The profession's only real mavericks

GAME DESIGNERS

April 15, 1991|By Rory J. O'Connor | Rory J. O'Connor,Knight-Ridder News Service

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Programmers are often thought of as the mavericks of the computer business, and in many respects that's true.

But during the past 10 years, as personal computers have moved from hobbyist oddities to household appliances, the business of programming has changed. Development is more corporate, organized, driven by business plans and marketing white papers instead of the creative spark of a maverick's imagination.

Except for computer games, that is.

Software is usually written in modules by teams of programmers at companies with millions of dollars in annual revenues. But computer games are still for the most part written by people who remain independent -- and even a little eccentric.

The next time you enjoy the bizarre little twists or weird humor in a computer game, you can thank the fact that most game designers can't abide the thought of driving to the office every day.

But why would a programmer talented enough to write games, the kinds of programs that often test the limits of the technology, give up the stock options, paid vacations and other benefits of working for Microsoft or Lotus?

"The simple reason," said Nicky Robinson, game designer, "is the 20-foot commute. And you can work in your underwear."

There's a big price for freedom: Most game designers earn far less than their corporate cousins who write programs such as spreadsheets or for word processors. The only way out is to dream up a real hit that brings in the royalties, the game version of the best-selling novel.

"It's a crap shoot. If you look at the time you put in, then you can be making $2.25 an hour," Ms. Robinson said. "Other times, you're rolling in the money."

That's the way it has always been, and the designers are willing to keep it that way. But the lifestyle of the maverick may be on the wane.

The first wave of game designers is, like other baby boomers, becoming a bit more settled. This year at the annual Computer Game Developers Conference in San Jose, all-day child care was offered, with about a half-dozen youngsters enrolled.

Next year, the organizers expect double that number of children -- there were a lot of pregnant designers at this year's conference.

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