8 Bit Fantasies

I watched a video interview with the Oliver twins. They are video game legends from England. They started developing video games as teenagers in 1983. They went on to start their own game studio. In the interview, they talked about the process of developing games. They observed that the constraints of creating games for eight bit processors with limited display hardware often made it easier to creating games than the relatively unconstrained environment of modern hardware. The reason this is so is that when the hardware has severely limited capabilities it forces you to think backwards from the constraints to the design of a game.

The counter intuitive fact of game design is that games with simple rules and clear goals are more fun. For example, chess only has six unique types of pieces and is played on a board of 64 squares and yet the combinations of valid games is astronomical.

Another thing they commented on was the importance of thinking about the program with pencil and paper before they started writing code. They discovered this because when they started developing games they only had one computer between the two of them. Consequently, while one of them was entering code into the computer, the other was figuring out what they were going to tackle next when they got their turn on the computer.

Listening to them talk about their game developing experiences reminded me of a friend that I knew in the same era. Stan and I worked for Intergraph as computer technicians. We tested and repaired a specialized processor that allowed high speed searches for graphical elements in CAD files. In short, we both understood how computers worked in great detail. Stan owned an Atari 800 computer. We spent many hours talking about game design for the Atari.

As I think back on these conversations, I realize that the hard part was never implementing game ideas in code. It was coming up with simple yet engaging ideas for how the game would work. We didn’t spend enough time with pencil and paper. We both wanted to sit down and start coding immediately. This is an important point that needs to be taught when we teach people to code. A little bit of design up front can save a lot of trial and error programming later. And also, adding artificial constraints to the design process can have the surprising effect of making it easier to invent an interesting game.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.