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The earliest Breakout games used rectangular paddles with flat surfaces. The ball’s trajectory would be influenced by the part of the paddle the ball touched, with the edges providing a flatter bounce trajectory.
Today’s Breakout-style games provide a much wider variety of paddle shapes including hemispherical and isosceles trapezoid (flat top and bottom with wedge-shaped sides). Unlike completely flat paddles surfaces, these paddles help to suggest how they can control the ball. The combination of isosceles trapezoid with paddle bump provides a remarkable level of ball control (LEGO Bricktopia).
Besides speed, size, shape and bump, you also need to think about the transmissive properties of the paddle surface. In particular, friction – how much of the paddle’s horizontal speed is translated to the ball upon impact. Paddle friction is one of those things you can live with or without. I tend to favor paddle friction because it gives the player more control over the ball and makes the paddle feel a little more tangible. You can break paddle friction down into three basic categories:
The reflective paddle – this equals ZERO friction. The paddle imparts no spin and reflects 100% of the ball’s energy back to it like a stationary glass wall. Of course, in real life there is always some energy transferred from the ball to any surface it touches, but breakout “breaks” those rules to keep the ball moving fast. In practice this paddle simulation requires the least CPU cycles, but provides the least dynamic play since every interaction with the ball is fairly predictable.
The paddle with simple friction – this paddle’s surface transfers a portion of its horizontal movement to the ball, thereby changing the ball’s trajectory. For instance, if the paddle is traveling in the same direction as the ball, it will leave at a sharper angle whereas if the paddle is traveling counter to the ball’s horizontal movement, the ball will reflect off the paddle more directly upward.
The paddle with friction and ball spin – the next step up from a paddle with simple friction is one that can also impart spin to the ball. Here the paddle surface translates a portion of its horizontal movement to the ball as both linear and angular velocity. A spinning ball will bounce off other surfaces at a sharper or shallower angle much as a spinning pool ball will reflect off a bank differently based on its spin.
While most paddles only alter the ball’s trajectory, maintaining a fairly constant speed, there are also games with paddles that add significant additional energy (via paddle bump for example). These “super paddles” don’t necessarily have friction or impart ball spin. For two good examples of super paddles see Funkiball Adventure or LEGO Bricktopia.
Pardon me for pontificating, but one day I hope to see a Breakout-style game that allows the player to instantly cycle through a range of available paddles with a right-click of the mouse. I mean, in an FPS you have a multitude of guns right? Similarly, I think it’d be great to have a ball with user-selectable properties, allowing the player to cloak the ball, or switch on self-illumination on a dark level, or perhaps even make the ball intangible for short periods of time (all with a right-click of the mouse). This would open up a multitude of possibilities in level design!
For classic Breakout games, the extent of ball speed and damage is simply this – the ball moves at a fixed speed and breaks one block with each strike. This rule continues unchanged, with the ball moving at the same speed, doing the same amount of damage, level after level… Some games change the ball’s speed and damage potential through the use of Power-ups, or increase the default speed as the player progresses to higher game levels. Funkiball Adventure was the first genre game to significantly break this mold by introducing paddle bump; enabling consecutive ball hits to increase the ball’s speed and striking power.
At high speed and power levels, the ball imparts splash damage, fracturing or completely destroying adjacent blocks. There are a few reasons to consider this an improvement over simple power-ups. First, it puts control of ball speed and power firmly in the player’s hands, at all times – as opposed to giving this control over to the random distribution and collection of power-ups. Second, it allows players to self-regulate game speed and dynamism – players with less skill, who frequently miss the ball, or who don’t paddle bump, get a decline in speed and power.
A critical component of any Breakout-style game is a compelling simulation of ball motion. In general, the ball starts with fairly predictable movement, generating fantastic motion under the effect of power-ups (or paddle bump). Let’s take a closer look at the motion simulation, starting with its common state, with no power-ups or other extreme properties acting upon it.
The bouncing ball – this is your no-frills Pong-style ball. It bounces around, perhaps gaining or losing energy from objects it strikes. It has a perfect center of gravity and doesn’t spin.
The bouncing and spinning ball – in games that utilize surface friction, ball spin becomes possible. The simplest implementation uses a perfect sphere with a stable and “perfectly centered” center of gravity. Spin is used to modify to the ball’s trajectory coming off the paddle (or any other game surface) but doesn’t create any truly complex ball motion.
The complex ball – a more complex ball (non-spherical, semi-solid or aggregate object) will have a “complex” center of gravity and perhaps variable friction depending upon which ball surface contacts the paddle. Some examples of complex balls include: an egg-shaped ball, a square rubber sponge with a rock embedded in one corner, two basketballs connected by a chain.