RoadBlasters was a fantastic arcade game that spliced hi-octane action with pedal-to-the-metal racing. The end result was a stunning looking arcade racer that played as good as it looked. Here, three key members of RoadBlasters’ development explain how they created an arcade hit.
“The game was originally called FutureVette, like a Corvette… but from the future,” says Mark Pierce, who pauses before adding: “I thought it was a hideous name.” Mark is one of three key team members we tracked down who worked on Atari’s 1987 game, which deftly merged shooting and racing action, and which was eventually renamed RoadBlasters. He’s trying to remember the game’s origins, which escape programmers Bonnie Smithson – the first of the team on the project – and Robert Weatherby. Mark recalls that the game was Lyle Rains’ ‘baby’, and the design document was, thankfully, better than the game’s name: “It was one sheet of paper. ‘FutureVette’ was at the top, and there was a paragraph of text that pretty much said: ‘You can drive real fast and shoot!’ The vision was a mash-up of Pole Position and Spy Hunter, which was popular then.”
There are lots of cool explosions in RoadBlasters.
As noted, Bonnie was first on the project. A recent Atari hire and new to gaming, she recalls being given tasks to get the hang of how game software was structured. “For this one, I was asked to program a graphics board to change the line offsets on hblank to shape a roadway,” she says. Armed with a Pole Position cabinet for reference and Atari’s System 1 hardware, Bonnie got a basic racing road up and running fairly quickly. “Pole Position had hardware to make the road move, but my hblank experiment showed that it was possible to create the same effect with less custom hardware.” Mark recalls that this was essentially the game that existed when he joined the project: “Bonnie was rebuilding Pole Position’s technology, and she’d created a road and the horizon that moved left and right. I think there was also a car sitting pinned that would turn a bit – all very rudimentary.”
But with Mark and Bonnie working together, along with occasional input from other Atari staff, things rapidly evolved. “After we had the first-person view of the car, we added traffic, collisions, shooting, adversaries, points and scoring, and started working up levels,” says Bonnie. “There were continual rounds of refinement, and so a typical day would include me composing new functionality and incorporating gameplay feedback and graphical refinements, and I’d add nuances to simple implementations that were placeholders.”
Production of the game was an iterative process, and Bonnie was keen to make things ‘tuneable’ in real-time. “I exposed nearly every value in the game to something I could tweak while others were playing, and so if they complained about something I could immediately change it to see if they thought the game improved. I love real-time programming, and so I liked the timing constraints of the hardware. It was a challenge to slice up the processing so it could be done in time to make the game feel good. I learned what trade-off a gameplay designer wanted access to very quickly and gave it to them.”
That purple car is immune to your base bullets, so be careful.
After several months, the team had a solid game where you raced against a timer, frantically blasting everything in your path as you did so. During testing, Lyle Rains deemed that feedback wasn’t strong enough and so Robert Weatherby, fresh from Championship Sprint, was asked to join the project, to inject fresh ideas and assist with programming. On playing the game, Robert found it too easy to blow up other road users: “You could lay on the trigger and everything would get destroyed – there weren’t any real hazards – so we armoured some cars, which meant you had traffic to contend with.”
Having designed Super Sprint’s car attribute power-ups, Robert wanted something similar for RoadBlasters, and so extra weapons were added to the mix. “One of these came from a development mode I’d created, where collisions were disabled, enabling us to drive through other cars,” says Bonnie. “As Mark and I were playing, we decided to make this a weapon option, which became the electro shield.”
“And I think I was the one to suggest replacing Spy Hunter’s van with a plane that swoops in with your weapon,” adds Mark. “It looks terrible today, but back in the day it was ‘Wow!’”
There’s a range of different enemies to shoot down, all worth different points.
The biggest change that Robert instigated, though, was ditching a timer – something he’d also done in Super Sprint. But the team wasn’t convinced. “I didn’t want to race against a clock – I wanted something more dynamic that acted like a clock, so I threw out there the idea of adding fuel strategically, and you acquiring it in order to finish a stage,” remembers Robert. “People were lukewarm to the idea, but I was stubborn, said to give me a couple of weeks to show everyone what I was talking about, and went ahead and programmed it anyway.”
Robert’s fuel feature changed the game, adding depth: “As you race, you know you don’t have enough fuel to complete each course, and so the game becomes a challenge that forces you to navigate between traffic to acquire fuel globes.” Some fuel was then hidden in enemy cars, a feature that required quickfire tweaking. “When I first programmed that, you’d shoot a car and the fuel globe would fly by so quickly that you’d have no way to grab it,” recalls Robert. “So I had the idea of having the globe ‘hover’, continuing along the track, but decelerating, giving you the opportunity to catch it. I thought this really made the game fun – you’re racing at high speed, shoot a car ahead of you, and have to squeeze between cars to grab the fuel you need to survive.”
Some would have seen Robert’s abrupt input as an intrusion, but Mark welcomed it: “Robert’s a real good guy. A lot of people call themselves games designers, but I don’t buy into that – they edit levels. But Robert understands how a game’s got to have a hook, how to tune something, how to make an experience successful for a broad base. He, Dave [Wiebenson], Bonnie and I worked together to improve the game’s design and we were a great team.”
More features were slowly added to the game. “I contributed the idea of dune buggies that sped ahead of you and slammed on the brakes, Robert added ‘fish tailing’ and other aspects of car handling, and Brad Fuller added fantastic sound work that added immeasurably to the game,” says Bonnie. “I also worked hard on adversary intelligence – programming I’m still proud of. Others on the team described what they wanted and it was my job to translate subjective terms of game ‘feel’ into code.”
RoadBlasters allowed you to live out all your Mad Max fantasies.
Mark’s keen to point out Dave Wiebenson’s contribution during this period of development. Beforehand, Dave had largely been a technician – the guy who’d build prototypes, go on field tests, and ensure that cabinets would work properly. But with RoadBlasters, he became heavily involved in laying out tracks. “Much of the success of the game was down to how Dave edited the levels,” claims Mark. “He’d sit and edit text files that were pages and pages long, and he’d compare the code with the on-screen experience. Everyone at Atari would be playing games in the lab, so Lyle would be there and I’d be playing all the time. We’d all be providing feedback – ‘This turn’s too easy, that one’s too hard, this one works really well’ – and Dave would be comparing the code to what was happening in the game.”
Particularly instrumental in ensuring RoadBlasters’ longevity, according to Mark, was the placement of fuel globes: “When the fuel globes came in, that kind of tied everything together, and Dave would watch how people played and then reposition the globes accordingly.” Over time, testers would find they’d run out of fuel with a globe hovering tantalisingly just out of reach. “They’d then ‘coin up’ again, because they’d think, ‘If I’d only done this one thing differently, I’d have made it’,” says Mark. “Dave’s work on this area of the game was simply genius. To my knowledge, RoadBlasters was the only game that he worked on the software for. I think Atari gave him a design credit, and up until that point artists were artists and technicians were technicians, and so the fact that bridge was crossed was also kind of unique.”
RoadBlasters also stood out due to its exciting visuals, which were mostly designed by Mark. He utilised Atari’s then-cutting-edge 3D system to kick-start object design, rather than hand-drawing everything. “The system was the one used for I, Robot, modified so I could model a car,” he explains. “The process was tedious back then, but we built a program that would take my model, rotate it, take a snapshot and make a bitmap.” The end result was noisy, messy and lacked textures, but Mark notes that when the images were retouched the end results were better than those in other games of the time. RoadBlasters was shaping up nicely. Very nicely indeed…
You can read the rest of our Making Of Roadblasters in issue 75. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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