Posted by: rolfsky | April 12, 2010

want innovation? embrace constraints


The Atari 2600 defined an era of gaming. For many, it was their first introduction into what would become a long obsession into video gaming. The ability to program Atari 2600 games however, required a certain type of obsession all its own.

No sissy object oriented programming or procedure calls here, generating even “simple” graphics like the one on the right, was an exercise in patience and clever programming.

Consider the following three restrictions on how graphics were painted to the television through the “Atari Television Adapter Interface”:

The TIA is responsible for generating the picture on the television set as well as providing access to features in hardware for the purpose of generating the game graphics, tones and noises. … The video is created from … a playfield … which is stretched across half the video line … and 5 graphics objects consisting of:

  • Two 8-pixel lines which make up the ‘sprites‘ Player 1 and Player 2. These are single color and can be stretched by a factor of 2 or 4.
  • A ‘ball’ – a line that is the same color as the playfield. It can be one, two, four, or eight pixels wide.
  • Two ‘missiles’ – a line that is the same color as its respective player. It can be one, two, four, or eight pixels wide.

If you read through the programming guide, it rapidly becomes clear that this Atari graphics chip was really designed to create a game like “pong”. This should be unsurprising considering that the Atari 2600 was created by the same company (Atari) in 1977, just two years after Pong.

Primitive as it was, clever programmers dug into the guts of the TIA, and were eventually able to create interactive experiences as complex as “Pitfall!” which featured such complex graphics as “tar pits, quicksand, water holes, rolling logs, rattlesnakes, scorpions, walls, fire, bats, and crocodiles.” This was not Pong even though the technology was largely the same.

Though this isn’t Halo or Super Mario Galaxy, the graphics achieved in Pitfall! were a tour de force with the available technology. (Remember, The Atari 2600 ran in the single-digit mHz range as well, maybe 500 less powerful than your iPhone).

What this should begin to underline for you, is what is achievable not by reducing constraints, but increasing constraints. This spurs creativity, hard work, and a focus on the task at hand.

Rather than asking your teams to “go innovate” with a wide open green field, push hard on one field and you might be amazed with what they come up with.


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