Atari 2600 still schooling game designers

At GDC, author and Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost explains how the iconic 1970s- and '80s-era game console can be used for inspiration by today's designers.

At the Game Developers Conference on Friday in San Francisco, Georgia Tech professor and author Ian Bogost talked about the lessons that can be learned by game designers from the iconic Atari 2600.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

SAN FRANCISCO--If you draw a straight line representing the evolution of video games from the Atari 2600 to the Nintendo Wii, one thing is clear: if you don't know your past, you can't know your future.

That was the central lesson of Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost's Friday talk at the Game Developers Conference here, "Learning from the Atari 2600." Essentially, Bogost argued, it's not always necessary to reinvent the wheel; sometimes, instead of being discarded as so much arcane, the discoveries of the past are best adapted for the future.

Bogost and MIT assistant professor Nick Monfort recently published Racing the Beam, a book about the iconic Atari VCS, popularly known as the 2600. So Bogost's talk Friday was clearly drawn from the research for that project. And while his fondness for the 1970s-era video game console was evident, the point he was really trying to make was that the seeds of successful games--especially those enjoyed by large groups of diverse people--have very little to do with the latest and greatest technology and much more to do with mechanics that make for enjoyable shared experiences.

'Racing the Beam,' the new book by Ian Bogost and Nick Monfort, looks at the history and lessons that can be drawn from the Atari 2600. Ian Bogost and Nick Monfort

For Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell, a former carnival barker, the bloodlines that led to the 2600 were three things, Bogost argued: the fun-for-the-whole-family excitement of a midway, the shared competition of a game of darts played in a tavern, and the gather-around-the-TV sense of family time afforded by the den. At the same time, Bushnell wanted to repeat the success he'd had with coin-op arcade games like "Pong," but for the home.

What he was after was what Nintendo has also tried to build into its Wii: a feeling that people can have fun doing something together. That's why going to the movies is so much fun, or going out with friends to a bar: because it's something people can do together, in a social space, whether they're competing or not.

And it's about context, Bogost said. You can drink at home, but it's not as fun as doing it in a bar. Or you play pool in your house, but it's not the same thing as doing it with friends at the local tavern. And while no video game system can replicate being out in public, the right mix of game mechanics and tools can allow people to feel like they're in the middle of a social scene, even if they're in their living room.

"That's why Wii Bowling is the best game in the Wii Sports collection," Bogost said. "It really re-creates the experience and context" of real bowling.

"So what we see, I think in the (2600)," Bogost said, "is the adaptation of familiar subjects for familiar spaces."

He talked about the successes and failures of some of the games designed for the 2600, explaining that, for example, the original 2600 Pac-Man game didn't work because its designers didn't do a good job of adapting many of the atmospheric elements of the original arcade version. For example, it was missing the familiar music, as well as the animation of Pac-Man chomping and turning as he made his way around the maze.

A successful adaptation, however, was the 2600 version of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. In that game, players were tasked mainly with attacking Imperial walkers, blasting away at them again and again until victory was achieved or defeat assured. So rather than trying to re-create the entire storyline of the movie, The Empire Strikes Back, the game's designers cleverly focused on the one, most memorable, scene from the movie.

The Atari 2600 version of The Empire Strikes Back was successful because it incorporated the enjoyable experience of one of the best scenes in the film it was based on, Bogost suggested. Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

Contrast that with the infamous E.T. game for the 2600--which Bogost said tried to faithfully re-create the film's sense of alienation, and which was a terrific failure--and you can see that successful games don't require complexity. Instead, they require adaptation that fits the format at hand. Shooting Imperial walkers conjures the best parts of Empire Strikes Back and thrills players with quick, simple action, while the E.T. game tried to hard to do too much with a beloved franchise.

Bogost's lessons drawn from the 2600 for modern game designers, then, revolve around the idea that innovation is less important than adaptation. The best Atari 2600 games were adaptations of games that had come before--Pong, Spacewars, Star Castle--that did a great job of porting the player's enjoyable experience into the living room. The worst--Pac-Man, E.T.--tried too hard to break new ground.

Further, he said that while there's always the temptation to try to re-create, or modernize, properties from the past, what really works is updating the experience that people had with them.

In addition, he said, it's important when trying to update those experiences, to keep in mind the limitations, or virtues, of the machine for which the new game is being created. Knowing that the PlayStation 3 supports terrific graphics doesn't mean that a game is going to be good just because it has big explosions or incredible realism. But build a game like Flower, which depends on beautiful images, and the PS3 is the perfect platform.

And lastly, Bogost said, timing matters less than it may seem.

In other words, while it may seem crucial to get a title out as fast as possible to, say, leverage interest in the movie it is based on, that's not always necessary. He explained that the Empire Strikes Back game for the 2600 came out two full years after the film.

"These things linger, especially for kids," Bogost said, adding that his son had once told him, "'You really only go to the movies to see if you want to get the DVD.'"

To be sure, Bogost's talk was somewhat abstract and he wasn't drawing direct game design conclusions. Rather, he was trying to explore the ideas that simplicity is often a better approach than trying to do too much, and that as a platform, the Atari 2600 proved that it was possible to make people happy and to have commercial success, without starting from scratch each time, or shooting for the stars.

Instead, by carefully thinking about the experiences that people enjoyed in the past and applying them to the 2600, game designers in the 1970s and '80s were able to make titles that combined the best aspects of social environments and bring them into the home.

And now, years later, even in the era of machines like the Xbox 360 and PS3, which are more powerful than anything that could have been envisioned in the era of the 2600, Nintendo has found a way to apply some of the lessons learned in the past and adapt them for the present.

"The Atari is a living, breathing relic," Bogost said. "It's a strong aspect of (the video game industry's) history, and we should know about it for those reasons alone."