Track and field games were rather popular during the eighties. The brutally simplistic joystick waggling of Activision’s Decathlon and the slightly more sophisticated button bashing of Konami’s Track & Field started it all in 1983. While the genre hasn’t exactly been thriving in the nineties and into the new millennium, Konami has continued to release games under their Track & Field brand and every Olympic year they have to face a few competitors.
Most game genres have evolved dramatically since the early eighties. Pole Position may still be a charming and fun game (and even good looking) but in terms of complexity and depth it cannot compare to the racing games of 2002. The implementation of real world (exaggerated or not) physics and mechanics should in part be credited for this. Track and field games, however, have not undergone the same path of evolution. Of course, 3D-visuals have entered the screens, but as the track & field events in most cases are executed along a straight track or runway (i.e. in one dimension), the 3D-visuals have been no igniting spark for game play innovations.
While racing games are often developed by people with a strong interest in motor sports and cars, I strongly doubt that the developers of track and field games have had either a strong interest in the sport of track & field or the biomechanics and technical execution of the events. But I have, and because of that we were able to add several game play innovations to the track and field genre in our game: Fila Decathlon.
Just a few years before the release of Decathlon and Track & Field, I had started training track and field as a young kid. Also a videogame fanatic, I was naturally spellbound by the sight of Konami’s arcade cabinet. The gameplay didn't’t disappoint. It successfully reproduced one fundamental attraction of real life track & field – the lure of trying to beat records whether that would be your personal best or the world record.
And then there was the congenial control method - the faster you waggle the joystick (or press the buttons), the faster you run. The game actually become a test of speed and endurance just like the real sport, but a test that even a couch potato, softened by years of videogaming, could be competitive at.
After having played several track and field games obsessively at home, I of course thought of things that could have been done better or differently. As a track and field athlete myself, I was more sensible to certain shortcomings than others were. Still, most people who had ever watched athletics on television felt that the ridiculous results they were able to achieve in many track and field games, like several seconds below the world record in 100m, took away from the experience. In the same way the very unconvincing animation and technical execution of some of the events were disturbing even if didn't’t necessarily affected the actual gameplay.
However, some gameplay related problems were apparent. In many events you will rather soon reach your maximum potential. Quite simply there are too few factors that influence the end result. The speed factor is of utmost importance. You will probably find that you are able to reach a certain maximum speed and that you are not really able to improve it by training. The running speed is the major factor also in the jump and throw events and as the other factors are few in number and rather low in resolution (limited number of outcomes) the longevity of the game suffers.
So in short, the learning curve is short and this makes for a game fun to pick up and play but too easy to master.
When I first started to think about making a track and field game, I had no real intention to change the rigid formula of how the single events were supposed to work established by previous games. My vision was mainly concerned with the game structure and the game visuals.
I wanted to re-use the decathlon structure of Decathlon as it naturally provides complexity and depth (even if you will often make a more or less perfect jump or throw, you will certainly not be able to do so ten events in a row).
I wanted several CPU controlled competitors to participate in the decathlon. The decathlon should not be only about gaining points; it should also have an element of real competition. Previous track & field games have often included a much praised multiplayer mode, while the single player experience has been seriously lacking due to very poorly implemented CPU controlled competitors. You never see the CPU controlled athlete jump or throw. They participate only in the running events, more or less like visual filling, and as result they remain completely anonymous to the player. In our game I wanted the single player experience to mimic, and in certain aspects even surpass, the multiplayer experience. It should not be possible to distinguish a CPU controlled athlete from a human controlled one. Of course, you should be able to watch the CPU controlled athletes jump and throw, and their action in all events should be the result of mimicking the input from a human player. All the CPU controlled athletes should have a unique profile, e.g. some are good at the javelin, some are good at the hurdles. Two individuals who are equally fast at the 110m hurdles may still be very different. One of them may be the better 100m runner (i.e. faster) but a poor hurdle technician.
I also wanted an interesting competition structure. The ultimate goal should be to win the World Championship. To qualify for the World Championship, however you must place among the first two in the National Championship. There is a set of athletes for each nation and as only the two first qualify for the World Championship, the competition is naturally much tougher at the World Championship compared to the National Championship.
And I wanted realistic result levels. An exceptional player should be able to score about level with the current decathlon world record of 9026 points. The single event world records in track and field would together result in a decathlon score of 12487 points so even an exceptional player should hardly be able to run 100m at the world record time of 9.78s and much less below 8.00s like in many other track & field games.
I wanted realistic animation and visuals that would reproduce the feel of real track and field. As the game should be sprite based, none of the 3D track and field games inspired me and, in addition their animation was not really realistic. A few previous sprite based games have had fluid and elegant animation if still not very realistic. Summer Games and Summer Games II by Epyx are two early examples from the mid-eighties. I decided to opt for a similar style but naturally my intention was to improve the animation considerably.
I wanted to keep the original button mashing control method of earlier track and field games. Some games have, in a misdirected attempt to evolve the genre, abandoned the classical brutal control method in favor for more sophisticated (in a superficial sense) methods. In my opinion the physical quality of the original control method involves the player to a much higher degree and is much closer to the spirit of the sport that it tries to simulate.