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Hacking My Childhood: Early Lessons In Game Design

I spent a lot of time in 70's and early 80's as a "game designer" even though I had no idea I was doing it at the time. Here are few of the "hacks" I performed as kid that still resonate with me today as I sit-down to design games on daily basis.

I spent a lot of time in 70's and early 80's as a "game designer" even though I had no idea I was doing it at the time.  Here are few of the "hacks" I performed as kid that still resonate with me today as I sit-down to design and program games on daily basis.

Driveway Hacking

I grew up in a  post World War II suburban neighborhood near Los Angeles. Our little house sat on pretty large lot with lots of empty space to play.  The best feature was a 100 foot long driveway.   For a good amount of time in the mid-70's, my mom had no car, and dad took the only drivable vehicle (a giant, beat-up, white 4-door International pick-up) to work every day.   This left the entire driveway open for whatever games my brother and I  wanted to create.  We spent many days conceiving 2-player versions of nearly every sport imaginable. Curiously, we referred to these sports as 'Garage Games' (i.e. Garage Baseball, Garage Basketball), not having any idea that word would have a completely different connotation for the gaming business 30 years later.

There was not a lot of genuine sports equipment laying around  our house (my dad was too busy spending his money on multiple mid-life crisis hobbies: i.e. motorcross racing), so we used whatever we could find in the neighborhood.  Tennis balls that rolled down the hill from the rich family's tennis court became our baseballs.  We used the full length of the driveway to play a two-player version of over-the-line where the ball was thrown by the batter and the fielder did everything possible to stop it from hitting the garage.   

An old, un-returned red rubber ball that rolled down the hill from the elementary school became our basketball.  The basket was two chalk markings on the open garage door.   A basket was scored it you could wedge the ball between the open door and roof of the garage.   The garage door was also used as soccer goal, and football end-zone. Our two red wagons became race cars and the driveway our track.  


(Me on my sister's bike in the driveway)

To emulate my dad's motorcross racing, my sister's hand-me-down girl's, banana seated bike, a plastic helmet, and pair of welding goggles became an off-road racing kit.  Later, my brother and I spent a good amount of time pushing each other around on a broken-down 75CC motorcycle,  before the gears froze permanently.  

None of these things were special on their own, and every kid I knew did similar stuff. However, I never forgot the feeling of making entertainment out what I had on hand. This taught me a valuable lesson about making indie games : use what you have available to make something new.  If you can reuse an engine, inspiration or design to make something new, it might help you get moving instead of trying to build something from scratch.


Toy Hacking

Some of  my toys in 70's did not live very long in their intital state.    One of "toy hacks" I recall vividly is the Etch-A-Sketch "mod" my brother and I created.    Etch-A-Sketch was (is)  a frustrating drawing toy with terrible controls, but it had all the essential  ingredients to be  a primitive interactive game.    I was  8 years old (1978) when we created this "hack". It was based on the racing games  I had witnessed in the arcade like Grand Trak 10 and Sprint.

By using scotch tape and the lap timer on a stop watch, my brother and I created our own racing contest  using the Etech-A-Sketch as an input and display device. First, one of us would spend the time to lay-down an elaborate track using scotch tape over the Etch-A-Sketch screen.  When that was finished, the other one of us would attempt to 'race' (draw a line through the track) as fast as possible without hitting any of the scotch tape lines as he was timed by the digital watch by the other

It worked fairly well, as long as the players were honest about not hitting the barriers. This kept our attention for a while and I'm sure we could have found many more uses for the Etch-A-Sketch Racing 'engine' if we tried.  What was cool about it was that it was just as enjoyable to make the tracks as to race through them.   

 


(Etch a sketech racing game mock-up)


This was obviously an important thign to learn at a young age: making things for others to enjoy could just as enjoyable or even more enjoyable than playing.  

Book Hacking

In the late 70's Choose Your Own Adventure books arrived, and they were a passion of mine for many years.    I loved the having the ability to determine the outcome of the book, but I did not always like the stories.

Some Choose Your Own Adventure books had too many endings.  3 or 5, even 11 endings was O.K. for one of the books, but some had so many endings it made reading them a chore.  The book below, "Journey Under The Sea"  had 42 endings.   At 117 pages, 42 endings meant 37% of the pages were devoted to ending the book in some way.    Reading it was frustrating because it seemed that no matter what you did, you died.

So, with my 11-year old proto game development hat on, I proceeded to "hack"  the book to make a "better story" that did not make you die on every 3rd page.    I added my own text and directions to make you live longer and have a longer story.   You can see some of my handiwork below.   This particular book was from 1981.   


(Choose Your Own Adventure Hack)

What did this exercise teach me?  It taught me that just because something was "finished" did not mean it was perfect.   Working with an existing design to find areas for improvement could be an interesting rewarding experience, and it could be a springboard to new ideas and game play evolutions.

Read more of this kind of drivel: http://www.8bitrocket.com
Our company:  http://www.productostudios.com 

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