A game can take many forms. The history of videogames is packed with examples of games that started as simple versions of real life activities only for their designs to evolve into lifelike simulations of the original, but just as important is how different genres can be combined in infinite ways to make new styles. This is especially true of Pong’s iconic gameplay, turning the bouncing ball structure into the wildly different Windjammers and Lethal League while still retaining its spirit.
The competitive desire is so innate to the human condition that sports have existed since before history itself. Most sports follow the same basic ideas- two teams compete to overcome the other through athletic and mental ability to reach a goal worth a preset number of points, and declare the one with the highest score after a set period of time the winner. Over time, designs have been built up and refined into different sets of rules and placed into confined courts. Since both sides have their own goal, each has to think offensively and defensively, knowing when to strike to get the upper hand while making sure they don’t create an opening for their opponent.
Many of the world’s most famous sports use a variation on one of these structures. Soccer and hockey both divide the court into halves controlled by one side and players move the ball or puck along the ground and try to hit it into the opposing side’s goal blocked by their defender. Basketball is basically this idea off the ground, where a ball is bounced and thrown into a smaller goal suspended in the air.
Of course, creating an action videogame is more involved than creating a real-world sport because physical factors such as gravity and acceleration just exist in reality, where a computer running the game must not only keep track of the rules but create the physic systems that affect them. This means that a game consists of mechanical actions and the systems that produce them. To examine the two sides of this one gameplay coin, let’s look at one of the first digital sports before exploring how its design evolved from humble beginnings into lightning quick games that required new strategies.
Knocking Ideas Around
Due to limited processing power, early computing could only render a few graphical elements at a time. Despite famously named after table tennis, Atari’s Pong is actually most closely-related to air hockey with its pneumatic table and hovering disk, itself a simplified version of the real-life sport. Similarly, Pong’s two-dimensional gameplay involves angling the ball into an opponent’s goal on a flat, enclosed play field the size of the screen. The gameplay from there is geometry and physics, how fast the ball moves and at what angle. This is determined by the size of the player’s paddle and the angle of attack. Pong’s simple graphical user interface keeps track of every point and declares a victor.
Pong’s simple gameplay means equally simple strategy. The middle of the paddle is the safest point because of its surface area but reflects the ball at the same angle it hits. The sides deflect at greater angles but come with increased risk of missing; the side edges produce the sharpest angles but the player has to move the paddle into the ball to hit it, the game’s riskiest move. A single straight line takes the least time to cross the field but is easier to anticipate, where bouncing diagonals take longer but their positioning is harder to predict. Since the paddle can only move so fast, the safest place to sit is in the middle of the goal, perfectly placed for a quick straight line or following a bounce.
A videogame’s graphics are the visual representation of dozens-to-hundreds of different mathematical operations all happening independently at the same time to simulate its ruleset. The program running invisibly behind the scenes turn every image, here the paddle, ball, and user interface, into their own objects and network them into a system that determine movement speeds and position and detect when a ball reaches a player’s goal. This system is linked to another system that tallies the score, creating layers of systems. The result is an uninterrupted simulation where aspects of the game are created and tracked until one player wins. Adding sound effects when the ball hits an object adds to the sense of cause and effect, psychologically helping the player interpret the impacts as real.
At the same time, the program itself was given simple behaviors to emulate a player, giving the basic artificial intelligence access to the same object data to move the paddle it gives the person holding the controller. As the computer isn’t just creating and displaying the game on a screen but enforcing the rules while actively working to stop the player from beating it, it is in affect a sort of Grand Player. Here’s how it all combines: the game creates an internal reality to accelerate the ball based on the way it strikes surfaces and then acts as umpire, score keeper, and opposing player; and it crunches the math for all this every second that you’re playing.
Now all that was just trying to describe how a basic game like Pong functions but the design was far from done, and the next noticeable improvement would come from giving the player more control over their paddle by giving them moves to increase the strategy, depth, and intensity. Further development meant not only transforming the paddle into its own distinct character that could move across the screen, but give the player a roster of different characters with unique attributes and play styles.
Jammin’ on the Winds of Change
With its bright Miami Beach aesthetic, Data East’s Windjammers is a more complicated interpretation of Pong’s classic gameplay. It still has a closed court and top-down view of the action, but two symbiotic elements make it a drastically different game: the movable characters and the catch-able Frisbee. The former lets the game have six characters with different movement speeds, throwing power, and special abilities, while the latter further defines the offensive and defensive phases to change what each button does contextually, giving the total gameplay more strategic depth.
Much about the design changes when the player can actively hold onto the Frisbee rather have it passively bounce off them in different directions. When it’s in your opponent’s possession, you are free to roam your side of the court in any of the controller’s eight directions, dashing around to quickly intercept the Frisbee before it gets past you. Once it’s in your hands though, your character’s feet plant and your options switch. The dash then changes to throw and the directional pad points it in a straight line depending on where you’re looking, while moving the stick in a quarter circle buts back spin on it. The other button lobs it high up in the air, awarding you a point for hitting the ground outside your opponent’s reach. These two buttons and the stick are then pulling double duty depending on the situation.
This fundamental change in phases considerably ramps up the strategic considerations. Once your feet are planted, your angle options are locked while your opponent has time to reposition to the safest place to intercept your move. Since the throw speed is affected by tapping the throw button to the moment you catch it, the game rewards quick decision making across the board, including if you want to bounce it off the closest wall you’re standing by, as your position on the court produces different angles. The longer it takes you to act, the more time you give your opponent to react.
By contrast, the defense needs to decide if they want to increase their movement time by standing near the goal or decrease their throw’s travel time by standing near the middle. If one player throws from the center of the court, the other has less time to anticipate the direction. If they turn towards the goal and get hit in the back of the head, they suffer a temporary dizzy state and risk grounding the disk and give the offense a point. To add even more to the gameplay, the defense can knock the returning disk into the air, and any time they’re standing below it will begin to charge a unique super move with its own speed, movement pattern, and knockback power, even pushing their opponent back into their goal and scoring.
Windjammers’ psychological game is a lot more complex than Pong’s. Not only do you need to know the characters both sides are using, but recognize what options the person across from you has each and every time they’re holding. Since predictability is the enemy of strategy, a large part of presenting a good defense is to quickly learn the other’s offensive style while the best offenses are dynamic and unpredictable. Having courts with different barriers that change how the disk bounces and goal zones worth different point values turns Windjammer’s application of the classic gameplay into a fast, energetic sport.
The audio design does a great job making Windjammers feel like a tactile sport. Where Pong’s simple bleeps and bloops indicated when a ball was hit or returned, WJ has a full set of effects that relay the speed of a throw, when it’s caught, when you’re powering up a special move, when you’re dizzy, and a dozen other sounds that builds a complete sense of action. The celebration music and crowd cheering tie up the presentation nicely, giving you a real sense of accomplishment during the regularly difficult, edge of your seat matches.
While this is absolutely a sport game of its own, all these changes bring the gameplay closer to a different genre. With its character roster, stats, and special moves, Windjammers is a sport game using fighting game concepts. Fighters exhibit a different type of athleticism than team sports, one about direct contact between players. Even its linear tournament structure brings it in line with the fighting genre’s first landmark arcade release, by then only three years old. But Pong’s gameplay wouldn’t truly embrace fighting games for another twenty years.
Action at a Fever Pitch
Every genre is defined by its own set of elements and the more a game uses them the more it becomes that genre and not another, and the same can be said for and individual design. Both Pong and Windjammers are obviously air hockey because of the protect-the-goal gameplay, top-down view of the court, and distinct player sides that limits their direct contact, but the game changes significantly when players are able to freely move about the screen and interact with each other, to get control of the ball and hit their opponent to score, even when it’s ricocheting around the playfield like its predecessors. It becomes digital dodgeball which comes with its own distinct design considerations since you are now a mobile goal your opponent needs to drill the ball into. It becomes Team Reptile’s awesome 2014 Lethal League.
Though the genre had existed before, the fighting game structure was first fully realized in 1991’s Street Fighter II: The World Warrior. The designers knew the art of fighting required defining how far a character’s punch, kick, grab, or special move could reach, and the areas on the body they can land to damage someone else. Since every move in a game is a character animation made of a sequence of individual still images, these hit and hurt boxes were attached to individual frames within an attack then tuned differently to create many characters whose overall abilities had to be balanced so none were better than the rest.
Since you want a clear view of both characters to look for tells, fighting games are played from a side view which comes with the added bonus of letting characters crouch to decrease their size or jump to change their attack angle and add evasion to their defense. Lethal League brilliantly applies these basic concepts to the bouncing ball sport to create a different game from Pong or Windjammers, letting players easily send the ball back down the opponent’s throat. Similarly to how WJ did it, holding a directional button as they hit lets players shoot it diagonally and every character’s attack angles the ball in different ways. Successive hits increase the speed, until it’s rocketing around the screen at mach 5.
Fighting game character’s increased mobility allows Lethal League to blur its offensive and defensive phases. Not only can a player now choose to evade the ball when they’re at a disadvantage and reposition for a better attack, both sides can actively fight for its control, which can especially come into play when one side wants to ramp up the speed against a vulnerable foe. Since the ball’s velocity can escalate until it’s no longer humanly possible to follow, the game maps its second button to a bunt hit that decreases the speed and resets the supercharged pacing. This is useful in the moments where the action has accelerated so fast that there’s only a frame of animation between the ball leaving one player and it blowing the other from the ballpark. The gameplay can require precision otherwise unheard of in either sport or fighting games.
The increased processing power in 2014’s hardware and the large character sprites strangle the game in graphical style. League’s fast gameplay is aptly represented by a techno hip-hop aesthetic and a bunch of interesting characters, from the baseball punk Raptor to cane-wielding Candyman and robotic skater Switch. The matches are backed by an electro-funk soundtrack and amazing sound effects that make every hit concussive and bright, and as the speed ratchets up every hit comes with dramatic pause up until the force warps reality from the point of impact and shoots pulses of color across the screen. Lethal League is an extraordinarily satisfying game.
In order to simulate an opponent with all the same moves and behaviors of a second flesh-and-blood player, competitive sport and fighting games need to have a complete, well-rounded set of actions. But the computer doesn’t need to be nearly as complex for single player and cooperative games. Most enemies in the average side-scroller or action game have simpler overall actions and thus less complex artificial intelligence, they just make up for them by having more varieties on screen at once that provide a larger range of actions in total, even if many of the same ideas apply overall.
Even when a game is being translated from a real world activity to a virtual one, design can transform simple ideas in thousands of different ways depending on the different elements added to it. It can adapt a carnival shooting gallery into a light gun game like Duck Hunt into a free-moving first person shooter like Doom. And as those genre’s elements become refined, they can be combined with other gameplay, allowing Tomb Raider’s third person gun combat to merge with Driver’s racing and mission structure to become Grand Theft Auto III’s legendary open world. As Pong proved when the medium was in its infancy, a game can develop into whole new forms if we keep playing with their design.
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.