Homegrown software stops here; professional programming starts. It’s not easy to make that quantum leap, however great your games are, because the business is a jungle — but, as programmer DAVID LESTER explains, all you need is luck, a head on your shoulders and a good pair of shoes (for trudging the streets).
Leaf through the computer press, and you’ll find a different kind of ad, not promoting a game or a discount shop but looking for games, or other programs, or programmers. The software houses do want to see your games if they’re any good — but today’s market is very sophisticated, so it’s important to prepare very carefully before you send in your work.
The place to begin is the program itself. Before contemplating publishing it, you need to be sure that it’s the right sort of thing. It needn’t necessarily be in machine code — for some applications, other languages are sufficient. But for most programs speed is important, so you should either use machine code or a compiled language which can be translated easily into machine code. For arcade games, in particular, it’s unlikely that you’ll achieve the needed speed and quality of graphics without machine code.
But this should not put you off if you can’t program in assembler or a compilable language. There are several very good programs on sale which will do the programming bits of designing a game for you — mainly for adventures. Such utilities began with Melbourne House’s H.U.R.G. in the distant past of 1984, but now there’s also Gilsoft’s PAW (The Professional Adventure Writer).
When you’ve written your game, you should then try to view it in a different way: as if you were buying it, not selling it. If you can, ask a friend to give his/her opinion about it — not just saying how good it is, but how it could be improved. It should be fairly easy to start, so that people can enjoy it from day one — but very difficult to beat, and ideally getting harder as the player gets further into it.
There are lots of professional touches which can turn a good amateur game into an excellent commercial-standard one. Go through all the screen displays, and tidy them up till they look right — easy to read, pleasant to look at, showing the right information in a graphically-exciting way. It’s surprising just what a difference simple things can make: redefining the character set, for instance, or putting in skill levels so that beginners can enjoy it as much as hardened addicts.
Sound effects are important, too.
First impressions are crucial — if the first few screens are bad, then you’re unlikely to find a firm to take it. A well-designed loading screen can help, but more important than this is the title screen. This should be interesting, moving in parts if at all possible. Credits can be fun, or you can use several screens.
‘We’re looking for three basic characteristics,’ says Ocean Software Manager Gary Bracey: ‘originality, graphics (though these can be slightly altered if necessary) and most of all playability, which every game must have.’
Look at games already on the market for other ideas — but preferably adapt others, not simply copying them which might breach their copyright.
Copyright is important — it’s protecting your rights. You might have written the next Elite, but if a software house you send it to claims it’s written by them, not you, how can you prove it?
If you can, protect the game from people breaking into it; then, in the code, include several copyright signs, with your name and the date you put them in. You should also display this clearly on the screen — either the title screen, or even the normal game screen displays.
Then, to prove that the game really has been written by you, post a copy of it (always make several copies of the latest version of the program) in a well-sealed envelope to yourself by recorded delivery. When it arrives back at your home, don’t open the envelope; the game is sealed within, which gives you proof of the date on which you completed it. Legally, your copyright in a game exists as soon as it is written — it’s proving that date which Is difficult.
Instead of posting it you could leave it with your bank in a safe deposit box but the banks charge for this, and you need to have a bank account, too. Or you could consider the National Software Register (see the article with this feature).
So that the software houses know what your game is about, you should write quite detailed instructions, perhaps with some hints on how to get deep into the game quickly. Also, record a copy of the game onto a new, clean cassette, The more professional the program looks, the easier it will be to see its commercial potential.
Now you should be ready to send the next Number One to possible publishers. Try to spot similar programs to yours already on the market; if they are very similar, select competitors of the firm which publishes them — no software house will market two games the same. But if a particular house just publishes games in a similar style (like arcade, strategy, war, or adventure games) then it’s worth approaching. Says Firebird’s Colin Fuige: ‘When designing a game compare it with our present range — that should give you some idea of what we’re looking for.’
It’s sensible to send a game to several software houses at once — that way, if they like it, you have a better idea of what sort of offer you can expect, and sometimes you can play them off against each other to get the best deal.
Choosing an appropriate software house is especially important if your program is slightly specialised — a utility or strategy game, for example. Firms such as PSS and CCS specialise in wargames, while Tasman might be worth approaching if you’ve written a companion program for a word processor.
But while software labels are becoming more markedly specialised, many of the big names are owned by the same few firms — so if you submitted your new game to Argus, for the sake of argument, it might be marketed as a Quicksilva title or on any of five or six other labels.
You might consider writing to budget software companies. Mastertronic, for example, would probably sell so many copies of your game that you would make just as much cash as if it were marketed by a slightly smaller, full-price software house — though advance payments tend to be smaller from budget companies.
And some firms (for example, Tynesoft) are even buying programmers’ work specifically for compilations of new games.
With the increasing sophistication of the games world, you might fear that any game you produce at home can’t be as good as something produced by teams of programmers working full-time for the larger firms. Well, the problem is surmountable. If a software house likes your idea it can provide help to improve the details of the game; lots of firms now have special music and graphics programmers. (Indeed, some houses — such as Code Masters — have been advertising for such specialists recently, and there’ll be a feature on their work in the next CRASH.)
Even if you feel your game isn’t quite up to today’s (mostly) high standards, you can still sell just the design and leave the software house to do the coding and create the game. Copyright is a particular problem here, because though particular chunks of code, text and so on can be copyrighted it’s difficult to protect the general concept of a game.
A contract is crucial for any agreement, no matter how well you get on with the software house — it’s amazing how friendly some crooks can be when they want to exploit your work.
Programmers agree that a contract is essential, whether it’s the formal 30 pages that Mirrorsoft offers or a two-page job from The Edge. But occasionally a software house will try to get you to sign an exclusive contract, so that when you sign your name on the proverbial dotted line and agree to assign it the marketing rights to Jet Set Willy 17, or whatever, the contract also legally obliges you to offer the same firm first refusal on all programs you write for the duration of the contract.
This should be avoided at all costs. If you do want to write more than one game for the same firm (which many programmers do when they get on well) you’re free to do so, but if you’ve signed an exclusive contract and things go wrong you might have legal problems trying to write new stuff for other firms.
Try to retain the actual copyright to the program and sell just the marketing rights to each particular computer version; that way you control conversions and will get paid for them. (Usually the original programmer gets only royalties from conversions; whoever writes the conversion program gets a lump sum.)
One problem with retaining the copyright is that you’d have to pay your own legal expenses if you wanted to take someone to court for breach of copyright. But a friendly software house would probably help — after all, it’s in the publisher’s interest too to prevent rip-offs.
Try to include a clause which automatically returns all rights assigned under the contract to you in the event of the software house going bankrupt, ceasing to trade, or being taken over by new bosses with different ideas. History has shown that even the most seemingly stable of software houses can go bust at very short notice.
Check what is said about foreign sales — these often yield slightly less royalties than UK sales, but some software houses do more business abroad than in the UK. Also check to see whether the contract makes any contingency plans for your title being sold to a compilation, which is another growing trend.
It’s sensible to include a time limit within which the firm must have launched your title. (On one occasion, I agreed to license the rights to a game in May, and it still wasn’t launched that October; in the November, the software house went bust!)
It’s usual, too, to set a limit on how long the software house has rights to the game. Contracts usually run for two years, but limiting it to one year means you can negotiate with budget firms or compilations for the rights after the game’s sales at full price have died down (most arcade games reach their sales peak within a few weeks).
And now the big bone of contention — how should you be paid, and how much? Most people prefer money now rather than the promise of it in the future; but you have to weigh up several factors. How much money will royalties give you (no-one can really answer that accurately), and over how long? How much interest can you earn on the lump sum being offered, and does it amount to the difference between likely royalty earnings and the lump sum? How much are you prepared to give up for the certainty of getting something?
There are no pat answers. Programmer Christian Urquhart (Daley Thompson’s Decathlon) reckons you might get about £5,000 as an advance and as much as 20 per cent royalties on all sales, on a typical contract, but then what’s a ‘typical’ contract? Other estimates place the royalty figure closer to 10 or 15 per cent.
Ideally, you’ll be offered a nonreturnable advance on royalties. which gives you the best of all worlds: money now, yours to spend or earn interest on, and potentially high earnings if sales go well.
What royalty rate should you accept? Budget houses will inevitably offer you less money per copy sold than full-price houses will, but a budget game can sell ten or more times as many copies as a full-price. Try to get some estimate on sales figures from the software houses you talk to, and calculate likely royalties.
Differences in advertising, distribution, the label’s reputation, packaging, and how much fine-tuning your game will get — all can affect sales.
Be careful to note whether the royalty rate you are offered refers to the retail price (ie what the public pays for the game in the shops) or the wholesale price (ie what the shops pay the software house and distributors for it), and whether these figures include VAT or not. Your payment will be calculated from the ‘basic’ price, which doesn’t include VAT.
If you hear dodgy things about a firm, leave it well alone; most industry gossip has some foundation, and even if a firm is simply unpopular that can mean lower sales or bad reviews in some magazines. Probably most sharks have been found now, but some may still be lurking around — so talk to other programmers with the software house before you sign a contract and see if they’re well-treated. ‘Most programmers are taken for a ride from the start,’ says Jon Ritman (Head Over Heels), burnt by an early experience: he got only £150 out of his first published game, the successful Namtir Raiders.
Finally: don’t give up too easily. Just because you’re new doesn’t mean you won’t succeed, even though some software houses receive as many as 100 games a week from hopefuls; unlike (say) the pop industry, explains programmer Pete Cooke (Micronaut One), ‘it’s not about an image’ — software houses are just looking for good games. And if you honestly believe yours is good enough to sell keep hawking it around till someone agrees with you!
There’s no law in Britain specifically governing copyright on computer programs, though other software centres like America and Japan have such legislation. To protect games — or other software — here it’s essential to have proof that you wrote it, and of when you wrote it.
That’s what the National Software Register provides: it’s an impartial, though profit-making, organisation which programmers can use. You simply send in a tape or disk with your work on and for a fee the NSR will store it — for as long as you live and 50 years thereafter. (When an author’s been dead for 50 years his work passes into the public domain — no-one can hold the copyright).
The NSR’s Gerald Coleman sees a growing legal problem in software copyright. ‘After all,’ he says, ‘there will come a time when the output of computer programs exceeds that of the published word.’