The Making of...Ball Breaker
I remember playing the breakout game that came on the Horizons cassette, the introductory tape that was bundled with the 48k Spectrum. It was called Thro' the Wall, and despite the game's basic nature - and BASIC code - I spent hours trying to guide the ball onto that one painful last block. Fast forward a couple of years and Taito had a massive hit with an arcade game entitled Arkanoid. I'm sure you're all familiar with this game; it was Breakout with whistles and bells, and it was pretty good too despite a controversially low Crash Magazine score (59%) that precipitated a deluge of reader complaints under the banner of "Ark Annoyed" on Lloyd Mangram's letter page.
Nevertheless, Arkanoid was a big seller for Ocean/Imagine and its follow up, Revenge of Doh, was even better. Within the predictable clones and imitations in Arkanoid's trail however, there was one game that stood out thanks to a high concept that made the process of block destroying
much more complicated.
The main men behind Ball Breaker were CRL chief Clem Chambers who came up with the idea and assisted in the level design, and Richard Taylor, the talented programmer who had previously coded Terrahawks, a game praised for its impressive vector graphics. Work on the game commenced in late 1986 and took approximately 6-9 months from idea to publication.
"The original concept was Clem's really," says Richard who was one of CRL's earliest employees, "and it was basically Breakout but in 3D." This was the "high concept" behind what would become Ball Breaker, albeit with a few added twists. "That's essentially it," echoes the CRL boss Clem Chambers, "I had the idea of a 3D Arkanoid but before that it came from the way I used to break games down to Movements, Controls, Obstacles and Goals (or MCOG)," he continues, "and Ball Breaker came from that philosophy. It didn't matter whether it was 2D or 3D as the basic game was the same and would work, because the MCOG remained the same."
The game was to include all the trappings of the genre that had been introduced by Arkanoid. "We wanted from the outset to include monsters and missiles to fire," explains Richard, "and in a sense it actually became a hybrid of Breakout and Space Invaders combined with the isometric 3D made famous by Ultimate." After the fast and sleek Terrahawks, Richard wasn't overjoyed to be working on Ball Breaker ("I was a bit obsessed by vector graphics at the time" he confesses) although in retrospect he conceded the potential of the idea.
The Team Game
Clem Chambers assembled his team for Ball Breaker. Jon Law was recruited for graphics design and Jay Derrett the music (although as Richard Taylor admits, "it was a bit wasted on the puny Spectrum sound capability"). These types of programming teams were becoming more common by this point but Richard never felt it was a problem on Ball Breaker. "To be honest there wasn't that much need for interaction since there was just me doing the main coding. Things did get a lot more complicated, however, when you had multiple coders on a game, but that was still unusual."
Taylor was actually in his first year at University whilst programming the game. "I spent most evenings up until about 2am coding and debugging whilst my room mates were trying to sleep, which wasn't very social - especially when I would run the game and forget to turn the sound off!" Richard's previous education - an A-Level in Physics - also proved to be a great asset to Ball Breaker. "I was quite pleased with the physics elements of it actually," he says proudly, "such as the way the ball bounced and dropped and how it reacted to objects. But the thing I liked best was how the stacks of blocks fell down when you smashed the bottom one with the little delay between them." The coder wasn't entirely satisfied with the end result however, admitting that it was a mistake that he did not address the reduced frame rate that occured whenever multiple objects appeared on screen, although he concedes "that wasn't an easy thing to do at the time."
Surprisingly, the original version of Ball Breaker was on the Amstrad with the Spectrum conversion following on shortly afterwards and both were programmed by Richard. "I was very familiar with both platforms and of course they shared the Z80 so I could take code across directly." Each system had its plus and minuses. "Of course, the Amstrad version was more colourful," explains Richard, "but the machine was underpowered compared to the Spectrum and there was no hardware assist at all. Additionally, on the Spectrum the screen buffer was 6k; on the Amstrad it was 16k." This was essentially the pay-off for the brighter graphics as the Amstrad CPU struggled to move all the elements around the screen. So how did Richard get around this problem? "I went to a lot of effort to calculate which 2D areas on the screen had any change from frame to frame and only updated those parts, which helped a lot to keep everything moving."
Ball Breaker did not receive a Commodore 64 version for similar technical reasons. "The CPU was slower," says Richard, "so unless you could map the game into hardware sprites or scrolling you really couldn't do much at all. Isometric 3D - especially games with lots of movement such as Ball Breaker - just couldn't be done on it, or at least not to any decent level."
The composing of Ball Breaker's levels was a joint effort between Richard and Clem. "I'd basically just designed a few random levels and then we sat down together and made improvements," explains Richard. "Many of the screens were very hard to complete so when Clem got too frustrated I had to tweak them accordingly. We probably didn't put the effort into the level design that we should have, which is one of the reasons there was a sequel which was just the same game with different designs."
Sinclair User were the most effusive of the Spectrum magazines with Graham Taylor (no, the other one) awarding the game an impressive 9 stars out of ten, calling the game "utterly addictive". Tony Worrall, writing in Your Sinclair gave the game an 8 although this was tempered with the caveat that perhaps it was for fans of the genre only. The Crash magazine reviewers were divided on Ball Breaker, resulting in a lesser score, although 64% was still respectable enough, and 5% more than its illustrious forbear; Amstrad Action were similarly cautious, awarding the game 69%. Come the second game, patience was wearing thin, and although SU still awarded Ball Breaker 2 eight out of ten, the similarity of the sequel to its predecessor counted against it. "To be honest, I'm not sure the game code changed really at all for Ball Breaker 2," admits Richard. "However, what did change is that I put together a game level designer package - with instructions - that could be sent out to those who were designing levels."
So, finally I ask Richard what he thought of the finished game. "I thought it turned out pretty well. I wasn't into games that much at all, but I liked the breakout-style games because they were so straightforward and accessible." he says, "and Ball Breaker was a reasonably playable version. And I remember being most surprised no-one had tried a 3D version of Breakout before!"
My thanks to Richard Taylor and Clem Chambers for their time.