Atari Pong Developer Challenge : Crossing The Finish Line, Dreams Intact

A couple days ago was the deadline to have our demo and video submission for the Atari Pong Developer challenge .   However, since I was travelling to San Jose teach a class on the  HTML5 Canvas at Cisco this week, there is no way I could upload our submission on the day it was due.  That means I had to be finished last Monday.

I raced to the office  that morning so I could compile our app on the Mac in-house with all the proper black magic for provisioning profiles and and certificates already set-up.  Atari gave us four devices to add to the list, and I wanted to make sure it all got completed on-time before I had to leave for the airport.

There were some hiccups with Drop Box, and provisioning, but for the most part it went smoothly, and everything was submitted on time.   With little drama to accompany the submission, I was left trying to figure out what it all meant.

My original intention when submitting a game to the contest was to see if the modern Atari had any interest in my “left of center” bizarre ideas about “post-retro” and “retro evolved” games.   The design document I submitted originally was was basically a take on bit.trip.beat with the levels inspired by Atari’s vast collections of coin-up games from the 70’s .  Games that many people have never so much as seen, nor played.

They liked the concept (with some reservations), ad then it was my turn to create a demo.   The demo should have been “easy” to make, but it turned out to be much more difficult that I planned.    It’s was supposed to be Pong mashed-up with other Atari coin-ops, but by the time I finished the initial engine, it became “Pong Mashed-up with other Pong coin-ops”….or simply. Pong.    At the last minute I threw-in a set of levels based on “Asteroids” just to show what that kind of mash-up might look like.   Now don’t get me wrong, the game played exactly like I intended, but maybe just a bit too close to one-player version of Pong.

Another concession I had to make was to remove the “audio visualization” from the game screen.  These were dynamic run-time created animations based on the song that was currently playing.  They were placed in the background to give the game a hypnotic feel to go along with the techno soundtrack.  In the allotted time, I simply could not optimize them enough to keep the game running at an acceptable frame rate, so I moved them to the between level screen.  They still work, but they ae just not as impressive as if they lived on the actual game screen.

To make-up for this omission, I tried to cram as much content in as possible,   I finished 20 levels, added a trainer, upgrades to buy (simulated in this version) between level introductions to the coin-ops with bits of Atari history, color-cycling Atari animations, an FPO art design borrowed directly from the Atari Space Race arcade flyer, and probably a few other touches that I’m  forgetting, but it was all deeply steeped in Atari nostalgia.

We also were required to create a video for our submission.  I was not sure how to proceed with this at first, but ultimately it became a  another nostalgia piece.  A mostly black and white video punctuated with the audio visualizations and game-play footage, with logos and Atari game flyers moving quickly by  in the background.  If anything I tipped my hand as being a huge Atari-Nerd,   which may or may not be a detriment.  At any rate the video shows how I wanted the game to look if I could get it optimized.

When my dad was my age, back in about 1970, he decided to start a new hobby: racing motorcycles.  He always wanted to race motorcycles, but he had to wait until his 40’s when he had the extra  time and internal fortitude to make it a reality.   My dad was pretty good at riding motor-cycles.   He was the oldest guy (by far) in his Motorcycle Club (The Dusters), and he never won any races.  However, he kept doing it, with one plan in mind: to finish the races.    He did not finish a lot of races, but in one of them, not only did he finish, but he came in 3rd place.  He received a tiny trophy (the only trophy he ever received) and that he put up on desk, where it gathered dust for 30 years.   The trophy and the placment didn’t matter.  He did what he set out to do, he finished.  The rest was frosting.

It was a great lesson to learn from him.     In fact, the past month has been like a weird Atari dream for me.  I’ve always wanted to “work” for Atari in some capacity, and the time between the announcements of semi-finalists and the demo submission deadline, I was living in a state of “Atari” consciousness.  They liked my design document (which was promising), now all I had to do was get them a demo by June 5th.      While my ultimate dream would be to win, I have to be realistic, I probably have no real chance to win the Pong Developer Challenge.  However, I still feel like a winner.  My dream of “working” for Atari came true, even if it was in a very odd and not altogether straightforward way, but then maybe most dreams are realized in ways we never imagined.  And after all, I did manage to cross the finish-line (for the demo portion anyway), and that feels like some kind of win, even if it’s just in my head.





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