August 3rd, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Confessions of a Pioneer Computer Game Designer (Part Five: The Gas Fitter Derby)

So, in 1978 I left MI5 payrolls and the world of mag tape, card punches and 24 bit machines to join North East Gas and the wonderful new 32 bit world of discs, video terminals and databases. Luxury. But first I had to be inducted.

Unbeknown to me NEGAS were holding two induction days - one for computer staff and one for gas fitters. Being the proud owner of several scruffy genes - all of them dominant - I was naturally told to line up with the gas fitters. Which was very informative. We were taken to a large bay where they had a mock up of a typical living room which was used to practice installing gas appliances. An hour later - when they started handing out the blue overalls - I had an inkling that maybe I was not in the right place. But I did take something important with me - the importance of leaving the carpet clean after you've installed your program.

While at NEGAS I wrote a dissertation on computer gaming for my British Computer Society Part II exams and ... bought a microcomputer - an ITT 2020 with 48k of RAM. The ITT was the European version of the Apple with better graphics, displaying 360x192 pixels instead of 280x192. It cost about £1000 and came with no peripherals. For a monitor you used your TV and for data storage you used your cassette player. Loading a program could take several minutes.

So, I had my micro, now I was ready to become a computer games designer. I wrote to Heritage Models in the US asking if I could computerise their Space wargame Alpha Omega for them. They wrote back saying that they were thinking of getting into computer games and were compiling a list of programmers. I'd been added to their list. And would probably stay gathering dust on that list for several years. So, I decided to go it alone and design my own games.

My first game was a horse racing game called Derby. The game starts at the Newmarket yearling sales where the player(s) buy their untried horses and groom them over two years and up to 20 races over various distances and conditions before entering them in the Derby. Some horses are sprinters, some can't act on certain types of going, etc. None of this is known to the player - who has to find this out by observing their horses over trial gallops - staged between his or her own horses before each race - and on the race track against other horses.

All the races were shown graphically which was very difficult to program. No animation packages in those days. My wife drew a horse on graph paper (my attempt looked more like a camel - I blame the jockey) and then I had to convert her drawing to a pixel map and 'draw' the horse and rider typing in one pixel at a time, to create the 'shape.' I then animated the race using a kind of stop motion display by drawing the shape, deleting the shape and redrawing the shape a few pixels to the left. Very basic now but state-of-the-art back in 1979 when most games were text based.

(next instalment: Soccer Manager and, at last, that giant wargaming cat from the Arctic)