Tuesday, June 9, 2009

My Favorite Games: Robot Odyssey

A while back I picked up the book Game Design Workshop, which is quite good. One of the most interesting features of the book are interviews with professionals in the industry. Most of the time they ask them what their favorite games are, and it's interesting to hear their answers.

I thought I'd answer the question myself. Of course I love to play games...doesn't everyone? So it's no surprise that I've gotten sucked into developing them as a sideline.

Originally I planned to write a single blog talking about all of my favorite games, especially ones that have stuck in my mind over the years, ones that I've played for decades, ones that I don't play anymore but which had a big impact on my life. But that turned out to just be too damned long. So this is the first in a series of posts talking about my favorite games.

Here's the list:

Card/Board Games:
Crazy Eights
Settlers of Catan

Collectible Card Games:
Magic The Gathering

Video Games:
Space Invaders
Robot Odyssey
World of Warcraft
Peggle and Peggle Nights
Bookworm Adventures
Puzzle Quest
Zelda: Twilight Princess

Text-based computer games:
Zork I, II, and III
Enchanter, Sorcerer, and Spellbreaker
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Arcade Games:
Dig Dug

Again, this isn't meant to be some comprehensive list of games. These are games that influenced me in some way. I'm not sure I'll get to all of them, but we'll see.

One particular video game that I'm going to inaugurate this series with is one that's stuck in my head for decades, and that's Robot Odyssey. The graphics were pretty bad, even for the time period (early 80's), and I didn't even own the game. I ended up pulling all-nighters with a friend of mine who owned the Apple II that ran it.

What makes this game so memorable? Well, the basic setup is that you are a person in an underground city and you're trying to get home. To do so, you have to solve a series of puzzles. The catch is that these puzzles most often have to be solved by programming the robots and having them solve the task. You did this by actually entering the robots and wiring up their various sensors and thrusters with logic circuits (you had a little toolbox of these). For example, you might wire the robot's right bumper to its bottom thruster, so that if it hits the right wall, it goes up. Puzzles usually involved having robots navigate simple maze configurations and get items for you. I may be making it sound dry, but it was amazingly fun and addictive.

The key element of the game is the ability to program robots, something very few games allow you to do. Games like Lemmings have a very crude form of this, where you can assign simple roles to agents, but it's much more limiting. Games that are fun as hell, but still make you think are extremely rare, and this was one of the best. There have been a few ports and similar games, though I haven't checked them out.

At some point I will definitely do my own take on the general concept. I think the idea of gently introducing programming and logic problems to kids is enormously important, and I found the experience of wiring up agents and then watching them act out my programs enormously fun, even when they didn't work (which was most of the time), and especially when they did unexpected things.

In my idea folder are plans for a game that abstracts away the computer/hardware/robot elements but leaves the core game play intact. My video game design uses cards as programming elements. The player assembles a sequence of cards that summon an agent (such as a magical bird, fish, or tiger) and determine its decision policies based on what it encounters in the environment (e.g., a given card might compel the animal to climb a tree if it comes near one). The effects of some cards might be dependent upon adjacent cards in the summoning deck, and others might be independent of order. But the basic idea is that players will solve puzzles by building programs to execute in simple environments in order to solve goals. Hopefully players will be programming, without even knowing that's what they're doing. :)

Anyway, Robot Odyssey has stuck in my head for 25 years, even though I played it less than a month on somebody else's machine. It's a great game, and a model for what a designer can achieve by not dumbing material down and trying to create an innovative experience.


Kenny Wyland said...

I highly recommend RoboRally (http://bit.ly/2yL94d). It's a board/strategy game. Players control robots who race from point A to B across a dangerous factory floor. You get a random hand of program cards that contain movement options (Move 1, Move 2, Move 3, Turn Left, Turn Right, U-Turn or Back-Up) and you have to program 5 operations per turn. You have to coordinate your movements along with the factory movements (like conveyor belts that move you or gears that turn you. For the most part that would be easy to make it from A to B, but the other player's robots can push you off course, which means your pre-chosen operations might just walk you into a crusher and kill your little robot.

It's a TON of fun. I highly recommend it!

Derek James said...

Sounds cool. Thanks for the recommendation. Ack, it's $60 on Amazon, but it looks like it's about $37 through Google Product Search. I'll add it to my wish list.

Shafee said...

hi Derek,

You hit my soft spot. I played with Robot Odyssey in the 80s, since I had an Apple II, and realised what you tried to explicate in your blog here: 1. It is an amazing game; 2. It is an instructional game par excellance; 3. It can/may be used to fill in a serious cavity in modern education: a soft route to learning programming as a thinking adventure. I really miss it, and I hope I find a version that may be run on my lousy MS Windows 7 machine. And if someone can direct me to an OS version I will send it to my son..

Anonymous said...

There is in fact a free clone of Robot Odyssey, although it hasn't been updated in years, called Droidquest: