RICHARD WOODWARD and ROBERT WALLER are between them Mizar, the people between the CRASH Smashed OUT OF THE SHADOWS which Derek Brewster thought was the best arcade adventure he had seen in a long while (see December issue).
Out of the Shadows is their first game for the Spectrum — or indeed for any micro — and it was developed from a version written by Richard on a Univac some four years ago. Richard, an applications programmer specialising in COBOL packages — and incidentally a keen astronomer — teamed up with Robert who has been working ‘at the bits and bytes level for years’, writing operating systems and communications software, again for large machines. Taking over a dining room table and covering it with little more than a couple of Spectrums, they set to work last year to convert Richard’s original game to run on the Spectrum.
As you might imagine, there was a fair bit of compacting down to be done — but after six months work Out of the Shadows had been completely rewritten from scratch, with all the subroutines used being totally new. The finished program boasts a number of very original graphics ideas to do with the casting of shadows (hence its title). For instance the light that your lantern casts only illuminates a part of the screen; as the oil in your lantern runs out, the pool of light it casts gradually contracts before you’re plunged into total darkness. The graphics side of programming is very important to Mizar: ‘We thought of the pictures we wanted, got them working and then wrote the story around them,’ Richard explains.
The front line of computer graphics is normally deemed to be the preserve of such film companies as Lucasfilms of Star Wars fame, and Disney — responsible for Tron. Using the Cray II (a mind-boggingly large machine, capable of processing vast tracts of information incredibly fast), and some very advanced mathematical techniques it is possible to make a high quality animated film produced totally by computer. It takes three months computer time to produced fifteen minutes of film, though — the Cray goes away and just thinks for up to an hour for each frame of film created!
The next game Mizar will be releasing is going to incorporate a naturalistic landscape, displayed from a projection. The closer you get to, say, a coastline, the more detail you will see. To do this, they will be using the same sort of mathematical techniques, involving fractal numbers, as the programs on the Cray II to produce animated landscapes.
The mathematics behind this kind of computer graphics is a little beyond Pythagoras and ‘the sum of the squares’ stuff. Both Richard and Robert are mathematicians. Robert has a degree in Maths and Computer Science, but describes Richard as the true mathematician: ‘Dick sees problems as having mathematical solutions. For instance he would draw a sine wave on a computer screen using a sine wave function; I’d probably use a look-up table, and get there too, but in a different way.’
Obviously Star Wars IV isn’t about to be knocked up on Mizar’s dining room table quite yet, but their next game, an extension of Out of the Shadows, will incorporate state-of-the-art graphics techniques which no-one else has thought of bringing to the Spectrum — or been able to!
‘We’ll certainly be taking the graphics several stages further and they will include a naturalistic projection of views of the playing environment; the intelligence of your adversaries will also be upgraded,’ Robert explained.
In Out of the Shadows you can preserve the continuity of your character, taking him onto the next scenario once you’ve completed one level of the game, and you retain the skills and experience gained. This owes a lot to the role playing games, such as Dungeons and Dragons, which Robert agrees are a source of inspiration to them.
‘We prefer to give the player as wide a choice of options as possible,’ he explained, ‘in Out of the Shadows there is a range of some thirty commands any of which can be used at any time. We want to give our games as much depth, breadth and sense of place and involvement as possible.’
‘In our next game we plan to computerise the Dungeon Master in effect — keeping the rules and regulations of the game as minimal as possible to allow the player to get involved in the game itself. You will play the part of the main character, or protagonist, and will be in an environment where other lead characters exist who have their own aims and definite objectives. You will be competing against each other, and at times working together, all using common resources in the game environment.’
In the longer term, Mizar sees a future for co-operative games, perhaps with people in one geographical area meeting together, linking up their Spectrums and playing a multi-player version of Out of the Shadows.
‘We’d love to be able to do it at the moment,’ Richard said, ‘but it’s just not commercially practical at present. In the UK modems are both rare and expensive — and British Telecom’s prices are too high for most people to be able to afford to play multi-user games via the telephone network. We’d have to do something for groups of people who could actually play together.’
Unless British Telecom regularly reads CRASH and drops its local call charges as a result (the first being likely, the second less so!), it’s improbable that MUD type games will catch on in this country in the near future. Mizar may well write software for the Spectrum which allows people to link their machines together via Interface 1’s so that they’ve each got a terminal into a common environment which runs across and around each member of the group — but not just at the moment! They’re quite busy enough on their next game thank you.
Mizar is a very small software house — with development work being done on a dining room table in Milton Keynes and only one full time worker, Richard Woodward. For the moment Robert is still working full time as a systems programmer, which has its disadvantages in that the two partners really only get together at weekends to bounce ideas off one another.
It’s no longer easy to start out in the software industry — a lot of financial muscle is buying its way into the market and some of the original back-room companies have survived to grow into large organisations. There’s little doubt that if Mizar had been formed a couple of years ago, they would have had little difficulty in quickly establishing their reputation. What problems are faced by a small software house with an excellent product?
‘We both feel that we’ve produced a game which is technically good,’ Robert says, ‘but we’ve realised that razzamatazz and hype is needed to sell it. The marketing side of software is now as important as the content of the game itself — and in some cases is done better than the programming. Nowadays, you’ve got to be able to sell to the big distributors to make your mark.’ Richard agreed, and added that it’s now difficult to break into the marketplace with some retail chains adopting a policy of only stocking the top ten titles. ‘The market’s so crowded, and there’s a lot of inferior games on the shelves that will probably have to be sold off first before new products get a look in. Some of the chains simply aren’t listening to street-level opinion any more, but just persevere with old favourites.’
With big firms which have massive financial backing getting involved in the software market, including book and magazine publishers, has Mizar any plans to stop going it alone? ‘Not at all,’ came the emphatic response from Robert, ‘we want to remain independent — someone’s got to be around doing something innovative. If we signed up with a publisher we’d probably end up producing an amalgam of the current best game formats, rather than being allowed to come up with new and innovative techniques and ideas.’
‘It would be tempting at times,’ Richard added ruefully, ‘we’re obviously very small as yet. Producing a new game with the six month time lag we need isn’t easy, as we can only get together at evenings and weekends.
‘And unless some parts of the distribution trade brushes up its ethics, a lot of smaller firms like ourselves may end up being put out of business — we’ve already had one distributor go bust on us, and it hurts when you’re small — the large organisations with lots of money behind them can ride such problems.’
It’s not far short of amazing for a new software company to get a CRASH Smash with their very first game. Mizar’s existing product, and their plans for the future, should see them firmly established among the leaders in the adventure / role playing field. You just wait and see — and while you’re waiting for the distributors to catch on to the fact that you don’t have to be an established mega-corporation to write a first class game, you could do a lot worse than while away a few hours with Out of the Shadows.