What Were the Odds?

What Were the Odds?
Free Fall: Running with Armadillos

Russ Pitts | 6 Feb 2007 07:03
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"The rockets were included to spice things up a bit by introducing a source of energy," says Peter. "Rockets are pretty fun to play around with, but I designed the levels so that rockets were only to be used on a few of them, otherwise there would be less incentive for players to use different approaches. I tried to make the pricing reflect their usefulness, so that different solutions were possible using a similar budget.

"Apart from the rockets, the materials represent each of the possible combinations of three properties (edge/center placement, flexibility and elasticity), so as with the armadillo, it was a case of finding suitable real-world materials to match those required by the game design."

On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres
The starting screen is familiar: My little armadillo (I've named him Bob) is poised at the top edge of the screen, ready to plummet toward the target below. The only problem is that he and the target are not opposite each other; the target is about 20 feet to his right. When he falls, he will miss it - unless he's nudged. Or slung. I construct a sling out of rope and cloth. The armadillo falls, he hits the sling, which rotates, spinning him out at just the right angle, just the right speed and into the waiting basket. Gentle as a kiss on the cheek. I've just constructed an homage to Copernicus.

Part of what makes Armadillo Run so much fun to play is the realistic way in which the materials act: metal sheets provide a rigid surface, add strength and weight; rubber bounces, of course, but also adds a subtle flexibility to structures; and cloth, as I've just observed, conforms to whatever it covers or contains, making it perfect for slings, pulley systems or to catch a falling object. I ask Peter Stock if he spent much time playing around with actual materials to get the feel of his in-game objects just-so.

"Well, I didn't do any experiments with real armadillos!" he replies. "It was mostly a case of implementing some low-level physics laws and assigning realistic values to the various constants. As with the design of many games, I didn't rigidly stick to reality in some places - sometimes for efficiency of implementation and sometimes to improve the gameplay.

"Although the behavior looks realistic, the gravity is too low - or more accurately, the scale of the objects is far too large (the armadillo is something like the equivalent of 1 m in diameter). I've read that this is a common technique used in games, to make them 'more realistic'(!). This was done for both gameplay and implementation reasons - I think Hollywood makes us expect slow-motion action, and the physics calculations are easier to handle when objects are going slower."

Like building a scale model of the solar system to spin at one's leisure, just to see how the planets all move, by playing Armadillo Run we get a glimpse into the fun its creator had testing the boundaries of physics, game design and possibility. You can't solve many of the levels in Armadillo Run by putting your armadillo on a sled and attaching as many rockets as will fit on the screen, but you can try that, if you want. You can try anything. But to advance, you have to tap the scientific principles and laws of physics handed down to us by generations of bright minds from the world over. Stand on the shoulders of giants, as it were. Just like Peter Stock did in making his game.

Sir Isaac Newton, who theorized that an invisible force (gravity) is what causes apples to fall down (and not up), was aware that those who came before him laid the foundation upon which his Theory of Universal Gravitation could stand. Among them was Johannes Kepler, who was the first to derive the laws of planetary motion (planets orbit the sun in a predictable pattern), yet did so by using observations made by the brilliant astronomer Tycho Brahe, who, in turn, like all astronomers and scientists since, built upon the observations and methods of Galileo Galilee who, for his own part, was building upon theories espoused by Copernicus. One inspired another, who inspired another, who inspired another. And so on, as the commercial says, and so on and so on.

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