Battlezone went into the arcades in 1980 and created such a
sensation that the U.S. army ordered modified versions of the games to use in training.
The Creation of Battlezone
The idea of a tank simulator was championed by Morgan Hoff, who became the project leader for Battlezone, while Ed Rotberg was the principal programmer.
Ed Rotberg: "Morgan Hoff more or less championed it and decided to put together a team to implement the game. Given the technology that we had, the real challenge was how to make the game appear as if we had more technology than we did. And the question was always: How do we involve the player? Meeting those needs was where the artistry was involved in designing a game in those days."
The developers used brilliant software code and innovative circuitry to create a high tech look. But some low-technology tricks were used as well. For example, a simple band of red cellophane was applied to the inside of the Battlezone screen. Placed across the top of the screen, the result was red colors for the radar and warning messages, even though Battlezone didn't have a two-color display.
A game takes on a life of its own, Rotberg said:
"Most games rarely turn out exactly the way that you plan them. Every time that you play the game, you try to amplify those things that are fun, and you try to pare away those things that are annoying and really not enjoyable. It is kind of like a story that grows in the telling."
Remembrances from the Video Game Masters
On the erupting volcano in the background of Battlezone, Ed Rotberg said:
"One of the other programmers who was working on another project in the same lab kept saying, 'Why don't you make the volcano active?' I had enough to do just to make the game play. And everyday he would say 'You know, you really need to make that volcano active.' He is really currently one of my very best friends, and he is a wonderful guy. But he kept pestering me about this. One day I said, 'You're a programmer. If you want the volcano active, you write the code and I'll put it in.' So I came in the next day and there was this chunk of code on my desk describing the motion of the rocks and such. I took an afternoon off and put the code into the program. That's how the volcano became active. It was never in the design."
Atari engineers were always amazed by the abilities of the players out in the arcades.
Morgan Hoff: "I remember a game that contained a succession of increasingly difficult mazes ranging from easy to difficult, to those requiring super human skill in timing. I was completely surprised to find players who could complete the most difficult levels. They were in a world of their own. They played the game with incredibly accurate hand and eye coordination and memory. One day I was in an arcade and. . . the best player was seven. He was extraordinary and he was standing on a chair to reach the controls."
Although Atari engineers uniformly praised the best players out in the arcades, many of the engineers were awesome players themselves. Once two Atari engineers went on a skiing vacation in Utah and Dan Pliskin came back with the following story:
"We were at Snowbird, and we had only been there a few days when we started to miss video games. So, we found a little arcade and my friend got onto a Missile Command (which was a pretty old game by then) and I got onto some pinball machine. We broke the high-score tables, and he had, like, 200 free cities and I had, like, 60 free games. When we got tired of playing, we just left them to these kids that were just wide-eyed, staring at us. The kids were standing there with their mouths open. They had never seen pinball wizards and video game masters."
Popular from the Start
As Battlezone took shape, engineers in the lab wanted to play it, a lot.
Ed Rotberg: "Usually when you have a winner you leave your lab for awhile and when you return there are people standing around playing your game, and that happens over and over again. You end up having to kick them off your machine to get any work done. That is your first indication that you have a winner. And I have never seen a really strong game that did not have that appeal. The guys in the labs are pretty good barometers."
Another barometer, though after the fact, was to go into the arcades to watch others playing it. Rotberg continued:
"The best feeling for a game designer is to go out into an arcade and see people having fun playing the game that they created. There is nothing better than that. To walk around and see all the other games, and know that people can choose from anything in there, but they are playing your game. That is pretty heavy stuff."
The Great 25-Cent Escape
Battlezone provided great escape for a quarter.
Rich Adam: "Battle Zone was a great one. I did love that game. Why was that business so phenomenal then? For a quarter you could be in a tank simulator, a pretty darn good one. That was pretty good value. That's what made Battlezone a phenomenon."
Dan Pliskin: "There's a certain class of games where you just get into a trance when you're playing them. As long as you're in this trance, you're doing fine."
The attraction of Battlezone's world was so strong that many players wanted to turn their back on the fighting and drive their tank up into the mountains to go exploring. The designers of the game had to put in a routine to send a missile after would-be explorers so that arcade owners wouldn't lose money on the peaceful tourists who didn't want to fight. Many great legends emerged from the arcades that centered on finding a way to leave the fighting behind.
Lyle Rains: "One letter came in from a Battlezone fan who said that a friend of his had told him that if you drove far enough you finally got to the volcano, and if you drove over the top of the volcano, you could go down into the crater. And he said that inside the crater there was a castle, and that you could go inside and explore the castle. Of course, none of this was true. It was a great little story to get from a fan. Who knows, we may yet do a volcano with a castle in it."
This exerpt is from the Microsoft Arcade "History of the Game"
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