The Air-Speed Velocity of Unladen Gaming
When games are unexpectedly good
By Brad Wardell
For this column, I am going to have to plug what were doing
but only as a mechanism of self-punishment.
How many times in the game industry have we seen it where a really
cool game comes from an unlikely source? With the benefit of hindsight,
Ive regularly said Oh, of course thats going to
be popular. But it turns out that one can be surprised even
when its right in front of his nose. You see, Im in
a lot of trouble. Big trouble. Not the organs-being-removed-while-strapped-to-a-table
kind of trouble, but still big trouble.
Let me explain. Our company, Stardock makes operating system (OS)
extension software, also known as desktop extensions. We also make
games. But realistically, 90% of our revenue comes from the OS extensions
and 10% from the games. Its not that the games dont
make any money, its just that OS extensions make a lot more
and at a far lower cost.
Consider the costs of some of these games. One recently released
mega game took 3 years and $6 million to develop. Itll be
a big hit I predict because it is a great game with massive distribution.
But its not like its going to turn around and make $100
million. And itll make most of its revenue in the next 180
days. Since there will be a console version of that game, itll
probably make quite a bit of money (more than $6 million). But the
my goodness, the risk! In contrast, an OS extension can
typically be done by a team of less than 6 people in about a year
or 18 months tops. It can be sold to just about anybody and it can
sell in high volumes.
So when it comes to assigning developer resources, we tend to give
the majority of our attention to the things that pay the rent. It
also provides me with the luxury of talking about games; since its
not the only thing we make, I can be frank in my discussions about
the industry without worrying about offending retailers, the media,
or anyone else.
When we bring on new people to work on coding, rather than hiring
people with years of experience, we usually hire people very young
and then train them. Wed rather find that diamond in the rough.
The first project that theyre usually assigned is something
fairly trivial. We used to have them do a Pong type game just to
get used to dealing with the whole checking in/out code, working
on a team, debugging, etc. But for whatever reason, when brought
on a new group of interns last summer, we gave them a throwaway
project. It was a side-scroller, a la Super Mario Brothers.
The idea was to let them learn on this game. Then, once they mastered
our various technologies, we would put them on a 'real' project.
We even let them come up with their own story, title, etc. for the
game. They came up with the title "LightWeight Ninja".
And they came up with a plot that I thought was pretty weird
a genetically enhanced assassin who ends up going against his masters.
If the game was a 'real' project, that plot might have been killed
(there was no Dark Angel TV show yet). But hey, it wasnt going
to be a real game, so they could knock themselves out.
The game library they were to work with is the same one used for
The Corporate Machine and the same one were using on Galactic
Civilizations. Both are strategy games. LightWeight Ninja, on the
other hand, could be described as a modern version of Commander
I need to talk about the game library for a second so that were
on the same page. We have a team that creates a game library called
Pear. Pear is designed to handle the low level sprites, GUI widgets,
tile mapping, sound, music, and all the other stuff that games need.
Pear is an incredible technology. None of our games thus far have
really shown off what it can do.
But the interns, working on their practice game, ended up putting
together quite a neat game with Pear. For instance, have you ever
played a side-scroller on a PC? They just never seem quite as fun
as they do on a console because you can see all those pixels. On
a TV screen, the blurry picture acts as a natural anti-pixel mechanism.
But the kids solved this by using Pears alpha blending features.
In effect, even though the game is a 2D-cartoon style game, it effectively
has full screen anti-aliasing. But since its on a per object
basis, theres no performance hit; you can run the game on
a low end machine just fine with 30fps. So what you end up with
is a fluid cartoon looking game without the pixels.