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Old Game, New Twist: A Great Way to Practice Your Gamedev Skills

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So you're an aspiring new game developer, you've made a few simple programs, and you're itching to make an actual game. You probably have lots of ideas, but making games almost always takes more effort than you think it will, so you need to start off simple. You need a small project to let you test your skills and whet your interest.

In which case, what better idea than to remake a classic - but with a twist?

Preview image: Space Invaders Extreme To The Max, Yo by Tom Carruthers.


Why Remake an Old Game?

There are a few advantages to remaking an old game.

Firstly, games like Pong or Space Invaders are easy to code. Thanks to advances in languages and IDEs, a half-decent programmer should be able to get something running in less than an hour - though it's not hugely important if it takes you longer, as long as you learn something from the experience. And if everything goes pear-shaped, then at least you can restart without wasting weeks of work.

Old games are well established. This means you don't have to worry about writing design documents, finding balance issues, or even making an in-game tutorial: the game is already laid out for you, and players will (generally speaking) know how it works.

If you get stuck, there are often dozens of tutorials online. A quick online search for [pong tutorial] returns over 7,000,000 results, so you should be able to find assistance with any code-related problems without too much fuss.

And lastly, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of old games to choose from.


Finding Your Inspiration

With the expansive history of gaming we have today, its fairly easy to find something which provides a good base for a remake. One good place to start is Wikipedia, where you can find lists of old games for the Atari, Spectrum, Commodore 64 or even Game and Watch series:

If looking through lists on Wikipedia isn't your cup of tea, then YouTube has plenty of videos showcasing gaming classics: searches for [old atari games], [top retro games] or similar phrases will hopefully show you something to draw inspiration from.

Some games you may not have played before, but have good potential:

Kaboom

Spacewar!

PSSST

Cookie

Jetpac

Stix

PipeMania

Joust

And that doesn't include the ones you're (hopefully) already familiar with, like Missile Command, Q*Bert and Frogger.


Making a Game

So, how do you actually make a game? There's no right answer to this, as every games developer has their own methods, and its well beyond the scope of this article to fully cover it.

Fortunately, you're on a site full of gamedev tutorials. Take a look at our Session on making your first game, our various From Scratch beginner walkthrough series, or our Start Here guide to help you out.


Making It Interesting

So, you've made your clone, what now?

Well, you could always call it a day and move onto your next project. If all you're looking to do is practise your programming skills, then this isn't necessarily a bad option.

If you're looking to push yourself further, however, you can try add some features of your own. After all, there are thousands of Space Invaders clones out there already, so you probably want something to make yours different.

On top of that, there is a massive difference between programming simple prototypes and being a "real" developer: polish. It's often said that the last 10% of development takes 90% of the work, and while this isn't necessarily true, it can often feel like it. It doesn't take much effort to throw together a Space Invaders prototype, but adding graphics, sounds, balancing, high score tables - and all the other things that make a game stand out - ends up taking more time and effort than you'd expect.

If you want to make your game special, there are a few ways to do so.

Art Assets

The simplest way is to add graphics, sounds and music. It's actually possible to make a game more fun simply through this method. The right atmosphere for a game can be a selling point in itself, although its very difficult to achieve this, and will require a talented artist or musician.

An excellent example of this atmospheric value can be be seen in the Bit. Trip series, most notably Bit. Trip Beat.

At its core, Bit. Trip Beat isn't really any more complex than single-player Pong: balls fly towards the player (a paddle), and you have to "bounce" them back. So why is the game so immensely popular? The graphics have a nice retro appeal but certainly aren't ground-breaking. The music, really, is where the game shines. It's incredibly pleasing to listen to, and has been integrated into the gameplay itself: balls spawn in time with the beats, waves change with the tempo, and the whole atmosphere really draws you in.

Even with its blocky retro styles, Bit. Trip Beat still looks great.

At the extreme end, Guitar Hero really personifies this method. Take away the pretty graphics, rocking tunes and entertaining yet gimmicky controller, and what do you have? A game based around pressing buttons in time with the screen - not the most complex of concepts. Yet the franchise has been amongst the most successful in the games industry.

Key Mechanic

The alternative to this high-end polish is having a mechanic or concept which can hook the player in. Old games (like Space Invaders) are, frankly, not very much fun these days. They've been outclassed by years of technological improvements, improved design techniques, and - importantly - a massive rise in the level of skill of the average gamer.

That's not to say that games like Pac-Man aren't still difficult, but they're often difficult for the wrong reasons. If you try to break down why a game like Pong fails under today's standards, the most noticeable flaw is how slow gameplay is. The player hits the ball, then sits around doing nothing while the opponent lines up their shot. If you want to make a game like Pong work today, then you have to make sure the player is constantly involved, and try to eliminate that "doing nothing" period.

One obvious solution, then, is simply to increase the pace of the game. You can do this by cranking up the actual speed, or by throwing in extra balls, or even giving the player the ability to shoot the opponent. A great example of this is Pwong 2 - it's really nothing more than a faster version of Pong, but the combination of faster gameplay with the improved graphics and music combines to make a fun game that's a far cry from the tedious pace of normal Pong.

Pwong 2 - try not to miss any balls.

Lots of Little Changes

Alternatively, you can shake things up: making small changes can be enough to make things interesting. A new playing field, more weapons, different enemy waves - you keep the core tenets of the game, but you try to throw the player off by subverting their expectations.

A couple of excellent example are Pac-Man Championship Edition and Space Invaders Extreme.


In Pac-Man Championship Edition, the gameplay is more or less identical to the original, except that rather than moving from board to board, the board is split into two halves which are constantly changing shape and adding new pellets to collect. As the game goes on, it becomes more hectic, and this combination of keeping the player constantly involved, the frantic nature and continual changes make for a much more interesting experience than constantly replaying the same board over and over.


Similarly, Space Invaders Extreme starts off like normal Space Invaders, but starts throwing enemies at you in strange wave patterns, with power-ups, boss fights and enemy abilities, as well as (once again) being faster, and smoothing the waves into each other so the player never gets that pause between levels. Again, the gameplay is continuous and frantic.

Make It Modern

Also, you can always add the trappings of modern gaming to make things more attractive to the player. I've talked about achievements and unlocks before, and there's no reason they can't be added to an older game to give it that little bit of extra mileage.

Snakes On A Cartesian Plane is, at heart, a fairly simple Snake clone, but it uses these concepts well - although the game is basically the same as Snake, the addition of unlocks gives the player goals to work towards, and lets the player feel rewarded every time they hit a target.

The massively successful Jetpack Joyride operates on this principle as well: the aim isn't to do well at the game itself; it's to hit objectives and succeed at the meta-game.


Don't Limit It to the Screen

Lastly, it's worth mentioning that sometimes even the tiniest hook, if executed well, can draw players in. Some enterprising individuals creating the PainStation, which recreates the original Pong in its monochrome glory - the twist being that, when you lose a ball, you suffer an electric shock from the console.

Although it may seem ludicrous to include real world pain as a selling point, it has become a reasonably well known game, evidently tapping into that testosterone-fuelled part of the male psyche.

The PainStation, with hands-on controller and pain dispenser.
The PainStation, with hands-on controller and pain dispenser.

Putting It All Together

Hopefully this has given you some ideas of where to start off. We can take a game, write down some ideas, and see if it sounds promising.

A concept for a Missile Command remake might look something like this:

Art Assets

Graphics:

  • Use of particle effects when missiles explode.
  • Neon colours, explosions.

Music:

  • Ties in with gameplay.
  • Starts off slow, becomes faster as game speed increases.

Hooks

  • No level system. Game is two minutes long, progressing from an initially calm first 10 seconds to an almost unbeatable swarm of enemies in the last 10 seconds.
  • Special missiles: every 20 seconds, a new enemy type is introduced. Starts off with standard missiles, then introduces enemies with additional properties: tougher, faster, weird movement patterns, warping in and out. Each enemy is visually distinct.
  • Power-ups: Hitting special enemies will give the player a special boost (temporary shield, rapid fire, larger explosions).
  • Meta

  • Aims, goals: score as many points in two minutes as possible.
  • Unlocks: unlock special power-ups and attacks for achieving certain goals (survive one minute without losing a city, kill five enemies in one blast, survive two minutes and complete game).

  • As we begin adding more ideas, the game becomes more attractive. It becomes less of a clone, and more about letting our creative side run wild and being able to push our ideas into something.


    Conclusion

    At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what you produce, as long as you're making games, honing your skills and pushing yourself to do new things. Your game might not be the next big thing, but everyone has to begin somewhere, and if you can get even a handful of friends to enjoy your game then you're off to a good start.

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