider when bringing a game from the Dark Side to the Light? To find out, I turned to MacSoft Senior Product Manager Al Schilling.

When I asked Al what factors are involved when considering a game, I was certain he'd say that MacSoft looks at PC sales and acquires the most popular PC game of the day. But it's a little more complicated than that.

"Three years ago I would have said the number one criteria in evaluating a potential port was unit sales on the PC," said Al. "Unit sales on the PC are really important, but we're making an effort to consider where the Mac market is going rather than just target the market as it stands today. The entertainment market is a constantly changing thing. Just think, by this time next year my kids may not want to play with Pokemon anymore. I wish!"

I understand that the Mac market is small potatoes to a lot of PC game publishers. I wondered how much bowing and scraping a company like MacSoft had to do to procure a game.

Al's response: "In the not-too-distant past we were begging at their doorsteps.

We're in a somewhat more enviable position now. Almost half the time, the original developer or publisher contacts us. There is a growing awareness that there is some money to be made by selling a game on the Mac platform."

Gestation

Once the ink is dry on a contract to bring a PC game to the Mac, that game must be turned into something playable. Some of the best people in the business do just that at Westlake Interactive, Mark and Suellen Adams's legendary porting house.

Westlake begins a port by obtaining the original game's code. Because I view PCs and their software as something wholly alien, I was sure that the folks at Westlake spent the first month of a port peppering a game's original development team with queries. Not so. Mark explained that although he finds talking with the game's original developers helpful ("to make sure we have the latest source code and get answers to a few technical questions"), he tries to avoid burdening them with questions.

As for adding elements that make a game more Mac-like, Mark noted, "We love to add as many Mac-specific extras to a game as possible. The biggest constraint is time. Our first concern is to make sure the game plays as well as the PC [version], and then we try to improve any things we can."

And if that time exists, does Westlake add hidden treats?

"We often have great ideas for things to add but can't get permission from the PC publishers or from Apple Computer Inc.," Mark said.

So how about an example of a cool addition that never came to pass?

"We had an idea to do an incredible Easter egg for Madden 2000-actually show the '1984' commercial during halftime if you played a game with the two Super Bowl teams from 1984. But we were never able to get all the permissions from the people involved to do it."

Checkup

Before a game goes out the door, it must be tested. I've seen enough browser releases and newsgroup postings calling for beta testers to know that many products are tested by the public at large. I discovered, however, that this practice is starting to change for games.

Game companies that once relied on users to beta test their products are now relying on professional beta testing from companies such as Absolute Quality (AQ). Mike Jackson, Mac services coordinator for AQ, brought me up-to-speed on what his company does.

"We provide software developers with a wide variety of back-office support functions, like functionality testing and compatibility testing, translation and localization services, technical support, and user manual preparation and review," he said.

The number of testers AQ uses for a game varies. Mike explained that small, short-term projects may have a single tester, whereas a first-person shooter with multiplayer capabilities has had as many as 20 testers.

But I still didn't get it. Why, when any number of people would kill to beta test games for free, would a game company eat into its profits by paying for AQ's services? Apparently, free testing is worth exactly what you pay for it.

"Keep in mind that these 'free' testers don't have access to our scope of hardware and our network capability," Mike pointed out. "We've got dozens of machines, every type of modem, joystick, game pad, video card, etc. We can do cross-platform LAN testing; AirPort testing; and as a member of the Apple Developer Connection, we can offer testing using prerelease builds of the Mac OS."

Debut

There's one final stage-one where I can offer some personal insight. After a game is conceived, coded, acquired, ported, and tested, it's released to the public and to reviewers like me. My job is to play these games and get paid for it.

And going to bed each night with that knowledge, my friends, is a revelation far more satisfying than any secret whispered on the playground.

Contributing Editor CHRISTOPHER BREEN pens Macworld's Daily Tips and iTips-Mac tips e-mailed to you each business day. To subscribe, go to http://macworld.zdnet.com and click on the Subscribing link under Newsletters.

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