"LUCASFILM PREMIERES FIRST TWO GAMES"|
CAN IT BECOME A FORCE IN ELECTRONIC GAMING?
by Arnie Katz
(Appeared in the September 1984 issue of "Electronic Games" Magazine)
Remember the first time you saw "Star Wars"? The George Lucas
science fiction fantasy epic filled audiences with awe, amazement and
a sense of wonder with its mixture of "B" movie thrills and "A" movie
production values and artistic sensibilities.
When Atari and Lucasfilm announced their joint venture approximately
18 months ago, the project raised a storm of interest--and perhaps a
few skeptical eyebrows as well. Would Atari be able to capture
Lucasfilm lighting in a cartridge? How much could and would
Lucasfilm contribute to the finished software? Can filmmakers really
The first two titles designed by Lucasfilm and distributed under the
Lucasfilm-Atari banner provide emphatic answers to the questions
which silence all doubters. Rescue on Fractalus and Ballblazer bear
the unmistakable Lucas imprint, and what's more important, both
programs are superior games. Under the leadership of director,
Stephen D. Arnold, and Peter S. Langston, director of game
development, Lucasfilm's Computer Division has vaulted directly into
the front ranks of the software design houses. The approach
epitomized cartridges that materially advance the state-of-the-art.
Rescue on Fractalus is probably the more expectable of the two
releases, since it is precisely the kind of science fiction rompt
that earned the company its reputation. It's a first-person flying
simulation in which the player dares a mission behind enemy lines to
rescue downed pilots. The gamer blasts toward the enemy planed from
a mothership and skims low over the surface of the world looking for
stranded spacemen while avoiding murderous ground- and air-based
The greatness of Rescue on Fractalus lies in the wealth of detail
which the design team, under project leader David Fox, included to
enhance the simulation. "I want to make games that transpose someone
to a different reality," says Fox, who's ultimate ambition is to
create a Dream Park filled with full-dimension simulations. "That's
why the rescue ship launches from a mothership. We didn't want to
just start the game right on the surface of the planet."
Even scoring can't burst this fantasy bubble. "Although it was an
early suggestion," says Fox, "we decided not to put the player's
score on the door of the mothership, because it would have broken
Fox and his cohorts have furnished video pilots with a smorgasbord
of meters, lights, guages and screens, all well-arrayed on a control
panel located directly beneath the main view-screen. "I spent a week
or two with paper, drawing the panel with the instruments we need,"
explains Fox. Sometimes, that meant removing a useful, but not
vital, instrument. "We originally had 4X magnification for the
long-range scanner, but people seldom used it during the test games,
so we took it out."
Taking things out can sometimes have as great a bearing on the
quality of the finished game as what the designers actually include
in the program. That's why the Lucasfilm design team made such a
concerted effort to streamline the play-mechanics of Rescue on
Fractalus. "We could have made a whole game out of landing the
ship," David Fox points out, "but that would've been beside the
point. That's what makes this game so user friendly."
A lot of elements which are less-than-critically important to the
actual game play nonetheless do much to create a realistic feel.
After you spot a downed flyer and zoom to his position, hauling him
aboard your vessel isn't abstract and automatic. The spaceman runs
up to the landing site and raps loudly on the hull to let you know he
wants to go inside. You must then open the airlock so he can enter,
and close it again to ready the ship for take-off.
The system of fractile geometry which generates the planetary
landscape is another gaming first for Lucasfilm. Benoid Mandelbrot
of IBM conceived fractiles and has subsequently developed the notion
in several books. Loren Carpenter, who first joined Lucasfilm to
work on imaging for movies, did pioneering work on fractiles, and in
1980, discovered a method which produced quick approximations of the
fractile concept. His two minute film, "Vol Libre" (which translates
as "Free Flight") garnered much attention with its use of fractiles.
Buoyed by this success, Carpenter next wanted to utilize fractiles in
a real-time setting. Working with David Fox, who shared an office
with him at that point, they started trying to apply fractiles to
games. "The question was, 'Could it be scaled down?'", Carpenter
remembers. "We first thought about going for a 2 1/2 dimension
effect like Night Driver, but it was a little boring."
"We decided to shoot for a consistent three-dimensional environment,"
he concludes. "We wanted one general dalgorithm that creates an
image in any direction." Their research produced an application of
fractile geometry that was fast enough to use in the game.
Fortunately, suggests Fox and Carpenter, they were working on Atari
hardware. "A slower machine would have been impossible," Carpenter
"Of course, we didn't want to say, 'Fractiles are it', and stop
there," David Fox points out. "We didn't want to get too cocky, so
we spent lots of time developing the background for the game."
The original shape of the Atari-Lucasfilm agreement, under which the
movie company was to make software suitable for the 2600, made the
idea of using scaled-down fractiles unworkable. Carpenter and Fox
codiefied their work in a document and put it side against the day of
That day came sooner than anyone expected when the focus shifted
toward doing software for the more advanced Atari systems. Out of
mothballs came the fractiles.
The theory may be a mite esoteric, but no one can quarrel with the
outstanding results fractiles made possible. It produces a landscape
of mountains and valleys which in all ways function as though they
had a concrete, spatial existence. In Rescue on Fractalus, a pilot
can fly through a cleft between two peaks, loop around and encounter
the same terrain features in the same relative positions when
approaching from the opposite direction!
This compex and consistent gaming environment is one of the things
which stamps Fractalus as a "second wave" game. "Originally, there
was no shooting at all," says David Fox. "A tracking ship chased you
around the planet. There was a rear-view screen that helped the
player keep tabs on it." Eventually, the team opted for a dash of
combat and eliminated the shadow ship and rear screen.
Ballblazer, the other Lucasfilm creation, is cut from a different
bolt of cloth. It's a mechanized sport of the future that matches
two athletes, each riding a light and maneuverable craft called a
rotofoil. Each side's rotofoil cruises over the checkerboard
playfield, trying to capture an elusive ball and either carry or
blast it through the other contestant's goal pylons. On defense,
the rotofoil is employed like a hockey or soccer goalie.
Unlike other sports simulations, the horizontally split screen shows
each player what's happening on the field, exactly as he or she
would see it when looking through the rotofoil's face plate. Play is
head-to-head against another human, or solitaire versus any of
several droid (computer-directed) opponents.
According to project leader and principal designer David Levine,
getting Ballblazer's distinctive playing surface to look right
required a major push. It was the kind of solitary battle which a
dedicated designer must successfully wage to transform a good game
into a great one.
The problem was a visual phenomenon called "aliasing." In the world
of computer graphics, it's the term which describes the annoying
stair-step effect that drawing diagonal lines generally produces.
The condition stems from undersampling by the computer. A straight
line has an infinite number of points, but computers can only check a
finite number in creating a representation of the infinite reality.
"In Ballblazer, the aliasing was particularly noticeable whenever the
playfield moved back and forth," recalls David Levine. Since the
checkerboard stays in more-or-less constant motion, the perfectionist
in Levine found it unendurable.
He hurdled this barrier by developing a mathematical model that, in
the minuteness of its detail, far surpassed the capabilities of the
computer system. "The model is totally independent of the actual
graphics," Levine explains.
Ballblazer and Rescue on Fractalus are both available on cartridge
for the Atari home computer, the 5200 SuperSystem and the brand new
7800 ProSystem. The 7800 versions might have an edge in graphics,
but all are basically of the same high quality.
A company that loves sequels as much as Lucasfilm will probably not
abandon two such lovely scenarios after only one game each. Already,
there are whispers about a multi-players-per-side version of
The prediction most likely to come true, however, is that the Games
Division of Lucasfilm will again strike out in new directions. The
company has a positive fear of resting on its laurels, and with a
wealth of design talent on hand, those far design horizons are
beckoning. So be here next year for Atari-Lucasfilm, chapter 2.
THE SOUND STORY
The sounds of "Star Wars" were nearly as exciting as the special
effects, and the company's game designers would have been as apt to
neglect the player's ears as his eyes. The use of music and sound
effects to flag game-events and to generally reinforce the simulation
in Ballblazer and Fractalus sets new standards for home arcading.
The audio for Ballblazer in particular is ground breaking. The
staccato, percussive score underlines the immediacy of the first-
person viewpoint and raises the on-the-field drama to nail-biting
"The development of the sound was pivotal," agrees David Levine, the
guitar-strumming designer who personally supervised this aspect of
the cartridge. The reaction to the basic score was nothing short of
electric at Lucasfilm. "It wasn't long before people up and down the
row of offices here had copies. You could walk down the corridor and
hear it every step of the way," he says. "Of course, all those tapes
weren't synchornized," Levin adds ruefully.
While toiling away on other aspects of the game, it was inevitable
that Levine decided to try something really radical. He contacted a
number of musician friends -- all professionals in the blues, jazz,
rock and classical fields -- and asked them to provide an
improvisational phrase based on the elemental Ballblazer anthem. In
the sport's mythos, as chronicled by its designer, each master
Ballblazer star gets the honor of adding a musical phrase to the
overall theme that, in some sense, sums up the style of play which
has made him or her great.
So when you're rocketing toward the opposing goal pylons, it's to the
beat of a complex, textured audio track that never sounds quite the
same twice in a row.
HOW NEW IS NEW?
Are Rescue on Fractalus and Ballblazer innovative, or are they only
familiar echoes from an unexpected source?
"Ballblazer is a logical evolution from Pong," quips David Levine.
In a philosophical sense, he's right. Of coruse, International
Soccer (Commodore), Starleague Baseball (Gamestar), and, in a larger
sense, every action game that uses an on-screen cursor controlld by a
joystick or paddle is also "a logical evolution from Pong."
That said, it's fairly easy to make a case for Ballblazer as a real
trailblazer. No sports simulation has given players the immediacy of
the first-person viewpoint. Add the inventive use of audio to
dramatize the action and the eyepopping visual effect of that
checkerboard playfield, and you've got quite a fresh and novel game
on your hands.
Ballblazer's sports simulation pedigree is too obvious to need
elaboration, but Lucasfilm's design squad has done much, much more
than just refine existing play and audiovisual elements. Ballblazer
represents a wholly new way to translate sports action to the gaming
Rescue on Fractalus is hardly the first, first-person flying game to
rocket across the gaming firmament. Atari's own Star Raiders, a
long-time favorite of EG's readers, has been around for years. The
greatness of the game is that it builds on the foundation of earlier
efforts by immersing players in a much more comprehensive and
intricately crafted scenario.
In short, Rescue on Fractalus is a "second generation" computer game
that pushes state-of-the-art forward in a wide variety of areas. The
three-dimensional terrain makes a vastly more interesting play-
environment than a field of rushing stars, and the ability to present
such a finely detailed planetary surface allows the program to
challenge the gamer with a mission that's a bit more plausible than
taking on a universe full of aliens in a single ship.
DESIGNING GAMES THE LUCASFILM WAY
It would be hard to find a more modest bunch than the Lucasfilm Games
Division. From the moment the innk was dry on the Atari-Lucasfilm
pact, the movie company has approached the task of creating
electronic games with one eye firmly fixed on the yellow caution
In fact, Rescue on Fractalus and Ballblazer turned out to be a
highly successful example of "learning by doing." Originally, both
games were intended as merely a pilot project, a couple of titles
that Lucasfilm could carry from conception to cartridge to get the
hang of success. Steve Arnold's charges learned the necessary
lessons so quickly and so well however, that their initial programs
turned out to be right up there with the best.
The use of strategies developed in the course of making the "Star
Wars" trilogy and other movies is what separates Lucasfilm from other
design houses. The approach epitomized by the tavern scene in "Star
Wars" helped shape Ballblazer and Rescue.
With software, as in movies, Lucasfilm believes in compiling detailed
descriptions of the reality to be simulated before worrying about the
simulation itself. Just as every alien in the cantina has a detailed
species and personal history that never comes directly into the film,
Lucasfilm's game designers can tell you everything--from what the
pilot's uniform in Rescue looks like and when and how Ballblazing
became the most popular sport in the cosmos. Lucasfilm has even
constructed three-dimensional models of key objects like the
It is, perhaps, too soon to evaluate the contribution of Lucasfilm to
game design. But if creating entertainment software is truly an art
form, then the folks who gave us Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are
major contributors to the perfection of that art.
Typed by Keita Iida