When a child enters a new playground for
the first time, they are assaulted by choices – swing sets, slides, see-saws,
merry-go-rounds, climbing frames… the playground offers them toys (there is no goal beyond personal entertainment) and they
excitedly begin experimenting with the amusements on offer.
The term ‘playground world’ was coined (possibly by myself) to describe the kind of games typified by the current Grand Theft Auto franchise in which the player is presented with a wealth of entertainments in a game context. The success of this approach is marked not only in the huge commercial achievements of these games, but also the extent to which companies attempt to copy this formula (often unsuccessfully). These modern playground worlds are expensive systems to build because, according to the obvious logic at least, they require enough different “toys” (vehicles, mini-missions, equipment) to provide the sense of choice and the illusion of freedom.
Recently, it has occurred to me that the
kind of play indicated by a ‘playground world’ has been with us for a
considerably longer time than perhaps I previously considered – although of
course, it was much simpler in the past.
Let us go back in time to one of the most
incredible years in European gaming history… back to the 8-bit era of flimsy
plastic home computers. Back to the year 1985.
David Braben’s Elite is considered by many
to be one of the most remarkable achievements of the 8-bit era. (I met him briefly
in a bar in
inspired by the seminal tabletop RPG Traveller (GDW, 1977) – it even
included the same sample character, Commander Jameson. This is not a criticism,
but it does serve to demonstrate just how influential the tabletop RPG games of
the 70’s and 80’s were in the development of modern videogames.
What makes Elite qualify as an early playground world? Of course, this is a subjective decision. However, the key elements as I see it are as follows:
- Freedom to travel: you can travel to any system, explore a huge area of space, and different areas feel different largely due to simple changes such as altering the political stability of a system i.e. changing the frequency and intensity of attacks on the player.
- Choice of activities: although there are not a great many different activities available, there is some choice – one can ship cargo (the most reliable money spinner), mine
asteroids, earn bounties for defeating criminals, engage in piracy and steal cargo, or even attack the police and become a fugitive.
Both of these elements were incredible back in 1985! We simply hadn’t seen anything like it, and Elite (for the BBC micro computer) entranced me.
Of course, it’s an old game, offering only
wireframe vector graphics, but it remains remarkable. For instance, one can
download a version of the original game for the PC and the file is a mere 97k!
That’s vastly smaller than the help file for most PC games.
Also out in 1985 was another wireframe
graphics classic for the Commodore 64, by Paul Woakes. This one, alas, has not aged
as well. The screenshot here was the best I could find for the game. Yes, it’s
just about that thrilling graphically. But remember, in 1985 most games
expected you to perform a single activity, and also that 3D graphics were still
amazing (even as wireframes) – this is only two years after the wireframe
graphics of the (second) Star Wars (Atari, 1983) arcade game had wowed
people with its “realism”.
Since you are unlikely to have played this game, allow me to summarise: you have crashed on an unknown planet, and have to find a way to escape. You can move around on foot, or board any of several wireframe vessels to fly your way around. The world is vast, and contains many hidden areas, some of which contain wireframe corridors with more hidden vessels.
The key elements which made this game feel
like a playground world were:
- Freedom to travel: the planet’s surface is a flat green plain with roads (white lines) and buildings (white frames), with many hidden buildings, and corridors inside some buildings which can be explored.
- Variety of Vehicles: the game was compelling at the time because each of the different vehicles had very different properties – and some were amusing, too. The Cheese, for instance, was one of the best vehicles in the game.
The game was a hit, spawning several
The last game in the class of ’85 I want to discuss is the classic Paradroid, by Graftgold stalward Andrew Braybrook (who I worked with briefly during the last days of Graftgold). This is one of my most fondly remembered games, and for many years was an all time favourite. Once again, graphics are not the strong point – you and every other droid in the game is represented by a circle with a number indicating the code of the droid in question. That said, the bas relief effects used were groundbreaking at the time and seemed really quite impressive compared to other games of the time.
The essence of the play is that you are an
experimental influence droid who has been sent to a ship full of malfunctioning
droids. You must pacify the ship, which is to say, destroy all of the robots.
However, what made this game exceptional was that you had two choices of ways
to do this: you can destroy them with weaponry (but not all droids have
weapons) or you can take control of them by playing an innovative ‘influence
game’ (pictured) which remains one of the best integral minigames in any videogame to
The dynamic of play is unlike any other. One can only control the different droids for varying lengths of time, usually related to their power level – which in turn relates to the droids code number. A pathetic 123 cleaning droid lasts a while, but can do little, while an awesome 883 battledroid (with devastating disruptor weapons) would not last as long. In between are many other droids, such as the 476 – a maintenance droid that happens to have a handy welding laser. The higher the code number, the stronger the droid would be in the influence game. The result is the player ‘climbs the ladder’, working from weaker to stronger droids – but ultimately must go back down to a lower droid for stability. One can take control of the top droid – code 999 – but not for long. Strong strategies revolved around the sequence of acquisitions and eliminations, although the game could also be played tactically with no forethought.
The key elements which made this feel like
a playground world were:
- Freedom to explore: the entire ship is open to you. There are no artificial barriers to prevent you exploring – although certain decks have many more battledroids on them, and are therefore harder to traverse. Deck transitions are via elevators on the map, but the feeling of exploring a ‘world’ (the ship) is palpable.
- Choice of activities: admittedly only two – use weapons or control by influence – but still, the player is afforded choices.
- Variety of droids: each droid feels like a completely different entity, with a different power level, and different weapons in many cases.
was remade several times - by Steve Turner as Quazatron (Graftgold,
1986) on the ZX Spectrum, as Paradroid 90 (Graftgold, 1990) for the
Amiga and Atari ST. These games discarded the convention of seeing droids as
their code numbers, but the play of the games remained much in the spirit of
The lack of a save game in the original makes modern emulated versions all the more playable.
I’m certain there are other games from this era for other platforms that I am either not aware of or am overlooking that also fit this criteria of an early ‘playground world’.
was released in 1985, but I think does not quite meet the criteria by requiring
the player to solve puzzles to progress – freedom of exploration is curtailed
structurally. However, I have not actually played this game and I may be doing
it a disservice in characterising it in this way.
Lords of Midnight (Beyond, 1985) is another candidate from the same year – in this one the player has the freedom to explore and has a choice of activity (quest or fight; negotiate or defeat) and a variety of troops – you can recruit a large number of different allies in parallel. However, it’s turn based play feels markedly less like a playground, and the variety is not a choice the player makes but an accumulation of more and more options.
I welcome suggestions for other games which
might be considered as early playground worlds, especially those from 1985 or
In 1985, it wasn’t possible for the most
technically advanced games to support wide scale activities because the high
tech games were in the arcades, and had to be designed to encourage players to
put coins in slots. On the home computers, pioneers like David Braben, Paul
Woakes and Andrew Braybrook considered new ways of structuring play, taking
advantage of the fact that in this context players could play for as long as
These early playground worlds are remarkable because they created a kind of open play from exceptionally limited resources. They showed that the elements that make a playground world interesting and compelling need not be expensive – provided the game itself is simple and cost effective. These elements appear to be:
- Freedom of exploration
- Choice of activities
- Variety of acquirable avatars (vehicles, droids etc.)
Any game which meets two out of three of
these general conditions seems to feel like a playground world. However,
freedom of exploration must not be constrained by any kind of overt ‘hoop
jumping’ or it would not represent actual freedom (although partitioning of
later areas is probably acceptable). Also, variety of avatars should perhaps
reflect the choice of a single instance, not an accumulation of units in a
I played and enjoyed all three of these games in 1985, and all three have exerted a certain influence on my game design work. I consider it incredible that they managed to achieve so much with such limited resources – an example of technical limitations forcing greater creativity. By examining how games with so few developmental resources managed to support a kind of play akin to the freedom and excitement of a child’s playground we can perhaps learn how we can create the same unique experiences in the games we choose to make today.