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Ten Lessons to Learn from Space Invaders

1978 saw the Japanese release of Tomohiro Nishikado’s Space Invaders, a coin-op arcade game so internationally successful that it would help boost the US coin-op business from $551 million to $1,333 million in just one year and cement the Atari VCS 2600 as the triumphant American home console of the decade.

More than thirty years on, Space Invaders still provides a near-perfect template for a great game. Here are ten lessons from the classic title that the industry should take to heart.

Software is king
Hardware sets the limits of what developers can do, but without software it’s just a collection of tech statistics and theoretical possibilities. The Atari VCS 2600 wasn’t the most powerful console of the late 1970s, it faced competition from (amongst others) Mattel’s Intellivision; which had superior graphics and a hefty marketing campaign.
None of that mattered though, once Atari had licensed Space Invaders for its own machine. The 2600 went on to dominate the marketplace. Original, exclusive titles still sell systems, but the broader point here is that no matter what platform a game is on, the hardware is only as impressive as what’s running on it.

Innovate
It must always be tempting to chase the dollar of the latest hit genre, but doing that will never give you a lasting place in history. If, right now, you’re developing a contemporary-based military FPS when the Call of Duty and Battlefield series’ exist, the chances of your game being hailed as a classic are dramatically reduced.
In 1978, no-one had seen the likes of Space Invaders before. The market now is far, far more crowded, but in a medium where you’re limited only by imagination and technology, there’s still a lot of room to create something brand new.

Where you can’t innovate, steal from the best:
 Not everything about a game has to be entirely original (in fact, that’s probably impossible), but if you’re going to take inspiration from anywhere it may as well be an established classic. Nishikado’s alien attackers were inspired by the 1953 film version of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, while other games of the era had similarly highbrow origins.
Q*Bert had its roots in the work of artist MC Escher and Robotron 2084 owed its backstory to George Orwell’s 1984. Art, literature and music have been contributing to the process of game design ever since.

Controversy isn’t always the answer:
One of the very first videogame controversies was sparked by the 1976 title Death Race, which allowed players to run over crude representations of human beings. It led to predictable media outrage, but also increased awareness and sales for the game. Since then, the games industry seems to have stuck by the dubious mantra of “all publicity is good publicity”.
An early version of Space Invaders also featured human targets (Nishikado found they had the smoothest movement animations), but the president of Taito vetoed that idea. It’s impossible to say whether Space Invaders would’ve been the same global smash with human rather than alien targets, but it certainly didn’t need a media circus of moral panic to help it achieve worldwide and historical acclaim.  

Keep things simple:
Everything you need to know about Space Invaders can be picked up within a few moments of play. Your controls are obvious (move left and right, shoot the advancing foes) and it’s clear that the aliens need to be stopped before they march all the way down the screen and reach your ship.
Accessibility has become a dirty word in some quarters (usually associated with ‘dumbing down’), but it’s only ever a problem when applied to the detriment of design or overall vision. When applied without compromising the mechanics of the game, ease of use should always be welcomed.

‘Us vs Them’ is a persistent theme:
While it’s a dangerous, divisive force in real life (and politics in particular), in videogames “us vs them” has provided a powerful motivation for players since the very first AI opponents were coded. The idea of man vs machine (an ever-popular theme in science fiction) is imagined in literal fashion by Space Invaders, though the lines are blurred by the semi-organic look of the alien ships and the human reliance on a spacecraft of their own.
Space Invaders stresses the need for survival, justifying player aggression against the aliens by portraying them as a restless, inevitable force that cannot be stopped.

Give the player complete control:
Space Invaders has no cut-scenes and every action is completely player controlled. The only thing that can take agency from the person piloting the ship at the bottom of the screen is if every life is lost and the game ends. This is something a few titles could still take to heart.
Yes, it can look ever-so dramatic when you wrench control from the player’s hands to make his character leap across a rooftop, roll to the ground and take out three guys in a hail of gunfire, but it’s so much more rewarding if the drama and conflicts that unfold in a game are the direct result of player decisions and input. The sooner the industry realises that its great strength lies in being different from movies, not emulating them, the better.

Embrace international co-operation:
Designed by the Japanese and brought to one of the first home consoles by an American company, Space Invaders was a truly international creation. During the first decade of videogaming, titles were coming from countries as diverse as France, Australia and Japan.
This has only increased over the years, and we now see games originating from as far afield as Ukraine, Chile and China, brought to wider audiences by publishers and digital download platforms in other nations. Such a trend can only be to the benefit of gaming, introducing a steady stream of fresh cultural approaches to the medium.

Don’t underestimate the psychology of audio:
Though it was relatively basic in tone, Space Invaders’ slowly accelerating audio track mimicked both the relentless march of the invaders towards the bottom of the screen and the steadily increasing heartbeat of the player.
This kind of harmony between sound and gameplay can still be used to tremendous effect, as seen in the jump-scares of Dead Space, the creeping mental instability of Amnesia: The Dark Descent and even the pleasure-centre reward tickling ‘level up’ sound in MMOs like World of Warcraft.

Success will always be copied:
Despite my plea for innovation further up the page, it’s inevitable that a successful, breakthrough game will always be copied and repeated to some degree. As long as each subsequent release improves on the original in some small way, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Space Invaders begat Galaxian (which added dive-bombing ships), which in turn was followed by Galaga (which introduced different stages, tractor beams and a boss fight).
The legacy of Space Invaders is felt through those games, and in other fixed-point shoot ‘em ups through the last 34 years. In all probability it’ll be felt for another three and a half decades, and beyond.

Dates and figures relating to Space Invaders were taken from Tristan Donovan’s superb Replay: The History of Videogames. Play Space Invaders online, for free, here.

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