How to Make an Arcade Game

The creators of Williams Electronics's 'Sinistar' reveal the process of how to make an arcade game.

They wanted the ultimate bad guy, the kind of villain who could eat Darth Vader for breakfast. They wanted a game that would tell a story, show off the best new arcade technology, and be more than just another outer-space-shoot-'em-up thriller. But in November 1981, all Williams Electronics, Inc. had were some awesome-looking planets and spaceships created by Sam Dicker, one of their game designers. So one November day about a dozen top people from this major arcade game company gathered at a downtown Chicago hotel to brainstorm about a new idea—an idea that would become the game Sinistar.

With planets and spaceships as a starting point, they talked about all parts of the game. What would the fearsome villain, the Sinistar, look like? What strange sounds and voices would be heard? What dangers would there be in defeat? What rewards for victory? Ideas flew around the room. This would be a game of speed and strategy. A player would have to do more than blast a laser cannon to survive. The game would feature a state-of-the-art joystick controller and the eerie voice of the Sinistar.

"When we came out of that meeting," recalls John Newcomer, director of game design at Williams at the time, "we had a very definite sense of the game we wanted to create." While gaming has evolved drastically since Sinistar was built, most of the overarching principals remain the same. This vintage account of the creation of the Sinistar arcade game still outlines the process that an aspiring arcade game creator should understand today.

The Importance of Teamwork

But creating an arcade game these days takes more than just good ideas, exciting images, and a meeting of minds. With Sinistar, a team of designers, programmers, engineers, and artists had to work for many months and overcome hundreds of technical and creative obstacles in order to bring their game from idea to arcade. This complexity arose as games became in and of themselves more complex. In 1980, designers Eugene Jarvis and Sam Dicker worked virtually alone to create Defender, Williams Electronics very first video game. But, says Gene Jarvis, those days are over. "Now the games are so sophisticated, with so much happening at once, that it's too much for any one person to do alone." Jarvis, who helped create Robotron 2084 and Blaster, later went on to work with VizKidz game design company. 

Stage 1: The Storyboard

An idea that's been approved for development is assigned to a design coordinator and a team of graphic artists and hardware and software specialists. During the first few weeks, known as the storyboard stage, the designer and team turn the early brainstorming ideas into a detailed game outline.

This outline is "a coherent writeup of the game rules, its cast of characters, what happens as the game progresses, and what special hardware and other things might be needed," explains John Newcomer. "We hash things out, figure out what's feasible and begin to assign specific tasks," says Newcomer, who was design coordinator for both Sinistar and another Williams arcade hit, Joust. The storyboard stage usually takes only a few weeks, but the next step—the initial design stage—can last from five months to a year.

Stage 2: Pixel Painting

As design begins, the graphic artists make sketches of game characters and background settings. They do their "painting" on a specially programmed video game device. Using a joystick, the artists move different colors into place, pixel by pixel, on a video screen. The system allows the artists to see—immediately—what their creation will look like in the game. And, because it is relatively easy to use, a game artist does not have to be a sophisticated programmer. "That enables us to have a good artist who is not necessarily a computer genius do wonderful things on the computer," explains Newcomer.

While the artists are creating the graphics, hardware specialists are translating the game outline into technical terms. They must determine how much memory the game will need and what arrangement of microchips and computer components will do the best job. For example, when the Sinistar appears and announces, "Beware, I live!" the game must be able to produce the correct image and sound simultaneously. Careful hardware design enables the game to call up this information from its computer memory at just the right moment.

Stage 3: Programming

But microchips and pictures alone do not bring players into arcades. Action on the screen is what makes a game exciting, and that action is the master work of software design specialists.

From the brilliant explosions in Sinistar to the bubbling lava in Joust, action happens in an arcade game only when a program is written to make it happen. For Sinistar, program coordinator Noah Falstein assigned a section of the game to each programmer. One programmer worked on game sounds and another on character animation. A third programmer added explosions and other effects.

All of these programs are written in assembly language. This is a method of communicating directly with computers through the binary code of zeroes and ones. It is a very slow, but extremely precise, way to give computers instructions. A chief software designer links them together by writing the background program. This program is the very heart of the game. It does not create action, but makes action possible by coordinating all other programs and telling the computer the rules of the game.

Two final programs must also be written. The first is a "diagnostic" program that constantly checks game hardware and software to make certain everything operates properly. The second is an "attract mode" program that determines what appears on the screen when the game is not being played—including the game's name, an action sequence, hints on how to win, and a list of high scorers. When all the programs are finished, they are downloaded into programmable read-only-memory chips (PROMS). These chips store the programs inside the machines.

As a final design step, artists create striking scenes for the sides of the game machine, and a cabinet is built to hold the newly created game.

Stage 4: Testing and Tweaking

The design process, with its many steps, takes months. When it is completed, the game is tested. An arcade is chosen and the new game is placed there among other, older games. For a few days, design team members watch while unsuspecting arcaders play the new creation.

"We get to see in that first concept test whether or not people like the idea of the game," explains Paul Dussault, Williams director of special projects. "If a person starts playing and walks away halfway through, you know there's a problem... But if he plays it and then comes back in five minutes and plays again, and then gets a friend from another machine to come play the game, then you know you've really hit on something."

This test tells more than whether the game has the potential to become a hit. "You find out whether people understand right away how to play the game, and whether the game is too hard or too easy to beat," says Sinistar programmer Sam Dicker. "When you're designing the game, you make a lot of assumptions about what people will catch on to and how well they'll play... A concept test lets us know whether we guessed right."

Based on what is learned during the concept test, the design team makes adjustments to—or "tweaks"—the game. Following the concept testing on Sinistar, the design team had to adjust the number of warrior and worker ships. In the early version of the game, the Sinistar simply bumped into your ship to end the game. In the tweaked version, the game ends with your ship spinning around and being devoured by the Sinistar.

If a lot of tweaking is done, the game may go through another concept test. Otherwise, several prototype copies are made and sent to arcades for a money test. This test gives Williams an idea of what the game might earn, and whether it has a chance to break into the inner circle of favorite games.

Stage 5: The Ultimate Test

Testing also lets the company adjust game difficulty so that an average play will last about two and-a-half minutes. This way, explains Paul Dussault, a new player is not wiped out five seconds into the game—and an experienced player does not tie up a popular game for 20 minutes. At last the brainstorming, designing, testing, and tweaking are done. The game goes into production and is shipped to arcades. "When you work on a game for as long as a year, it becomes like your baby," says John Newcomer. "You hope it will be a hit." But, in the end, the success of a game depends on what arcade players think—whether they feel that all the imagination and effort that went into the game is really worth a quarter. 

Gamemaker's Tips: Taking Your Idea to the Arcade

About the only thing tougher than beating an arcade game is designing one. It's very rare for a novice to create a successful arcade game program. "The problem is that our [arcade] electronics are much more sophisticated than what is currently available in home computers," explains Paul Dussault of Williams. That makes it very difficult for the home programmer to break into arcade game design. But it's not impossible. Most arcade companies will at least look at ideas from outsiders.

When a game program comes into an arcade company, a nondisclosure agreement is immediately sent out for the would-be designer to sign. This agreement says the company has an exclusive right to look at the game and that the person who sent in the idea will be paid if it is used. The bad news is that few, if any, arcade games have ever been made based on an idea that came through the mail from a home programmer. However, a number of home games have been developed from unsolicited programs. "There is an infinity of ideas," says Eugene Jarvis, designer of the Defender and Blaster arcade games. "It's the way the idea looks on the screen that counts."

Whether you want to program games for arcades, home systems, or even just for fun, there are some basic things you should know:

  • Learn as much as you can about computers. "When you know about the hardware and software, you understand limitations and know what's possible," says Dan Lee, who designed Lost Tomb for Stern.
  • Learn assembly programming language. "Most arcade games are programmed in assembly," explains John Newcomer, game design chief at Williams.
  • Be creative. Train yourself to look for fresh ideas. "Good arcade games must be original," says Eugene Jarvis. "There are already too many lookalikes."
  • Work hard. "You have to be committed to doing the best job," says Ron Waxman of Mylstar. "You have to eat, sleep, and live the program after a while," agrees Jerry Hansen of Sega.
  • Be cooperative. "Especially when you're putting together an arcade game, it's essential that you can work well with other people," says John Pasierb of Bally
  • Enjoy yourself. "You have to like what you're doing in order to put the most into it," says Mike Hally, design leader on the Star Wars game from Atari Coin-op.
  • Be patient. "Keep at it once you start," says Sam Dicker, "and don't count on getting rich from your first game." 

Learn More About Building Your Game

While these tips and tricks are great for someone thinking about creating a game, they by no means cover all of the nuances of building and pitching an arcade game. For a more in-depth look at modern arcade game building, read Project Arcade: Build Your Own Arcade Machine by John St. Clair.

Project Arcade: Build Your Own Arcade Machine by John St. Clair

Retro is in again, and interest in classical arcade games is on the rise. All it takes is a little money, some old computer hardware, and some effort to build your own arcade machine. John St. Clair's hands-on guide, Project Arcade: Build Your Own Arcade Machine, begins with a description of various project types the aspiring game builder can undertake. It then goes on to a review of the audio and video options available, and looks into the selection of game software and cabinet artwork. Finally, it teaches troubleshooting techniques and instructions on building controllers and machines.

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How to Make an Arcade Game