Project: Alteroid

Prompt: Make an experimental variant of the classic arcade game Asteroid.

This is an exercise in incremental design innovation: don’t mod the provided code into a completely different game. Designing novel games is hard, almost all games are build on the top of proven genre, features, and gameplay concepts.

Think of it as:
Asteroids except [one feature is different]
Asteroids plus [another game or genre]
Asteroid with [another feature found in another game]

The space theme can change if the new gameplay doesn’t make sense for it. Don’t start from a new theme.

Graphics should be done after the gameplay is established.
Keep it minimalistic and iconic like the original: us bright lines on dark background, or use flat colors and simple shapes unless you have specific reasons to *not* do so.
On the visual side this is an exercise in making game art that conveys information and makes the game readable.


Try an online port here:

One of the first arcade games, it came out in 1979.
I’m not a fan of the game, and I’m not nostalgic. I just like it as an example because it’s simple, very easy to break down conceptually, it’s a good way to introduce many game programming patterns.
But also and incorporates elements of the first digital game ever Spacewar! Which was created at the MIT in 1962. So we are basically starting from the beginning of the history of video games.

I’ll introduce some concepts of game design.
And we’ll use these concepts as jumping points to brainstorms idea for your project


Games are based on action so one way to talk and think about games is through verbs.

What are the verbs used in asteroids?
I’m talking about the actions. Basically: what does the player do? That is referred as Agency (the freedom of action within the world)

What are the nouns, the things you see?
If you were to break it into pieces, into assets.

Agency: the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices.

“Every expressive medium has its own unique patterns of desire; its own way of giving pleasure, of creating beauty, of capturing what we feel to be true about life; its own aesthetic.”
Janet Murray – Hamlet on the Holodeck 1997

Meaningful action means that your action affects the world.
Or at least does something aesthetically.

Stray – In the introduction you can do things that don’t affect the world
You can meow, you can play with your cat friends. Is it meaningful agency?

The intro is not formally meaningful action but it is meaningful in terms of narrative and “immersion”.
To introduce the main controls.
To present the main character.
To establish it’s not an anthropomorphic cat
To show its life before the beginning of the adventure

“Games are a series of interesting decisions”
Sid Meier (Civilization Series)

What are the interesting decisions in Asteroid?
Is it just fast reaction to a stimulus or there are decisions to make?

Compare it with space invader, it’s all about button mashing and calculating trajectories.
Asteroids has an element of management.

Here’s a game similar to space invader but with an added premise.

Reimagine the game around a different action or an extra action

Example: Feed-  some asteroids are alive and must be fed so instead of shooting you take pieces of the “dead” asteroids and you shoot them on the “living” ones

For a list of verbs:

Discuss with your team and quickly paper prototype it: sketch out how the game would play out, be ready to present the best idea.

Avoid standard shoot-em up gameplay tropes: power ups, bullet hell dynamics, enemies, etc, it’s easy to add features and end up in familiar territory. Does it transform the gameplay into something original or just into a more complex shooter?


All definition of games include the idea of rules. Games, digital, board games, sports, have sets of rules that govern the agency of the player. In analog games you learn all the rules before you even start play. In video games you learn them as you go.
Teaching rules and introducing new rules is a big part of game design.

In video games rules are embedded into the code but if the game are simple we can sort of abstract them

What are the rules in Asteroids?


Reimagine the game with a different or an extra rule.

Example: There is a black hole in the center like SpaceWar: asteroids, bullets, and ship are attracted to it


Games as social activity

Throughout history people played games with other people.
Pretty much all games were multiplayer.

There are very few exceptions: the ancient game of Senet was likely played as a solitaire.
But it was likely used as a divination game. As a way to predict future or fortunetelling, like tarot or I Ching.

And even the first videogames were multiplayer and symmetrical. Like Pong.
Symmetrical means that the players had the same agency, the same role and goal.
In this case scoring on the opposite side.

Very soon game designers figured out that you can have single player games.
At it made sense for home consoles because like Atari because when you are at home you might not have people willing to play around you.

This is breakout and it’s basically tanking pong and making it single player
And still today single player games are the most popular, and the biggest market.
Because massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft or Fortnite, are difficult to make and very few of them succeed.

I find that students since they are working by themselves often default to single player when thinking about new games

So let’s imagine asteroids as a two player game.

-competitive symmetrical
-competitive asymmetrical
-turn based

The easiest way would be to have two players just working together to clear the asteroids.
But let’s imagine something more transformative. Think about how the theme could shift as result.


Man, Play and Games was written by french sociologist Roger Callois in 1961. The book introduced important terminology in game studies. He describes four “play forms” that are the basis for the enjoyment of games.
These components can be present in different degrees in each game:

Agon, or competition. Present in skill based, competitive game like sports or chess.
Alea, or chance. Present in gambling games like slot machines or roulette.
Mimicry, or mimesis Present in role playing games or pretend games.
Ilinx, or vertigo Present in perception altering play, like merry go round and visually intensive videogames.

How are these components manifesting in Asteroids?
Can you imagine a version of Asteroids that boosts the less dominant components like chance or vertigo?



Callois also differentiated between two kind of games:

Ludus – structured activities with explicit rules (competitive games)
Paidia – unstructured and spontaneous activities (child play, sandbox, toys, creative games)

How can the gameplay be turned into a non-competitive, sandbox, open ended, or “creative play” game.


Scope is the planned complexity of a game, in terms of features, content, and systemic detail.
It’s quantitative and qualitative and usually defined in a game design document.
It’s about time, experience, and budget.

Always ask yourself:
What do you really need for the game to “work”?
What do you really need for the game to differentiate itself?
What do you really need to engage your target player?
What do you really need to make your vision a reality…
*in the time, with the knowledge, and with the budget, you have your disposal?

Adding more features after the scope has been defined.

Aiming for more than you can achieve in the given timeframe.

To avoid overscoping:

  • Stay away from content heavy projects (content is graphics, visual assets)
  • Identify the core mechanics immediately
  • Try to reduce them even more
  • Make a feature complete prototype with all the core mechanics as soon as you can.
  • Instead of adding new elements from the beginning explore all the possibilities created by these mechanics and then add only a new one at a time. If it opens up a new space of possibility combining and reinforcing the existing ones, then it’s a feature worth pursuing.


Pick the idea that seems most promising – and feasible in one week.
Let’s discuss it:
Does it have a “unique selling point”?
Can it be done within a week?
Can you cut any unnecessary parts?
Can the gameplay support a theme/story/visuals that immediately grabs people’s attention?

Bonus: Remixing / modding / mashing up classic games

Let’s look at other strategies from non-asteroid variants.

Adding modern technology to old concepts, fluid dynamics


Joke rule, that creates a new gameplay:

Hateful Tetris


Lunar lander + alt controller coop

Mash up

Pacman + pong

Pong  + breakout