What Indie Game Developers Can Learn From Jordon Mechner’s Book “The Making Of Karateka”

Capture I've always been a huge fan of Jordon Mechner's Karateka.  Released in late 1984, it was one of the major  games that bridged the gap between the pure arcade games of "Golden Age of Atari" and the richer story telling of the "Nintendo Age."  Written for the Apple II, the game became a #1 hit, was  released on every platform available at the time, and has since been re-released on iOS,  Android plus re-imagined  on XBLA and PSN.   While I always found the game fairly difficult, I loved the cinematics, the animation, and the challenge the game offered.  It was head and shoulders (plus a second head and shoulders) above nearly any game of the type I played at the time, and is one of the true classics from that era.

Since the game was released by Broderbund, a well-known game company, I was never especially curious about how it was made, how it was programmed, or the story behind's its' creation. At the time,  I was a 14 year-old aspiring game programmer when Karateka was released.   I loved reading stories about people who made their own games, put them in baggies, and sold them to computer stores all by themselves.  I was just getting started, writing public domain games in BASIC for my Atari 800 and uploading them to BBS systems as manner of distribution, pretty much as indie as you could get.   I could not be bothered with the origins of a game from major company like Broderbund.

Since it came from a big software house, I just figured Karateka  was one of a slate of like-games Broderbund had in production pipe-line.  Also, I knew the game was made for Apple II and Commodore 64 first.  Since I was an Atari fan through and through,  it was difficult for me to get my head around the fact that this amazing game was not an Atari-first product.   Eventually it was released for the Atari 7800, Atari 800, and Atari ST,  but I don't think I could ever forgive the fact that it was was written for Apple and Commdore computers first.

That's the hell of being a life-long Atari fan.

Capture.2PNGIt took me 30 years, but I finally got around to finding out the origin story the game by reading Jordon Mechner's book "The Making Of Karateka."   Now I wish I had studied this game and its' story a long time ago, as I found it an essential narrative for indie game developers.

Presented in diary format, the story does not start in the glass and wood paneled halls of  a successful Marin County software company as I expected, but instead, in dorm room behind the CRT glow of an Apple II monitor. Jordon Mechner was a college student at Yale in 1982, trying his hand at writing computer games in assembly language for the Apple II.    Since this is purportedly Mechner's actual diary (and there is no reason to disbelieve him), we don't get a full back story of how he got to this point in his life.   It starts abruptly, as the reader is dropped into his thoughts about game development from the very start.   When we meet him, he's toiling away programming an arcade game named Deathbounce for the Apple II, attempting to apply lipstick to his pig in any way possible, hoping to shape it into the game he always hoped it would be.   It's not that Deathbounce is bad game, it's just a game whose time has passed.    By 1982, the arcade game era was over.  "Arcaders" (as "gamers" were called back then) had seen and played almost every combination of single-screen action games.     They were looking for more, and so it seems, was Jordon Mechner.    Eventually he gives-up on Deathbounce, as a better idea takes over:  a karate fighting game with movie-style story-telling.

From the very beginning of the story, I was struck by the universality of Mechner's plight.   I don't want to give away too much of the story, but the ending is never in doubt.  Anyone who knows the history of computer games knows that Karateka was an institution in the 80's.  It was the type of game that computer owners booted-up to make their game console owning friends green with envy.   However, Mechner's journey is the real star of the show here, and there are tons of great lessons within the text for indie game developers. I personally took away a lot of inspiration and validation of my own experiences.    Mechner's Deathbounce story is great example.  He puts so much work into the game, but eventually cuts his losses with it, and puts it aside for good.  Any game developer that has a stack of unfinshed ideas on their hard drive will instantly recognize the experience.

Mechner is obviously a smart and artistic guy with the advantage of attCapture3ending an Ivy League School, but even for him, Karateka becomes quite an achievement.   The way he describes using every resource at his disposal to create the game play, graphics, and sounds for Karateka is inspiring and not unlike the methods that many successful one or two-person game shops employ today.    Mechner also describes in detail, the struggle between programming a game on contract, and finishing his work on Karateka.  Anyone who has tried to run an indie game shop, attempting to bring their ideas to life while funding them with outside work will instantly recognize the situation.   At the same time, Mechner's struggles with self-doubt, insecurity, and the feeling that he has somehow "missed the golden era" should ring true with anyone who has ever made game in the ever-changing technology landscape.

Eventually Mechner does join-up with the "big game company" Broderbund,  after many months of working on his own, but even that experience mirrors the modern world.  The in-house programmers Mechner meets at Broderbund feel over-worked and unappreciated.  Everyone seems to be looking for a way out and a chance to make it on their own.   However, Mechner loves the camaraderie of making games with a team, and nicely juxtaposes his life as a dorm-room coder to his life meeting fellow developers and coming out of his shell at while trying to finish Karateka at Broderbund.

Karateka was not a game made overnight, and this is another great lesson for indie game developers in the mobile/digital age.  At first, Mechner believes it will take just a few months to develop, but as he gets further and further into the project, he realizes just how much work is involved in creating such an epic contest.  If he produced only the basic Karate game he planned at the outset, and then sold it to a publisher, he would have made a little money, but the game could (and would) have been easily copied by other programmers and made for other systems.   Instead, he poured 2 years of hard work into a game that was so advanced for the time in every possible way, it was almost impossible to clone without great effort.

While the story is more than 30 years old, the parallels in The Making Of Karateka to developing indie games today are uncanny.     For me, reading it was an experience of universal truth, validation, and exhilaration at the unfolding story of struggle and success.  Technology always changes.  Platforms rise and fall.  Companies go in and put of business.  However, the drive of a single person with a unique vision is at the heart of making great games.   Reading about Jordon Mechner's struggle to bring Karateka to life is at once both inspirational and cathartic.  It should be required reading for any developer currently toiling in the modern game industry.

The book is available at Amazon.





Random Game Idea : A Twitter Feed To Spark Your Imagination

Over the weekend we were playing with Twitter Bots (why? Because.) and we created a Twitter account named @randomgameidea with a Twitter bot that tweets a randomized game idea every hour.  These ideas are completely random.  The bot uses an updated set of data that was once housed in our GameStorm idea generator.    Also, if you tweet anything to @randomgameidea, it will respond with an idea just for you.  There are literally, trillions of possible combinations.  Most are useless, but...


Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 11.24.27 AM


What Was I thinking? The Existential Cognitive Dissonance Of Updating Old Code

My new blog on Gamasutra: What Was I thinking? The Existential Cognitive Dissonance Of Updating Old Code

"Updating old code, especially code I have not touched in nearly a decade is like a ride in a time machine.  A really crappy time machine that only highlights my mistakes makes me feel like an idiot."

Read the whole ugly story here.



What Is A Game Box Worth?

I have a new blog over at Gamasutra named "What Is a Game Box Worth":

"... when I finally went "indie", thrust into a world where everything is digitally delivered, you would think that I would feel at home, right?    The truth is , I still longed for that elusive "box".   There is something about having a box that supplies a perceived value that does not exist in the digital space.   

I had box envy."

read it here: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/SteveFulton/20120924/178162/What_Is_A_Game_Box_Worth.php





A Completely Anecdotal Account Of Why The Wii U Might Not Matter To The Next Generation

Another Gamasutra blog went up today :

A Completely Anecdotal Account Of Why The Wii U Might Not Matter To The Next Generation

Usually when I write Nintendo stuff, fan boys get enraged....





Tongva Chief : Game Design Diary #1 : Gamasutra Blog

8bitsteve Here.

I was invited earlier this year to create an expert blog on Gamasutra.  So far, I've mostly posted  "greatest hits" from the past few years of this site.  however, today I posted my first original blog about a new game I am designing named "Tongva Chief".

I'm not sure if that type of blog post at Gamasutra will be interesting to anyone, but I'm about to find out.  Please go over and take a look:



Why I think Side-By-Side Gaming On Mobile Devices Would Benefit Young Children

By Jeff Fulton

The modern-school playground, sans technology, not-that-different from-1977 and what game developers can learn from it.

My mornings are usually very busy. Normally I am up and out by 6:30 for a work out or training for a race (or injury recovery) and then I hit the Producto Studios office by about 9:00 or 9:30.  Once there, we work on projects, meet clients, think of game ideas, do RFP responses, re-write chapters, learn new technologies, try to play the latest games (both board, video, tablet), keep up on the latest news, etc. I try to leave the office about 4:00 - 4:30, but when I get home, the lap-top is re-set up and in-between trying to to re-connect with my two young sons and my wife,  I always have my eye on the iPhone or my email, or my thoughts are usually consumed with what project has just finished, what is coming next, and whether or not I have actually trained my body well enough to stave off injury and progress to the next level in my running career.  Sleep is a luxury and special time with my two boys a premium that I don't take lightly.


Atari Pong Development Challenge Diary #3: On The Shoulders Of Giants

By Steve Fulton

We spent the last day of our short trip to Yosemite visiting the Mariposa Grove, an expansive area with a collection of giant Sequoia trees in the southern part of the National park.  As we walked through the grove, crunching through the spring snow in our water-proof hiking shoes, my mind was far away from programming, games, or the Atari Pong Development Challenge.

Mariposa Grove is an odd sort of Redwood forest.  Unlike the overwhelming expanse of giant trees in Sequoia National Park, Redwood National Park, or even the Santa Cruz mountains, the the giant trees of Yosemite are sparse and hard to find.   The long hiking paths meander through the trees as a way of locating the remaining spectacles, which are few and far between.  When you see a giant tree, it stands out against other trees in the forest forming  a striking figure.     Since logging was a huge business in the area in the 1800's, it was apparent that few remaining giant redwoods in the grove were saved when the National Park was formed.    My mind wandered back to imagine just what the grove might have looked like if every tree was giant.   What a magnificent scene that would have made.

When we reached the Grizzly Tree, one of the few true giants in the grove a thought struck me.    The few remaining giant trees reminded me of the  my heroes, the giants of the early video game industry:  Alcorn, Baer, Bushnell, Crane, Crawford, Fulop, Harris, Jarvis, Logg,  and Robinett  just to name a few.   The industry they built was clear-cut in 80's and decimated...yet they still remain, standing tall, scattered among the multitudes and throngs of upstart game designers and developers that arrived in their wake.

I'm one of those upstarts.  Not at all famous, and not nearly as accomplished as I'd like to imagine, but inspired by the giant veterans of the video game world  to try to accomplish great things.  For me, the Atari Pong Game Development Challenge comes down to just this: standing on the shoulders of giants and building on what came before to make something new.  The game of Pong might need to be "re-imagined" for a 21st Century audience, but I can't forget what made it great in the first place.    There was a simple elegance to the instructions that were pasted to the first Pong machines that read:  "avoid missing ball for high score."     Those words, and the idea that inspired them, are what made Pong a  game great, and in turn, what made video games into a phenomenon that still exists today.     They will guide me as I work to finish my prototype.




Atari Pong Developement Challenge Diary #2: Inspiration In Yosemite Valley

Any Photo Of Yosemite That You Change To Black And White Looks Like Sub-Par Ansel Adams Rip-Off

I'm still on my little trip with my family, trying to recharge my batteries after a year of turmoil, and hoping to find inspiration for my entry into Atari's Pong Development Challenge.  As I described in entry #1, I had already discovered I wanted to make game that played fast.  However, more inspiration was necessary.    Yesterday we made the 35 mile trek from Oakhurst to Yosemite Valley.   It was an amazing trip, as winter is now melting into spring, forming some spectacular vistas for the eyes to feast on.   When we entered the valley for the first time, we were struck by the view of valley and Bridal Vail Falls.

I also noticed that any photo of Yosemite that you filter from color to black and white looks like a crappy faux Ansel Adams rip-off, no matter how hard you try to make it seem otherwise.   However, the black and white palette was compelling to me.   The original  Pong was displayed on a black and white screen, and viewing the world through this filter might help me with my quest to design my version of Pong for the Developer Challenge.   Plus the b&w looks old school, and I love that design sensibility.

When we saw this vista, we pulled off the road (with 100's of others) and too a short hike up the side of mountain so we could a better view without the highway and

Snow Particles

buses getting in the way.  The climb was easy, but a bit slippery because there was still some melting snow collected on the edges of the path.   On the way, we let the kids stop to  make a few snow balls.   We are all from Southern California, so we rarely see snow, so I was just as excited as the kids.  I bent down and picked up some of the snow myself, and as I crunched the powder into my hands, I noticed something that made my senses come alive: particles.  Sure, they were particles of snow, but they were compelling.  The original Pong did not have particles, but a reworked version might benefit from some cool explosions filled with awesome particles.

More ideas for Pong were starting to fill my head.    I wanted the game to be fast, I wanted to keep the design as close to the original as possible, at least from a color stand-point, and I wanted it to includes lots of pixels and lots of particles.     That was a good start, but I still needed a "theme" that would take my current prototype to the next level.

The Flow Of Bridal Vail Falls In Cheap Faux Ansel Adams Mode

As we traveled further down into the valley, it was clear that the melting snow was making for some spectacular scenery.   I had seen Bridal Vail Falls several times before, but never with this much water flow or intensity.   It was thrilling and refreshing, even in the 45 degree weather, to walk right up to the falls, and feel the spray as the water flowed so effortlessly over the the cliff.  It's obvious that later in the Spring the flow of the falls will get much bigger, but combined with the rocky peaks covered with ice and snow, I could not  imagine a better setting for seeing the falls.

As we continued down into Yosemite Valley, my mind was racing with thoughts about my version of Pong.   Something about that waterfall struck me as important.     We traveled to the visitor's center (an area I like to avoid as it is sub-par compared to a relatively unknown park like Zion), and then made the short hike to Yosemite Falls.

Yosemite Falls Double Cascade

The last time I saw Yosemite Falls, it was little more than trickle dancing down the side of a steep, rocky edifice.    It looked more like someone had left a garden hose running at the top of the cliff, than a majestic, photogenic, natural wonder.  However, this time it was different.   The spring snow melt was gathering up into a powerful force, creating a an amazing double cascade.

As I watched these waterfalls, I could not miss the fact that flowing water was interesting  to me.   The way the chaos mixed with certainty made the water flow randomly, yet predictably was something I could not shake.Was that the missing "theme"I was trying to find?  Game play that flows naturally, yet unpredictably?

As we left Yosemite in the afternoon I thought my day of inspiration was over, but instead there was one more thing we saw as we exited the park down route 140.     Water falls that appeared to start and end out of no where.  They were not marked on any map, nor were there signs naming them, or turnouts on the road to allow a car to stop and take pictures.    They were just there:  majestic, incredible, and fleeting.  My family named them "magic instant waterfalls".     Little surprises that were unexpected, yet made us all feel like we had witnessed something amazing.  The best part about the "magic instant waterfalls" was that I could take no pictures of them.  They are special memories that I have to try to keep in my head, because I have no record of them otherwise.

A Fast pace, nostalgic colors,  pixels, particles, slowing game play, unpredictability and surprises.    Would all of these things add up to a good game?   It was almost  time to continue making my prototype.   But first, I wanted to take one more trip... (to be continued)



Atari Pong Developement Challenge Diary #1: A Trip To Sierra Online Ground Zero

I've been planning my entry for Atari's Pong Development Challenge for past few weeks, the but I've hit a brick wall with a few elements.  I still hope to have my working prototype done for submission on April 15th, even though the rules only require a design document.   I have no illusions about winning, so the challenge is more for myself, to see if I can the game realized and finished on time.   In a way, it feels like my passage from corporate developer to full time indie.

This week my family is visiting Yosemite National Park.   When driving to Yosemite from the south in California,  you can't help but drive through the Oakhurst, CA the old home of Sierra Online, one of the first computer game companies ever created.  Nestled in the pine trees of the Sierra's, Oakhurst  appears to be a place that once housed loggers and gold miners, not pioneering game developers.   However, as chronicled in the book Hackers by Steven Levy,  Ken and Roberta Williams moved their company there in the early 80's, and operated it for almost 2 decades.

When you drive through Oakhurst on Highway 41, you can't help feel a twinge of nostalgia for what was once a computer gaming boom town.  Unique  and top-selling games like the  Kings Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry series' were produced here along with dozens of other titles.   There was a time when a game with the name Sierra Online on it meant that it was a quality piece of entertainment.

When the company was sold in 1996, all of that evaporated. In the course of 3 years the amazing success of Sierra was flushed down the sluice box by a series of corporate blunders (as well as changing tastes in gaming).  By 1999, the operation in Oakhurst shut down, and while some work continued for Codemasters, that did not last long.   By the early 21st Century Sierra Online was forgotten in a world of the PS2, XBox, GameCube, Activision and Electronic Arts.

I have never forgotten though, and I've been up through Oakhurst several times in the past decade, each time looking for some kind of inspiration from the surroundings.  If these trees could talk, what could they tell me about designing great games?   Yesterday, we visited the Pizza Factory in Oakhurst, the pizza restaurant that has been around since Sierra opened it's doors in the city.   It's the one authentic location I could find that the designers and developers from Sierra Online might have visited back in the day.  In fact, in  Hackers , Steven Levy describes how some of the developers visited a local pizza place after work, and this appears to be the only place that dates from that time.

The interior of the Pizza Factory has been update in the past 30 years, but it's still a beer and pizza joint with sports on the TV, and a small arcade in the corner.  After eating pizza with my family (the pizza is goooooooooooood!  which was another indication that this *was* the place).  However, I felt kind of silly even thinking about it.  All remnants of Sierra Online were gone from this area.  It was just another mountain town that fed off the tourists going to the national park.

I spied a Galaga/Ms Pac-Man Anniversary machine in the arcade, and went over to try it.   The game looked normal from the outside but then I noticed that the high score was 704,000.  When I started a game of Galaga, I noticed that it had a speed-mod applied.  You could fire twice as fast as normal, and the enemy bugs flew faster too (I don't think it was quite  double speed).   I thought struck me: maybe some of those old Sierra devs still live locally, and maybe they play this machine  too.

Galaga in The Pizza Factory was a frantic, panic-filled assault that I have never experienced playing  the game before.   My daughters watched me for a bit, but it was hard for them to take.  They are used to modern games that ease you into the play, and  forgive you in ways that classic games never attempted.   By comparison,  Galaga is cold, harsh, and menacing and this double speed version was even more-so.  After they left to go back to their pizza, I continued, slamming the fire button as fast as possible and  shifting the joystick side to side, attempting to dodge and fire using my old Galaga muscle memory developed in 1982.   When I was finished, I had made it to a respectable level 14 with 140,000 points.     But beyond my score, I also formed an idea for my version of Pong.  It needs to be FAST.  I want my version to thrill players like this modded Galaga thrilled me.    Maybe my pilgrimage to the land of Sierra Online had not been so silly after all.

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