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Shatter solved The Breakout Problem. Please don't keep making the same mistake.
by Ron Dippold on 03/26/12 07:58:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


The Breakout Problem

I'm a sucker for Breakout games - I've played every one I could find since the original. My favorites are probably BreakQuest because it makes unusual use of a physics engine and Shatter because it solves the fundamental problem with Breakout games:

The real agent is the ball. You (the paddle) are just an indirect agent whose involvement is relatively infrequent.

For the most part this dooms you to boring and frustrating periods of waiting around for the ball to hit the few remaining bricks that are often tucked back in hard to reach areas. 20 seconds of watching the ball bounce around and an instant of trying to get it to go the right way. It's like watching your dumb friend trying to solve a problem that you know the answer to, but you just don't have enough control over him to get him to listen.

Arkanoid was one of the first major improvements on this by adding powerups to the mix, and occasionally giving you brief exhilarating periods of agency where you (the paddle) can just zap things with lasers from powerups. Every Breakout game since has embraced this. But it still doesn't solve the problem, it just makes it less onerous.



Shatter solves this by always allowing you, as the paddle, to 'push' the ball away from you with one button and 'pull' the ball towards you with another button. It has a limited range- the further away the ball is the less of an effect there is, like any good inverse square law. And it's a limited resource - you can't do it infinitely. But it regenerates fairly fast.  The end result is that you are not the ball, but you can influence it most of the time if you want to. The ball is obviously going to go over the last brick? Just pull it. Even if it still misses, at least you were directly involved.

I don't recall a single moment of Shatter where a brick wasn't being hit that wasn't actually my fault. Nor do I feel that the game was too easy or cheapened - only the cruft was eliminated, and the game was able to be busier and more frantic because of it.



I'm playing Wizorb at the moment. I picked it up because 'Breakout RPG' and 'Paul Robertson Sprites' are enough to make me instantly open my wallet. But it's got the Breakout Problem in spades because, though it is very generous with health and extra lives, it goes out of its way to make mazes of unbreakable bricks your ball needs to navigate in order to get those last breakable bits or wandering monsters.

It seems to realize the problem, because there are spells you can cast (it's an RPG!) that will let you pull the ball in the direction of the paddle (left or right), or even teleport directly after you lose a ball. But the magic points don't regenerate, and they drop at far too low a rate on most levels. You need to hoard them or you end up blowing through them, which either way leads to long boring periods of watching the ball bounce around.

Combined with having to beat all 12 boards in a level (or you have to play them all over again) this has lead to long periods of play where I'm not having fun, just playing to get to the next checkpoint. The worst is where you get so numb that you let the ball slip by, losing a life - at that point I feel like crap, but I also don't feel that it's completely my fault, which is about the worst possible combination you can have in a game.

May I suggest that the single best thing you can do to improve your game is just let the MP regenerate if not used. It may let people beat the game faster, but I think they'll have a much better memory of it.

Problem Solved

In general, this problem is solved. Breakout games do not need to have long periods of downtime. More powerups do not fix this, only mitigate it (I'm looking at you, Reaxxion). The solution is simply to let the player have some influence on the ball at all points in flight, even if it's indirect and time limited. Far from cheapening things, this allows you to make even more challenging and exciting levels. The genre will thank you. I thank you.

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Eric Schwarz
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Breakout is just such an established style of game already that I think many people are afraid to mess with the basic formula. You can make additions, and subtractions, and add secondary mechanics, but to change the fundamental nature of the game is tough to do. The same goes for something like Tetris - the game is so cemented that we rarely see Tetris titles featuring new block shapes, or changes to pacing or rules. There might be additional items and mechanics, but the game is considered so "perfect" that it's almost as if we don't really understand why it works anymore.

Ron Dippold
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That's a good catch - it's so fundamental it feels like heresy to give the player control of the ball once it's left the paddle.

Titi Naburu
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I've done amn Arkanoid / Arcade Volleyball mashup called PingVol ( The screen is fairly small, so there's little dead time. It has powerups and a tricky one-button control system.

Ron Dippold
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I will give this a try tomorrow, thank you!

Pallav Nawani
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This is a 'problem' only when the paddle controls are not well designed, and the bricks are too small in size. My own game Riotball, and the best selling Ricochet series of games do not have this issue, despite being older, conventional designs.

Ron Dippold
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I enjoyed Ricochet - I will give Riotball a try tomorrow. I'd agree that giving you enough control that you actually stand a chance of hitting the bricks if you're not just flailing around goes a long ways to mitigating it.

Craig Timpany
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You really nailed our design process with this article. At the start of prototyping Shatter we drew up a wiki page with a list of reasons why Breakout sucks. (I could've called it something more diplomatic, but that made for a good headline)

The very first item on the list was that the game becomes increasingly non-interactive towards the climax of a level. That led us directly toward considering ways to change the ball's trajectory in flight. Antony Blackett made the prototype that went on to become the final game.

I don't think that in-flight controls are the only solution though. There's an obscure amiga game called Poing, which fixes it by ensuring that the brick density in the level never falls too low. Every brick belongs to a colour group, and when all the bricks of a colour group have been destroyed, you get a bonus and they respawn. You never clear the level - the objective is to hit the rear wall of the level a set number of times.

Ted Brown
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I'm trying a similar technique, where the "ball" is the hero and you are trying to get them to a "door" at the other end of the level. The player is rewarded in the meta-game for breaking blocks, so hopefully they feel agency in deciding whether to simply move on, or clear out the level and scoop rewards. This is attached to a narrative framework, and... well, we'll see how it goes. =)

Ted Brown
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Beautifully serendipitous... I just started a Breakout-style mobile game (low-hanging fruit for a "first game app"), but I'm trying to leverage my design experience to make it a "modern" game instead of a throwaway retrofit. Thank you for the analysis. Definitely more helpful than the 25+ clones I recently downloaded off the app store. =)

Roberto Dillon
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Good points but I think whether a lack of agency is a "problem" or not depends mostly on the target audience: many people actually like to trigger an event, or indirectly control it by simple means, and then watch the results unfolding. Think of Angry Birds for example: it's the birds we shoot that do the action, like the ball we bounce in breakout...