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Game Design Essentials: 20 Atari Games

May 30, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 23 Next

Designed by Lyle Rains and Ed Logg

Taito's Space Invaders came out in 1978, and changed video games forever. Earlier games would give the player a limited amount of time to rack up points, but Space Invaders, borrowing a concept from pinball, gave the player a limited number of lives, and even the opportunity to earn an extra. So pervasive was the idea that, even now, it is everywhere.

Asteroids came out the year after Space Invaders, and it took its ideas and ran with them. Space Invaders awards one extra life throughout the entire game, but Asteroids awards repeatedly as the player continues to earn points. This makes it the first "game of attrition," where it's expected the player will continually lose lives, so the game continues to award them.

This turns out to be a big mistake in Asteroids, since there exists a good strategy, the infamous "hunting" technique, that can take players to very high scores with little risk. But that idea, of attrition, was influential too: Defender, out the year after Asteroids, relies heavily upon it.

Asteroids is also notable for being what amounts to a rudimentary physics game. That is, a game that ultimately derives its play from simulating Newtonian motion. The player's ship, the rocks, even shots all have mass and inertia. When shooting, the ship's velocity is added to that of the shots coming out of the ship. Many things that are considered physics games now have to do with masses interrelating, colliding or connected with springs, but this is 1979 we're talking about.

One of the core ideas of Asteroids, which is now ubiquitous but was rather daring at the time, is the idea that the ship's movement is relative to its orientation and not the player's. Pressing the "turn left" button doesn't cause it to face the left side of the screen, but to rotate to its left.

The thrust button doesn't cause the ship to move up the screen but in the direction it's facing. While the player's not inside the vehicle being controlled, just like controlling an R.C. car, movement isn't direct but indirect.

It is not overstating things to note that this idea has since saturated gaming. Many 2D games could do without it, but when 3D came along it became indispensable. Tomb Raider, for example, makes heavy use of it. Many say Resident Evil was crippled by it.

Once you grant the camera the ability to change angle independently of the protagonist, it becomes harder to make a 3D game that doesn't do this, enough so that going back and doing it the old way, using viewport-relative control, is one of Super Mario 64's key innovations.

Finally, Asteroids is one of the few games that still looks "cool," even to a modern gamer spoiled by texture-mapped light-shaded polygons, because of its Vectorscan monitor. The effect just isn't the same when reproduced on a raster display device. These monitors are no longer manufactured by any company, and are becoming short in supply, so the time may one day arrive that Asteroids in its original form no longer exists.

Prior games maintained visible high score lists, a.k.a. "vanity boards," but Asteroids was the first arcade game to let players enter initials. Unfortunately, the score rolls over at a mere 100,000 points! Twin Galaxies' record for Asteroids rolled it 413 times, over a number of days. This could be considered illustrative of the difference in developer and player perspective at the time.

It may be that the developers didn't see that ultra-long games with huge scores weren't possible, but that they thought no one would bother playing for so long. Contrast Asteroids' complex play with that of earlier games like Pong, and it's easy to see how developer expectations may not have matched with players.

Article Start Previous Page 5 of 23 Next

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