Pong Returns : Postmortem For The Atari Pong Indie Developer Challenge

Atari announced the finalists for their Pong Developer Challenge on June 26th, and we were not included on this.   Thus, our time as part of the Atari Pong Indie Developer Challenge comes to a close.   In this post-mortem we look back at what we think we did wrong, what we think we did right, and how we move on...


When Atari announced the Pong Developer Challenge a few months ago, I was initially excited.  Atari contacted us to promote the contest, and we gladly did so, as always.    However, when I read the news I had a feeling that I wanted to take part myself.    I talked it over with the other guys at Producto, and they were mildly interested.

However, the next day, when Gamasutra ran a negative story about the terms of the contest ("Why Atari's Pong Indie Developer Challenge is bad for developers" by Brian Robbins), visions of the Flash game portal days of yore came flooding back.   Flash game contests were, may times,  notoriously lopsided in favor of the portal putting on the contest.  Most of the time they gave the portals a lot of free content, and the developers lost the tight to their own work.

However, I saw this Atari contest as something different.  Atari would own all the submissions but they would essentially be Pong, so they owned the rights anyway.    It seemed that no matter what I came up with, there was no way I could use it myself, so why not submit it to Atari and see what happened?

The Name

The name of the submission came to me almost as soon as I heard about the contest.  "Pong Returns" had an obvious double meaning.  "Pong" was coming back as game, and in the game itself your job is to "return" balls coming from the right side of the screen.

Design Doc submission

When the dead line for the contest was approaching on April 15th, I only had a very slight idea about what our Pong game would be,  I wanted to create a game that paid homage to all the Atari coin-op that came between Pong and Asteroids in the 1970's.  I wanted the game to  for a single player, and I wanted it to look as retro as possible, but with a retro-evolved bent.  My modern gaming touch points were bit.trip.beat and Furu Furu Park.  I spent the entire weekend before Aprial 15th pouring all of my Pong aspirations into a 26 page design document.    Here is how I described the game in the introduction.

Tag Line: A mashed-up, fast paced, hypnotic journey through the history of Atari’s earliest coin-Ops

Introduction:  As life-long Atari fans, one thing that frustrates us is how little credit Atari gets for pioneering video games in the 1970’s.   Atari is recognized for Pong, Breakout and Asteroids as if those were the only video games made in the decade.    In reality, Atari pioneered maze games, space games, racing games, shooting games, and everything in between.    However, since most of the games were created with discrete logic chip designs without a microprocessor, they cannot be “emulated” on modern systems.  This means that few people have played the games, and thus, they don’t really understand the impact that Atari’s coin-ops had on the video game industry.

The aim of Pong Returns is to “right” this “wrong” by morphing the game of Pong into a journey through the history of Atari’s “lost” coin-op games from the 70’s.    The game starts on a familiar Pong playfield, but as the levels progress, elements are added from classic Atari coin-op games to increase the challenge and vary the game play.   At its’ heart, Pong Returns is still Pong, but by mashing-up the gameplay of Pong with elements from Atari’s coin-op history we aim to create an addictive, engrossing, and transcendental experience that plays homage to and respects Atari’s amazing history.

Inspiration: Pong Returns is inspired by the many versions of Pong that Atari released in the 70’s, and by the wealth of other coin-op games Atari created in the same time period.    At the same time, the game is inspired by such modern classics as Bit.Trip.Beat (for the single player Pong style action) and games like Furu Furu Park that mash-up elements of classic games with modern game play.

Description:  In Pong Returns the player's job is to "hit back" or "return" 11 balls per level through the from the left side to the opposite side of the screen.  On some levels, the area to get the ball “through” on the right side of the screen is limited.  Each successive level introduces new elements or obstacles that must be overcome to continue in the game.  The new elements and obstacles introduced are pulled from the history of Atari Games from the 1970’s, culminating in a battle with the seminal rocks and UFOs from Atari’s Asteroids.

Number of Players:  Pong Returns is a single player game played against computer opponents. 

Opponents: The computer “opponents” move in rhythmic patterns, and while they simulate A.I. they are not necessarily A.I. players.   Instead, players will be rewarded and encouraged to recognize the patterns of play so they can advance to higher levels.   On some levels it will be necessary to simulate A.I. to ramp the difficulty level, and this will occur on an as needed basis,

Visuals: The visuals of the game will be decidedly retro and 8-bit.  Characters designs and animations are inspired by Atari’s coin-op output from the 1970’s and stay as close to that aesthetic as possible.  However, to add variety, visuals tricks that Atari pioneered like color cycled images and audio visualizations like the ones created for Atari Video Music (see example here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NWwtZCpC2M)  will be incorporated into the backgrounds.  Also, art work from the Atari coin-op that inspires each level will be superimposed in the background of the display.

So far so good.  I described exactly the type of game I would want to play.  If Atari did not like the idea, they could stop right there and not bother with the rest.  What followed was 20 or so pages that described, in detail all of the Atari Coin-Ops that would be mashed-up with Pong for the levels in the game.  Some of them were classic Pong games by Atari, others were Atari coin ops hardly any one remembers (Shark Jaws, Jet fighter) and still others were well known classics (Asteroids).



The Pong mash-up would include class Pong game play invaded by the art and characters from Atari coin-ops through the 70's  It would be like a journey culminating with a battle against Asteroids.

You can see the entire design document here:  Pong Returns Design Document First Draft


I turned in our design document, and and figured we had no chance of getting any further.   This was my dream idea.   The opportunity to recreate and play with Atari coin-op images and game-play from the classic age was a goal unreachable, wasn't it?   I laughed it off.  It was fun to come-up with an outlandish idea.    In fact, for some of the mash-ups I had devised (i.e.  the ones for Tank and Stunt Cycle) it was not clear how I could even to pull them off:


Still, I wanted Atari to like the idea.

Mistake #1: Scope : 

Designing something that would take too much time to create.  While the mash-up idea might have been a good one, the contest deadline was short (just 4 weeks to make demo, 3 weeks to fnish the whole game).  With 20 coin-ups to mash-up, scope was just too large

The Demo

On the morning of May 1, I was very surprised to see the name "Producto Studios" listed as one of the semi-finalists in the contest.   The next round required us to create a demo and a "video".  We had about 4 weeks to complete both, and I had no idea hope I was going to get both done.  We were working on a couple in-house projects, and I was writing the content for a class on HTML5 that was due the same day as the contest entries.

Still, how hard would it be to create a demo for Pong Returns?  It was a one-player games of Pong with multiple levels.  Easy right? Well, some times things that appear easy get all tangled up when you think about them too much.

Mistake #2: Focusing On Nuances And Not Optimization

I desperately wanted to replicate the audio visualization from the Atari Video Music appliance from the 70's into the game.  Atari Video Music hooked-up to a stereo and used the wave-form of the music to display hypnotic images on the screen.

I knew that Flash had a very easy way to access the wave-form data of songs, so I made the decision to build the demo in Flash and export it to iOS.   I tested a simple version of this with some shapes moving to music on an iPad, and it appeared to work pretty well.    This was an encouraging start for the project, but it colored everything else.

The next step was to build a particle effects engine.   I wanted everything to explode in glorious particles.    I had this vision of the video music visualizations moving to the beat of some chip-tune style techno music, with particle exploding all over the place.  I still liked the idea, and in my head I wanted it to look cool, and be part of a cool game.  However, focusing on those nuances instead of game play was a huge mistake.

At the same time, while you can make some good iOS apps with Flash, the code needs to be heavily optimized for performance.   I simply did not have the time to fully optimize the game, and demo suffered because of it.  Because of this, most of the visualization and particle effects needed to be removed in the demo for performance.

Mistake #3 : I Made Pong

By the time I started to work on the actual game play, there was only about 7 days left until the contest entry was due.  Again, I was writing class materials at the same time (and in fact, flew to San Francisco to teach class the same day the contest entry was due).   I should have budgeting my time more wisely, but since this was just supposed to be a "demo", I worked feverishly to incorporate as many of the early Atari com-op games as I could with my remaining time, and did not really consider what the "final" game would be.    The idea was to hint at the game play that would be in the final game, and figure out the rest once the demo was complete. It turned out,  I was able to get Pong, Pong Doubles (two paddles), Super Pong (3 paddles) and Coupe De Monde (soccer with a goal) done with a reasonable level of accuracy, but ran out of time for much else.

When I played the game, it was okay, but it was still just Pong.    Four successive version of Pong, but still just Pong.   With my few remaining days, I  started to panic because, well,  that I had essentially made Pong.   I went back to the drawing board an worked out a concept that each "game" (Pong, Pong Doubles, etc.) would encompass four levels in the games.  The 1st level would use a computer player that moved in a repeatable pattern.  The 2nd level would be like the original game, with computer A.I., the 3rd level would be a "frenzy" where balls shot out at a regular intervals, and the 4th level would be "battle", where the walls closed-up, and the played had to destroy enemies on the screen.   At the last minute, I threw in a quick set of levels based on "Asteroids" (but used the AI ad movement from the Pong levels) just to show what that might look like in the game.   In the end, the demo had 20 levels with the promise of about 60 more once the final game was complete.

Here is a video of the actual game play.  I've restored the audio visualizations to the game screen, but other than that, it's identical to the submitted demo.

Final Thoughts

If I had the chance to start over, I don't think I would make a different game.  I would focus less on the nuances,  and more on optimization, but in the end, I was working towards making a game that I wanted to play...and one I still want to play.   I wish had had the opportunity to explore how Pong could have been mashed-up with more old Atari coin-op games, because to me it still seems like a fun idea .  Unfortunately, even though I still want to play Pong Returns  in it's final, finished form, but I will never get the chance.    I learned a lot through the process, some things that I'm already using to make new games right now.

-Steve Fulton


Pong Developer Challenge : Reality Bites

I've searched for the past few days to find comments on the Atari Pong Developer Challenge, and most everything I've read gives us a very small chance of getting any further in the contest.    The only positive comments I have seen are for AR Pong and Pong World, both very good looking games.     We knew we were taking a risk by going full-on retro-evolved with our entry, and it looks like it will not pay off.   The response to our video is telling, with 3 "dislikes" to counter 1 "like" (which is from me...how pathetic), so by all indications, we've simply made people mad.   I saw that some of the other videos were heavy on the "dislikes" as well, so it's quite possible that someone came through and just hit "dislike" on everything, but it doesn't really matter.  The reality is, we did not hit "the nostalgic Atari nerve" we were trying to reach.

Our question should have been: "Does that nostalgic Atari nerve even exist?" Our problem might be that we just love classic Atari too much.  We love Atari the same way younger generations love Nintendo and the Sony.  We don't think Atari ever got a fair shake, and we want to see it held in as high esteem as the companies that came after.   However, by doing that, we probably missed the point.  The idea was to "modernize" Pong, not drown it in hardcore nostalgia.  Still, I'm happy we stuck to our guns,  even if it means our chances are just a sliver of the size of our hopes.

Anyway, unless something drastic occurs, this will be one of my last transmissions about the contest.  I need to reflect heavily on what it all meant and why we even entered in the first place.

On the good side, I have a new HTML5 Canvas tutorial I'm working on and we have another Atari-related HTML5 Canvas game that we cannot reveal just yet.   Things are looking bright, but I today I wish they were just a bit brighter.




Atari Pong Developer Challenge : 15 Semi-Finalist Videos Posted, Ours Included

Atari has posted the finalist videos for the Pong Developer Challenge, ours included.   Only 15  of 20 videos made the cut, so either some were not up to snuff, or  five of the 20 semi-finalists did not made the deadline.  By the way, the competition looks TOUGH.
Our approach was a very traditional version of Pong, but only with one player.  It's a combination of a Bit.Trip.Beat and a game like Furu Furu Park that mashes-up coin-up game play through tons of short levels.  We decided to make our game a "trip" through the first 10  (or so) years of Atari coin-ops  because we are Atari nerds.     Unabashedly, we love old school, and we love Atari.   The music is retro,  the look and feel is retro, but the game play is evolved a bit beyond what Pong became in the 70's.    From the looks of it, our chances are really slim.  Still, we made a game that we would want to play, and we will, even if we are the only ones who ever get to see  it!

Here is out video below:



Atari Pong Developer Challenge : Crossing The Finish Line, Dreams Intact

A couple days ago was the deadline to have our demo and video submission for the Atari Pong Developer challenge .   However, since I was travelling to San Jose teach a class on the  HTML5 Canvas at Cisco this week, there is no way I could upload our submission on the day it was due.  That means I had to be finished last Monday.

I raced to the office  that morning so I could compile our app on the Mac in-house with all the proper black magic for provisioning profiles and and certificates already set-up.  Atari gave us four devices to add to the list, and I wanted to make sure it all got completed on-time before I had to leave for the airport.

There were some hiccups with Drop Box, and provisioning, but for the most part it went smoothly, and everything was submitted on time.   With little drama to accompany the submission, I was left trying to figure out what it all meant.

My original intention when submitting a game to the contest was to see if the modern Atari had any interest in my "left of center" bizarre ideas about "post-retro" and "retro evolved" games.   The design document I submitted originally was was basically a take on bit.trip.beat with the levels inspired by Atari's vast collections of coin-up games from the 70's .  Games that many people have never so much as seen, nor played.

They liked the concept (with some reservations), ad then it was my turn to create a demo.   The demo should have been "easy" to make, but it turned out to be much more difficult that I planned.    It's was supposed to be Pong mashed-up with other Atari coin-ops, but by the time I finished the initial engine, it became "Pong Mashed-up with other Pong coin-ops"....or simply. Pong.    At the last minute I threw-in a set of levels based on "Asteroids" just to show what that kind of mash-up might look like.   Now don't get me wrong, the game played exactly like I intended, but maybe just a bit too close to one-player version of Pong.

Another concession I had to make was to remove the "audio visualization" from the game screen.  These were dynamic run-time created animations based on the song that was currently playing.  They were placed in the background to give the game a hypnotic feel to go along with the techno soundtrack.  In the allotted time, I simply could not optimize them enough to keep the game running at an acceptable frame rate, so I moved them to the between level screen.  They still work, but they ae just not as impressive as if they lived on the actual game screen.

To make-up for this omission, I tried to cram as much content in as possible,   I finished 20 levels, added a trainer, upgrades to buy (simulated in this version) between level introductions to the coin-ops with bits of Atari history, color-cycling Atari animations, an FPO art design borrowed directly from the Atari Space Race arcade flyer, and probably a few other touches that I'm  forgetting, but it was all deeply steeped in Atari nostalgia.

We also were required to create a video for our submission.  I was not sure how to proceed with this at first, but ultimately it became a  another nostalgia piece.  A mostly black and white video punctuated with the audio visualizations and game-play footage, with logos and Atari game flyers moving quickly by  in the background.  If anything I tipped my hand as being a huge Atari-Nerd,   which may or may not be a detriment.  At any rate the video shows how I wanted the game to look if I could get it optimized.

When my dad was my age, back in about 1970, he decided to start a new hobby: racing motorcycles.  He always wanted to race motorcycles, but he had to wait until his 40's when he had the extra  time and internal fortitude to make it a reality.   My dad was pretty good at riding motor-cycles.   He was the oldest guy (by far) in his Motorcycle Club (The Dusters), and he never won any races.  However, he kept doing it, with one plan in mind: to finish the races.    He did not finish a lot of races, but in one of them, not only did he finish, but he came in 3rd place.  He received a tiny trophy (the only trophy he ever received) and that he put up on desk, where it gathered dust for 30 years.   The trophy and the placment didn't matter.  He did what he set out to do, he finished.  The rest was frosting.

It was a great lesson to learn from him.     In fact, the past month has been like a weird Atari dream for me.  I've always wanted to "work" for Atari in some capacity, and the time between the announcements of semi-finalists and the demo submission deadline, I was living in a state of "Atari" consciousness.  They liked my design document (which was promising), now all I had to do was get them a demo by June 5th.      While my ultimate dream would be to win, I have to be realistic, I probably have no real chance to win the Pong Developer Challenge.  However, I still feel like a winner.  My dream of "working" for Atari came true, even if it was in a very odd and not altogether straightforward way, but then maybe most dreams are realized in ways we never imagined.  And after all, I did manage to cross the finish-line (for the demo portion anyway), and that feels like some kind of win, even if it's just in my head.






Atari Pong Developer Challenge Inspiration: Pong In The Wild At The Redondo Beach Fun Factory

Redono Beach Fun Factory

Today I took my daughter to the last remaining arcade from my youth, the Redondo Beach Fun Factory.  I wanted to give her a chance to ride some of the vintage  electro-mechanical vehicles in the establishment before they all disappear.   While we were there, I went looking for an Atari Hercules p'inball machine that they had for many years, but it was no where to be found.   However, in the back corner,   I was surprised to find a genuine, working,  Atari Pong machine (circa 1973).

Atari Pong In The Wild

The machine was standing in cluster of vintage and vintage inspired machines.  However, in the position you can see just how small the machine looks next to a relative giant like Asteroids Deluxe.   I got closer to the machine because I wanted to see if it had the original instruction of "Avoid Missing Ball For High Score" and in fact, it did.

Avoid Missing Ball For High Score

I also noticed the original Atari logo etched into the metal control plate.  I had forgotten about this early version of the logo.  I think I need to incorporate it somehow into our Atari Pong Developer Challenge Entry

Vintage Atari Logo

I realize that people who go to vintage gaming shows see these machines all the time, but not me.  I've never been to any kind of classic gaming show, so for me this was quite a sight to see.  At the same time, this machine was in the wild.  It's not the kind of machine that is kept in bubble wrap and cleaned with baby diaper on Sunday afternoons.   The Redondo Beach Fun Factory is not exactly a museum.    It caters to hardcore  "L.A."crowd that does not exactly treat these games like antiques or collectibles.   For instance, the vintage Space Invaders machine had some nastly grafitti scratched into the front glass:

Grafitti Scratched into Space Invaders (click to see a bigger version)

So seeing a working, vintage Pong machine  at this place was kind of shocking.  Since the original Pong is a two player game only, I challenged my daughter to a game. This was the first time I actually put a quarter into a real Atari pong machine.  I've played Pong ion the past, but always knockoffs, never the original Atari version.

Atari Pong Game In Action

The controls were not very responsive (the original knobs were missing), and there was a video glitch on the screen (visible above), but it was still thrilling to play an original Atari Pong machine in a setting that has changed very little since the game was first released.   It came at a perfect time, and it gave me a couple ideas for our Pong game entry.


Atari Pong Developer Challenge Diary: What The Radio Shack “TV Scoreboard” Taught Me About Game Design.

One day, back in 1978 my dad came home with this:

A Radio Shack, TV Scoreboard console.   We had been begging my dad to let us play the Atari 2600 console in the TV department at Fedmart on every visit, so he knew we liked video games.  However my dad, a notorious cheapskate, was not about to plunk down $169.99 on anything.  $19.99 price-point of the TV Scoreboard was more his speed.  However, even $19.99 was probably too much.  i'm sure this came from the dirt-cheap bargain bin from Radio Shack.

At first, my 8 year old twin brother brother and I were really excited.    The idea of having a video game of my own to play was enough to rocket me out of bed in the morning and into the living room to try it out.

Of course, this taught me my first lesson about video games.  If no one else was awake, there was no one to play with.   The TV Scoreboard had a "Squash" option that let a single player hit a ball against the wall, but I never found that game very interesting.  I wanted to play "pong", and if no one was around, no dice.

When my brother was awake, and we actually played the unit, the second major issue reared its' head: sound.  Like most dedicated "pong" consoles, the limited sound of the TV Scoreboard   came from the unit itself, not from the TV.  This made the already lo-fi beeps and boops even more annoying than I thought possible.  We very quickly learned to shut the sound off, and play in silence.   While the "pong" style game play of the unit was solid, nuances (like bad sound) ruined the experience.

The third thing I learned from the TV scoreboard was that "ping pong" games were not really all that much fun.  Maybe six years earlier, when Pong first arrived, the game was thrilling, but in 1978, with Space Invaders filling the local arcades, the "ping pong" game play of the "TV Score-bored" (as it came to be known) was just not compelling enough.

Those three lessons: the need for  compelling single player game play, the importance of nuances in games, and the need for evolving game play, have colored the design for the Pong game we are making for the Atari Pong Developer Challenge.  I hope we can do those hard learned rules some justice with our entry.

By the way, the "TV Score-bored" stopped displaying video after a few weeks, but since the sound came out of the unit and not the TV,  I could still "play" it by starting a game and listening for the sounds and moving the paddles.  If I managed to "hit" a ball,a distinctive beep would sound, and I felt totally victorious for few seconds.  On the other hand, my dad felt "taken" by the "cheap-o" device after it failed do quickly.   It would be several years before another video game system entered our house.



Atari Pong Developer Challenge Inspiration Video #1

Here is a video we created to help inspire our team while we work on our entry for the semi-final round of the Atari Pong Developer Challenge.   We used a classic Atari color cycling Fuji symbol (of our own design) with images of some of Atari's early Pong coin operated games.  The music is a quick track made with Sony Acid.



Semifinals, Here We Come! Producto Studios Makes It Into The Next Round Of The Atari Pong Developer Challenge!

By Steve Fulton

Atari announced the semifinalists for their Pong Developer Challenge today, and Producto/8bitrocket Studios made the cut!   Now we have to actually make the game we designed.   I can't wait to get started!


Atari Pong Developer Challenge Semi Finalist Announcement Postponed A Week

According to Pocket Gamer, Atari is overwhelmed with entries (87 in all) so they are delaying the announcement of the semi-finalists until May 1st.   This gives me an extra week to formulate bizarre Atari dreams and worry myself sick before we hear the news.   With 87 ideas floating around over there at the Atari HQ, we have a less than 20% chance (based on pure numbers) to make it to the next round.  Plus, many of those entries probably included demos, while ours did not.

Still, I'm happy with  the design of our entry, as it is something I would love to play myself, so I hope that is enough to get us through.  If not, we'll probably share our idea here next week. Then you, our faithful readers, can judge its relative' merits on your own.




Death, Disappointment And Pong Dreams : The Atari Pong Developer Challenge Is Getting Into My Head

Tomorrow, Atari announces the semi-finalists in their Pong Developer Challenge.   I had planned to create a demo for the contest, but instead, got sucked into writing a design document that took me the better part of a week, and the demo never materialized.  I felt really good about it, until I started the submission process on Atari's site. When filling out the form, there was a box to check if you had a demo to submit.  For some reason, unbeknownst to myself, I checked the box.  I don't remember checking it, but for some reason, I did.

I was really pleased with our submission until Atari sent us an email asking to see our demo.  "Frack!" I thought, we'll have to email them back and say there is no demo.  It's always great to disappoint people running a contest with your very first interaction.

I hadn't really thought about this submission faux pas, until last night, when I had a vivid dream about the contest.  I was in a room with all the entries from other developers.  Each submission was housed in an ornate wood box with the name of the developer stamped into a golden metal plate on the front panel.  The boxes were all beautiful, handcrafted, and stunningly attractive.  I scanned the names on the boxes to find ours, but it was not there.   Of course not, they contained demos!  We did not submit one.

In my dream I looked done onto a table, and saw a cheap blue folder, the kind that I would have used for term paper in college.  Written on the front on a an Avery label was:  "Pong Returns, Producto Studios, Steve Fulton" .    It was the only folder on the table.  Obviously, we were the only ones to not submit a demo  I surmised, then, this was the table of disappointments.  There was a post-it note attached to the folder.  I tried to read it, but as my eyes focused on the words, I began to fall through a tunnel, and then I woke up.

When I opened my eyes, I instantly knew where I had seen those ornate wooden boxes before.  At the cemetery last year, when we were making plans for my dad's ashes, I insisted that they be delivered in a wooden box with a  carving of a mountain forest on the front.  Even though we planned to have my dad's ashes spread over the desert, I still wanted him to come home in something nice to stay in while we made plans.    My fondest memories of him are from the time we spent outdoors, so it seemed appropriate.  If we had not bought that box, he would have come home in cheap blue box, with his name written on an Avery label on the front.    The folder on the table in my dream reminded me of one of those boxes: sad, nondescript, and disappointing.

We find out tomorrow if we move to the next level of the Pong Developer Challenge.  If my dream is any indication, this will be the next to last diary entry for the Atari Pong Developer Challenge.  However, there still might be hope.  What was written on the post-it note I could not read in my dream?    Was it some kind of encouragement or warning  from my sub-conscience?   Of course, it was all just a dream right?  A mix long past memories and recent events fueled by fatigue and  my late night snack of Wheat Thins and Fig Newtons.     It doesn't mean anything.






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