What Were the Odds?

What Were the Odds?
Free Fall: Running with Armadillos

Russ Pitts | 6 Feb 2007 11:03
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"If I have seen further [than certain other men] it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants." - Sir Isaac Newton

I'm sweating profusely, concentrating intently and swearing under my breath. I've tried (and failed) nearly half a dozen times to move the orange armadillo from one end of the screen to another, and after nearly a half hour I still can't walk away. I'm hooked. I have to get that damn armadillo home, and although the physics of the thing are as confounding to me as walking on water, every slight adjustment, every tweak of my machine brings me slightly closer to success, and I can see the path. I know I'm close.

The premise of Armadillo Run is simple: One must construct, using a small number of raw materials, a means of conveying an armadillo-shaped ball from one point to another. The challenge, however, is in building a structure than will not only withstand the forces exerted on it, but will also meet the rather strict budget requirements. Often, the solution is slightly more complex than it would at first appear, but that's exactly what makes it so much fun - and frustrating.

I've constructed bridges, catapults, elevators and gravity slides, yet none of my contraptions are getting the job done under the budget allotted. And in spite of my curses, the damned armadillo refuses to break the laws of physics. There's no cheating; either you build a device that will stand the test of the armadillo's run, or you don't. But even failure is fun, useful. It's possible, through trial and error, to stumble on elegant solutions you would never have though of otherwise, and since it's a game, nobody gets killed in the process. My only real problem with the game is why the hell anyone would choose an armadillo as a protagonist.

"The simple answer," says Peter Stock, the designer of Armadillo Run, "is that the game design required the player to transport a ball and I wanted to have an animal theme to make it a bit more interesting. The only spherical animals I know of are armadillos and woodlice. I chose an armadillo because they seem a bit easier to relate to. Some girls I went to school with also had a thing for armadillos. Apparently they are the only mammals apart from humans to suffer from leprosy."

To quote Bull Durham's Joe Riggins, baseball is "a simple game; you throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball." Anybody can do it; few people are good at it. The same is true with game design, or, more specifically, designing a game as relatively simple as Armadillo Run. Everyone, on some level, knows the laws of physics, and everyone knows what's fun and what isn't. Few, however, can take the two ideas and make a great game out of them. Fewer still can do this alone, out of their house, and distribute the game, via shareware, over the internet. Peter Stock is among them. Seemingly the last of the "bedroom developers," Stock took an idea, made it into a game, and sold thousands of copies. Just like that. Throwing, catching, hitting.

"My wife got a job that required her to relocate and I fancied a change," Peter told The Escapist, "so I decided to try out making games instead of getting another 'normal' job. I had a few ideas about what sort of thing I wanted to do and I initially set aside six months to see what happened before reverting back to salaried employment if it didn't work out." A true Cinderella story, Peter had no previous game design experience, save working on a Tetris port. What he did have was an idea, a dream if you will, and a little computer programming experience.

"I studied computer science at university," he says, "and I've worked as a programmer, but not in the games industry. I've worked on a variety of things, from fairly low-level search algorithms to 3-D modeling/rendering and database design/admin. Most of it taught me to have a clear, simple design, but the more immediately games-relevant parts of coding were the maths and techniques for optimization. Armadillo Run is my first proper game."

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