This 4-month spanning diary follows the trials and tribulations of my quest to turn my 35 year obsession with Atari into a competitive entry in the Atari Pong Indie Developer Contest. Please excuse the length, after 35 years, I had a lot to say.
April 2nd, 2012 : A Trip To Sierra Online Ground Zero
I've been planning my entry for Atari's Pong Development Challenge for past few weeks, the but I've hit a brick wall with a few elements. I still hope to have my working prototype done for submission on April 15th, even though the rules only require a design document. I have no illusions about winning, so the challenge is more for myself, to see if I can the game realized and finished on time. In a way, it feels like my passage from corporate developer to full time indie.
This week my family is visiting Yosemite National Park. When driving to Yosemite from the south in California, you can't help but drive through the Oakhurst, CA the old home of Sierra Online, one of the first computer game companies ever created. Nestled in the pine trees of the Sierra's, Oakhurst appears to be a place that once housed loggers and gold miners, not pioneering game developers. However, as chronicled in the book Hackers by Steven Levy, Ken and Roberta Williams moved their company there in the early 80's, and operated it for almost 2 decades.
When you drive through Oakhurst on Highway 41, you can't help feel a twinge of nostalgia for what was once a computer gaming boom town. Unique and top-selling games like the Kings Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry series' were produced here along with dozens of other titles. There was a time when a game with the name Sierra Online on it meant that it was a quality piece of entertainment.
When the company was sold in 1996, all of that evaporated. In the course of 3 years the amazing success of Sierra was flushed down the sluice box by a series of corporate blunders (as well as changing tastes in gaming). By 1999, the operation in Oakhurst shut down, and while some work continued for Codemasters, that did not last long. By the early 21st Century Sierra Online was forgotten in a world of the PS2, XBox, GameCube, Activision and Electronic Arts.
I have never forgotten though, and I've been up through Oakhurst several times in the past decade, each time looking for some kind of inspiration from the surroundings. If these trees could talk, what could they tell me about designing great games? Yesterday, we visited the Pizza Factory in Oakhurst, the pizza restaurant that has been around since Sierra opened it's doors in the city. It's the one authentic location I could find that the designers and developers from Sierra Online might have visited back in the day. In fact, in Hackers , Steven Levy describes how some of the developers visited a local pizza place after work, and this appears to be the only place that dates from that time.
The interior of the Pizza Factory has been update in the past 30 years, but it's still a beer and pizza joint with sports on the TV, and a small arcade in the corner. After eating pizza with my family (the pizza is goooooooooooood! which was another indication that this *was* the place). However, I felt kind of silly even thinking about it. All remnants of Sierra Online were gone from this area. It was just another mountain town that fed off the tourists going to the national park.
I spied a Galaga/Ms Pac-Man Anniversary machine in the arcade, and went over to try it. The game looked normal from the outside but then I noticed that the high score was 704,000. When I started a game of Galaga, I noticed that it had a speed-mod applied. You could fire twice as fast as normal, and the enemy bugs flew faster too (I don't think it was quite double speed). I thought struck me: maybe some of those old Sierra devs still live locally, and maybe they play this machine too.
Galaga in The Pizza Factory was a frantic, panic-filled assault that I have never experienced playing the game before. My daughters watched me for a bit, but it was hard for them to take. They are used to modern games that ease you into the play, and forgive you in ways that classic games never attempted. By comparison, Galaga is cold, harsh, and menacing and this double speed version was even more-so. After they left to go back to their pizza, I continued, slamming the fire button as fast as possible and shifting the joystick side to side, attempting to dodge and fire using my old Galaga muscle memory developed in 1982. When I was finished, I had made it to a respectable level 14 with 140,000 points. But beyond my score, I also formed an idea for my version of Pong. It needs to be FAST. I want my version to thrill players like this modded Galaga thrilled me. Maybe my pilgrimage to the land of Sierra Online had not been so silly after all.
April 3rd, 2012 : Inspiration In Yosemite Valley
I'm still on my little trip with my family, trying to recharge my batteries after a year of turmoil, and hoping to find inspiration for my entry into Atari's Pong Development Challenge. As I described in entry #1, I had already discovered I wanted to make game that played fast. However, more inspiration is necessary. Yesterday we made the 35 mile trek from Oakhurst to Yosemite Valley. It was an amazing trip, as winter is now melting into spring, forming some spectacular vistas for the eyes to feast on. When we entered the valley for the first time, we were struck by the view of valley and Bridal Vail Falls.
I also noticed that any photo of Yosemite that you filter from color to black and white looks like a crappy faux Ansel Adams rip-off, no matter how hard you try to make it seem otherwise. However, the black and white palette was compelling to me. The original Pong was displayed on a black and white screen, and viewing the world through this filter might help me with my quest to design my version of Pong for the Developer Challenge. Plus the b&w looks old school, and I love that design sensibility.
When we saw this vista, we pulled off the road (with 100's of others) and too a short hike up the side of mountain so we could a better view without the highway and
buses getting in the way. The climb was easy, but a bit slippery because there was still some melting snow collected on the edges of the path. On the way, we let the kids stop to make a few snow balls. We are all from Southern California, so we rarely see snow, so I was just as excited as the kids. I bent down and picked up some of the snow myself, and as I crunched the powder into my hands, I noticed something that made my senses come alive: particles. Sure, they were particles of snow, but they were compelling. The original Pong did not have particles, but a reworked version might benefit from some cool explosions filled with awesome particles.
More ideas for Pong were starting to fill my head. I wanted the game to be fast, I wanted to keep the design as close to the original as possible, at least from a color stand-point, and I wanted it to includes lots of pixels and lots of particles. That was a good start, but I still needed a "theme" that would take my current prototype to the next level.
As we traveled further down into the valley, it was clear that the melting snow was making for some spectacular scenery. I had seen Bridal Vail Falls several times before, but never with this much water flow or intensity. It was thrilling and refreshing, even in the 45 degree weather, to walk right up to the falls, and feel the spray as the water flowed so effortlessly over the the cliff. It's obvious that later in the Spring, the flow of the falls will get much bigger, but combined with the rocky peaks covered with ice and snow, I could not imagine a better setting for seeing the falls.
As we continued down into Yosemite Valley, my mind was racing with thoughts about my version of Pong. Something about that waterfall struck me as important. We traveled to the visitor's center (an area I like to avoid as it is sub-par compared to a relatively unknown park like Zion), and then we made the short hike to Yosemite Falls.
The last time I saw Yosemite Falls, it was little more than trickle dancing down the side of a steep, rocky edifice. It looked more like someone had left a garden hose running at the top of the cliff, than a majestic, photogenic, natural wonder. However, this time it was different. The spring snow melt was gathering up into a powerful force, creating a an amazing double cascade.
As I watched these waterfalls, I could not miss the fact that flowing water was interesting to me. The way the chaos mixed with certainty made the water flow randomly, yet predictably was something I could not shake.Was that the missing "theme"I was trying to find? Game play that flows naturally, yet unpredictably?
As we left Yosemite in the afternoon I thought my day of inspiration was over, but instead there was one more thing we saw as we exited the park down route 140. Water falls that appeared to start and end out of no where. They were not marked on any map, nor were there signs naming them, or turnouts on the road to allow a car to stop and take pictures. They were just there: majestic, incredible, and fleeting. My family named them "magic instant waterfalls". Little surprises that were unexpected, yet made us all feel like we had witnessed something amazing. The best part about the "magic instant waterfalls" was that I could take no pictures of them. They are special memories that I have to try to keep in my head, because I have no record of them otherwise.
A Fast pace, nostalgic colors, pixels, particles, slowing game play, unpredictability and surprises. Would all of these things add up to a good game? It was almost time to continue making my prototype. But first, I wanted to take one more trip...
April 5th, 2012: Standing On The Shoulder's Of Giants
We spent the last day of our short trip to Yosemite visiting the Mariposa Grove, an expansive area with a collection of giant Sequoia trees in the southern part of the National park. As we walked through the grove, crunching through the spring snow in our water-proof hiking shoes, my mind was far away from programming, games, or the Atari Pong Development Challenge.
Mariposa Grove is an odd sort of Redwood forest. Unlike the overwhelming expanse of giant trees in Sequoia National Park, Redwood National Park, or even the Santa Cruz mountains, the the giant trees of Yosemite are sparse and hard to find. The long hiking paths meander through the trees as a way of locating the remaining spectacles, which are few and far between. When you see a giant tree, it stands out against other trees in the forest forming a striking figure. Since logging was a huge business in the area in the 1800's, it was apparent that few remaining giant redwoods in the grove were saved when the National Park was formed. My mind wandered back to imagine just what the grove might have looked like if every tree was giant. What a magnificent scene that would have made.
When we reached the Grizzly Tree, one of the few true giants in the grove a thought struck me. The few remaining giant trees reminded me of the my heroes, the giants of the early video game industry: Alcorn, Baer, Bushnell, Crane, Crawford, Fulop, Harris, Jarvis, Logg, and Robinett just to name a few. The industry they built was clear-cut in 80's and decimated...yet they still remain, standing tall, scattered among the multitudes and throngs of upstart game designers and developers that arrived in their wake.
I'm one of those upstarts. Not at all famous, and not nearly as accomplished as I'd like to imagine, but inspired by the giant veterans of the video game world to try to accomplish great things. For me, the Atari Pong Game Development Challenge comes down to just this: standing on the shoulders of giants and building on what came before to make something new. The game of Pong might need to be "re-imagined" for a 21st Century audience, but I can't forget what made it great in the first place. There was a simple elegance to the instructions that were pasted to the first Pong machines that read: "avoid missing ball for high score." Those words, and the idea that inspired them, are what made Pong a great game, and in turn, what made video games into a phenomenon that still exists today. They will guide me as I work to finish my prototype.
April 23rd, 2012: Death, Disappointment And Pong Dreams : The Atari Pong Developer Challenge Is Getting Into My Head
Tomorrow, Atari announces the semi-finalists in their Pong Developer Challenge. I had planned to create a demo for the contest, but instead, got sucked into writing a design document that took me the better part of a week, and the demo never materialized. I felt really good about it, until I started the submission process on Atari's site. When filling out the form, there was a box to check if you had a demo to submit. For some reason, unbeknownst to myself, I checked the box. I don't remember checking it, but for some reason, I did.
I was really pleased with our submission until Atari sent us an email asking to see our demo. "Frack!" I thought, we'll have to email them back and say there is no demo. It's always great idea to disappoint people running a contest with your very first interaction, isn't it?
I hadn't really thought about this submission faux pas, until last night, when I had a vivid dream about the contest. I was in a room with all the entries from other developers. Each submission was housed in an ornate wood box with the name of the developer stamped into a golden metal plate on the front panel. The boxes were all beautiful, handcrafted, and stunningly attractive. I scanned the names on the boxes to find ours, but it was not there. Of course not, they contained demos! We did not submit one.
In my dream I looked dowe onto a table, and saw a cheap blue folder, the kind that I would have used for term paper in college. Written on the front on a an Avery label was: "Pong Returns, Producto Studios, Steve Fulton" . It was the only folder on the table. Obviously, we were the only ones to not submit a demo I surmised then that this was the table of disappointments. There was a post-it note attached to the folder. I tried to read it, but as my eyes focused on the words, I began to fall through a tunnel, and then I woke up.
When I opened my eyes, I instantly knew where I had seen those ornate wooden boxes before. At the cemetery last year, when we were making plans for my dad's ashes, I insisted that they be delivered in a wooden box with a carving of a mountain forest on the front. Even though we planned to have my dad's ashes spread over the desert, I still wanted him to come home in something nice to stay in while we made plans. My fondest memories of him are from the time we spent outdoors, so it seemed appropriate. If we had not bought that box, he would have come home in cheap blue box, with his name written on an Avery label on the front. The folder on the table in my dream reminded me of one of those boxes: sad, nondescript, and disappointing.
We find out tomorrow if we move to the next level of the Pong Developer Challenge. If my dream is any indication, this will be the next to last diary entry for the Atari Pong Developer Challenge. However, there still might be hope. What was written on the post-it note I could not read in my dream? Was it some kind of encouragement or warning from my sub-conscience? Of course, it was all just a dream right? A mix of long past memories and recent events fueled by fatigue and my late night snack of Wheat Thins and Fig Newtons. It doesn't mean anything.
April 24th, 2012 : Atari Pong Developer Challenge Semi Finalist Announcement Postponed A Week
According to Pocket Gamer, Atari is overwhelmed with entries (87 in all) so they are delaying the announcement of the semi-finalists until May 1st. This gives me an extra week to formulate bizarre Atari dreams and worry myself sick before we hear the news. With 87 ideas floating around over there at the Atari HQ, we have a less than 20% chance (based on pure numbers) to make it to the next round. Plus, many of those entries probably included demos, while ours did not.
Still, I'm happy with the design of our entry, as it is something I would love to play myself, so I hope that is enough to get us through. If not, we'll probably share our idea here next week. Then you, our faithful readers, can judge its relative' merits on your own.
May 1st, 2012 : Semifinals, Here We Come! Producto Studios Makes It Into The Next Round Of The Atari Pong Developer Challenge!
Atari announced the semifinalists for their Pong Developer Challenge today, and Producto/8bitrocket Studios made the cut! Now we have to actually make the game we designed. I can't wait to get started!
May 9th, 2012 : Atari Pong Developer Challenge Inspiration Video
Here is a video we created to help inspire our team while we work on our entry for the semi-final round of the Atari Pong Developer Challenge. We used a classic Atari color cycling Fuji symbol (of our own design) with images of some of Atari's early Pong coin operated games. The music is a quick track made with Sony Acid.
(See video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Gji84PxP4Q)
May 15th, 2012: What The Radio Shack "TV Scoreboard" Taught Me About Game Design.
In 1978, my borther and I had begged my dad to let us play the Atari 2600 console in the TV department at Fedmart on every visit, so he knew we liked video games. However my dad, a notorious cheapskate, was not about to plunk down $169.99 on anything. The $19.99 price-point of the TV Scoreboard was more his speed. However, even $19.99 was probably too much. I'm sure this came from the dirt-cheap bargain bin from Radio Shack.
(see video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6quqAff5fO8)
Whe nhe girst gave it to us, my 8 year old twin brother brother and I were really excited. The idea of having a video game of my own to play was enough to rocket me out of bed in the morning and into the living room to try it out.
Of course, this taught me my first lesson about video games. If no one else was awake, there was no one to play with. The TV Scoreboard had a "Squash" option that let a single player hit a ball against the wall, but I never found that game very interesting. I wanted to play "pong", and if no one was around, no dice.
When my brother was awake, and we actually played the unit, the second major issue reared its' head: sound. Like most dedicated "pong" consoles, the limited sound of the TV Scoreboard came from the unit itself, not from the TV. This made the already lo-fi beeps and boops even more annoying than I thought possible. We very quickly learned to shut the sound off, and play in silence. While the "pong" style game play of the unit was solid, nuances (like bad sound) ruined the experience.
The third thing I learned from the TV scoreboard was that "ping pong" games were not really all that much fun. Maybe six years earlier, when Pong first arrived, the game was thrilling, but in 1978, with Space Invaders filling the local arcades, the "ping pong" game play of the "TV Score-bored" (as it came to be known in our house) was just not compelling enough.
Those three lessons: the need for compelling single player game play, the importance of nuances in games, and the need for evolving game play, have colored the design for the Pong game I am making for the Atari Pong Developer Challenge. I hope we can do justice to those hard learned rules with our entry.
By the way, the "TV Score-bored" stopped displaying video after a few weeks, but since the sound came out of the unit and not the TV, I could still "play" it by starting a game and listening for the sounds and moving the paddles. If I managed to "hit" a ball,a distinctive beep would sound, and I felt totally victorious for few seconds. On the other hand, my dad felt "taken" by the "cheap-o" device after it failed do quickly. It would be several years before another video game system entered our house.
May 19, 2012: Pong In The Wild At The Redondo Beach Fun Factory
Today I took my daughter to the last remaining arcade from my youth, the Redondo Beach Fun Factory. I wanted to give her a chance to ride some of the vintage electro-mechanical vehicles in the establishment before they all disappear. While we were there, I went looking for an Atari Hercules pinball machine that they had for many years, but it was no where to be found. However, in the back corner, I was surprised to find a genuine, working, Atari Pong machine (circa 1973).
The machine was standing in cluster of vintage and vintage inspired machines. However, in the position you can see just how small the machine looks next to a relative giant like Asteroids Deluxe. I got closer to the machine because I wanted to see if it had the original instruction of "Avoid Missing Ball For High Score" and in fact, it did.
I also noticed the original Atari logo etched into the metal control plate. I had forgotten about this early version of the logo. I think I need to incorporate it somehow into our Atari Pong Developer Challenge Entry
I realize that people who go to vintage gaming shows see these machines all the time, but not me. I've never been to any kind of classic gaming show, so for me this was quite a sight to see. At the same time, this machine was in the wild. It's not the kind of machine that is kept in bubble wrap and cleaned with baby diaper on Sunday afternoons. The Redondo Beach Fun Factory is not exactly a museum. It caters to hardcore "L.A."crowd that does not exactly treat these games like antiques or collectibles. For instance, the vintage Space Invaders machine had some nastly grafitti scratched into the front glass:
So seeing a working, vintage Pong machine at this place was kind of shocking. Since the original Pong is a two player game only, I challenged my daughter to a game. This was the first time I actually put a quarter into a real Atari pong machine. I've played Pong in the past, but always knockoffs, never the original Atari version.
The controls were not very responsive (the original knobs were missing), and there was a video glitch on the screen (visible above), but it was still thrilling to play an original Atari Pong machine in a setting that has changed very little since the game was first released. It came at a perfect time, and it gave me a couple ideas for our Pong game entry.
June 7th, 2012: Crossing The Finish Line, Dreams Intact
A couple days ago was the deadline to have our demo and video submission for the Atari Pong Developer challenge . However, since I was travelling to San Jose teach a class on the HTML5 Canvas at Cisco this week, there is no way I could upload our submission on the day it was due. That means I had to be finished last Monday.
I raced to the office that morning so I could compile our app on the Mac in-house with all the proper black magic for provisioning profiles and and certificates already set-up. Atari gave us four devices to add to the list, and I wanted to make sure it all got completed on-time before I had to leave for the airport.
There were some hiccups with Drop Box, and provisioning, but for the most part it went smoothly, and everything was submitted on time. With little drama to accompany the submission, I was left trying to figure out what it all meant.
My original intention when submitting a game to the contest was to see if the modern Atari had any interest in my "left of center" bizarre ideas about "post-retro" and "retro evolved" games. The design document I submitted originally was was basically a take on bit.trip.beat with the levels inspired by Atari's vast collections of coin-up games from the 70's . Games that many people have never so much as seen, nor played.
They liked the concept (with some reservations), and then it was my turn to create a demo. The demo should have been "easy" to make, but it turned out to be much more difficult that I planned. It's was supposed to be Pong mashed-up with other Atari coin-ops, but by the time I finished the initial engine, it became "Pong Mashed-up with other Pong coin-ops"....or simply. Pong. At the last minute I threw-in a set of levels based on "Asteroids" just to show what that kind of mash-up might look like. Now don't get me wrong, the game played exactly like I intended, but maybe just a bit too close to one-player version of Pong.
Another concession I had to make was to remove the "audio visualization" from the game screens. These were dynamic run-time created animations based on the song that was currently playing. They were placed in the background to give the game a hypnotic feel to go along with the techno soundtrack. In the allotted time, I simply could not optimize them enough to keep the game running at an acceptable frame rate, so I moved them to the between level screen. They still work, but they are just not as impressive as if they lived on the actual game screen.
To make-up for this omission, I tried to cram as much content in as possible, I finished 20 levels, added a trainer, upgrades to buy (simulated in this version) between level introductions to the coin-ops with bits of Atari history, color-cycling Atari animations, an FPO art design borrowed directly from the Atari Space Race arcade flyer, and probably a few other touches that I'm forgetting, but it was all deeply steeped in Atari nostalgia.
We also were required to create a video for our submission. I was not sure how to proceed with this at first, but ultimately it became a another nostalgia piece. A mostly black and white video punctuated with the audio visualizations and game-play footage, with logos and Atari game flyers moving quickly by in the background. If anything I tipped my hand as being a huge Atari-Nerd, which may or may not be a detriment. At any rate the video shows how I wanted the game to look if I could get it optimized.
This experience made me think of memory from my childhood. When my dad was my age, back in about 1970, he decided to start a new hobby: racing motorcycles. He always wanted to race motorcycles, but he had to wait until his 40's when he had the extra time and internal fortitude to make it a reality. My dad was pretty good at riding motor-cycles. He was the oldest guy (by far) in his Motorcycle Club (The Dusters), and he never won any races. However, he kept doing it, with one plan in mind: to finish the races. He did not finish a lot of races, but in one of them, not only did he finish, but he came in 3rd place. He received a tiny trophy (the only trophy he ever received) that he put up on desk, where it gathered dust for 30 years. The trophy and the placment didn't matter. He accomplished what he set out to do, he finished. The rest was frosting.
It was a great lesson to learn from him. In fact, the past month has been like a weird Atari dream for me. I've always wanted to "work" for Atari in some capacity, and the time between the announcements of semi-finalists and the demo submission deadline, I was living in a state of "Atari" consciousness. They liked my design document (which was promising), now all I had to do was get them a demo by June 5th. While my ultimate dream would be to win, I have to be realistic, I probably have no real chance to win the Pong Developer Challenge. However, I still feel like a winner. My dream of "working" for Atari came true, even if it was in a very odd and not altogether straightforward way, but then maybe most dreams are realized in ways we never imagined. And after all, I did manage to cross the finish-line (for the demo portion anyway), and that feels like some kind of win, even if it's just in my head.
June 15th, 2012: 15 Semi-Finalist Videos Posted, Ours Included
Atari has posted the finalist videos for the Pong Developer Challenge, ours included. Only 15 of 20 videos made the cut, so either some were not up to snuff, or five of the 20 semi-finalists did not made the deadline. By the way, the competition looks TOUGH.
Our approach was a very traditional version of Pong, but only with one player. It's a combination of a Bit.Trip.Beat and a game like Furu Furu Park that mashes-up coin-up game play through tons of short levels. We decided to make our game a "trip" through the first 10 (or so) years of Atari coin-ops because we are Atari nerds. Unabashedly, we love old school, and we love Atari. The music is retro, the look and feel is retro, but the game play is evolved a bit beyond what Pong became in the 70's. From the looks of it, our chances are really slim. Still, we made a game that we would want to play, and we will, even if we are the only ones who ever get to see it!
Here is out video below:
June 17th 2012: Reality Bytes
I've searched for the past few days to find comments on the Atari Pong Developer Challenge, and most everything I've read gives us a very small chance of getting any further in the contest. The only positive comments I have seen are for AR Pong and Pong World, both very good looking games. We knew we were taking a risk by going full-on retro-evolved with our entry, and it looks like it will not pay off. The response to our video is telling, with 3 "dislikes" to counter 1 "like" (which is from me...how pathetic), so by all indications, we've simply made people mad. I saw that some of the other videos were heavy on the "dislikes" as well, so it's quite possible that someone came through and just hit "dislike" on everything, but it doesn't really matter. The reality is, we did not hit "the nostalgic Atari nerve" we were trying to reach.
Our question should have been: "Does that nostalgic Atari nerve even exist?" My problem might be that I just love classic Atari too much. I love Atari the same way younger generations love Nintendo and the Sony. I don't think Atari ever got a fair shake, and I want to see it held in as high esteem as the companies that came after. However, by doing that, I probably missed the point. The idea was to "modernize" Pong, not drown it in hardcore nostalgia. Still, I'm happy we stuck to our guns, even if it means our chances are just a sliver of the size of our hopes.
Anyway, unless something drastic occurs, this will be one of my last transmissions about the contest. I need to reflect heavily on what it all meant and why we even entered in the first place.
July 18th, 2012 : Pong Returns : Postmortem For The Atari Pong Indie Developer Challenge
Atari announced the finalists for their Pong Developer Challenge on June 26th, and we were not included on this. Thus, our time as part of the Atari Pong Indie Developer Challenge comes to a close. In this post-mortem we look back at what we think we did wrong, what we think we did right, and how we move on...
When Atari announced the Pong Developer Challenge a few months ago, I was initially excited. Atari contacted us to promote the contest, and we gladly did so, as always. However, when I read the news I had a feeling that I wanted to take part myself. I talked it over with the other guys at Producto, and they were mildly interested.
However, the next day, when Gamasutra ran a negative story about the terms of the contest ("Why Atari's Pong Indie Developer Challenge is bad for developers" by Brian Robbins), visions of the Flash game portal days of yore came flooding back. Flash game contests were, many times, notoriously lopsided in favor of the portal putting on the contest. Most of the time they gave the portals a lot of free content, and the developers lost the rights to their own work.
However, I saw this Atari contest as something different. Atari would own all the submissions but they would all essentially be Pong, so they owned the rights anyway. It seemed that no matter what I came up with, there was no way I could use it myself, so why not submit it to Atari and see what happened?
The name of the submission came to me almost as soon as I heard about the contest. "Pong Returns" had an obvious double meaning. "Pong" was coming back as game, and in the game itself your job is to "return" balls coming from the right side of the screen.
Design Doc submission
When the dead line for the contest was approaching on April 15th, I only had a very slight idea about what our Pong game would be, I wanted to create a game that paid homage to all the Atari coin-ops that came between Pong and Asteroids in the 1970's. I wanted the game to for a single player, and I wanted it to look as retro as possible, but with a retro-evolved bent. My modern gaming touch points were bit.trip.beat and Furu Furu Park. I spent the entire weekend before Aprial 15th pouring all of my Pong aspirations into a 26 page design document. Here is how I described the game in the introduction.
Tag Line: A mashed-up, fast paced, hypnotic journey through the history of Atari’s earliest coin-Ops
Introduction: As life-long Atari fans, one thing that frustrates us is how little credit Atari gets for pioneering video games in the 1970’s. Atari is recognized for Pong, Breakout and Asteroids as if those were the only video games made in the decade. In reality, Atari pioneered maze games, space games, racing games, shooting games, and everything in between. However, since most of the games were created with discrete logic chip designs without a microprocessor, they cannot be “emulated” on modern systems. This means that few people have played the games, and thus, they don’t really understand the impact that Atari’s coin-ops had on the video game industry.
The aim of Pong Returns is to “right” this “wrong” by morphing the game of Pong into a journey through the history of Atari’s “lost” coin-op games from the 70’s. The game starts on a familiar Pong playfield, but as the levels progress, elements are added from classic Atari coin-op games to increase the challenge and vary the game play. At its’ heart, Pong Returns is still Pong, but by mashing-up the gameplay of Pong with elements from Atari’s coin-op history we aim to create an addictive, engrossing, and transcendental experience that plays homage to and respects Atari’s amazing history.
Inspiration: Pong Returns is inspired by the many versions of Pong that Atari released in the 70’s, and by the wealth of other coin-op games Atari created in the same time period. At the same time, the game is inspired by such modern classics as Bit.Trip.Beat (for the single player Pong style action) and games like Furu Furu Park that mash-up elements of classic games with modern game play.
Description: In Pong Returns the player's job is to "hit back" or "return" 11 balls per level through the from the left side to the opposite side of the screen. On some levels, the area to get the ball “through” on the right side of the screen is limited. Each successive level introduces new elements or obstacles that must be overcome to continue in the game. The new elements and obstacles introduced are pulled from the history of Atari Games from the 1970’s, culminating in a battle with the seminal rocks and UFOs from Atari’s Asteroids.
Number of Players: Pong Returns is a single player game played against computer opponents.
Opponents: The computer “opponents” move in rhythmic patterns, and while they simulate A.I. they are not necessarily A.I. players. Instead, players will be rewarded and encouraged to recognize the patterns of play so they can advance to higher levels. On some levels it will be necessary to simulate A.I. to ramp the difficulty level, and this will occur on an as needed basis,
Visuals: The visuals of the game will be decidedly retro and 8-bit. Characters designs and animations are inspired by Atari’s coin-op output from the 1970’s and stay as close to that aesthetic as possible. However, to add variety, visuals tricks that Atari pioneered like color cycled images and audio visualizations like the ones created for Atari Video Music (see example here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NWwtZCpC2M) will be incorporated into the backgrounds. Also, art work from the Atari coin-op that inspires each level will be superimposed in the background of the display.
So far so good. I described exactly the type of game I would want to play. If Atari did not like the idea, they could stop right there and not bother with the rest. What followed was 20 or so pages that described, in detail all of the Atari Coin-Ops that would be mashed-up with Pong for the levels in the game. Some of them were classic Pong games by Atari, others were Atari coin ops hardly any one remembers (Shark Jaws, Jet fighter) and still others were well known classics (Asteroids).
The Pong mash-up would include classic Pong gameplay invaded by the art and characters from Atari coin-ops through the 70's It would be like a journey culminating with a battle against Asteroids.
You can see the entire design document here: Pong Returns Design Document First Draft
I turned in our design document, and and figured we had no chance of getting any further. This was my dream idea. The opportunity to recreate and play with Atari coin-op images and game-play from the classic age was a goal unreachable, wasn't it? I laughed it off. It was fun to come-up with an outlandish idea. In fact, for some of the mash-ups I had devised (i.e. the ones for Tank and Stunt Cycle) it was not clear how I could even to pull them off:
Still, I wanted Atari to like the idea.
Mistake #1: Scope :
Designing something that would take too much time to create. While the mash-up idea might have been a good one, the contest deadline was short (just 4 weeks to make demo, 3 weeks to finish the whole game). With 20 coin-ups to mash-up, scope was just too large
On the morning of May 1, I was very surprised to see the name "Producto Studios" listed as one of the semi-finalists in the contest. The next round required us to create a demo and a "video". We had about 4 weeks to complete both, and I had no idea hope I was going to get both done. We were working on a couple in-house projects, and I was writing the content for a class on HTML5 that was due the same day as the contest entries.
Still, how hard would it be to create a demo for Pong Returns? It was a one-player games of Pong with multiple levels. Easy right? Well, some times things that appear easy get all tangled up when you think about them too much.
Mistake #2: Focusing On Nuances And Not Optimization
I desperately wanted to replicate the audio visualization from the Atari Video Music appliance from the 70's into the game. Atari Video Music hooked-up to a stereo and used the wave-form of the music to display hypnotic images on the screen.
I knew that Flash had a very easy way to access the wave-form data of songs, so I made the decision to build the demo in Flash and export it to iOS. I tested a simple version of this with some shapes moving to music on an iPad, and it appeared to work pretty well. This was an encouraging start for the project, but it rippled through everything else. My thought was, the demo is just a prototype, I can rebuild the game in a different technology in the next round. It was a very naive notion.
The next step was to build a particle effects engine. I wanted everything to explode in glorious particles. I had this vision of the video music visualizations moving to the beat of some chip-tune style techno music, with particle exploding all over the place. I still liked the idea, and in my head I wanted it to look cool, and be part of a cool game. However, focusing on those nuances instead of game play was a huge mistake.
At the same time, while you can make some good iOS apps with Flash, the code needs to be heavily optimized for performance. I simply did not have the time to fully optimize the game, and demo suffered because of it. Because of this, most of the visualization and particle effects needed to be removed in the demo for performance.
Mistake #3 : I Made Pong
By the time I started to work on the actual game play, there was only about 7 days left until the contest entry was due. Again, I was writing class materials at the same time (and in fact, flew to San Francisco to teach class the same day the contest entry was due). I should have budgeted my time more wisely, but since this was just supposed to be a "demo", I worked feverishly to incorporate as many of the early Atari coin-op games as I could with my remaining time, and did not really consider what the "final" game would be. The idea was to hint at the game play that would be in the final game, and figure out the rest once the demo was complete. It turned out, I was able to get Pong, Pong Doubles (two paddles), Super Pong (3 paddles) and Coupe De Monde (soccer with a goal) done with a reasonable level of accuracy, but ran out of time for much else.
When I played the game, it was okay, but it was still just Pong. Four successive versions of Pong, but still just Pong. With my few remaining days, I started to panic because, well, that I had essentially made Pong. I went back to the drawing board an worked out a concept that each "game" (Pong, Pong Doubles, etc.) would encompass four levels in the games The 1st level would use a computer player that moved in a repeatable pattern. The 2nd level would be like the original game, with computer A.I., the 3rd level would be a "frenzy" where balls shot out at a regular intervals, and the 4th level would be "battle", where the walls closed-up, and the played had to destroy enemies on the screen. At the last minute, I threw in a quick set of levels based on "Asteroids" (but used the AI and movement from the Pong levels) just to show what that might look like in the game. In the end, the demo had 20 levels with the promise of about 60 more once the final game was complete.
Here is a video of the actual game play. I've restored the audio visualizations to the game screen, but other than that, it's identical to the submitted demo.
August 15, 2012: Final Thoughts
If I had the chance to start over, I don't think I would make a different game. I would focus less on the nuances, and more on optimization, but in the end, I was working towards making a game that I wanted to play...and one I still want to play. I wish had had the opportunity to explore how Pong could have been mashed-up with more old Atari coin-op games, because to me, it still seems like a fun idea . Unfortunately, even though I still want to play Pong Returns in it's final, finished form, but I will never get the chance. I learned a lot through the process, some things that I'm already using to make new games right now. We just launched our first iOS game (Professor Palindromes) (also for Android) under our own label. It's just small start to what I hope will be a long line-up of simple, addictive, and original games inspired by 35 year obsession with the Atari.
PS: If you are interested in reading more on my 35 year obsession Atari, here are few articles from my blog:
1977: First Communion
1979: Trek To The Asteroids Zone
1981: Atari 2600 Christmas
1983: The Best Christmas Ever
1986: Atari 7800