The Making Of: Asteroids
When Atari released Asteroids in 1979, the game did something that very few coin-operated arcade games had ever done before. It kept selling. Months after its introduction, when the sales cycle for an arcade game should have ended, its manufacturer kept receiving orders.
More than 70,000 units were sold, generating revenues of US$150 million for Atari, and no one knows for sure how many coins the rock-splitting diversion sucked up, but Atari estimates it made more than US$500 million. Although orders have tapered off, the game’s legacy lives on with innumerable arcade, home and web-based adaptations. This obsession, over a quarter of a century old, owes its success to Atari programmer Ed Logg and a game that never took off.
With the success of Super Breakout, Logg had established himself as a Super Duper Game Guy (it’s the title on his current business card). Lyle Rains, the director of Atari’s coin-op group, needed Logg’s advice. The company was testing a game that featured a giant asteroid which couldn’t be destroyed. Yet that didn’t deter players. They kept shooting at the rock. According to Logg, “[Rains] felt that if people kept shooting at it maybe they really want to blow up asteroids. He said, ‘Well, why don’t we have a game where you shoot the rocks and blow them up?’”
However, Logg was looking for a little more strategy. He responded to Rains’ suggestion: “I’d really like to shoot the rocks and break them into smaller pieces because that way the player wouldn’t shoot everything, he would selectively pick. He doesn’t want to just randomly shoot because then you would have too many rocks flying around and it would be too damn dangerous.”
Logg knew that shooting rocks wouldn’t be enough: “You needed to do something, otherwise the player would just fly around and leave one rock on the screen and there’s no impetus to get you moving.” Having seen flying saucers in the game Spacewar!, Logg suggested that they introduce a similar flying saucer to chase the player on to the next round.
The next consideration was the graphics format. “[Rains] wanted it on raster and I suggested XY monitor because it’s higher resolution [1,024 x 760 versus raster’s 320 x 240] and you need that resolution to see what angle you’re shooting at. I was familiar with Spacewar!, the original vector game, and so I knew that the high resolution was required.” Since Logg was on a streak with great ideas, Rains gave him the green light on XY monitor and everything else. Logg was dubbed Asteroids’ programmer, project leader and artist. Also present in that first meeting was Howie Delman, who joined as engineer, and then Paul Mancuso joined the team as the game’s technician.
Logg created his own font using the game's vector graphics, and made sure profane combinations of letters couldn't be used on the hi-score table
Although developing coin-op games in the ’70s was a laborious process, thanks to the complexity of the 6502 CPU, programming Asteroids was surprisingly pain free. The basic underlying routines for the existing XY hardware had already been used in Atari’s Lunar Lander.
One game element that evolved after the initial Asteroids meeting was the division of the big saucer and the small saucer. Logg wanted two saucers with different roles, “The big saucer would come in: ‘Shoot me, shoot me… I’m just going to take a few random shots… I’m cannon fodder.’” The small saucer would arrive after three big saucers. Its firing would be more focused than that of the big saucer. Throughout gameplay, the two would randomly switch appearances. Attain a certain score and you’d only see the small saucer. “Once your score got higher and higher the saucer would come in and shoot faster and faster and faster and faster until you reached some maximum limit,” says Logg, “[Reach that limit and] the spaceship is probably coming in as fast as he can, he’s shooting as fast he can and there’s an angle range that he shoots you at and it slowly decreases until he is extremely accurate.” Asteroids maxes out in complexity somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 points. Logg has reached that range and beyond. He’s taken the machine to 99,999 points.