Lord of Midnight
(Sinclair User Annual, 1984)
IT IS NIGHT. Save for a few who pick their way amongst the bodies of the dead, searching for the faces of friends and brothers, it is time for battle-weary warriors to rest. Wakeful, however, is Luxor, the Moonprince. The sounds of wailing and the shrill whistle of spears in the darkness assail his ears from all corners of the world. The reek of death and the stench of decay is forever present. And when, finally, dawn comes, there before the stronghold the serried ranks of the Foul stand, wave upon wave of black clad foemen, come out of the shadows of night to renew the attack.
What would you do? Take your stand there, and maybe die a glorious death, or flee with those men still fit to march, seeking new allies with whom to continue the long war against evil?
Such are the choices of Luxor the Moonprince, and yours too, if you play the adventure game Lords of Midnight. Not since The Hobbit have imagination and programming artistry been combined to such good effect in an adventure, creating one of the most engrossing and spectacular games of 1984. But however gripping the game, the true Lord of Midnight is not Luxor, nor his comrade Corleth the Fey, nor any of the great Lords whose citadels lie scattered about the land. He is an ex-English teacher from Wallasey, Mike Singleton.
Mike's first program had a distinctly seedy atmosphere about it, far indeed from the heroism and nobility of Lords of Midnight. "I first got into computing four years ago, with a horse-racing game written for the Commodore Pet," he says. No ordinary horse-racing game,however, since it was specifically designed for use in a betting shop. A colleague at school suggested the idea, knowing Mike's interest in mathematics, and Mike taught himself how to program in Basic. His first attempt was an accounting program, but he clearly had his sights on more exciting things.
"We went into association with a Liverpool firm of bookmakers, and produced a fully working version of the game," he says. But there was a problem with the gaming act, which draws a distinction between genuine races and entertainment. In order for bookmakers to operate, they are not allowed to entice customers into their shops with other forms of entertainment, and a test prosecution found against Mike's program.
To have one's first effort at professional programming squashed with the force of the lawcourts might discourage some, but Mike persevered. His first programming success was with arcade games for the Commodore Pet, that grand old workhorse of the pre-Sinclair days in microcomputing. Through working for Petsoft, Mike came into contact with Sinclair, and wrote a set of games for the ZX80, forerunner of the ZX81.
"The deal fell through after I completed six 1K programs," he says, "but Clive was interested, and so was Sinclair Research." Travelling to Cambridge to visit the company he was shown a top-secret version of the ZX81 with the operating system still in temporary form on an EPROM. "The whole thing was still under wraps, and I was asked to convert my games for the machine." The result was Gamespack 1, a set of 1K programs all in Basic, and one of the very first commercial programs for the ZX81. "It took two weeks work during the school holidays," says Mike, "and I got £6,000 in royalties. I don't think I've ever had better."
Mike Singleton has always been a games player. In his early teens he got hooked on board wargames, by companies such as Avalon Hill or SPI, whose complex rules and efforts at realistic simulation have had considerable influence on aspects of computer games. "It was wargames that started me off," he says. "I invented my own board games, although none of them hit the market. I suppose I really came to computers from board games."
The hobby did not die with childhood. While pursuing a career in teaching, Mike was also participating in a play-by-mail game called Starweb, run by an American company, Flying Buffalo, creators of the Tunnels and Trolls fantasy role-playing game. There was a special game for overseas players. "We played by airmail, with one month between turns. It took me two years to win my game." Win it he did, and in late 1981 set up his own multi-player game, Star Lord, which was umpired by Mike with the aid of the Commodore Pet and a hard disk drive. There were about 700 players in the game whose moves were processed by the computer, and the multi-player game Starnet which runs on the Micronet network is directly based on Star Lord.
Enter at this stage one Terry Pratt, now the managing director of Beyond Software, but then editor of Computer and Video Games magazine. Terry approached Mike with a view to an article on Play-by-Mail games. The result was that Mike designed a game especially for the magazine, called Seventh Empire, which ran for about a year.
During that period Mike had also kept his hand in "churning out the odd arcade game" as he puts it. When Beyond Software was set up by the owners of Computer and Video Games, Terry Pratt moved from the magazine to run the company. "Terry started pressing me for programs," says Mike, "and eventually we came up with Lords of Midnight."
The idea was not a simple flash of inspiration, but the result of careful thought. "I was looking at the way things were going. I was interested in having a go at adventures, and it struck me that the graphics in most so-called graphic adventures could be improved. Pictures in ordinary adventures look very nice but don't tell you very much. I like to make everything very functional."
Certainly the graphics of Lords of Midnight are nothing if not functional. Every detail in the screen picture is of some significance to the game. In fact, in a real sense, the game is played through the pictures, which represent the view of the landscape from a particular character's position. Caverns, forests, mountains, towers, wolves and many other features all appear on the screen and affect the play of the game.
"The graphics were the initial thing," Mike explains. "I naively thought everything else would fall into place. I underestimated the mechanics of the game."
The game was specified beforehand in some detail, as the manual had to be sent off early to be printed, and a keyboard overlay was necessary because of the wide number of single-key entries required to play the game, where all decisions are taken simply by pressing the appropriate key. "That meant I was committed to producing a particular game without having confronted the actual problems of programming it. The major problem was the memory. With one or two K extra it could have been finished earlier. Believe it or not, it was streamlined three times. I squeezed the extra out of it by compression."
In fact, the game was a full six months in the writing. Incredibly, the whole thing was written on a single Spectrum without even the aid of microdrives. "The microdrives hadn't arrived," says Mike, laconically.
He is pleased with the final graphics routines, which give a possible 32,000 views on the screen from 4,000 locations. "I think the code is very neat," he says, which is probably a gross understatement. "It takes less than 1K to control, and a further 17K for the individual objects shown. Different-sized images are stored in advance, which is why the pictures come up so fast. It is awkward to have routines to expand or shrink objects, and when they get very small they look bad."
The fact that there is virtually no text in the game, and only single-key entry commands, is not simply a question of saving memory. "It would be inappropriate for the game to have text," says Mike. "There is such a lot going on that written commands would slow the game down."
If the graphics routines are unlike anything previously seen on the Spectrum, the game, the story and tke construction of the Land of Midnight are also impressive.
"It was entirely my creation," says Mike. "I started with the first chapter of the story setting out the characters of Luxor, Morkin and Doomdark." Luxor is the possessor of the moonstone with which he is able to communicate with his allies, thus enabling the player to control a wide number of characters. Morkin, his son, is the pure and fearless hero who must seek the Ice Crown, the source of the power of the evil Doomdark. Having established those major characters Mike went on to draw the map, a rather more detailed version than the one provided with the game, including all the place names and major featlires. "I got the detail straight and then continued with the story. Rather than write the whole plot first, I let it run a bit and surprise me. I knew roughly where I was heading."
Tolkien, the guiding force behind modern fantasy writing, worked in a similar manner, not always knowing what was going to happen next in the story. Many of the elements in the game are found in Tolkien's work, the quest into the heart of the enemy stronghold and the fighting of an apparently hopeless war form the main strands of both the game and The Lord Of The Rings.
"I am familiar with the literature, and of course it's impossible to avoid being influenced by Tolkien. I was after a game with a war in it, and the plot of the long defeat coupled with the quest for an object fitted in with the sort of game I was after. Once I had decided on the war/quest theme it was impossible to get away from Tolkien. There are other elements with a smack of Tolkien also. Fawkrin the Skulkrin is bound to be compared to Gollum."
Lords of Midnight has proved a great success, and by the time you read this the sequel, Doomdark's Revenge, will also have been released. "We always have a sequel in mind," says Mike. "But Terry wanted to wait before he committed himself to a second game. I've been working on it since finishing Lords of Midnight."
Doomdark's Revenge is set in the Icemark, a land to the north-east of the area in which the earlier program is set. Shareth the Heartstealer has captured Morkin and you must rescue him, with the aid of Rorthron the Wise, a character from the first game, and Tarithel the Fey, Morkin's lover, who appears for the first time.
The game is considerably more complex than Lords of Midnight, with 2,000 more locations and 128 characters - Lords of Midnight contained 32.
"I learned lessons programming Lords of Midnight," says Mike. "Towards the end I found ways of rationalizing the data structure to save space. It is a more complicated situation. Rather than having Good versus Evil, there are other factors, and more independent characters. The Land of Icemark is divided between five races. In the far north-east there are men under the command of Shareth, real baddies. Then there are giants, dwarfs, feys, and barbarians. All are independent and may fight each other."
The independence of the races means that Luxor must engage in complex diplomacy to win support in his quest. That may involve performing miniature quests for a particular object or goal desired by a race, thus providing possibilities for mini-adventures within the main game.
Another new development is the introduction of female characters, the evil Shareth and the good Tarithel. "I would like to have had female characters in Midnight, but left it to a later game." That was not out of raw sexism, but because of the limitations of memory. Involving both sexes means additions to the vocabulary of descriptions and a gender factor to be added to each character, eating up the precious bytes. "There was a brief mention of a female character in the story; I was keeping the options open," explains Mike.
Although most of his time is taken up with work for Beyond, Mike Singleton retains his independence as a freelance programmer. He gave up teaching two years ago to work full-time on computers, and says he is satisfied with the switch. "I thought I would regret giving up teaching," he says, "but I don't. I do miss the kids - they kept me on my toes. It was always useful programming part-time, as I could take games in to the club at school. But it was getting to the stage where I had to make a choice because I was working all the hours God sent."
He is also sure that remaining freelance is the right decision, at least for the time being. "It's a nice idea to own your own company but it might restrict my programming time which would not be particularly appealing. The days of backroom companies are over. Perhaps if you had a set up with administrators you can trust . . ."
That attitude fits in with Mike's view of himself as a games designer rather than programmer, although his ability as a programmer is clearly in the front rank. "What would really suit me is to get a team of programmers and just feed them ideas. Terry had a position in mind for me at Beyond, but I think I make more money on the outside."
Mike plays fewer wargames now that he is writing them, but frequently has a game of Go, the Japanese strategy game which represents the next big challenge to prcgrammers following the landmarks of draughts and then chess. "I play wargames every three months or so, and Go more frequently." He adds, "I'm also in the pub a fair amount of the time."
He finds writing enjoyable, and welcomed the opportunity to write the story for Lords of Midnight booklet. "With anything like that there's feedback from the story to the program," he says. "At university I wrote a short novel - English teachers are always writing great works. It's called The Eternal Empire and there have been six or seven versions. When Terry mooted the idea of a novel as the prize for Lords of Midnight, I did say I wanted to have a go at writing it. But time was pressing."
When Lords of Midnight was released, a prize for the first winner was that the game should be written as a fantasy novel, using the winner's game moves as a basis. Whatever the book turns out to be like, we can at least say that literature's loss has been the game world's gain.
Mike Singleton's Softography: