"PROGRAMMING FOR DOLLARS"
by Dale Archibald
(Appeared in the December 1982 issue of "Video Games" Magazine)
There's games in them thar brains. Now take that brilliant idea,
write it up on a computer and send it in to a software firm or APX.
What's APX? Better read on.
Once upon a time, young Greg Christensen built electronic gizmos like
amplifiers and sound generators from scratch. Ready to take on
another challenge, he bought an Atari 800 computer with his savings.
After Greg taught himself the basics of programming, he decided to
have a go at designing a computer game.
Six weeks later, the high school senior had developed Caverns of
Mars--a game in which the layer flies a spaceship down through the
twists and turns of a cavern while battling enemy craft and blowing
up fuel dumps. Why not, he thought, send the program to Atari
Program Exchange (APX) in Sunnyvale, Calif. and see what happens?
Two months later, Greg received a call from an Atari executive who
raved about Caverns of Mars. Not only did APX accept it, the company
wanted permission to market the game as one of its upcoming products.
In the all of 1981, Caverns won an APX contest. The prize: $3,000.
Now an 18-year-old college freshman, Greg received his first
quarterly royalty check this summer--for $18,000! Atari has told him
he might eventually earn as much as $100,000 in royalties from
Caverns of Mars.
Greg Christensen is not alone. The video game boom has spawned its
own breed of Horatio Algers. Though selling a game is a long shot,
the combination of an inspired idea, the right technical know-how and
a few helpful contacts is sometimes all it takes to strike it rich in
computerland. And, contrary to popular belief, you don't need a
degree in computer science or decades of experience in the field in
order to make your break. In fact, says David Lubar, a 27-year-old
game designer who writes Atari VCS-compatible programs for Sirius
Software, "There are very few programmers I can go out and drink
with." Most of his associates happen to be under 21.
Okay, so you have an idea for a game. How do you get started on your
road to fame and fortune?
The consensus among industry veterans is that cooperation--unlike
Christensen's solo effort--is the key. Just as there are thousands
of "idea people" who haven't the faintest knowledge about
programming, many a programmer wouldn't recognize an imaginative game
if it struck him like an asteroid. Explains Lubar: "It's just like
you have people who can write great lyrics, but can't write a melody.
I think partnerships and teams are going to become more common in
Lubar is talking strictly from experience, when he says, "The day of
the game designer in a vacuum is over." Sitting in a lab crowded
with computer equipment at Sirius' Sacramento (Calif.) headquarters,
the 27-year-old philosophy major and former freelance writer lays out
his thoughts on ideas.
"An idea by itself, as opposed to a program, is not a good way to go.
Although a good idea can be valuable, ideas are cheap--really. An
idea in the form of a program--even if it needs work--is more
valuable to us than just a raw idea."
Since most companies won't even look at a game idea unless it is
presented in a computer language, Lubar suggests that "idea people"
join forces with technical experts. One of the best places to do
such "networking" is at computer clubs, he says.
If this doesn't work out, however, you might want to draw up a
series of sketches that show how the game will unfold. This
process--known as storyboarding--is a standard practice in film and
video and is becoming more popular among game designers. "First of
all, this shows a little more professionalism," Lubar advises, "and
second, gives a better visual representation. The visual aspect is
really the name of the game."
But wait a minute--how did David Lubar figure all of this out?
Wasn't he a writer/philosopher in another lifetime three short years
ago? The California programmer leans back in his chair and flashes
a broad smile. "After graduating from Rutgers (in New Jersey) I
began writing science fiction," he recounts. "One of the first
stories I sold was to "Creative Computing." At the time I had never
even read the magazine. Well, I went and bought a copy and soon
enough I was hooked on computers.
"Mostly because I was into games, I became totally enthralled with
the concept of owning an Apple. When I bought one, I really wasn't
thinking about programming. But then I discovered it was a lot of
Lubar became a fanatic. By studying books and magazines and
conducting his own experiments, he learned how to write graphics
programs and work on small graphics utilities. Then, in 1980, he was
hired by "Creative Computing," where he wrote prolifically until
Sirius contacted him last February.
"As it turned out, I wanted to devote full-time to programming and
write more as a hobby," explains Lubar, whose first game Worm War I,
distributed by Fox Video Games, should hit the stores early in the
fall. "The opportunity to work at Sirius on the VCS was exactly what
I was looking for."
We'd like the opportunity to look at well-written software you've
created for Atari home computers. We'll send you a quarterly payment
for programs accepted by APX...
--- Atari Program Exchange
Here's even more bad news for you "idea people." As noted above,
Atari welcomes game designers. But the company just won't touch an
idea. Warns APX general manager Fred Thorlin: "When someone sends
in an idea, as soon as we recognize that that's what it is, we don't
even read it. We'll send it over to legal and they may send back an
idea submission form (this essentially frees Atari from any liability
if a similar idea happens to already be under development in-house),
and it goes through a completely different mill.
"If you're not committed enough to the idea to implement it," he
adds, "then we're not interested in it."
But let's assume you ARE committed enough to your idea to develop it
for the Atari 400 or 800, and you have a program. Contact Atari and
ask for the APX Program Author's Handbook and the APX Submission
Manuals. The handbook includes suggestions on how to prepare your
program, what your program should be about, generally how it should
operate, how to document it, and some helpful hints on the coding
When the idea is submitted, the first thing APX staffers do is look
for the signature on the bottom of the submission form. If that's
not there, back it goes. Explains Thorlin: "The paperwork has got to
After testing, rejected programs are returned within 60 days from the
time they came in. Accepted programs are accorded significantly
better treatment. Some polish is added to the program, and a
description is written up to be included in the next catalog. ("This
game is sensational!" is but one quote of the superlatives that
describes Caverns of Mars.) APX pays a 10 percent quarterly royalty.
The deal is nonexclusive, meaning the designer can sell it
elsewhere--often for more money--even while it's being sold through
Another feature of APX is its quarterly software contest which carries
a $25,000 (cash) grand prize incentive at the end of the year. Every
three months, the top 12 programs accepted that quarter are reviewed
by some 100 Atari managers. These people evaluate them and decide
the first, second and third prize winners in several categories.
Winners in the consumer programs category (such as Christensen) can
earn up to $3,000 in Atari merchandise. Top prizes in the three
remaining categories--education, business applications and system
software--are worth up to $2,000 in merchandise. The total amount
of prizes in a year is approximately $100,000.
With the demand for creative game designers and programmers rising
steadily, the rewards can be substantial indeed. A century ago,
Horace Greely coined the phrase, "Go West, Young Man," as an adage
for opportunity. Today, the maxim should simply read, "Go Game
Typed by Keita Iida