Category Archives: Atari

Ballblazer test using JavaScript and Canvas

Ballblazer test

Ballblazer in JavaScript

I can’t tell you how proud I am of this.
As a kid I spent hours in the arcades. I’ve written about it on here in spades. But when it came to more personal gaming thrills I had my beloved Atari 800XL.

The king of Atari games for me was Lucasfilm’s stonking future sports title Ballblazer.

I recently ditched the idea of crafting mobile games (at least for now) so I felt like diving in to something a bit meaty and very personal.

Ballblazer’s green shaded grid provided just the challenge I was after.

I’ll write up on how the development is going in the future.
For now you can spin left and right (with arrow keys) across the playing grid here:



Some more thoughts on building fun and challenging arcade games

I’ve written it before that I’m not a huge fan of design documents for small projects. I’d rather be coding. So please don’t consider this as a literal document it’s more my own thoughts on some pointers for creating cool arcade games. I guess it goes hand in hand with my previous thoughts on the importance of arcade game design.

Know your character

Create your game character / spaceship / thing and set up some basic controls. Play it. Use it. Get to know it.
Is it fun to watch and control  ?
What situations would it be cool to have to deal with with your on-screen character.
Start to consider the look and style of a potential adversary for your character.
If you character can jump what kind of obstacles and challenges might he face ?

For many people just getting something on to the screen is an achievement – often the result of an initial technology test. It’s an exciting time. When you bind it to input it becomes even more thrilling.
I remember walking the Wizard in Wizard Wars around a blank screen for hours before it came to me that he should be collecting things.
Initially I had wanted to stage a battle between the Wizard and a number of mythical beasts. One in which my goal was to battle through waves of beasts using bolts of magic lightning and other such fantastical things. I guess in my mind it was Robotron with magic.
But I was controlling the little guy on a touch screen (first gen iPod Touch) and really didn’t feel comfortable with littering the screen with magic. Especially as the Wizard could move freely in 8 directions and wasn’t just restricted to his own area of the screen. It could have started to look very messy and confusing for the player.
I liked the idea of the Wizard tidying up his room. To me that was his role and formed his identity. Perhaps he was less the all battling Warlock and more the bumbling Merlin-esque Wizard who just happened to have magic.

Back to the controls.
Hurling the birds in Angry Birds is a lot of fun. It could easily be a device for another game. e.g. aim for the furthest distance.
Running the corridors in DOOM and just pulling the trigger is a lot of fun. As is flying over the planet surface in Defender just blasting lasers left and right.
There are so many games where just interacting with your character / vehicle is tremendous fun regardless of the actual goal of the game.

For me this is very much the first thing to get right in your game. If the one thing that you spend your entire game experience doing is poor or less than stimulating or heaven forbid confusing then your game will die.

My wife I’m sure despairs at the sight of me running a simple animated sprite around an empty screen whilst making all manner of noises and talking to myself. But for me it is a hugely creative experience.

Define the broad goal

Games need goals. Something for the player to aim for.

I’m a big fan of layering content in games. That is, you keep in mind the broader goal but the path to it is paved with smaller ones.

In DOOM your goal is clear. You find the exit and start over in a new level.
Same goes for Angry Birds. You wipe out the pigs and move on. The fact that death and destruction lie between you and your goal is merely an enjoyable consequence.

Your broad goal should be explained and where possible available to the player at all times as a visual reminder. I am of course thinking of PacMan. Games where everything is on the screen at once really allow you to achieve this. Multi-screen games are more of a challenge.

With hindsight I would probably have altered Wizard Wars to have the star count decrease to zero rather than simply incrementing the figure in the top corner of the screen. The reason is simple, not everyone reads the instructions. If you just drop in to the game it’s not at all obvious that you are aiming to collect 50 stars. Far better to count down since the player will quickly identify the goal as being zero.

In HyperGunner I dangled the carrot of “miles to Earth” at the end of every level.
This quickly forms the broad goal of the game and is mentioned in the pre-game screen.
Working back from there I was able to provide suitable sub-goals that moved the player through the game logically. i.e. collect stars to build up the hyperspace power bar.
Once in hyperspace the player is hurled that bit closer to Earth – the ultimate goal of the game.

Again with hindsight I would probably have staged the game a bit better. As it is the stars, diamonds and score multipliers are all generated randomly. Perhaps it would have been better to have spawned the hyperspace stars in line with an alien bomb or a saucer missile to add an extra challenge to the player.

These things invariably come to you once you’ve played your game to death.

Know your enemy

Your enemy is vital to your game. Games without challenges are dull. Games without conflict are dull. Of course you can define conflict in the true sense as being a shoot out or a physical struggle or you can express conflict as more of a struggle against time or resources. Either way the concept of conflict is key.
Your game needs to constantly throw stuff at you and you as the player must control the game such that you overcome all of it.

Your enemy should provide all of this.

Whether you define the enemy as an array of aliens, a wall of bricks or a ticking clock they should all seek to get the better of you by taking your goals and doing their utmost to prevent you from achieving them.

The better arcade games offered variety in the design of the enemy.
PacMan (again) with its varying ghost AI. Defender with its Baiters, Mutants and Saucers.

More recently DOOM with its mix of monsters and of course Angry Birds with its varying HP amongst the pigs.

Design is everything here.
If you have an enemy that hurls a visible bolt of magic at the player where is the best place to position it ?
If you have an enemy that seeks to crush the player where might you place it  for maximum effect ?
If you have a goal that is set against a ticking clock in say a driving game what kind of  enemy might you place in front of the player ?

It’s all about countering the interests of the player and his ultimate goal.

When you are designing your game on paper try to write down the role and actions of the enemy before you draw what it might look like.

The curve

In drama there is a simple rule that your protagonist must become something through his actions.
The simplest example I could find is the young farm boy Luke Skywalker in Star Wars who dreams of flying starfighters and taking on the Empire. Of course not only did he do that but he also had very close links to the Empire. Luke’s character curve (or arc) was quite pronounced and extremely satisfying for the viewer to consume.

In games we should strive to achieve the same thing. Whether we control a physical avatar or simply manipulate the contents of the screen we should ultimately feel like we have come from humble origins and through our actions – and hence increasing skill – have become something quite special such that we can take on anything that the game can hurl at us.

The game therefore, for its part, should naturally hurl everything it can at us by this stage.

A player needs to be tested at all times and then rewarded.
The “curve” that the player experiences can then be measured by their accumulation of rewards.

In modern FPS games you see this done with bigger weapons, greater ammo capacity and tougher adversaries. Well, bigger adversaries with higher HP. FPS games are frequently dull since they fail to move beyond this dynamic for progressing the protagonist through his curve.

In shoot ’em ups, another fine example of the character curve in action, you cannot get away with simply throwing bigger, faster and more deadly aliens at the player without first preparing the player with such things as shields, laser improvements and smart bombs.

More often than not your character curve is identifiable through the staging of your game’s content in the later stages. By virtue of the fact that your character is sat amongst complex enemy AI with all manner of obstacles in his path is evidence that the player has taken that journey and accumulated all the rewards en route.

So when you’re designing your game consider a snapshot of how you imagine your game or character / screen to look in the final shot (if of course your game ever ends !) and overlay that with the very first view of the game that the player saw.
If the two images look similar you may want to re-think some of the obstacles and goals.


Hopefully these thoughts will help you to lay the foundations of your game.
Designing games is a huge amount of fun. Coming up with the various levels, obstacles and game “personalities” is what makes it such a thrilling exercise.
Realising that your game is dull and devoid of challenges at a late stage in its development is no fun at all and extremely frustrating.

I believe that anybody can design a fun game. It’s not the preserve of large corporate entities and 5 minute wonder studios.

5 reasons why classic arcade games are relevant to mobile game design

Anyone who has read my blogged blitherings before will know how pre-occupied I am with the importance of the video game arcades of yesteryear.
Arcade game designers did not have the luxury of being able to present protracted stories through endless cut-scenes and fancy cinematics. Their task was to entertain the player and take as many coins as possible.

The latter is perhaps the key to why arcade games are so relevant to modern mobile game design since by definition it is an exercise in keeping game times short and thrilling.
So just how did they do it ? Why were some games more appealing and revered amongst gamers as others.

Here I offer 5 basic reasons why I think the lore of classic arcade game design is relevant to the design of modern mobile games. I’m by no means an expert but through my observations I’ve also managed to come up with what may be some useful tips on designing your own mobile games.

1. Attract

Anybody old enough to remember the heyday of the video game arcade will probably remember the sights and sounds that greeted you as you stepped in clutching your fistful of coins.
It was giddying to say the least. Especially when faced with a selection of new cabinets.
I remember fondly the times I spent treading the boards of the local arcade hunting for that one machine to which  I would offer my coin  in return for a few minutes of pure pixellated thrills.
The cabinets had a life all of their own as they jostled, beeped, whined and occasionally spoke to you  to attract your attention.
Every game had its attract mode. That brief glimpse you got to view the game for free.
Some of the better games had an audible identity that set them aside from the all too generic laser bleeps of most.

Defender’s electronic wind-up sound, Galaxians’ diving alien sound, Spy Hunter’s stunning Peter Gunn soundtrack…

It was perhaps the effective use of sound that attracted me most. Perhaps I hunted with my ears far before I’d engaged my eyes.

In some cases it was about the cabinet itself.
Who could forget the striking 6 foot alien that adorned the side of the Space Invaders cabinet ?

What’s important is that the game had to get you in. It had to pull you toward it such that you were close enough to see what it had to offer. By the time you’d got to within a foot of the cabinet you were probably more concerned with the controls than anything else. Just how damned hard is this thing going to be ? I sure as hell don’t want to waste a coin on trying to figure out how to control the blessed thing !

For me there is a valuable lesson to be learned here in attracting a player to your game.
In the ever-expanding app stores that we see for games on the web your title has to stand out as being attractive, playable, controllable and of course entertaining. You don’t get much time to sell your wares. The app stores are full of 3 minute thrills.

My tip: design your game to look good in ANY screenshot. Even the title screen.

2. Accessibility

In anything that we do in life we are most likely to shy away from anything that looks confusing.
This is a huge concern for game designers and was a huge issue for arcade game designers. The spaghetti fingered controls of Defender aside most games kept it very straight forward.
Indeed you could glance at a game’s control system and instantly know that you were going to enjoy playing the game.
Early games employed a single stick and a single button. This simplicity was vital and of course enforced on the designer. The same limitations apply today. Especially on hand-held devices where a certain amount of improvisation is required in terms of controlling the action.

Later games with better capacity provided brief tutorials on how to control the game.
Useful but probably rarely read through in any detail.
A huge factor in enjoying an arcade game was being able to instantly pick up the controls and feel like it was all very natural.

But it’s not just about controls. Where do you start your game ? Are you hurled straight in to chaos ?
Nothing is going to irritate a gamer more than standing absolutely no chance from the outset. All your hard work in designing the game’s numerous wonderful scenarios will be wasted if you turn your audience away within 30 seconds.

My tip: provide the player with a safe zone on entry. Before you unleash hell on him with countless dive-bombing aliens let him have a period of calm as he uses common sense to fiddle with the controls. In a shoot ’em up, for example, I like to give the player a few seconds to move around and shoot at nothing before I introduce the cast.

3. Continually dangle the carrots

Take all your fantastic game ideas, implement them, play them, remove the duds and then concentrate it all down for maximum effect.
If, for example, you have the wonderful idea of a power-up that the player receives  for collecting certain items make sure that you constantly remind him that this is a goal to be achieved. Don’t let the player forget about all your wonderful little ideas.

Some of the most effective arcade games had that one game-changing element – the power-up. That single item that when collected gave you complete control over your adversaries.

Pac-Man is the epitome of this. Everybody knows that eating the larger energy dot gives you the edge. It’s pretty obvious and is always in view. It’s something to aim for even though at times you find yourself in a sticky situation. You’re being chased by Pinky (or whichever one did all the chasing) but you know full well that if you could get to that larger dot the tables will be turned. Excellent design.

My tip: constantly drip feed the small bonus items that comprise a much larger benefit to the player. Don’t let them forget what they’re aiming for. When all smaller items are collected hit the player with his well earned benefit. Remind the player that bonuses really are worth aiming for.

4. Keep it obvious

Any game where a single character / avatar stands out by virtue of the fact that they are visibly different to everything else on screen is going to help the player understand what is required of them. A quick glimpse on screen and a quick glimpse down to the controls ought to be enough for a potential player to take that all important step up to your game.

Gamers are (or can be) very lazy. They expect much of the hard brain work to have been done by the designer. For the gamer it is all about picking up the controls and just getting on with it. Gamers want breaks. If they fall off the edge of the cliff with their first attempt at steering the car they don’t want to be told it’s GAME OVER.

By virtue of the fact that the car COULD leave the cliff on the first bend within 10 seconds of game time ought to suggest to the player that this is a relatively safe action but something they should get very used to. It’s going to be a common feature in the game and not going to get any easier.

As the old Atari mantra used to read – simple to learn, hard to master.

Every successful video game has this underlining its design.

Modern classics such as Angry Birds epitomise it.

Much of the art of keeping things obvious is in the presentation.
If you have a squadron of aliens hovering in formation above a solitary gunship at the base of the screen it’s pretty obvious what’s going to be expected of the player.
Similarly if you see your kung-fu character standing directly opposite a similar looking character it’s pretty obvious what you’re in for.

As mentioned previously helping the player to become familiar with your game is vital to it being adopted and enjoyed. It’s also  key to it being played time and time again.

My tip: in your game’s artwork consider a visual separation between the player’s character / avatar and the rest of the game’s characters. Also consider the staging of the action. If possible visibly divide the screen up in to the player’s zone and the enemy’s zone. The latter is not always relevant but useful where possible.

5. Reward everything

Take your basic actions – movement, shooting, jumping, implement them and then play with them. Make them 10x more fun. Exaggerate them and provide as much audio / visual feedback as possible. Reward every action and every consequence in as flamboyant a manner as the platform allows.

Again I go back to Defender.
Hit the fire button – stream of multi-coloured lasers thrash across the screen – satisfying electronic laser sound – alien explodes in to a million shards – satisfying explosion sound.
Make it count that the player has just performed the most trivial of actions. Reward everything !

It might seem silly to you to do nothing more than present a simple “puff” of orange when the enemy has been shot but the rewards to the player of seeing a shower of debris are enormous.

Rewards in games are not limited to collecting things or completing challenges. Rewards extend to just about everything that a player is doing in a game.

It’s not a classic arcade game but consider the process of shooting an Imp with a shotgun in DOOM.
Aim, hit fire button,  deep gunshot sound, imp falls in shower of blood, visual reloading of shotgun with accompanying sound.
You could take this scenario a step further by suggesting that the shotgun going off is actually a wake-up call to nearby monsters. This in itself is rewarding the player since it brings on a whole new level of chaos ready for the player to deal with. And all that the player had to do is press his fire button. Beautiful game design.

In the arcades there were many genres that lent themselves to rewarding the player in style. But none were as instantly satisfying as the shoot and destroy approach of Space Invaders and its clones.

Later shoot ’em ups delivered visual rewards in spades.
The combination of  lasers and explosions can quite often leave the player feeling a little confused but there’s something utterly mesmerising about watching it all unfold on screen. Patterns of lasers resulting in patterns of explosions against the rippling patterns of an alien formation that litters the screen with patterns of falling bombs.

This is a huge visual reward since everything that the player does effects the pattern.

My tip: create as much of a “safe” visual experience as the platform will allow. If you eliminate something from the screen don’t simply remove it – destroy it. Throw single pixels around at the very least. Better still accompany its removal with a satisfying and relevant sound effect. Subconsciously the player will seek to repeat this as quickly as possible since it is an enormously satisfying experience. But never force the player to have to handle the fallout of the action.

I hope that my thoughts meet with your own somewhere down the line. Or at least prompt some thoughts. If that is the case please feel free to share your comments.
This article is not meant to be an “how to design an arcade game” more an insight in to the observations I have made whilst researching the classic games of the arcades.

As mobile platforms evolve and their games mature it may be surprising just how relevant the design ethos of arcade games from 25 – 30 years ago are.

Whatever game you design the most important thing is to have fun. If you’re enjoying it you can be pretty sure that there will be an appreciative audience somewhere.

More on designing games for mobile devices

I have for a long time been pre-occupied with the idea that the key to game design can be represented via a simple formula. Or at the very least a simple rule.
It is of course nonsense. What works for one person will not necessarily work for another. I for one love the painfully addictive experience of Angry Birds. Others will hate it.

I once read a short article by John Romero where he considered that as gamers we all seek to tidy. Citing such classics as PacMan and Space Invaders it seemed quite plausable that there was some truth in it. But I was struggling with the idea. Initially I couldn’t think of anything to counter the argument but then it came to me – Grand Theft Auto.

In GTA you not only seek to cause pure chaos you are rewarded heavily for it. Admittedly you  could argue that assassinating rival gang lords is a form of cleansing or tidying but ultimately the game is much more than that. I lost count of the amount of times I’d deliberately angered the FBI to get up to the maximum number of stars (wanted status).
Simply executing innocent people and piling up vehicles in the street was pure entertainment. Wrong, of course, but pure joy.

Angry Birds is another example. You don’t so much tidy anything as destroy the entire scene.

But I didn’t want to lose sight of the original argument – that we as gamers seek to tidy.

The hedonics of gaming fascinate me. Where is the fun ? What do we call entertaining and pleasurable in a game ?

Naturally the way we interact with a game dictates a huge amount of where we derive our pleasure from.
On modern smart devices such as iPad we are limited to touch. Touch is of course the ultimate in feedback since it is a direct interaction with the source. Yes you are touching glass but ultimately you are able to do something so natural it feels as though you are at one with the device. In terms of pleasure this has to score highly.

The Android powered HTC Desire smartphone takes it a step further. Touch input is often rewarded with a gentle buzz. Not only is this pleasurable as a reward it is also informing us of something. An action. An immediate response to something quite positive that we just did.

But what action on screen most accurately rewards the physical action of touching glass ?

I suppose to touch a balloon and watch it pop would be satisfying. As would swiping a hammer across the screen and seeing several glass bottles shatter to nothing.
Would it be satisfying to touch the screen and leave a trail of debris behind you ? Perhaps you touch a number of tanks that each hold a liquid. When you press them they unload their contents and fill the screen. Is that as satisfying as removing the contents of the tanks ?

I suspect that the process of touching the screen best lends itself to the theory of removing content. By whatever means. Be it destruction or a simple “pop” and you’re gone approach.

I think another  starting point for where we find fun in mobile games has to be the timeframes that we allow for playing them. Although many of us play our mobile games sat in comfort at home or at work for many there is probably an urge to “have a go” on the train or bus in to the office. I generally assume that a gamer’s allotted time for playing a mobile game is somewhere around 10 – 15 minutes.

Certainly by that time the player would want to have achieved something and been rewarded in spades for his efforts.
Once you set yourself up to play a mobile game your mindset is one of “quick thrills” –  I’ll just have a dip in to this and see how great I can be.

Classic arcade games got this spot on.
When you drop your coin in to Defender you know you’re in for one hell of a ride. It may be nothing more than a 2 or 3 minute ride but in that time you got everything – action, destruction, pace, thrills and of course a score.
My love for arcade gaming is epitomised by Defender. The feedback to the player is immense.

Step 1 – drop the coin: player greeted to electronic acknowledgement sound
Step 2 – hit start: player greeted to electronic wind up sound
Step 3 – speed left and right: player hurled straight in to combat at high speed
Step 4 – hit lasers: player sees stream of lasers thrash out across the screen (never bettered in 30 years)
Step 5 – destroy things (even the things you’re not supposed to): player witnesses firework display as everything he blasts turns to a multicolour scattering of pixels

So much in that game came at you through your controls and the use of sound.

DOOM is a similar experience. Just launch it and go through the main menu. Every item is met with a satisfying clunk. And the Shotgun. Oh the shotgun. The sound the shotgun made was so beautiful I edited the WAD to have the chaingun use the exact same sound. Glorious.
Everything in DOOM was designed to hit you square in the face. It was immediate and could easily have been an arcade game. When you trawl the DOOM archives and see what the game could so easily have been you have to thank the game’s designers for changing direction. So much of DOOM is the way it is because it has the egos of its key designers all over it. These guys live and sweat arcade thrills and so much of their personality is on show in DOOM.

So much that was created for the arcades has its place on a short timeframe game. The hurdle to overcome is the controls.
In the arcades (certainly the older ones) the controls were two-handed. One for the stick the other for the fire button. Later of course we had alternate fire buttons.
I overcame the issue with fire buttons in HyperGunner (mobile version) with auto-fire. I instantly removed the need to hit fire and turned the game in to more of a game of avoidance. This is not uncommon.

But there’s a growing trend in mobile and casual gaming to present what I suppose used to be termed female friendly games. That is, more puzzle oriented games. We’ve all seen them. A wall of gems and shapes that you click on to remove based on how they match their neighbours. It’s mindless and repetitive and there’s not much wrong with that. But I also think it’s lazy game design. There’s so much more that we can do as designers to present a puzzle or challenge.

I have scoured the web for interviews with arcade game designers. I was lucky enough to share a couple of emails with Eugene Jarvis (creator of Defender). A couple more with Chris Crawford (legendary Atari designer) and John Romero (DOOM). These guys know exactly how to throw the right switches at the right time in a game. They push the boundaries and challenge you far beyond matching 4 orange diamonds in a row. For Chris and Eugene in particular it was about pushing the immature technology to achieve the desired results. Not to take anything away from id who of course were ground-breaking in their own way, but for John (who of course had the incomparable John Carmack at his side) it was I suspect more about working a layer above the technology to provide the best thrills and challenges. It’s all about balance and whether it’s a team or the lone developer striking balance in a game’s design is an art form and not something that comes overnight.

I am convinced that the future of mobile gaming is a large step back. But as a designer you have to be brave. I don’t for one minute mean that we should all be playing Asteroids and PacMan on our phones. More that we should observe the tricks that arcade game designers and notable designers of recent times employed to pack as much in to a short game time as possible and what’s more made you want to come back for more.

Some brief insight in to my new HTML5 game Spy Chase

Development on my “Spy Hunter” game is progressing at a rapid rate. I actually call the game Spy Chase and the player adopts the role of law enforcement on the hunt for foreign spies. It’s a high speed chase through several different environments and even includes a night section where the car’s headlights come on ! I’m pretty thrilled by it.

Spy Chase
Spy Chase back-end

It’s important for me to keep up the pace in the game since the real thrill is in closing in on the enemy. As the radar blips move closer together the enemy slowly comes in to view. When the blips collide you have captured the spy !
The more spies you capture the greater your score. That’s pretty much the size of it.

What I’m really interested in is the mechanics of the chase.

Since it’s vital for me to maintain a sense of speed with the chase I’ve been careful not to litter the road with too many obstacles. Here’s how it currently works.

Player collects flags to increase the speed of the car. The more flags the faster the road speed.
Player can also ride over a speed strip and achieve a short speed boost.

To counter the boosts I placed a couple of obstacles – an oil slick and a balloon. (I was short of inspiration that day !)

The oil slick spins the car without any control allowed from the player and resets the road speed to the default.
The balloon merely bumps the car and slows it temporarily.

Of course hitting the roadside verge also temporarily slows the car down.

This game is currently aimed purely at mobile devices so the touch screen is the only input. I’ve positioned the car about 1/3 up from the base of the screen so that the player can slide his finger left and right beneath the car without obscuring it. I think the effect is pretty tidy.

Link to follow.

New HTML5 mobile game based on an old 8-bit classic

I’m currently developing a simple driving game that takes its lead from Spy Hunter.
The format is simple. You steer a car through a cascading landscape with a varying sized road as your boundary.
If you strike the verge your car slows dramatically. If you collect the flags or hit a booster your car speeds up permanently or temporarily depending on which item you struck.
To counter the boosts you lose all your speed or spin to a stop if you hit balloons or an oil slick !
Initially I designed it to be a kind of James Bond road race much like Spy Hunter but I since decided against it. Just now it’s a lot like a rally game but I rather like the idea of out-running the police amongst other things.


The Great American Cross Country Road Race

As a kid I played The Great American Cross Country Road Race to death on my Atari 800XL. I’ll bet it’s still an awesome game to play and is certainly helping me to create a fun game just now.

When there’s a bit more to see I’ll post up a link and some screens.

Looking to the arcades again for inspiration

First up. The incomparable Spy Hunter.

A snapshot of the Atari games that have inspired me over the last 30 years