In his latest, and possibly greatest piece of writing, Tim Rogers explores the mystery of "Who Killed Video Games:A Ghost Story". It's an awesome read, even if you already know how it turns out in the end. It's hard to take just one quote, but here is a good one:
""An ex-drug-dealer (now a video game industry powerbrain) once told me that he doesn’t understand why people buy heroin. The heroin peddler isn’t even doing heroin. Like him or not, when you hear Cliff Bleszinski talk about Gears of War, he sounds — in a good way — like a weed dealer. He sounds like he endorses what he is selling. When you’re in a room with social games guys, the “I never touch the stuff” attitude is so thick you’ll need a box cutter to breathe properly."
The whole thing is a great read.
The back pages and new products sections of Electronic Games magazine in 1982 and 1983 were filled with all sorts of products, services and offers that were dubious at best, and possibly, criminal at worst. It appears that in the very early years of video games all sorts of people jumped at the chance to try to sell all manner of items to the newly minted audience of "arcaders" and "joystickers" (the terms Electronic Games editors used to refer to "gamers" in the early days). Below are some the most useless/interesting and bizarre products that we could dig up in those pages:
Asteroids Halloween Costume
Vinyl Halloween costumes emblazoned with brand-names of major products and characters were one of the very first ways kids were subjected to product placement advertising in 70's and 80's. At the time, parents willingly let their kids become walking billboards for major corporations, and paid good money for the privilege. While Halloween is an even bigger party in 2011, at least the costumes have become a subtler mix of licensed characters and zombie fantasies with a bit less over-the-top advertising.
However, in 1982, Asteroids made a terrible costume. Atari never created many proper characters that could be licensed for costumes (the Adventure dragon perhaps?), and trying to make a "space rock" into a viable Halloween monster was not a good choice. In fact, in 2008, Topless Robot named this costume the #1 on the list of the Greatest/Most Pathetic Old School Halloween Costumes. Why? Here are their words: "A clever bully could—and would—also use it as an excuse to play Asteroids by repeatedly punching you in the face" Need we say more? Even if you badly wanted this for Halloween, it was still an awful, miserable choice.
Video Maniac Sports Accessories
Believe it or not, while video games were popular in the 80's, I don't recall video game t-shirts and other related clothing to be popular at all, at least not among my friends...the super nerds who played tons of video games. In fact, I didn't own any kind of video game related t-shirt until a friend of mine found a Dig-Dug shirt at the thrift store in early 90's and gave it to me. T-shirts in general were not a big fashion item at the time, as most of us were wearing O.P. shorts and shirts.
However, this did not stop multiple companies from advertising all manner of t-shirts they hoped would appeal to the "arcaders" of the golden age. Video Maniac was one of the most enduring, with ads that ran through nearly every issue of Electronic Games. (By the way Ugo.com once named Video Maniac one of the "scrubbiest" video game advertisers of all time). The ad featured here (from 1983) is my personal favorite because the photo looks like it was taken directly from back pages of my 9th grade year-book.
These products must have been selling, but to whom? A t-shirt sold for $11.95, which was not cheap back then. Almost 30 years later,(thanks to you: systematic corporate globalization, out-sourcing, off-shoring, and world-wide labor exploitation) I can get an Atari t-shirt at Target for only $9.99 . Furthermore, who , in the totally serious, non-ironic 80's, would have worn a shirt with the words "Video Maniac" on it without the same bullies to played Asteroids on your face, using your new Video Maniac t-shirt to hang you from top of the ball cage in the boy's locker room?
The Gobbler Is Gonna Get You!
Before I leave the video game clothing aisle and more onto accessories, I would be remiss to not mention The Gobbler, a product that is wrong in so many ways, it's hard to get the point across without a good picture. Oh good, we have one. Take a look, then come back over here after your eyes have properly adjusted to the horror they have witnessed.
What. Is. THAT? Is that supposed to be a cheap Pac-Man rip-off? But, but, is that some kind of mustache...or...? I imagine that this thing had some kind of string that hung down, when pulled, made the mouth open and close to pretend to Gobble? I would then guess the idea would be to go to the arcade and chase one of the girls from the Video Maniac ad around while pulling the string and saying "The Gobbler Is gonna Get You!" Ooops, I guess you forgot that her boyfriend is one of the guys who kicked your ass for wearing an Asteroids costume over your Video Manic Muscle-T. Time to run home as fast as possible to put on your...
You know, to "improve your scores". For $2.50 plus $.50 shipping and handling you could buy... something. Thank god Koal sales in Torrance, CA registered that trademark, Whew! They saved themselves a lot of legal headaches trying to stop the massive hoards of other companies rushing into the same space and taking away their business using similar names. Oh look, they have a left hand version too. Isn't that just the same as the right-handed one, but turned over to the back-side? By the way, have you noticed that your Asteroids costume has short sleeves and no hands? You better buy a pair of Bat Mitts to make up for it.
So let's suppose that you are a tired Video Manic "arcader" who has had enough of masquerading as an Asteroid, while playing with your Gobbler and wearing a pair of Bat Mitts, and you just want to challenge your friends to a few games of Combat! in the privacy of your own house? Was there some kind of product that would help you play better? Of Course there was! You could have your "Arcade Action At Home" with the Stick Station, a $15 (or so) piece of...wood! Yes, this amazing piece of wood could do what only your left hand could do, and that's hold the base of your joystick. How did that help you? Well, you could yell "No Hand Cramps Biatches!" at your friends, while blasting their bi-planes out of the sky as they rubbed their sore mandibles and wondered just how you got so good so quickly. What was your secret? It couldn't have been the giant block of walnut finished wood in your lap, could it?
The Grand Stand
Not to be outdone, after being embarrassed by your block of wood, one of your buddies pulled the perfect gift, a " Grand Stand Joystick Stabilizer And Score Enhancer" out of his duffel bag, and the pendulum of awesome started swinging in his direction. It was a battle to the walnut finish as you struggled to fight off his Combat! jets, hand cramp-less for sure, yet still playing with your joystick in your lap with nothing for your left hand to do except hold onto its' Bat Mitt and pray for success.
You see your friend didn't need a lap any longer. The Grand Stand sat between his legs, supported by his feet, allowing him to sit comfortably and fight off your attacks with ease. Even your attempt to thwart him by making him use an oddy sized (yet superior) Wico joystick didn't help since The Grand Stand "Adapts To All Popular Joysticks", unlike your block of wood.
Back in 1982-1983, there were scores of these types of "enhancer" products designed to take your $34.95 + $2.50 shipping and handling in the hopes that they would improve your ability to play home video games. I, like others, have always wondered just how many of these types of products were sold back-in-the-day. However, what if there was a product that made all of these products moot, one that went full circle, and really brought the "arcade to your home?"
Family Arcade Enclosure
A real arcade cabinet in your house! This was the dream of many kids at the time. An arcade machine with multiple games of your own that you could play without quarters.
Of course, we already had that with our game consoles, but it didn't "feel" the same while sitting on the couch with a Grand Stand between our legs and a Stick Station in our laps... and that's because we were not standing!
You see, apparently, the most comfortable way to play (mostly) 2-player, single screen, video games for hours at home was not sitting comfortably on the couch 6 feet (at least) from your radiation spewing, electron gun equipped tube TV, it was crammed together, right next to it, trying to control your side with a joystick clamped to hunk of wobbily plywood your dad hastily constructed from $50 worth of products (oh, and $1500 worth of power tools) from Builder's Emporium specified in a set of $9.95 instructions sent from Beltsville, Maryland.
A Video Games Club
OK, so now that you have an amazing arcade at home, it's time to get some games...for free! You could do that by joining a video game club.
Since you spent all the game money you saved up to help buy the parts for (and more parts to repair) your Family Arcade At Home, there was not much left over to buy any new games. Near the end of 1982 and into 1983, most of the best Atari 2600 games were released (Pitfall!, River Raid, Vanguard, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Demon Attack ,etc.) and you needed a quick way to get the best games for your console.
A video game club where you could get free games, and discounts, plus trade games would seem like a great choice, right? Almost a dozen of these clubs appeared in the back pages of Electronic Games magazine during the first year of publication, and after reading the fine print, nearly all of them appeared to not quite be the amazing "deal" as they might have appeared at first. Video Fun and Games Inc. offered you a "free" game plus the very tangible benefits of "coupons, contests, and newsletters" all for the cheap price of $35 (and 4-6 weeks for delivery). At the time, many games cost about $24.99 $29.99 each, and shipping from mail order catalogs was $2.00-$4.00, so in essence you got a game for a bit more than it cost to buy one at the store (with tax) or mail order with shipping. Actually, this club was one of the better deals going. Others cost $20 and you got a t-shirt and coupons, but no game, and still others were a bit less with the offer of membership cards and little else.
A Job Working For The Ultimate Wiz
So after you had spent the rest of your money on that video game club, if you really wanted new games it was time to get a job. The good news was, the pages of Electronic Games magazine, while not "over-flowing" with job listings, did offer some very interesting employment opportunities. There were job listings to work at Atari, Fisher-Price, 20th Century Fox, and even offers to teach you how to repair arcade games. However the most interesting opportunity was none of those. It was a one-time advertisement offering the amazing opportunity to work with The Ultimate Wiz as an executive assistant. Apparently The Ultimate Wiz promised to be "The Master Of All Technology" and was going to create his own (uh oh!) "Club for computer WizKids." We've searched high and low to find some reference to the Ultimate Wiz other than this advertisement, but we have not found anything. Who was the Ultimate Wiz, or did his Club For Computer WizKids ever came to fruition? We just don't know. However, if the Ultimate Wiz was the Master Of All Technology, one wonders if it was he (or she) who came up with the final item on our list...
Space Willy was less a product, and more an idea or a licensing play. Aimed, by their own admission, at "Young Adults" Space Willy just might be the worst idea ever conceived.
At at time when the average age of subscribers to Electronic Games magazine was 21 years old, and even most kids who played video games (at least in my experience) played them with a ferocity and vigor as if they were striving to be adults at the same time, creating an uber nerd that looked like he could be beat-up by a 4 year old girl was not a good idea.
Space Willy looks like he just removed his Asteroids mask and was getting ready to put on his Gobbler for some "action"...and are those "Bat Mitts" he has on each hand? It appears that Space Willy was destined for a life as a major character in arcades and restaurants, but surprisingly, it never happened. Why? Because, again, it may have been the worst idea ever conceived.
In a way, Space Willy is the perfect "product" to end this list as it sums up everything about the golden age video games and how they were created, marketed, and sold. For the most part, video games became popular, not because they were marketed well, or because someone came-up with a great pitch or slogan that caught-on and swept the masses. Video games caught on because, at their core, they were a revolutionary and enjoyable way to spend time alone or with your friends. In fact, the best years of the golden age of video games were almost over when the first mass market advertising appeared in on a regular basis in Electronic Games magazine (March 1982).
Space Willy in fact, who appeared in late 1983, proves (to me anyway) why golden age video games failed in the early 80's: the business world still did not "get" what games and gamers were all about. The whole business world was not ready for the rise of video games, nor were they prepared to alter or change plans based on on the idea that they were an ever changing entertainment medium, instead of a fad to milk until kid's pockets were dry. Most video game companies did not really know what games to make, retailers didn't know which games were good, or how much of each one to buy, and marketers had no idea what or how to sell to the masses of hardcore video game fans. Thus ideas like Space Willy, video game clubs, Asteroids Halloween costumes, Batt Mitt, and the Ultimate Wiz, filled the void instead of real, solid ideas on how to move the medium of video games forward. Instead, it took a massive crash, shake-out, and financial melt-down for everyone to wise-up, get serious, and start creating the right products for the right audience.
Yesterday at the free "Flash Day" at the Unity Unite conference, the Unity team showed off their new Unity -> Flash Stage 3D converter. The product exactly what it sounds like it does: it converts 3D games built in Unity to "Molehill" compatible Stage 3D of the type supported by Adobe Flash CS5.5
The Unity team demo'd a game built in Unity that was converted, fairly quickly to a .swf. that played, pretty much the same game as that could be targeted to any of the current Unity platforms. As well as a .swf, a .swc is produced that provides an API so the Flash can communicate with the Unity produced code, and vice versa. As well, the Unity team suggested that they could provided full source (.fla, .as) of the exported game.
There were a few things missing right now (i.e Unity networking support), but for the most part, the product looked quite impressive.
I was looking through my old copies of Electronic Games, and I happened upon an editorial by Arnie Katz from the March 1983 issue. It lists the "standards" that the publication had decided to employ to make sure that they were creating the best magazine for their audience. IMHO, I believe these became the defacto standards for game journalism up until the turn of the 21st century, when the web made everyone "a game journalist". (By the way, for this exercise, the first three items, while interesting, are not as important as the last three).
By the was, we here at 8bitrocket.com are going to try to live by these standards from now on as well.
Today I purchased the iCup set of four classic Atari drinking glasses that were on clearance at Target. Instead of telling you this story, and I'm going to show it to you with a web-only exclusive photo-essay of this exciting and monumental event. Click the images for a larger picture.
What does this mean for Adobe? Well, the regular Windows 8 OS will run Flash in the web browser, so for the time being, it means nothing. However, if/when Metro-based tablets get popular (and cheap), we will probably see a huge move towards Metro being the OS of choice for "light" computing. This means there is an opening for Adobe to create a Flash-like tool for the HTML5 Canvas. As for Flash, it's still a great tool and will always be one, but it's days of complete dominance may be coming to an end.
A few weeks ago, John and I over here at Producto Studios were asked to create an interactive, single-page, Power-Point style application for a small company (in Flash). The app was to contain multiple drop-down box syle animations that revealed bullet points and a screen filled with "touch" style buttons that played animations. Some animations triggered more animations, some played continuously, and some turned off all other animations once touched and played.
We always start with Flash
There is no better tool tan Flash for rapid prototyping an app like this. Plus, we never thought we would have to get this working on the iPad. Even if we did though, Flash provides the right tools on the design and export side to get this accomplished pretty quickly.
Exporting From Flash to Use on the Canvas
Showing a Flash-Like Pre-loader
To make the pre-load a little more Flash-like, I added a Canvas text string that simply said "Loading..." while these load operations were occurring.
Mimicking Flash-Like Interactive Objects
Once the images were loaded, I created a set of generic objects to hold the properties of each type of interactive object and arrays to store them in. For example, all animation that can be clicked were placed in one array (along with x,y, width, and height) attributes. Other types of elements such as static images were placed in a separate array because they would not need to click interactions.
Detecting User Interaction On The Canvas
Detecting clicks on individual elements drawn on the Canvas is not as easy as adding an event listener (as in Flash) , so I created a function to loop through all of the interactive elements when every the Canvas was clicked and then use the x,y,width and height properties previous stored for each to check to see which was clicked.
Dirty Rect Re-Draws
I wanted to make sure that the entire canvas was not re-drawn on each animation frame, so I used that same x,y,width, and height attributes to do a "dirty-rect" back-ground replace (like a Flash screen invalidation) and re-draw. This seemed to improve the frame rate slightly and was more fun to code then simply re-drawing the entire Canvas on each update. Since some of the elements' bounding boxes "bled" into one-another, I did need to keep a list for each element of other "dirty rects" that needed to be updated.
How long it took
The entire translation from Flash interactive demo to image export to HTML5 working demo took about 4 hours of time. There were a bunch of elements to move around and the x-y coordinates from the Flash Info Panel didn't seem to line up directly with the Canvas pixel locations, so clean-up, bug fixing, and adding in the bulk of the specialized user functionality too up roughly another 4 hours.
Speed of Application Execution
The Interaction speed difference between Flash and the new HTML5 Canvas version was completely unnoticeable. They were virtually identical.
Then I posted it out our test site and tried it out on the iPad. While it did load pretty fast, the frame rate was about 1/2 that of the Safari Mac version. I upped the frame rate from 10 to 20 and this did seem to help a lot (luckily I had that option because we started in Flash at such a slow Frame Rate).
The biggest problem was the size. The 1920 width would not auto-scale to the iPad (landscape) screen so we were forced to scroll left and right to get the entire app in view and usable. I did some Safari Mobile searches and found some Meta Tags that seemed to help and some that did absolutely nothing to help at all.
The one that seemed to help the best was setting the initial scale to 50% (the iPad width is 960).
<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=0.5"/>
While this worked great size-wise, it slowed down the iteration even more. Luckuly I was still only at 20 FPS, so I upped my animation frame interval to 30 FPS and everything seemed to work ok.
The client was happy, but I was a little disappointed in how technically challenging it was to get the Safari Mobile browser to perform and scale to my liking.
What I will try for the next, similar app:
1. Design from 960 width from the beginning
2. Attempt to use CSS3 and either transforms or multiple Canvas elements to see if the speed is any better.
If you have any other ideas that might help out on a project like this in the future, please let me know. I am very interested in trying CSS3 an d multiple Canvas elements.
The word "Archon" roughly translated from Greek means the ruler of a particular nation or state. The 8-bit computer game, Archon was the king or ruler of "real-time" strategy in the early 80's well before the genre was actually "invented". While it does not bare any exact similarities to Dune II or Hegzog Zwei, the concept of using turned based strategy while playing a "general" and then twitch using action to fight battles was quite unique when it was released. Actually, despite its' popularity, very few games actually made any attempt to mimic it's extraordinary combination of game-play styles. (there were various official sequels though)
(Archon being played in the Atari 800 Win Emulator by me)
The full original title of the game was "Archon The Light and The Dark". It pitted two sets of forces in battle on a chess-like grid. One set of forces was powered by the "light" or good (let's call them the Jedi for fun) and the other side was powered by the Dark (let's call them the Sith for fun also). While the game had nothing to do with Star Wars, when we were playing it, I distictly remember pretending that the light were the Jedi and the dark the Vader led storm troopers (we really didn't have any idea what the Sith was at that time...or at least I didn't). Remember, back then, we made up Star Wars games out of almost ANYTHING. The authors all name-check the Chess scene from the original Star Wars movie as an inspiration for Archon so were we not complete out of out minds.
The original version of Archon was designed and programmed for the Atari 800 by Free Fall Associates and released by Electronic Arts in one of their original "album-cover" style game disk holders. It was pretty easy to find Atari 800 games when it was released, an I distinctly remember owning the gate-fold version with a picture of John Freeman and his wife Anne Westfall donning the inside cover.
The game was also designed by Paul Reiche III, another founding member of Freefall Associates. At the time, EA games meant celebrate everything about the designer, programmer and game in ways that I only wish were continued today. The game was released in 1983 and was such a huge hit that it was quickly ported to the Apple II, Apple II, Commodore 64, Amiga, MS-DOS, Macintosh, NES, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, PC-88, and other systems.
When you start Archon, you are given the choice of playing either the Light or Dark side and can choose either the computer or a second human player to play the opposing side. Rumor has it that the game was initially designed as a two-player only contest, but Electronic Arts insisted in adding in a single player mode. I personally find these more to be difficult, but ultimately very very useful for learning strategy to use against other human opponents. Plus, can simply let the computer play both sides and see what happens in real-time.
The game board is a 9x9 grid with the light army on one side and the dark army on the opposite side (very chess-like). Also on the grid are 5 flashing red "power" points. Which-ever side (light or dark) controls all 5 of these points will win the game. This grid is called the 'strategy' screen and when two opposing pieces move to occupy the same grid square on any turn-based round, the game switches to the "combat" screen. Here, the joystick controlled pieces must battle it out with what ever weapons and powers they have at their disposal.
Movement on the strategy screen.
Just as in chess, each of the various pieces can move in different ways. Some pieces must walk, some can fly and still other can teleport. This limits the movement of the various pieces and allows for extra strategy when you begin to realize that "light" have extra fighting powers when they engageg in battle on light squares and opposite is true for the dark pieces.
To complicate matters even more, the shading of the pieces on the board will change as one side defeats the other side in battle or captures more of the 5 power squares.
If that was all there was to Archon, it would have still made quite a nice classic game to examine and digest, But, this is just the tip of the proverbial ice berg. We haven't even touched on the combat screen yet.
In combat mode the two pieces must duke it out until with one or both (happens a lot actually) are destroyed. Each of the sides (light and dark) have 18 game pieces made up of 8 various types for each side, Like chess some of the pieces have similar powers, but unlike chess each side has special abilities that the other does not possess.
The Knight on the Light Side and the Goblin on the Dark side are basically pawns who can only move on the ground on the strategy screen and must fight hand-hand on the battle screen. The Light side also has Unicorns, Phoenixes, Golems an other minions with devastating ordinance. The Dark has has an equivalent number of power beatsies: Dragons, Trollsm Ballistics, Shape Shape-shifters (my favorite) and more .
Let's add magic into the mix:
Each side (Wizard on the light and Sorceress on the dark) can cast seven magic spells. These spells can only be cast on the strategy screen and each can only be cast one time per game. Each time a spell is cast, the caster becomes weaker and easier to kill in a one on one battle. The spells cannot be cast onto on of the 5 power squares or any piece sitting on one of those 5 squares.
Here are the 7 spells in a nut shell:
1. Teleport - move one of your own creatures to a new grid cell.
2. Heal - Heals the wounds of a creature
3. Reverse Time - Shifts the grid color shading back toward light or dark (depending on which side casts the spell)
4. Exchange - causes any two pieces to swap places on the grid.
5. Summon Elemental - Call in an Earth, Fire, Water or Air elemental to help do battle for a single game combat round.
6. Revive - Basically heals a single dead creature from your army.
7. Imprison - temporarily stops an opposing piece from moving from its square.
Needless to say, Archon was and is a classic example of combining together multiple game genre's into an enjoyable and exciting mixture to create a masterpiece of a game. There were a few sequels and even NES and PC re-makes. Some of them do capture the original's genius and even add to it, but it is this classic, completely original game design that we are celebrating and a "digesting" today.
Anne Westfall went on goto create Archon II (as well as a Pac-man clone called Tax dodge a year before the original Archon). She was creating games all the way up until 1990 when she worked on a Chessmaster game for Software Toolworks.
John Freeman worked on many games with is wife (especially one of my favorites, Murder on the Zinderneuf) and Crush Crumble and Chomp.
Paul Reiche III continues to work on games, most notably, Tony Hawks Downhill Jam (2006). He has is own site that describes all of his work and is a very interesting read.
There is also a very nice interview with the developers over at the Halcyon Days Book Site. It is interesting to note that Jon mentions both X-Com and Herzog Zwei as two of his favorite games. I am sure Archon played at least some part in inspiring both of these games.
Archon was re-released in cartridge form for the Atari 65XE Game System.
Twisted Pixel, the guys who created Gunstringer, 'Splosion Man and Ms. 'Splosion Man for the XBox 360, have revealed their secret. An Atari 800. Check out this video below:
I have to say, that so far my experience at Electrotank has been fantastic. The technology is exciting, the projects are very interesting, and the people are great. I feel like I have come "home" again after my experience at the company "that shall not be named." I have to be cautious these days about first impressions, but so far, so good.