Missile Command: Less is more

Missile Command: Less is more
Tony Temple

Tony Temple is the creator and owner of and author of Missile Commander: A journey to the top of an arcade classic. As the Guinness world record holder on Missile Command, Tony shares some insight into the challenges faced by Atari when creating this iconic arcade title.

In creating the original coin operated version of Missile Command, its programmers Dave Theurer and Rich Adam would ultimately leave a great deal out of the finished product. Creating Missile Command was something of a journey. Ideas were programmed, tested and then would live or die depending on feedback from colleagues and players. Here are a few features originally intended to form part of Missile Command that ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor.

The initial brief from their boss, Steve Calfee, described a scenario where the player protects bases along the Californian coastline from an onslaught on enemy missiles. The proposal was that this gameplay environment would be represented as a radar display.

The suggestion of players interfacing the game through a radar screen was actually implemented early in development by the two young programmers. But it quickly became clear that having large parts of the display literally disappear as the radar swept across the screen was far from practical.

Early brainstorming sessions threw up a multitude of other ideas that on paper sounded interesting, but ultimately had to be left out of the final game:

Originally, there was a railroad across the bottom of the screen. So the missiles would not just take out the cities, but would also take out your reloads for your missile bases. The railroads would feed fresh missiles for the player to use. Which sounds cool, but it was just incredibly busy, and players couldn’t figure out what it all meant in the context of the game.
Early versions of Missile Command were intended to be a top-down view, featuring the Californian coastline, looking out to the Pacific Ocean. We had a submarine pop up and shoot missiles at the player’s bases, cities and railroads, and everyone who played the game would ask “why is there a submarine up there in the air?”. Because of the monitor position, they were interpreting that section of the play area as the sky, not an ocean.
So we thought “OK, back to the drawing board!” and it was all stripped out.
Steve Calfee, Missile Command Team Leader.
Theurer himself references this whole idea at the foot of the play area as being a ‘dynamic ecosystem’, where the cities were making the missiles, the railroads were transporting those missiles from the cities to the bases to restock them; and so if one of those things got taken out, your ability to defend yourself was severely compromised. So, a nice idea in theory, and one that creates an interesting backstory, but did players really need it? What did it add to the core of the game? The answer as it turned out, was “not much”.

But perhaps the biggest U-turn, was the removal of the huge attract panel from the prototype version of the game. This large panel was lit with incandescent bulbs and was intended to inform the player of the status of their game at any point.

It was an imposing piece of design, that played into the immersive nature of the subject matter. However, during the field testing, the universal feedback was that it was nothing more than a distraction. Players found it very difficult to look at the panel, figure out what information they needed, then go back to the screen – it was like closing your eyes for a few seconds in the middle of all the mayhem going on.

It hadn’t really occurred to us that the panel would turn out to be this huge distraction for players, as it was designed to be anything but! We wanted to inform and immerse the player. But as always, many of these issues won’t come out until you have fresh sets of hands and eyes on a game. What seems like a good idea on the development bench, doesn’t always translate well out in the arcade.
Dave Theurer, Creator of Missile Command
Through clever programming and lateral thought, all the necessary information delivered by the panel, was either removed, or changed to sounds and on-screen messages – allowing the player to always focus on the screen. The decision to remove the complex panel, also resulted in significant cost saving during manufacturing!

The game also went through several name changes. Originally called Coastal Defence Game, other name ideas included World War 3, Armageddon, Apocalypse and Edge of Blight, before Gene Lipkin, Head of Sales and Marketing came up with the final name: Missile Command.

The arcade version of Missile Command is a sum of its parts, a distilled and refined version of what might have been a much more complex, but probably less successful game. On release in arcades across the world, it went on to sell over 14,000 units. It was a big hit for Atari.

The release of Missile Command would answer Atari’s mantra perfectly: The game was Easy to learn, difficult to master.

Copies of Tony Temple’s Missile Commander book can be ordered directly here.