Atari Pong Developement Challenge Diary #1: A Trip To Sierra Online Ground Zero

I’ve been planning my entry for Atari’s Pong Development Challenge for past few weeks, the but I’ve hit a brick wall with a few elements.  I still hope to have my working prototype done for submission on April 15th, even though the rules only require a design document.   I have no illusions about winning, so the challenge is more for myself, to see if I can the game realized and finished on time.   In a way, it feels like my passage from corporate developer to full time indie.

This week my family is visiting Yosemite National Park.   When driving to Yosemite from the south in California,  you can’t help but drive through the Oakhurst, CA the old home of Sierra Online, one of the first computer game companies ever created.  Nestled in the pine trees of the Sierra’s, Oakhurst  appears to be a place that once housed loggers and gold miners, not pioneering game developers.   However, as chronicled in the book Hackers by Steven Levy,  Ken and Roberta Williams moved their company there in the early 80’s, and operated it for almost 2 decades.

When you drive through Oakhurst on Highway 41, you can’t help feel a twinge of nostalgia for what was once a computer gaming boom town.  Unique  and top-selling games like the  Kings Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry series’ were produced here along with dozens of other titles.   There was a time when a game with the name Sierra Online on it meant that it was a quality piece of entertainment.

When the company was sold in 1996, all of that evaporated. In the course of 3 years the amazing success of Sierra was flushed down the sluice box by a series of corporate blunders (as well as changing tastes in gaming).  By 1999, the operation in Oakhurst shut down, and while some work continued for Codemasters, that did not last long.   By the early 21st Century Sierra Online was forgotten in a world of the PS2, XBox, GameCube, Activision and Electronic Arts.

I have never forgotten though, and I’ve been up through Oakhurst several times in the past decade, each time looking for some kind of inspiration from the surroundings.  If these trees could talk, what could they tell me about designing great games?   Yesterday, we visited the Pizza Factory in Oakhurst, the pizza restaurant that has been around since Sierra opened it’s doors in the city.   It’s the one authentic location I could find that the designers and developers from Sierra Online might have visited back in the day.  In fact, in  Hackers , Steven Levy describes how some of the developers visited a local pizza place after work, and this appears to be the only place that dates from that time.

The interior of the Pizza Factory has been update in the past 30 years, but it’s still a beer and pizza joint with sports on the TV, and a small arcade in the corner.  After eating pizza with my family (the pizza is goooooooooooood!  which was another indication that this *was* the place).  However, I felt kind of silly even thinking about it.  All remnants of Sierra Online were gone from this area.  It was just another mountain town that fed off the tourists going to the national park.

I spied a Galaga/Ms Pac-Man Anniversary machine in the arcade, and went over to try it.   The game looked normal from the outside but then I noticed that the high score was 704,000.  When I started a game of Galaga, I noticed that it had a speed-mod applied.  You could fire twice as fast as normal, and the enemy bugs flew faster too (I don’t think it was quite  double speed).   I thought struck me: maybe some of those old Sierra devs still live locally, and maybe they play this machine  too.

Galaga in The Pizza Factory was a frantic, panic-filled assault that I have never experienced playing  the game before.   My daughters watched me for a bit, but it was hard for them to take.  They are used to modern games that ease you into the play, and  forgive you in ways that classic games never attempted.   By comparison,  Galaga is cold, harsh, and menacing and this double speed version was even more-so.  After they left to go back to their pizza, I continued, slamming the fire button as fast as possible and  shifting the joystick side to side, attempting to dodge and fire using my old Galaga muscle memory developed in 1982.   When I was finished, I had made it to a respectable level 14 with 140,000 points.     But beyond my score, I also formed an idea for my version of Pong.  It needs to be FAST.  I want my version to thrill players like this modded Galaga thrilled me.    Maybe my pilgrimage to the land of Sierra Online had not been so silly after all.

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