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Game Design Essentials: 20 Atari Games

May 30, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 13 of 23 Next

720 Degrees
Designed by John Salwitz and Dave Ralston

Besides being a predecessor to both event-oriented and free-roaming skateboard games, 720 Degrees has many other fascinating aspects. While its ties to skateboarder culture gave it an immediate audience, its structure is even more interesting and, as far as I know, unique in all of gaming.

The object of the game is to complete four skate parks, earning as many points along the way as possible. There is no health bar or number of "lives" in the game. Instead, the player is dropped in the middle of a large explorable space, "Skate City," with a machine operator-adjustable number of tickets. He must then find his way to one of the four events located along the edges of the map.

How the player gets there is up to him. It's not hard to make it to an event if he knows where he's going (and maps scattered around help with that), but in order to prosper in the game he's got other stuff to do besides just get to the next area.

There are dollar bills scattered around that are worth small money bonuses, jumps and hidden spots galore that award points when activated, and in the corners of the map shops where collected money is traded for better equipment, which is very useful in later levels.

But the events are most important. The Skate City area is timed, and if the time bar runs out the game declares, dramatically, "SKATE OR DIE!" (The game is unrelated to the early Electronic Arts hit by that name.) This signifies the arrival of the deadly bees, which begin to pursue the player, faster and faster, until they catch him. Getting caught by the bees is the only way to lose the game.

It's not at all hard to skate to an event site within the timer. Shouldn't that make the game easy? Well no, because the game is designed so that everything else puts pressure on the Skate City timer, making working within it, and defeating it as far as possible, the core of the game.

The events themselves, Ramp, Pipe, Slalom and Downhill, are just bonuses: completely failing an event carries no game penalty other than the lack of a bonus. Just the act of entering an event resets the time bar, allowing the game to continue, but there's a catch. The player won't be let into the event unless he has a ticket for entry, and the only way to earn those is by scoring points by whatever means, either from event bonuses or in the park.

Even on the easiest settings, it is difficult to get the points needed to keep earning new tickets within the time allowed. Besides events, the only reliable source of points is doing tricks on Skate City's wide variety of ramps and jumps, and from finding invisible point spots.

Getting better equipment helps the player in making the most of his time by increasing speed and acceleration, making it more difficult to crash after a bad jump, and decreasing recovery time if the player does crash. 720 Degrees' design is tuned to force the player to do all these things to have a chance of finishing all four boards.

To summarize: the only way for the player to lose is to run out of time and get caught by the bees. But only way to reset the clock is to make it into an event with a ticket. The only way to get tickets is to earn lots of points, which requires doing well at events and/or earning points doing tricks in Skate City.

Earning points in the city takes time however, and time is also needed to get to the shops for better equipment that makes earning event points, so the player must also learn quick navigation and travel skills.

It's a little confusing to understand at first, so the game pops up help messages if the player's in danger of losing due to having no ticket. It turns out to be a very effective design. Each piece of the chain is just unfair enough that even good players will find themselves lacking if they concentrate on one link only.

The timer is the only real danger, but to survive it the player must master navigation, upgrade strategy, each of the four special events, and trick performance on the run between destinations. The result is that, while it's ultimately a skateboarding game, the game is interesting even to people who have little interest in shredding.

The reason it works is that the player doesn't have to understand all this in order to play. So long as he just skates along, finding points, doing tricks, and is making it to and doing well in events, the game continues. Doing better at any one of these things will ultimately be felt in reduced time pressure, so players get better quickly with practice. But with 16 events to complete, a lot of practice indeed is necessary to finish.

Finally, it's possible for operators to enable a continue feature for the game, but it's unusually harsh. The player may only continue up to three times. After a continue, the bees vanish, the time bar refills, the player's character gets back up, and if he doesn't have one, he's spotted a ticket.

But the ticket is a loan, not a gift! The score needed for the next ticket is increased one award level when this happens, meaning that the player must do very well at the coming event to earn enough points to make up the deficit or he'll have to continue again in short order. This means that it's not possible for a player to just continue his way to the end of the game; a high degree of skill is still necessary, for he needs 16 tickets in order to win and the game will only spot him up to three.

Article Start Previous Page 13 of 23 Next

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