What Were the Odds?

What Were the Odds?
Free Fall: Running with Armadillos

Russ Pitts | 6 Feb 2007 07:03
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Principia Mathematica
The screen is almost blank. The armadillo, his cheerfully blinking eye cast downward, rests frozen at the top of the screen. At the very bottom, hundreds of relative feet down, is the target. Newton's Theory of Universal Gravitation suggests that the armadillo will rapidly descend, and without something to catch him, or break his fall, he will plummet off the bottom edge of the screen, and I will lose. Time to make a basket, then. A really big basket. I use metal rods and a big, flat sheet of rubber. Part of the structure implodes on impact, but it holds. I win. Thanks, Newton.

"The rules of Newtonian physics are pretty simple," Peter told The Escapist, "yet they give rise to many complexities (and since most people are already familiar with them, there's less to learn before playing the game).

"Many good games have this trait, but I think it's tricky to design a set of simple, abstract rules that exhibit interesting complexity in gameplay. In this respect, the rules of physics are the gameplay rules, so I can't really take the credit for designing them."

What he can take credit for is using the laws to make a great game.

"I've had a few enquiries from some schools about it," says Stock, "and I've received some positive feedback from them. I didn't design it with [education] in mind, but it does seem to have some use as a teaching tool. I'm not sure if it's used to teach physics or not, but I think Armadillo Run (like many other games) mostly teaches people problem solving and abstract reasoning."

Scientific Method
Problem solving skills are exactly what I'll need to develop to solve Level 22, "Croquet." The level begins with the armadillo at the right edge of the screen, on one side of a long ramp. The target is at the other end. The ramp is level - no momentum. In the middle of the ramp, a few feet in the air, is a large anvil held stationary by the force exerted by a gigantic rocket. The rocket is on a timer; it will explode in a few seconds, and if the armadillo isn't on the other side, it will be blocked, or worse, crushed. Time to make a mallet. And another. And another.

For a level with an obvious (self explanatory, really) solution, it's easily one of the hardest in the game. Making a mallet with enough angular momentum to push the armadillo target-ward is easy. Doing so with the limited budget allotted is nearly impossible. My solution: five sheets of steel formed into a wedge push the armadillo down the ramp, just underneath the anvil as the rocket explodes. The armadillo is trapped at first, but as the anvil falls, it falls behind him, pushing him the rest of the way into the target. It took me about three dozen tries, methodically testing and recording and adjusting, but I made it. Thanks, Galileo.

"I [tried] to make the levels fairly open-ended," says Peter Stock, "but knew it needed a purpose - a focus that would transform it from a toy to a game. Each level needs pass/fail/score criteria, and I think restricting the budget works well, since it allows a lot of freedom in the choice of design. I had some people comment that I should restrict the usage of each material, but I felt that would reduce player choices too much. From the solutions I've seen, I'm glad I didn't do this - there are many interesting approaches I had never imagined that I would have inadvertently blocked had I done so."

The materials in question are actually quite limited, and, of course, interesting. One can choose from metal sheets, bars, rubber, elastic, rope, cloth and (my favorite) rockets, when constructing an Armadillo ambulation apparatus, and each material has defined tolerances and costs, making a combination of all of the above the best solution. Need to build a straight, flat bridge between points? Some sort of metal structure supported by struts or suspended by ropes is the answer. Need to move the armadillo vertically up or down? Well, then, that's when things get interesting.

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