"THE CONSTRUCTION OF|
(Appeared in the March/April 1984 issue of "Atari Age")
At the Atari Coin-Op Games Division, there is a proverbial magic bag
of game ideas, gleaned from countless brainstorming sessions over
the years, to which programmers and engineers go to begin a new
project. The ideas are usually no more than a few vague phrases or
a rough design sketch. For example, the original idea, jotted on a
file card, from which Centipede sprang, stated simply: "A segmented
worm that the player controls to crawl across the screen." From that
basic thought came one of America's most popular games ever.
A finished game often bears little resemblance to the original idea.
It sometimes seems, in fact, that selecting a game idea from the
brainstorming session files is simply a time-honored ritual among
Coin-Op game designers, adhered to for tradition's sake. But all
good games have to start somewhere, and the ideas in the Coin-Op
grabbag are often springboards for greater works of the imagination.
Crystal Castles, one of Atari's newest coin-operated videogames,
is a case in point. According to the Crystal Castles project leader,
Scott Fuller, the original game idea that he and his crew selected
was for a variation of the classic Atari game Asteroids. In the
variation, the game was to be played in a simulated three-dimensional
landscape of mountains and valleys from which the palyer would have
to avoid or destroy rocks falling from space. Since the playfield
resembled a topographical survey map, the name TOPOROIDS was
invented, from TOPOgraphics and asteROIDS. According to Scott, it
was the unpopularity of that name, that killed the original idea and
turned an outer space shoot-em-up into an adventure maze chase game.
Scott and his group retained the basic elements of the idea, though
they altered the form considerably. The rugged landscape has become
a series of elaborate castles and dungeons; the asteroids have turned
into ruby-like jewels that litter the castles' passages; and the
player is now represented by a cute but determined little teddy named
Bentley Bear. Bentley's foes still descend upon him from the sky,
but they have taken the form of witches, crystal balls, evil trees,
dancing skeletons, and swarms of angry bees.
The object of the game is for Bentley to race through the
labyrinthine castles, gathering the scattered jewels while dodging
his antagonists who are themselves trying to collect the rubies.
Franz Lanzinger was the game's programmer and is largely responsible
for how the game appears. "Franz threw in a lot of features late in
the game that made a big difference in how it turned out," Scott
asserts. "When Franz put elevators into the castles and came up
with the magic hat (which allows Bentley to become invincible for
short periods) the game really started taking shape."
Still, the game had a distance to go before it reached production.
When it was first tested in selected arcade locations, gameplay
started out high, then dropped off. The project team considered a
number of possible reasons to account for this. Players were
probably first attracted to the game by its magnificent graphics,
they figured, then found, it either boring or too difficult. Scott
tended to think it was the latter. "Some of the players complained
that the swarms of bees were too aggressive--that it was too hard,"
he says. So the game returned to the programming lab in Milpitas,
where the project members toned down the killer bees and added more
creatures and features plus a wider variety of video colors.
When they were finished, the game featured 16 different castles which
undergo variations each time they appear. After every hundred plays,
the game's entire color scheme changes automatically. Also
impressive is the fact that the top scoring player's initials in
addition to being kept on an electronic score table, are incorporated
as large block letters in the architecture of the first castle.
The game was sent back into the field for further testing, where
player enthusiasm started high and remained high. "It seems that it
has fantastic potential for longevity," says Scott. "There have been
new games that have earned more at first, but Crystal Castles has
been at the test location for several months, and earnings haven't
dropped yet." To Scott, this indicates that the game is developing a
"following"--much as Centipede and Asteroids did--of video
aficionados who may remain devoted players for months, or even years.
This could mean that Crystal Castles is on its way to becoming
another Atari classic.
Typed by Keita Iida