History of Game Design Part 1: Space Invaders | Design Icons


This is a history of game design. In this new series of videos, I’ll be looking
at the most important, influential, and ground-breaking games from the last 40 years. In each video I will highlight a landmark
game, look at where it came from, discuss its most revolutionary features, and chart
its impact on the games that came afterwards. These games are trend setters, genre definers,
and trailblazers. They, are the design icons. In the summer of 1978, there was an invasion. Taito’s new game, Space Invaders, was released
in arcades across Japan. The game depicts a fearsome army of alien
soldiers who cascade down the screen in militaristic formation. As the lone soldier defending the Earth, you
must shoot laser beams at the incoming extraterrestrial threat – while hopping in and out from behind
destructible shields. There’s also a UFO that floats across the
top of the screen, and bags you a random number of points when it’s shot. It’s a simple set-up, but there’s a surprising
amount of opportunity for strategy. It was one of the first shooters where
the enemies shot back, for example, so you needed to dodge as well as attack. And you can manipulate the play-space to your
advantage, because if you remove the aliens on the far side of the formation, your foes
now have further to go each step, and thus take longer to reach the bottom of the screen. Space Invaders was certainly a game of firsts. It was the first arcade game that would record
your high score, adding a highly competitive element where nearby players could compete
to see who could hold out for the longest. Though, it wasn’t until next year’s Star
Fire that players could enter their initials next to their score. It was also the first game with a soundtrack
that played continuously through the gameplay. Sure, it was just a simple heartbeat thud
(or, perhaps, a jackboot march), but it gave the game a remarkable feeling of impending
doom. This was one of the first games that truly
evoked a mood in the player. But the most influential design in Space Invaders
is far more fundamental. Space Invaders was made by Taito engineer
Tomohiro Nishikado, who made the arcade board himself, using microprocessors imported from
the United States. However: he quickly found that the tech wasn’t
powerful enough to draw an entire army of alien invaders, moving at his desired speed. And so the extraterrestrials would instead
slowly creep across the play field. But – every time the player shot and killed
an alien, the processor had one one fewer sprite to draw, and that extra processing
time meant the rest of the army would start to move slightly faster. By the time just a few aliens were left on
screen, they moved quickly and aggressively towards the player. This wasn’t what Nishikado intended to happen,
but he discovered that this actually added an interesting wrinkle to the game: the better
you did, the harder the game got. And instead of fixing the bug, he implemented
it into the final game. It even made the music speed up, giving the
game a prototypical adaptive soundtrack. Now, Space Invaders wasn’t the first game
where the difficulty increased in relation to your success. You see, Nishikado was influenced by Atari’s
brick-busting, Pong-inspired game, Breakout, which was released in 1976. And one of the things he liked most about
Breakout was the way the game got more difficult as you played – partly because the last block
is really hard to hit, and partly because Atari programmed it so the ball speeds up
at certain intervals. But here’s the thing. Breakout only has two levels, and they’re
identical. Space Invaders on the other hand has multiple
stages and Nishikado made it so each level was harder than the one before it – as each
stage begins with the aliens one row closer to the bottom of the screen. And together – the speeding up aliens, and
the more difficult starting conditions – these two ideas give the game a distinct structure
where the game’s difficulty increases throughout level one, then drops down to something a
bit more manageable for the start of level two – before increasing again, and so on. This strange wiggly line, is what Space Invaders
brought to game design: a difficulty curve. And we now see some version of this spiky,
wavy curve in practically every type of traditional video game. It’s a curve that keeps players engaged
with a rising challenge that meets their increasing skill level, but also provides time to get
your bearings and learn new mechanics. And it’s a curve that delivers excellent
pacing – with rising tension and then moments of relief. That difficulty curve, coupled with that high
score system, led Space Invaders to become incredibly addictive and, perhaps, the first
video game phenomenon. Long before kids were doing cringy Fortnite
dances at weddings and finding dead bodies while hunting for Geodudes in Pokemon GO,
there were news stories about Space Invaders addicts. Plus, the game took in billions of dollars
in its first few years, and arcades in Japan were sometimes called “Invader Houses”. Though, don’t believe the story that says
the game led to a shortage of 100 yen coins in Japan – that one’s almost certainly a
load of -. But most importantly, the tremendous success
of Space Invaders would inspire more companies to get into games. Mario maker Shigeru Miyamoto has said “about
a year or two after I joined Nintendo, Space Invaders came out and became a huge hit, and
so Nintendo decided to go into the video game business”. And Atari was struggling to shift its Atari
2600 console until it licensed a Space Invaders port in 1980 – which doubled the console’s
sales to more than two million units, and made the system popular with developers and
gamers alike. AD DAD: It’s fun! But personally I think the whole idea
of creatures from outer space is a little far fetched. Many of the games that cropped up during the
dominance of Space Invaders were, of course, sci-fi space shooters. Games like Galaxian by Namco, Defender by
Williams Electronics, Asteroids by Atari, Astro Fighter by Data East, Gorf by Midway, Astro Invader by Konami, Ozma Wars by SNK, and Radar Scope by Nintendo
were all hoping to cash in on this interstellar fad. And this would, of course, lead to the the
shoot ‘em up genre that we still know today. Everything from Galaga to Ikaruga to Star
Fox and to DoDonPachi can be traced back to these pixelated invaders. And this is a genre that Space Invaders itself
is still a part of, with modern instalments like the trippy, score-chasing reboot, Space
Invaders Extreme, and the ever-evolving Space Invaders Infinity Gene. So, I think Space Invaders is the perfect
game to kick this series off. While it was far from the first ever video
game, it made a number of incredibly important contributions to the field of game design
that would fundamentally change how games were made. From high scores to destructible cover to
adaptive soundtracks to the entire shoot ‘em up genre and that oh-so important difficulty
curve, it’s clear to me that Nishikado’s Space Invaders was truly, a design icon. Hi there! Design Icons will be an ongoing series, that
will take us from the earliest arcade games, right through to modern trendsetters. To make sure you never miss an episode, make
sure you subscribe to Game Maker’s Toolkit on YouTube – and also hit the bell icon so
you’ll be alerted whenever new episodes are available. This series, and everything else on GMTK,
is made possible thanks to my supporters at Patreon.com.

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