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  • Physics in Mass Market Games

    [05.06.08]
    - Calen Henry and Jacob Karsemeyer
  •  You're a special agent behind enemy lines. Tucked into a dark bunker, your heart races as you hear the rapidly approaching footsteps of a hostile guard. You cock your pistol, careful to not alert the guard. As he comes around the corner you hold your breath in anticipation. You raise the gun, lining up the sights with his head, but when you pull the trigger, he doesn't react as you'd expect. Instead of falling backward, he awkwardly collapses towards you, his arm passing through a nearby wall. You're immediately ripped from the otherwise immersive experience and remember you were just playing a computer game.

    Physics are an important factor in creating an immersive experience in video games. All the most memorable games have found ways of overcoming the technological constraints of their time to create experiences that kept players coming back. When physics are done wrong, it can be disastrous. Bargain bins are littered with games that invested more in movie licenses or flashy graphics than they did into tweaking the physics to make the gameplay enjoyable. But when done right, the results are powerful and memorable.

    To understand the current climate of game physics, one must first understand a brief history of pivotal games physics technologies and how they have influenced other game developers, as well as current technologies that are still in the process of being introduced.

    The Golden Era: 1962-1981
    Even before the advanced 3D graphics of current generation video games, physics played an important role in the game experience. One of the earliest examples of successful game physics is in Spacewar, released in 1962. In Spacewar, players control spaceships that fire bullets and missiles at one another while avoiding being shot or colliding with a star. The physics in that game calculates a gravitational pull that arcs the trajectory of bullet fire, and pulls ships toward them. This gives the game a unique feel that even later more technologically advanced games like Asteroids can't reproduce.

    A decade later Pong brought games to mainstream audiences. While Pong had primitive gameplay -- two paddles knocking a ball back and forth -- it's based on a simple physics calculation that determines where on the paddle the ball will hit and bounces it back at the appropriate angle. Atari knew it was on to something good and used the same game mechanic in a single-player version, Breakout. Instead of trying to beat an opponent, the player tries to destroy stationary bricks.

    Meanwhile, while the bulk of game makers were designing games set in abstract and alien worlds, a Japanese company was working on a video game with a more human protagonist.  Donkey Kong, the first "jumping" game, or platformer, was released in 1981 (Maria, 193) and garnered a great deal of public attention. Instead of piloting a ship like in Spacewar, or a floating paddle like in Pong, Donkey Kong players control a carpenter named Jumpman.

    Physics were still very primitive when the game was released. Jumpman climbed ladders and hopped over barrels, but these actions were applied in an effective and inviting way that kept players coming back. To this day, Donkey Kong has one of the most competitive player communities, as noted in the film The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Nintendo capitalized on the popularity of the jumping technique, releasing a series of subsequent games that used the same mechanic.

    Donkey Kong was a huge success. Nintendo's next step was to invest the money it had earned from its successful arcade machines to create a video game console intended the home -- the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in North America and the Family Computer (Famicom) in Japan. Super Mario Bros., which shipped with the system, featured another jumping character, only now he was named Mario and was a plumber instead of a carpenter.

    Friction and momentum were added to the physics in Super Mario Bros., which gave the game a more realistic feel. If Mario is running quickly before he jumps, he travels farther than if he was walking before the jump. And he slowly slides to a halt depending on how fast he was running. Using software to emulate real world physics made the game more intuitive. These basic additions to the jump and dodge mechanic brought platforming to a new level and was used in countless subsequent games. Soon all of Mario's competitors -- Sonic the Hedgehog, the Ninja Turtles -- were slipping and sliding around with realistic momentum. Super Mario Bros. went on to be far more successful than any of the previous Nintendo games and has sold more copies than any other Mario game (gamecubicle.com).

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