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Vol.32 No.2 May 1998
ACM SIGGRAPH



Battlezone — Then, and Now

Karen Sullivan


May 98 Columns
From the Editor Entertaining the Future


Karen Sullivan
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This issue’s covers show images from two eras of gaming. The back cover features an image from the original Battlezone arcade game by Atari, and an environment created for Activision’s recently released consumer game of the same name. The front cover displays images of the tank designs from the Activision game.

The original Battlezone was revolutionary. It is reported to be the first to introduce gamers to a first-person 3D gaming environment. According to programmer Ed Rotberg, there is some dispute whether Battlezone, or a game called Tailgunner, was truly the first 3D game, but there is little dispute that Battlezone was the first to use exclusively 3D vector graphics. Tailgunner was not quite as 3D, but did some very clever things with geometry.

The concept of the original Battlezone placed the user in the cockpit of a tank in warfare. The playfield was a rather barren terrain of rectangular pyramids and cubes, a mountain range and volcanoes. Buzzbombs, a cruise missile idea, came straight at a gamer, hopping over terrain objects without blowing them up. The challenge was to eliminate the buzzbombs, tanks, supertanks and saucers before they eliminated you.

The original Battlezone arcade game stemmed from a brainstorming session at Atari, which, Rotberg said, was a typical and wonderful way of working there. Anyone could suggest a game concept, and with Battlezone, a vote led to an attempt to make the game. The team, led by Morgan Hoff, felt they had the technology to do it and that team benefitted from the influence of a math function developed by Mike Albaugh; Jed Margolan in hardware and engineering; the development of the vector generator by Howard Delman; and the design of the objects by Roger Hector.

Debuting in 1980 and featuring ultra-smooth vector graphics, duel joysticks and a combat visor, the original Battlezone introduced players to a first-person 3D gaming environment. It created such a sensation that the U.S. army reportedly ordered a modified version to use in training.

Building on the original concept, the new Battlezone by Activision again pushes 3D combat to an entirely new level that hopes to change the face of gaming every bit as much as the original.

The new Battlezone is still a first-person action/strategy game, but now it combines a 3D radar interface and a real-time Al immersion to deliver what Activision is claiming to be an unprecedented gaming experience.

In addition to the user’s first-person experience, the user can command an army of units engaged in aggressive, strategic, up-close, personal warfare for an arms race with the Soviet Union. The game is set in the 1960s cold war era. The space race is a lie. We are already there, as are the Soviets, and after a meteor shower pummels the Bering Strait, American and Soviet scientists simultaneously discover a precious alien bio-metal powerful enough to tip the balance of the cold war. The shortage of the material slows research and forces the two superpowers into the stars in search of additional resources. As gamers race to save their civilizations, piloting up to 25 different anti-gravity crafts through 18 different levels, the Battlezone rages on seven planets and moons.

In the single-player version of the game, users must proceed through the planets in order: the Moon, Mars, Venus, IO (a moon around Jupiter), Europa, Titan (around Saturn) and a fictional planet, Achilles (where you obviously make it or break it!). The single-player has a feeling of real immersion and control. Intensive research was conducted in all of the environments to make them as ‘real’ as possible. According to programmer Andrew Goldman, Pathfinder textures were applied to the Martian zone and actual pictures from the Moon contribute to the Lunar environment. The only thing unreal about each world is the gravity, which remains constant from world to world.

This one constant, combined with fully intelligent Al, allows players to customize both the terrain and the combat vehicles. Gamers can construct their own environments, (including morphable terrain that allows for earthquakes) and make the weapons “smarter” and more personalized. The ability to customize many weapons and units gives a strategic advantage in the Battlezone. Additionally, there are no fake vehicle movements. All units must get to where they are going via a realistic path, and the gamer never has to leave the action or relinquish control.

And it gets better. Up to 16 players can wage war, create alliances, share resources, units and intelligence via a LAN, head-to-head modem or over the Internet with Activision’s free on-line gaming service. In the multiuser environment, gamers can create and exchange terrain maps, and instead of progressing through the planets in order, go anywhere they want, competing to gather resources throughout the galaxy.

With all of this 1990s-plus technology, why go back to the 1980s for the concept of the game? Andrew Goldman explained that gaming environments have a basis in science fiction. One of the problems with most games is that the worlds are totally fictional and therefore, often foreign to the user. By using a retro sci fi situation, the user is familiar with the worlds, the terrains and the objectives. The new Battlezone puts a new twist and imaginative narrative on this nostalgic period. It is both familiar and new at the same time. Goldman describes the new Battlezone: “It’s fun. It’s beautiful. You can drive on all these planets and experience other worlds…and the whole world reflects what you do. In addition, being in the middle of this war is like a chess game. It’s strategic. It’s cool.”

Karen Sullivan
13901 N. Florida Ave. #E79
Tampa, FL 33613

Tel: +1-813-265-3799


The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.

Resources for this column included interviews with Ed Rotberg and Andrew Goldman, as well as press releases provided by Activision and Jamey Gottlieb. Many thanks to Ed and Andrew for their time and contribution.

Atari Games, pioneers of the video game industry, continues to design, develop and market coin-operated videogames for the arcade. Headquartered in Milpitas, CA, it has released more than 185 arcade titles in the past 26 years.

Atari Games is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Midway Games, Inc., a leading designer, publisher and marketer of interactive entertainment software for both the coin-operated and home markets.