The Development of Robotron

Is there a classic arcade game player out there that doesn’t like Robotron?

Released by Williams Electronics in 1982, it is the quintessential arcade shooter. Ferocious enemies, panic-inducing gameplay and sounds that match the action on screen like no other game of its time.

Having spent 18 months developing the wildly successful side-scrolling shooters Defender and Stargate for arcade manufacturer Williams, the small development team of Larry DeMar and Eugene Jarvis, otherwise known as Vid Kidz, had now moved to a tiny office in North Halstead Street, Chicago. They wanted to try something completely different for their next game. After some discussion, they decided to create a game based around robots, based on a hunch apparently, that “everyone thinks robots are cool, right?”

Working using two computer systems, one for software development (a Gimix 6809, based on a Motorola 6809 8-bit processor – state of the art for the time), and another for debugging, the pair knuckled down to work on what would become one of the true iconic games of the video game golden era:

Taking inspiration at the time from two other games, an obscure title called Chase on the Commodore PET system, and Stern’s wildly successful arcade title Berzerk, they quickly started work on a new project known at the time as Robot Wars.

Jarvis recalls his early memories of Berzerk:

I spent many hours at the controls of Berzerk. It was a nice simple game with a set of rules that made it a fun, engaging game. But I was really frustrated with the fact that you had to move towards something in order to shoot it.

This was the primary influence in Robotron becoming a twin-stick game, (coupled with the fact that Jarvis was involved in a minor car accident at the time, resulting in a broken wrist):

Some guy jumped a red light and the shock of the impact through the steering wheel completely shattered my right hand. I was out for about six weeks. At the time, I loved Berzerk, but it was frustrating because my broken hand meant I couldn’t press the fire button any more. The limitations of the movement in that game were also annoying – you had to move towards the bad guy in order to fire a shot in his direction. So, both those things combined to give me the idea for a dual-joystick control where you could move in one direction and fire in another.

This dual-stick system, unique for its time, gave the player a sense of wielding awesome firepower – something they would need to combat the insane amount of enemies to be dealt with in Robotron. They looked to the code they had produced for Defender and Stargate; reusing some of the routines, sounds and sprites already developed, and began to come up with a concept of a game. Remember this was a time where there were no high-level computer languages, no operating systems (Windows hadn’t even been thought of yet), no tools, middleware or API systems – Vid Kidz had to “roll their own” back end programming tools and systems.

One of the key elements of Robotron compared to Defender and Stargate is one of player confinement. Given the way the game was taking shape, Jarvis quickly realised that with a game full of large moving sprites each with their own characteristics, it was going to be impossible to implement scrolling across multiple screens. Far from feeling limited by the hardware available at the time, Jarvis was inspired:

Designing videogames is all ABOUT limitation. It’s not about doing everything that’s possible, just because you can. It’s about finding some small subset of something that’s FUN and building on that. With Robotron, you’re stuck in this confined little space. That confinement is the key element in what makes Robotron feel the way it does. The constant feeling of being cornered and having to fight your way out of that corner – fight or flight. There’s no choice. You’re ALWAYS making a last stand.

This “last stand” that Jarvis refers to is further amplified by placing the player at the very centre of the screen at the start of each level. Unlike its contemporaries where typically the attack pattern tends to be top-down (as in Space Invaders for example), Robotron comes at the player from all directions. “Fight or Flight” is at Robotron‘s heart.

Storylines are not something that early videogames are known for, but very early on, Vid Kidz created a backdrop for the game, to give the player a sense of context for the wanton onscreen destruction. Jarvis set Robotron in the future (the year 2084 to be precise) where humans, realising their faults and failings create a new species called Robotrons that are so advanced, man has replaced his own imperfections, with something supposedly perfect. But of course, there’s always trouble in paradise. The objective was:

You are the last hope of mankind. Due to a genetic engineering error, you possess superhuman powers. Your mission is to stop the Robotrons, and save the last human family: Mommy Daddy and Mikey.

This context of a basic emotional attachment to the game creates what is the key motivator within the game: risk vs reward. What set Robotron apart from its contemporaries, is this dual objective – killing robot enemies whilst saving human characters.

The uniqueness of Robotron arguably is the vast array of enemies and their individual behaviours. Let’s take a look at them. The first iteration of the game featured just two foes:

Demar and Jarvis thought about stopping there, playing around with different numbers of Grunts. At one point they had 127 Grunts on screen, together with a rule that stated only four shots from the player could be visible at any time on screen. It was fun for a while, but they wanted to add more action to the development soup. In order to ramp up the levels of player panic, additional enemies were designed. Each would have its own personality and ruleset. Inspired by the game of chess, they wanted a limited set of enemies that could create infinite variety.

Credit: The Development of Robotron