The Development of Robotron
Is there a classic arcade game player out there that doesn’t like Robotron?
Released by Williams Electronics in 1982, it is the quintessential arcade shooter. Ferocious enemies, panic-inducing gameplay and sounds that match the action on screen like no other game of its time.
Having spent 18 months developing the wildly successful side-scrolling shooters Defender and Stargate for arcade manufacturer Williams, the small development team of Larry DeMar and Eugene Jarvis, otherwise known as Vid Kidz, had now moved to a tiny office in North Halstead Street, Chicago. They wanted to try something completely different for their next game. After some discussion, they decided to create a game based around robots, based on a hunch apparently, that “everyone thinks robots are cool, right?”
Working using two computer systems, one for software development (a Gimix 6809, based on a Motorola 6809 8-bit processor – state of the art for the time), and another for debugging, the pair knuckled down to work on what would become one of the true iconic games of the video game golden era:
Taking inspiration at the time from two other games, an obscure title called Chase on the Commodore PET system, and Stern’s wildly successful arcade title Berzerk, they quickly started work on a new project known at the time as Robot Wars.
I spent many hours at the controls of Berzerk. It was a nice simple game with a set of rules that made it a fun, engaging game. But I was really frustrated with the fact that you had to move towards something in order to shoot it.
This was the primary influence in Robotron becoming a twin-stick game, (coupled with the fact that Jarvis was involved in a minor car accident at the time, resulting in a broken wrist):
Some guy jumped a red light and the shock of the impact through the steering wheel completely shattered my right hand. I was out for about six weeks. At the time, I loved Berzerk, but it was frustrating because my broken hand meant I couldn’t press the fire button any more. The limitations of the movement in that game were also annoying – you had to move towards the bad guy in order to fire a shot in his direction. So, both those things combined to give me the idea for a dual-joystick control where you could move in one direction and fire in another.
This dual-stick system, unique for its time, gave the player a sense of wielding awesome firepower – something they would need to combat the insane amount of enemies to be dealt with in Robotron. They looked to the code they had produced for Defender and Stargate; reusing some of the routines, sounds and sprites already developed, and began to come up with a concept of a game. Remember this was a time where there were no high-level computer languages, no operating systems (Windows hadn’t even been thought of yet), no tools, middleware or API systems – Vid Kidz had to “roll their own” back end programming tools and systems.
One of the key elements of Robotron compared to Defender and Stargate is one of player confinement. Given the way the game was taking shape, Jarvis quickly realised that with a game full of large moving sprites each with their own characteristics, it was going to be impossible to implement scrolling across multiple screens. Far from feeling limited by the hardware available at the time, Jarvis was inspired:
Designing videogames is all ABOUT limitation. It’s not about doing everything that’s possible, just because you can. It’s about finding some small subset of something that’s FUN and building on that. With Robotron, you’re stuck in this confined little space. That confinement is the key element in what makes Robotron feel the way it does. The constant feeling of being cornered and having to fight your way out of that corner – fight or flight. There’s no choice. You’re ALWAYS making a last stand.
This “last stand” that Jarvis refers to is further amplified by placing the player at the very centre of the screen at the start of each level. Unlike its contemporaries where typically the attack pattern tends to be top-down (as in Space Invaders for example), Robotron comes at the player from all directions. “Fight or Flight” is at Robotron‘s heart.
Storylines are not something that early videogames are known for, but very early on, Vid Kidz created a backdrop for the game, to give the player a sense of context for the wanton onscreen destruction. Jarvis set Robotron in the future (the year 2084 to be precise) where humans, realising their faults and failings create a new species called Robotrons that are so advanced, man has replaced his own imperfections, with something supposedly perfect. But of course, there’s always trouble in paradise. The objective was:
You are the last hope of mankind. Due to a genetic engineering error, you possess superhuman powers. Your mission is to stop the Robotrons, and save the last human family: Mommy Daddy and Mikey.
This context of a basic emotional attachment to the game creates what is the key motivator within the game: risk vs reward. What set Robotron apart from its contemporaries, is this dual objective – killing robot enemies whilst saving human characters.
The uniqueness of Robotron arguably is the vast array of enemies and their individual behaviours. Let’s take a look at them. The first iteration of the game featured just two foes:
Demar and Jarvis thought about stopping there, playing around with different numbers of Grunts. At one point they had 127 Grunts on screen, together with a rule that stated only four shots from the player could be visible at any time on screen. It was fun for a while, but they wanted to add more action to the development soup. In order to ramp up the levels of player panic, additional enemies were designed. Each would have its own personality and ruleset. Inspired by the game of chess, they wanted a limited set of enemies that could create infinite variety.
With clever use of algorithms, Vid Kidz developed a system where levels are generated on the fly; creating new and fresh environments time after time. It is this “controlled randomness”, as Jarvis puts it, that makes Robotron so exciting to play – no two games are alike – there are infinite scenarios to deal with, using just two joysticks. Summarising the development process, Jarvis recalls:
It was built in six months. We designed all the graphics and animation in about two weeks, because there wasn’t much technology to play with. Then, we spent four out of the six months of Robotron’s development PLAYING the thing. We played the living hell out of it. We kind of got good – but not great – and somewhere along the way, we just developed a collective sense for the general feel and difficulty. I like to make things harder and harder for twenty or thirty waves and then roll things back a bit, recycle some stuff. It’s more fun to renew the player and give them a reward for everything they’ve been through, rather than just have the game get harder and harder.
Another key objective was to create a game that features different enemies within different levels. Placing every enemy on every wave would create a sense of monotony – something they wanted to avoid. Forcing the player to develop different strategies for each wave, as they progress through the game would create the draw in the arcades that would result in healthy cabinet sales.
And so, points are awarded for saving the humans, but players have to balance this objective with the key goal of each level – to destroy every enemy before being allowed to proceed. Players can clear a path to a human and go for the points available, but more important, however, is staying alive. These decisions have to be made within a split second. A subtle part of Robotron is the snapshot that players get at the start of each wave. A breif glimpse of what needs to be done for the next 60 seconds or so:
It’s that God’s-eye view that does it. It makes the game immediately tactical and strategic when you can see everything on-screen at the beginning of a wave in Robotron.
Which brings us onto the “Mikey” bug:
There’s a wonderful moment of tease at the beginning of the Brain waves, where you get to survey your plan of attack and drool over the potential points from the masses of humanoids wandering around. It’s like when you’re feeding a squirrel. You hold out a nut and the squirrel comes close and he’s thinking: ‘My God – this guy has a wonderful nut in his hand…’. But, he’s also worried that you could easily kill him, too. That’s the feel at the beginning of the Robotron Brain Waves – those two motivating forces pulling you in opposite directions. The lust for the rewards and the fear of the danger.
The Brains are programmed to seek out the nearest human to them. Due to a programming error on the first Brain wave, every one of them targets Mikey, ignoring the other “Mommy” humans on screen. If the player can keep Mikey alive without picking him up, and whilst destroying the Brains before they reach him, there are well over 100,000 points potentially available. However, if the player kills all enemies before sweeping up the other humans, the opportunity has gone. So whilst being an unintentional bug, the first Brain wave is actually a huge tactical opportunity to make significant progress during the early stages of the game. It is one of a few unique examples of an unintentional programming error that actually adds to the game.
Credit: The Development of Robotron