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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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