Unscientific Results from Unscientific Research on Brick Breakers

My current project is to make my own take on the classic brick breaker game, and I felt like part of the process should be to play as many noteworthy examples of it as I could to get some ideas and context. While prototyping, I came up with some questions about how that kind of game should best work, wrote them down, and kept notes while playing.

The games I played were:

  • Breakout (Atari, 2600, 1978)
  • Super Breakout (Atari, 2600, 1978)
  • Arkanoid (Taito, NES, 1986)
  • Alleyway (Nintendo/Intelligent Systems, Game Boy, 1989)
  • Kirby’s Block Ball (HAL Laboratory/Nintendo, Game Boy, 1996)
  • Shatter (Sidhe, PC, 2010)
  • Wizorb (Tribute Games, PC, 2011)

I played each of them until I felt like I had a solid grasp on how they play and what they have to show, specifically focusing on these questions:

  • Does the game reward the player for keeping the ball in play?
  • How does the paddle move?
  • What abilities or power-ups are available?
  • What obstacles are there?
  • What are the win/lose conditions?

Here are the major conclusions I came away from the experience with, both in answer to those questions and in one other important takeaway.

Does the game reward the player for keeping the ball in play?

This is the biggest point of contention with the genre for me, and the genesis of this project. In these types of games, your main goal is to eliminate all the bricks, but because you always have limited lives, the secondary (but just as important) goal is to keep the ball from falling out of play. But succeeding in that goal- for long stretches of time or even indefinitely- doesn’t matter much on its own. I’ve always felt frustrated by this. When I’m stuck, unable to reach those hard to hit bricks, I can’t help but think “but I’m not letting the ball drop! That should count for something!”

Only one of the games I played- Wizorb- does something like this, in that you regain 10% of your special ability meter if the ball hits the paddle 10 times in a row without hitting any bricks, but that happens so infrequently and is such a small amount of meter that it feels like an inconsequential half-measure. I feel like this represents something potentially missing from the genre.

How does the paddle move?

I wondered if the paddle movement should have some momentum to it, causing it to slide a little after the player stops moving it like, say, Mario does when he runs. But not one of the ones I played does that. This contradicts some of the conventional wisdom about game feel- the idea that hard stops feel unnatural- so I was a bit surprised, but it does make sense when you think about the unpredictable nature of ball movement, and how the player will probably want to be as precise as possible to keep up with it effectively.

What abilities or power-ups are available?

All the way back to Breakout, every game I played offers some kind of special abilities to enhance how you play or give you a leg up, in one form or another (though only in variant game modes or bonus rounds in some of the older ones). Piercing (the ball going directly through bricks without bouncing off them or losing momentum), multi-ball, and projectiles are the most common. It’s always exciting getting a power-up, but I didn’t always find them useful in practice. In Arkanoid, for example, it’s so hard to get power-ups (by catching falling capsules) and so easy to lose them (any time you die) that they don’t feel like they have much actual impact on the game. Across multiple games, they just felt kind of there; a fun way to keep away monotony, but not game changing in a meaningful way.

What obstacles are there?

With regard to obstacles, most are passive in nature. Things like unbreakable bricks make the player put more thought into where they aim the ball. Even in the games that have enemies, they usually don’t actively engage with the player. They just move around the play field obstructing shots, or lazily drop projectiles towards the bottom of the screen regardless of whether or not they’re on a collision path with the paddle. There is some active conflict, but it’s usually pretty rare, like in boss battles at the ends of stages in Kirby’s Block Ball or Shatter. This is understandable too; I can see it potentially being too distracting to be actively battling enemies at all times while trying to aim and keep the ball up.

What are the win/lose conditions?

You win by eliminating all the bricks from the screen, and lose by running out of lives (either by dropping the ball or getting struck by enemy attacks). That’s universal across all the games, with only the more recent ones adding variant goals (mostly eliminating a boss), and only in unique stages. It’s very straightforward, but I think that’s part of the appeal of the genre. Indicative of its Atari era origins, it’s simple and easy to wrap your head around.

Another important takeaway: Getting stuck is basically inescapable

Another constant across the games I researched is the inevitable fate of just not being able to take out those last couple bricks. The main cause of this is of course how difficult it can be to get the ball to a very specific spot on the screen. I guess it’s a natural result of the lack of total control that is inherent to the genre.The whole point of the game is the player having only indirect control over the ball, and having to think on the fly and react to its movements. But I consistently felt frustrated by it, more so the longer it went on. The more recent games all try to limit this happening in one way or another, but none stop it from coming up. It feels like there’s room for more checks against allowing it to happen.

This was the most formal kind of research I’ve ever done in preparation for a game design project, and I think it was a valuable experience. I tend to rely on intuition a lot in my design, and while I think there’s merit to that, I feel right now like having more data and context will help me clarify my goals and (hopefully) make a better game overall. I definitely see myself doing something like this again on future projects.