Taking a Risk

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Sometimes a programmer’s got to do what a programmer’s got to do

"Don’t quit your day job," was what people would say to part-time musicians and performers as a way of saying that they weren’t yet ready to make a living in the arts. Some may say the same thing to aspiring game makers in what can be a tough industry.

But they also say that you can’t get anywhere without taking chances.

Alexandru Marias (or Alex as he likes to be called) lives in Romania, where the standard of living is lower than in the countries typically associated with making computer games. The cost of computers in his country is disproportionately high, so getting the right equipment can be the hardest step.

In spite of all of this, Alex decided that they only way he could make the games he wanted was to quit his regular employment and rent a computer for two months, working on nothing but programming for all that time.

Now that the two months are up, what will happen? Will we see a game that could possibly grab the attention of a publisher? What will Alex do if it doesn’t?

GiN talked to Alex in Europe, and found out how he got into programming, the troubles he’s had, and what it would take for him to break into the market.

GiN: You really have an interesting story, trying to break into the computer game industry. When did you decide that you wanted to program computer games?

Marias: Since the first year of high school I had a passion for programming, and every chance I had to work with a computer I had so much fun trying to make all kinds of programs. It was a rainy day the first time I worked with a PC and I remember now like it was a few days ago, the special feeling (something between curiosity and wonder) I had when I saw that computer listen to me and it do exactly what my instructions told it to do.

The very first game I’ve played was kind of another world for me. I felt so much curiosity to find out how it was made, what strange instructions might make that character do what it was doing.

It was super! I think then I decided deep down in my heart that I wanted to do make games. But I realized it only later, in the third year of high school.

GiN: You have some samples of your work on your Web page. Can you describe these games?

Marias: Well, "Acvila" is my first game. It is for DOS, and is written in Pascal. It’s a simple shooter with an airplane. I made it because one day at the computer laboratory when I went in I saw all the students and my teacher around a computer, playing a very simple game made by a student from another high school. They were all very excited about it, and they looked to the game like it was made by God (well, that was how I felt then [grins]), even if the play of the game was clipping, and the graphics were very childish. I told them, "I think I can do something better," and the teacher laughed at me. That was the moment I’ve decided to write Acvila.

Tarzan, the second game, is unfinished and is made in Pascal too.

Two years latter, I made Alien, when I learned the very first things about Windows and DirectX programming.

And Green Face is my first commercial game.

GiN: You were at the University of Craiova for two years in your native Romania but had to quit. Can you tell us a bit about your struggles to learn computer programming at school?

Marias: Well I haven’t learned computer programming at school (Well, maybe just a very little bit). Most of the computer programming I know is learned from books, the Internet and by working on my computer and reading help files. In high school I spent most of my free time on my computer, trying to see how can I program it do different things. After that, my computer had become too slow for the newer programs, and I started to take care of other aspects of my life (sports, girls etc).

At the University the only things I could do were to read all kind of stuff about programming, because the computers at the University were to slow for experimenting. Not too slow, as I still had experiments to do. Because one of my friends and I wanted to find out what generation they belonged to, I thought they were 286, and Marco thought they were 386. He was right…

You know what we they teach here in Romania at 99 percent of the Universities in programming courses? "Programming in Turbo Pascal" – (Turbo?! for DOS?! Can you imagine that?), "Programming in C++ for DOS", "DOS computer operating system", and such. I’m not kidding! You can check! They teach nothing about programming under Windows, or Linux, or other operating systems.

GiN: What have you done to try to get computer hardware to make a game? Can you describe some of your offers to companies with computers and what they have said to you?

Marias: Well, I’ve sold my old computer for about $150 (U.S. Dollars), and using another $100 I’ve rented a powerful computer (A PII Celeron 333,64Mb RAM, 10Gb HDD) for two months.

I went to "L-top", "Intersystems", and "ComputerCenter", and asked them to let me work on a computer for 12 hours a day. I’ve told them that I was going to make a game, and they could sell it, and have 70 percent of the profit. But they told me:

"A game takes a few programmers, more that one graphic designer, many, many months of work, and much talent. Evan if you have (we don’t think so, but let’s assume) what it takes to be a programmer, you cannot do a game without help."

"But I don’t want to make a big, complex game," I told them. "I just want to make a small game, for kids, something fun and easy. And I have friends who are talented at drawing. Just give us a chance."

"You don’t understand," they would reply. "We don’t have time for experiments, or to invest time and computers {they said ‘computers’, but we were talking about only one computer} in something like this. Better learn some Oracle and Fox Pro because you can get a well-paying job as an accounting programmer.

I think they just didn’t have faith in my ability.

GiN: Does Romanian society look favorably on computer game makers or do they not really know what you are trying to do?

Marias: No. They have the wrong idea that only the West has the money and the talented people to make games. They think all the people who can do games leave Romania for better paying jobs, so here is no one capable of making games.

GiN: Do you have any friends who are perusing the same dream?

Marias: I have a few friends who are very good at programming, but they don’t want to make games. Some of them are not learning constructive things anymore, but instead learn how to hack into different systems, or how do viruses and stuff. I had a period like this in my life too, I’ve learned how to do viruses and anti-viruses and other stuff, but I’d had enough of that.

GiN: Is it frustrating to have talent that you can’t use because you can’t get access to a computer?

Marias: Well, you can guess that it is, because even my mother doesn’t want to borrow money from a bank for me, because she would have to guarantee it with our house, and she doesn’t want to do that.

GiN: How difficult is it to purchase a computer in Romania? Is it really expensive?

Marias: It is not expensive, I think the prices are like in US, but the jobs don’t pay a lot.

A good computer cost about $1,000, while a good job is like $1,800 per year, and a medium job is $1,000 per year.

GiN: Now that the computer you rented has had to be returned, what do you plan to do?

Marias: Well, I will start taking care of my other hobbies for a time (I do bodybuilding, and for the last two months I haven’t lifted one weight, my girlfriend left me because I didn’t have time to go out with her – so I must search for an other one), and I will relax while I’ll be waiting to see what my game does. If it will do nothing, I will get another job, and get money for the next project.

GiN: Has perusing your dream been worth all the effort you have put into it so far? Has it been worth the trouble?

Marias: I think so, and I hope so. In a few days now the game will be ready and I will send it to a game publisher. Thank God that at least you and GiN found me!

GiN: Why do you love computer games so much?

Marias: I don’t love playing computer games, but I do love making them. I don’t like to play very many games, but I love when I see how I can build a whole world inside a game, then other people can explore it, have fun with it, and play it.

I love the sensation I get when my brother try to resolve the levels I make. I like to watch how hard or easy he can find the hidden elements, or how much he is impressed by it. If I see that he likes the game, I feel like I want to fly.

GiN: What would make your dream come true?

Marias: Well, to start with, some money. I must buy the hardware, and I must have money to live of off for a time. After that I need time [winks], because at first I will make some nice fun small games, then in time I will gain experience and make games more and more complex, and maybe someday I will make some very good games.

If I had to count how much money I would need, I think $1,500 for a PC, with a scanner, plus $500 to live on for the next six months. I hope and I pray to God that I get this money by selling GreenFace.

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