Confessions of a Pioneer Computer Games Designer

In the 1970s a revolution occurred and, for once (see Free Cornish Army), it was nothing to do with me. The birth of 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 their programs to the magazines – sometimes for free, sometimes for a small fee – and the magazines would print them. 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 games 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 to type in how much corn you would plant, how much you would store, how much you would trade, and how much you would feed to your people. Strangely, no gold was ever set aside for political hangers on, consultants or media manipulators – Famine? What famine? That locust swarm was the direct result of eight years of mismanagement by the previous administration!

The program then calculated the effect of your decisions and added in a few random events like plagues, wars, floods and rats breaking into your corn storage. The worse you treated your people, the more likely they were to revolt and the less likely to prosper. So the goal was to be benevolent but prudent. A fat population with nothing to harvest didn’t live very long – probably something to do with 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 and Dragons! It was a brilliant design. The user chose the size of the maze by typing in the x and y co-ordinates and the program 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 – that’s 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.


Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novelette, What Ho, Automaton! was a finalist for the 2012 WSFA Small Press Award for short fiction. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .
An Unsafe Pair of Handsa quirky murder mystery set in rural England charting the descent and rise of a detective on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Which will break first? The case, or DCI Shand?
Medium Dead – a fun urban fantasy chronicling the crime fighting adventures of Brenda – a reluctant medium – and Brian – a Vigilante Demon with an impish sense of humour. Think Stephanie Plum with magic and a dash of Carl Hiaasen.
What Ho, Automaton! – Wodehouse Steampunk. Follow the adventures of Reggie Worcester, consulting detective, and his gentleman’s personal gentle-automaton, Reeves. It’s set in an alternative 1903 where an augmented Queen Victoria is still on the throne and automata are a common sight below stairs. Humour, Mystery, Aunts and Zeppelins!
French Fried true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.
International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth?

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