SPACE-N-COUNTER - My Introduction to Japan

NOTE: these lessons are primarily aimed at aspiring game designers, but many of the concepts described herein also apply to those who aspire to other types of jobs in the game industry. This lesson is subject to changes and improvements; reader comments are welcome.

September, 2002

In our last episode, our hero Tom had just finished designing games for two game watches, GAME TIME and ARCADE TIME, as assignments in his job as game designer for Western Technologies. The year is now 1982. Tom has just gotten a new assignment, to design the LCD display and games for a game calculator. Let's listen in...

The Assignment

Our competition, the Time Out line of handheld games by a Japanese company nobody had ever heard of named Nintendo, made little handhelds like Fireman and The Exterminator. These handhelds had a time display too, so they were useful as time-keeping devices, but they couldn't be worn on the wrist. And their displays were dedicated to one particular game. The Fireman game required the player to move his firemen (holding a trampoline) to catch the victims who jumped from the burning building. There was no other way to play Fireman (they had a mode that permitted the timing to vary, but that was it). The Exterminator game required the player to position his man with his two mallets so that he could whack the heads of the moles as they popped out of the ground - and little dirt piles indicated where the moles would appear. Again, although there was a mode that permitted some variation on this theme, that was pretty much all that the game was capable of. Nintendo soon changed the name of their line of handhelds to "Game & Watch," but they couldn't be worn on the wrist, and their timekeeping functions were more an afterthought than a significant selling point.

So for our game watches, we had a couple of points of differentiation. They could be worn on the wrist, and looked and functioned like watches, and could play games. But the big difference was the variety of the games - our displays were multi-purpose. That was a big point of differentiation between our products and Nintendo's. By the way, Bandai was also making a line of these handheld games. I have some of those in my collection too (from when I went to Japan, but I'm getting ahead of the story).

Now the idea was to make game calculators. They would be fully functional calculators, tell time, and support multiple games. I was let in on what had been done so far - a clever sliding front hid the game display while the device was in use as a calculator, and sliding the front revealed... a much larger LCD, with game elements, plus a mini joystick like the one on the Arcade Time watch and a firing button.

So my assignment was twofold: to design an LCD that could be used for multiple games - and design the games to run on it.

What I Came Up With

This display includes space ships (in the style of Asteroids), bullets, and rocks/asteroids.
And of course, digits for the calculator and timekeeping functions.

A pattern is developing here. Clearly I was a real nut on sci-fi and outer space. I came up with three games using this display.

Having done the easy part (getting the ideas and approval for them), it was time again to write a game design. But it was also time for me to finally enter...

The Age of Computers!

Lucy refused to try to type any more of my cut-and-pasted masterpieces. It was suggested that I learn how to use a word processor. So I did, and I was in love with digital editing instantly. For a while, I had to time-share somebody's big black monster (S100 CP/M systems with 8-inch floppies and big orange keys), until... One magic day, Jay bought some Osborne-1 computers for the designers.

The Osborne-1
The Osborne-1 was a truly modern device.

Drawing Shortcuts

As with the game watches (described in Lesson 18), I made an outline of the LCD display and ran off copies on the photocopier. I filled in shapes with felt-tip pens to illustrate how the game would look. Pictures were still pasted into the printouts with Scotch tape to make the final design document.


As described in Lesson 18), Gerry Karr had been sent to Japan to work with the Sharp and Toshiba programmers on the game watches. Gerry was tied up on another project (probably the Vectrex executive), and the working demo of the Space-N-Counter watch was programmed by a different programmer, Louie Tague. When it was time for somebody to go visit with the Toshiba programmer for Space-N-Counter, it was decided that I should be the one to go.

To Make A Long Story Short...

[Koto music over, as we cut to Toshiba factory, Kawasaki, Japan.] My programmer at Toshiba was Nishikawa san (I remember that he told me his name meant "Westriver Philosopher" - so perhaps his given name was Tetsuo*). He had a little problem with the Phaser Fight game (you remember, the one that was "inspired" by Scramble) - the landscape was too big. The three games, the calculator functions, and the timekeeping function, all had to fit in a mere 5.3k, you see.

I had defined the landscape frame by frame in the design doc, thinking that would be how it would be easiest for the programmer to deal with. Louie had never complained, but then Louie had not confined his demo program to 5.3k.

The landscape had been defined in a frame-by-frame fashion in the design document. Nishikawa san said it would take up more memory than the chip contained!

The Solution - "Cut & Paste"

Rather than a frame-by-frame definition of the landscape, I suggested that we make it one long landscape, and he could move a "window" over it.

The landscape, I suggested, could just be defined as one long piece of data, and the viewable display could be thought of as a "window" which would move over the long landscape.

He nodded and smiled. That would probably work! He just needed to have it defined that way. I asked for scissors (hasami) and Scotch tape (sukotchi teppu) and I made him a long paper map. We had a ceremonious handoff in true Japanese style. I bowed as I handed it to him with both hands. He bowed as he accepted it with both hands. The other meeting attendees applauded, and we entered the next phase.

The Philosopher's Ordeal

Nishikawa san conferred with his boss, and they told me the job would take 3 days. So his boss asked me could I please come back to Toshiba in 3 days? It was tough, but it needed to be done. I went sightseeing! (I told you I was keeping a long story short, so...) After 3 days of sightseeing, I returned to Toshiba and learned about...

The Philosopher's Tools

The chip programmer Nishikawa san used was about the size of a mini-tower of today. There was no keyboard, no monitor. Just a keypad and an LCD display. (Note: the details above are based purely on my probably faulty memory. This was 20 years ago! What do you want from me, total recall??) How to use this machine: type in the code using the keypad... in machine language. (If you know anything about programming, you gasped when you read that just now.)

The Philosopher's Hands

Nishikawa san's hands shook as he lit a cigarette. He had not slept during the past 3 days. He had written the program on paper by hand, from beginning to end, then entered it laboriously, one character at a time, into the chip programmer. If a bug was found, he would fix it on paper and re-type it, in machine language, starting all over again.

My New Assignment

They showed me the game, working and in final form. And my job now was simple. Play the game. And, incidentally, declare it done or in need of a rework. As I read the faces around the table, it was very much desired that my instant Q.A. findings be positive.

So I played the Phaser Fight game (the one I felt most capable of managing - since it could be played to the end). And it was good. Then I learned the meaning of a Japanese word I had heard many times before. "Banzai!" can be best translated into English as follows:



And so Space-N-Counter was ready for manufacturing. A couple photos of the finished dealie...

The above story is based on the talk I gave, twenty years later, at the Classic Gaming Expo in Las Vegas on August 11, 2002. Wanna see my...?

Pictures of the 2002 Classic Gaming Expo

Speeches and awards were given at the alumni dinner the night before the show opened.
Lots of guys here who made the great games of twenty years ago!

Jay Smith was one of the award recipients!
He was the head honcho of Western Technologies, of course.

John Hardie is one of the organizers of the Classic Gaming Expo.
He wanted to make sure that the beer bottle got into this shot.

The title of this photo is "Friends Of Jim." (Don't ask.)

Steve Woita (designer of Quadrun, Taz, and Asterix) finally got even for that wine I spilled on him at a previous Expo!

Kunkel, Katz, and Worley wrote reviews of all the great games back in the heyday of the first videogame boom.

Click here to read more about conventions and game industry trade shows and stuff like that there.

After finishing the game watches and calculators, my next project was to design games for the Vectrex, the big new system that everybody else at Western Technologies was all a-twitter about. With much gratitude to baronvr, click here to hear a RealAudio recording of the talk that I gave at the 1999 Classic Gaming Expo, about how I designed the Vectrex game SPIKE.

Some have theorized that "halfbrew" might be the son of Jay Smith. Jay was my boss at Western Technologies in the early 1980s when the events described herein took place. Jay often had his son test the toys and games we created. I have no idea what "LUM" is. LMU, Loyola Marymount University, is near where the events described took place.

* [Thanks to Henri Chen for help with Nishikawa-san's given name.]

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© 2002 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.