My Life with Games (part 5)–Early game designs

Throughout my childhood, my Grandpa and Grandma Anderson ensured that I had a magazine subscription. When I was younger, they gave me Highlights, but I eventually upgraded to 3,2,1…Contact, a magazine for kids about science and technology. It was in this magazine that I read my first interview with Richard Dean Anderson (of MacGuyver fame at the time) and was confused when he said that his upbringing was in the arts, not in the sciences. Now I think, “Acting, Seth. Duh!” But at the time, I couldn’t comprehend how the actor playing MacGuyer–you know, “I can do anything with enough duct tape” MacGuyver–couldn’t have a deep background in science.
But I digress.
One regular feature in the magazine was little BASIC programs that you could key into your computer and play, usually illustrating some theme from the magazine. One such game was a randomly generated maze. There was no guarantee that there was a solution, but I think the game included a limited number of “blow up this wall” opportunities to let you get through. I played this game for a while and had fun, but it eventually got boring.
So I started adding things to the code. A laser that would blow up an entire row of walls. Monsters that would chase you down and kill you. A backstory.
And then I started writing other modules to add onto the game. So now there was an entire sequence that you were flying a space ship through anti-aircraft fire to get to the landing point where you’d enter the maze. After getting through the maze, there was a boss to fight. And there was more…and more…and more….
I think I ended up with four different games in this series. Not four modules, mind you. Four games with a bunch of modules hooked together. I created my own post-apocalyptic computer game series for the Apple II series.
There were other games. One year, I wrote an arena combat game to give to my brother for Christmas. I don’t remember a lot about the system, but there were different weapons that you could buy from the store with different ranges and damage outputs. I think you were able to design your character. You might have even been able to save your character from one game to the next.
I wrote a spaceship combat game. It was a bit like 3D Battleship with one ship. The details are hazy in my memory, but I remember you could attack with lasers or nukes. Nukes were more powerful but they would randomly move both ships around, so they made target reacquisition harder. Lasers didn’t move anyone but did less damage, though I think they could damage your opponent’s sensors. Also, as you took more damage, you had an increasing chance of losing oxygen or other forms of systemic failure. There were serious balance issues (e.g. nukes were always better to use than lasers), but it was a fun time to play.
I also wrote a tank combat game. During one trip to Waldenbooks, I stumbled over a copy of Battletech and really wanted to buy it, but Dad thought that it would be a bad idea. I honestly don’t remember why now. But, since I couldn’t buy Battletech, I set out to make a clone. So, you designed your tank by allocating armor to various locations, including the four sides, the treads, the turret, and the magazine. Then you took turns moving your tanks around on a little grid with trees, shooting at each other. Being at point blank range let you ram and choose your hit location, so the game tended to devolve into a race towards each other, firing wildly, and then eventually ramming and firing at each other until someone punched through the armor on the magazine, blowing their opponent’s ammunition and generally gutting the tank.
I was really proud of the tank game, because it was the most graphically complex game that I’d made up to that point. Before that, my game graphic were all formed of colored blocks. The tank game had actual tanks and trees and explosions and the like.
But my magnum opus was a computer RPG of my very own. By this point, I had been influenced by both Ultima V and the Hero System, so I put together a game with a basic code of ethics (“Killing humans is bad, so you can only knock them out.”) and two damage types, one to track Stun damage and one to track Killing damage. There were two types of martial arts, too, each focusing on delivering a different type of damage. Again, balance issues rear their head, as a high-level character in this game could knock out a dragon with just a couple of hits from the Stun-type martial art. Nonetheless, this was a major triumph for me. I had actually put together a big game, where you would actually have to walk around and save your character and stuff. It was a big deal to me.
My experience with programming computer games also began to show me that I didn’t actually like programming computer games. In particular, it’s really hard to code a decent AI, and I’m not going to claim that I ever did. It’s also hard to teach a computer how to enforce game rules. That meant that I spent a lot of time programming the computer and not a lot of time doing what I liked doing, which was designing the game.
So, I let programming go as a hobby and turned my attention elsewhere.

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