At some point in 2003 or 4, my boss at Activision, where I worked at the time, made an offhand comment that the new catchphrase that the marketing guys were starting to use was “from the ground up”. I remember this principally because it turned out to be true. It’s hard to be around the industry today and not hear the phrase uttered about any big upcoming game. Every fancy new game has had its graphics, its “combat”, its whole engine built or re-built “from the ground up”.

It’s a phrase that means nothing. No large game starts from the actual ground up. Imagine, for example, Naughty Dog starting development on The Last of Us with a text editor open to a blank file. “include stdio.h;” a programmer begins to type.

No, it doesn’t work this way.

Let me make a car analogy. Even the nuttiest gearhead might take apart a car’s engine and put it back together and say he rebuilt the engine “from the ground up,” but that is not really, really technically true; all the parts were designed and machined by another party, and even the other party was acting on knowledge built by automakers over the last century, and so on.

As Carl Sagan is famous for saying, “in order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” So saying something was built “from the ground up” is difficult to quantify, and can mean many different things. Of course, that is probably what makes it so useful as a thing to say to the press about your new game.