August 1st, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Confessions of a Pioneer Computer Game Designer (Part Four: Two Grandfathers and a Necromancer)

In the 1970s a revolution occurred and for once it was nothing to do with me. The microcomputer. At first the main interest was in building them - articles and adverts would appear in the backs of electronics magazines. Then people began to search for something to run on them. As usual, games were top of the list.

These were pioneer days and although cassettes and floppy disks began to appear, the favoured medium for disseminating games - even well into the 80s - was the printed listing. Enthusiasts would send, sometimes sell, their programs to the magazines who would print them - often with no mistakes. By necessity these early programs were short - the magazines had limited space and readers wanted to play the game not spend two hours typing it in. And they tended to be in Basic, occasionally with segments of machine code.

Besides Lunar Lander, one of the first I typed in was Hammurabi - the grandfather of all the economic simulator games seen today. It was a great game. You started off as the new emperor Hammurabi and your mission was a) to stay alive and b) to make your country prosper. Every season you would be told what had happened the season before - how many people you had, how much gold, how much corn - and then you would be asked how much corn you would plant, how much you would store, how much you would buy or sell, and how much you would feed to your people. Strangely, no gold was ever set aside for political hangers on, consultants or media manipulators - What famine? Those locusts were introduced here by the previous administration.

The program then calculates the effect of your decisions - and adds in a few random events like plagues, wars, floods and rats breaking into your corn storage. The worse you treat your people, the more likely they are to revolt and the less likely to prosper. So the goal is to be benevolent but prudent. A fat population with nothing to harvest doesn't live very long - probably cholesterol.

The first personal computing magazine, Byte, appeared in the US in September 1975. Personal Computer World, in 1978, was the first to appear in Europe. I have issue 2 in front of me. The cover has the Commodore Pet - an 8k RAM machine for £695. Other computers mentioned are the Apple, Nascom, Comart, Cambridge Mk 14. About half the computers come in kit form.

Even after the arrival of the computer magazine, listings continued to appear in the electronics magazines. One that caught my eye in 1980 was a 3D maze generator in Practical Wireless. The moment I saw it I thought Dungeons! It was a brilliant design. It took a user determined 2D grid and randomly carved a maze through it. That was phase one. Phase two was navigating that maze in first person 3D perspective. This was another grandfather - of all the first person perspective 3D shoot-em-ups and dungeon delvers.

I took the program - the advantage of dissemination by source listing - and added extra layers to it. The original program navigated a traditional single level maze. Each cell was bounded by one or more walls - making it easy to code - a 1 for a wall, a zero for no wall. So a cell value of 1111 meant the cell was bounded by four walls - west, east, north and south. The 3D interpreter then looked along the grid and constructed the view, reducing the height of the walls for perspective.
I expanded this system by adding extra states. A wall could have a door in it - either one you could see or a secret door. I also added stairs and rooms so the maze became a proper multi-level dungeon. I'd been hooked on D&D since 1976.

And so, in 1980, Necromancer was born. A first person perspective 3D D&D game with wandering monsters, spells, treasure, and an adventurer in search of experience points.

As Apple User magazine said in 1984, 'Necromancer is a great dungeon game for beginners, but still has a lot to offer the experienced player.' It retailed for £14.95.