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What Did 'Better' Mean?

Part Three. These are my memories... Growing up in a world with 3 TV channels and paper mail... My years writing some of the earliest 8-bit games (CRISIS MOUNTAIN, DINO EGGS, SHORT CIRCUIT)... And now reviving my best-selling game as DINO EGGS: REBIRTH.
Previous Post:  No Such Thing as a Random Number

1982.  In writing my first game Crisis Mountain, I felt like I was creating a straight-forward variation on Donkey Kong.  Sure, I changed barrels to boulders, and added ticking bombs.  I loved that you could pick up or drop the shovel, and that when the little fellow died he sprouted wings and flew to heaven.  But the whole thing was driven by a passion to imitate Donkey Kong, as I described in my previous post.

In designing my second game, I knew I could do better.  But what was better?

  • I wanted an original story to tell.
  • I wanted more interaction between figures and objects.
  • I wanted more visual variety from screen to screen.

The quality bar for games was now much higher than it had been only a year earlier, when I began writing Crisis Mountain.

As I discussed in my first post, the parade of early coin-operated video games kept redefining what an interactive experience could be.  If Pac-Mac and its arcade siblings shared a common thread, it was inherited from the pinball machines sitting nearby:

  • You pay for three balls (now three lives)
  • You try for a high score
  • Skill or luck might give you an extra ball (life)
  • And in theory, the game could go on forever.

But computer games at home weren’t restricted by the need to grab the player’s next quarter.  They could linger.  They could roam.  Primitive flight and combat simulators appeared.  Role-playing adventures (such as Bob Clardy’s “Odyssey” and “Apventure to Atlantis”) began their gradual growth to epic proportions.  The seeds of virtual worlds were being sown.


Story.  What kind of story did I want to tell?

A primary inspiration remained Donkey Kong, because it fit my psyche.  I didn’t want to shoot anything, or fight anyone, or even defend myself.  I wanted to survive.  I wanted to feel that – using my reflexes and wits – I could endure, improve things, even prosper.  That notion remains at the heart of all my games.

I certainly wasn’t the first person intrigued by dinosaurs and time travel, but this was three years before Back to the Future, six years before The Land Before Time, and eight years before Jurassic Park.

As boys, my brother and I had created and exchanged Dinosaur Cards with each other (kind of like baseball cards, but with dinosaurs on them).  We owned an educational slide show called "Digging For Dinosaurs" narrated on a 45 r.p.m. vinyl record by Walter Cronkite.  When the slide showed a Stegosaurus confronting a T-Rex, the soundtrack used the same excerpt from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring that Walt Disney had used in Fantasia.

Who wouldn’t want to rescue the dinosaurs from extinction?  The creative gem that popped into my head was adding Guilt to that equation.  You felt duty-bound to rescue as many Dino Eggs and Dino Babies as you could – because you had sealed their doom when you introduced Measles into the prehistoric era.

In my coming game revival Dino Eggs: Rebirth, it isn’t Measles, it’s the Common Cold.  In writing the text for the original game in 1983, Measles sounded funnier than a Cold.  But for the new game here in 2015, I am dramatizing the fateful moment of contamination with a huge graphic sneeze, so it seems better now to call it a Cold.

I’ve already gotten criticism for this change.  “Don’t you understand that it was “really” Measles that Time Master Tim gave to the Dinosaurs, not a Cold?” 

Sheesh!  Now I know how George Lucas must feel sometimes. (Note to Mr. Lucas:  Han shot Greedo first.)


Interaction.  Here’s where I was so fortunate with Dino Eggs.  Every pre-historic object and creature I dreamt up started “clicking” into natural interactions with each other – so that everything on the screen could affect (or be affected by) everything else in a kind of “rock/paper/scissors” way:

  • Tim can rescue eggs.  Boulder can hide eggs.  Tim can kick boulder.  Boulder can smash spider.  Spider can abduct Baby Dino.  Tim can cut Spider’s thread.
  • Eggs can hatch Baby Dino.  Baby Dino chases Tim, who is carrying eggs.  If they touch, everything gets contaminated.
  • Tim can kick boulder.  Boulder can put out fire.  Fire can scare away Dino Mom.  And so on...

And because I came up with a “tile” system for the game screen, all of these relationships began to play out in columns and rows, giving Dino Eggs the feel of an animated game of chess.

I remember that these ideas came in layers.  First, I knew I wanted eggs.  I knew that I wanted to rescue them and “feel the pain” if they were lost or contaminated.

Then -- consciously trying to break the mold that computer games had inherited from pinball machines -- I thought, Why not have negative scoring?  Why not some serious, tough love?  You lose an egg, you pay for it.  You lose a Baby Dino, you really regret it.

A couple of months into writing the game, I thought, What if these eggs could hatch?  What would Baby Dinos look like?

I had already created the descending spiders.  Only then did I think, What if these spiders could pick up the Baby Dinos and carry them off?


Visual variety.  This would be my most fundamental challenge.  Crisis Mountain had two hand-drawn background screens.  Even as I wrote Dino Eggs, a new game called Miner 2049’er became a sensation.  Miner boasted ten – count ‘em – ten distinctive background screens.

Yikes!  How could I beat that?


To be continued...


Next post: Infinity is More Than Ten, Right?


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