The CRASH Software Editor, Jeremy Spencer, seizes the opportunity to spend a day with The Electronic Pencil Company, during which he learns about their work on The Fourth Protocol and gets a bad case of Zoids.
I could scarcely contain my excitement when two attractive packages arrived at CRASH Towers; they rattled beautifully. Sadly, one was addressed to Mr Roger Kean, the other to our very own Mr Graeme Kidd. I can’t deny that I was tempted to scrape a little wrapping off and have a peek.
Just as my fingers found a hold on the sellotape, in stomped Graeme. It’s not that he’s an aggressive sort, but his newly shaved head and gleaming Doc Marten boots lend him a somewhat menacing air. I replaced the box, retreated to my desk and peered out from behind my monitor.
I watched as Graeme peeled off the wrapping and cast its contents onto his already muddled desk: he had got a Zoid. Sounds nasty I know, but a Zoid is in fact something that you would be grateful to catch. I would be. Graeme opened the carton and stared bewildered at the pile of components it contained. He ungraciously refused my eager offer to help him build the thing, but did allow me a peek at the picture on the box.
This Zoid was Red Horn The Terrible, a powerful looking robotic monster, bristling with guns and armour. I could see that here was an awesome toy, a toy to fire the imagination. I sat down, sucked my thumb and dreamt of Zoids: Zoids at war, fighting each other for the domination of some wretched planet — what a game this would make.
Having failed to get my hands on either Roger or Graeme’s Zoid, I resigned to sulking in the corner. Soon, Roger took pity on me. He explained that since he was just too busy playing with his Zoid, perhaps I would like to pop off down to London and have a chat to the team writing the Zoid game? What a question! ... a chance to meet the men who would breathe life into these monsters, the men who would turn fantasy into a computer game — the men who may just have a spare Zoid or two.
Hastily I scribbled down the address of the meeting place — an Italian cafe with a strange name, just off Cambridge Circus in London. I turned and grabbed the photo-chemical image-storage device and made for the Morgan before anyone had the chance to change their mind. The engine burst into life, and the car shot forward with a scream. (The scream was from the competitions editor who had been polishing the exhaust — silly minion.) I was on my way to a rendezvous with The Electronic Pencil Company.
The EPC, as they are known to their friends, consist of Rupert Bowater, Benni Notaraianni and roughly half of Paul Norris (the other half of Paul is reading history at university). The fourth person present was Chris Fayers from Martech, the software house that had commissioned the Zoid game. Faced with the opportunity of meeting the team responsible for putting together The Fourth Protocol I couldn’t resist asking a couple of questions about it. Like, for example, how they had come to do it and, what was the solution?
It was obvious that I would have to spend some time getting to know these guys before they would spill the beans, so I squeezed myself onto a seat behind one of the tables and ordered a round of coffee.
Rupert is a tall and dashing chap who speaks in a voice that is well matched to his name. At university, while reading Geography, he had had a very bad experience with a computer and a punched card reader. He decided that he never wanted to speak to a computer again, never mind feed it punched cards, even punched cards in the wrong order. However, after finishing a sociology course he developed an interest in the brain’s visual system and since a great deal of the more interesting work in that field involved building computer simulations, he was forced to talk to a computer again. Second time around, he found he had a capacity to cope with computers and their funny little ways. After leaving University Rupert decided that he really could fancy a computer after all, it was simply a matter of finding the right type. He applied for a job in the business world.
One of his application forms ended up at Thorn where it began to journey from department to department ending up, eventually, in the Computer Games Division. Here Rupert met Paul and Benni, and they began working as a team, producing games software for the Texas Instruments machine. After spending some time wining and dining the TI Rupert, Paul and Benni got to know it rather well. They produced three games destined for cartridges: River Rescue, Sub Commander and Computer War.
Unfortunately, due to circumstances well out of their reach none of their games ever reached the marketplace. Although the trio had been a little late turning out the final products, a much greater delay was caused by the company responsible for producing the ROM chips for the cartridges. At this time the TI was beginning to vanish from the Face of the Earth, so Thorn decided not to market the games but to recoup their losses by other means. The net result was the software industry’s first chip hillock, containing the three late games — some 30,000 chips large.
After the TI fiasco, Thorn decided to create an IBM team. Our heroes spent three months trying to persuade the powers that be that they did not want to be on such a thing. Benni stayed, while Paul and Rupert moved onto programming Commodores. The two releases of that era, under the Creative Sparks label, were Java Jim by Rupert and Ice Palace by Paul. Benni was beginning to reflect on his short post-university life, spent writing diagnostic programs for cashpoint machines. Taking stock of his situation, he decided that life could be better on the outside. So, at Easter last year Benni left Thorn to set up The Electronic Pencil Company with John Wilson.
Paul was the next to leave Thorn. He went to read history at university, which he’s still doing. That left Rupert, who was made redundant in November of last year — he was the only one of the three to collect redundancy loot. Benni had been out in the world eight months at this stage, and their agent, Jackie Lyons, organised a contract with Hutchinson for the production of The Fourth Protocol. Hutchinson wanted a demonstration for the Frankfurt fair. All that ECP had been been given was a plot for a game that was, to all intents and purposes, a very standard text input adventure game. Benni wanted to do something different, so he developed the idea of the windows and icons. His ideas were well received at the Frankfurt fair.
Some of the other ideas that had been incorporated into the demo simply could not be put into the final version — the digitised photographs are a case in point, only one of them made it through in the end. By Christmas John Wilson had left ECP, so Rupert took his place, and they had to produce the finished game.
The approach that Benni and Rupert had used in The Fourth Protocol was outstanding because it was so fresh. Icons had been used before, but not to such effect. The Fourth Protocol was the first adventure game that I actually sat down and wanted to play. For me, the icon system neatly took away the tedium that I find prevalent in ordinary adventures.
As the members of EPC shared the opinion that it was no good having a games designer if he wasn’t a programmer, they ended up doing much of the design work for the Hutchinson game — and they will be responsible for all the design work on the Zoid game. How else could they achieve the originality for which they strive, and attained with The Fourth Protocol?
Rupert voiced a very low opinion of games that copied existing programs or other authors’ ideas and methods, proclaiming such practices to be immoral. Another point that they are all agreed upon is that the pursuit of technical excellence in a game can be a waste of time. Paul feels that ‘technical brilliance is all well and good... but the most important lesson that I have learnt is never to lose sight of the final product’. He reached this conclusion after spending far too much time developing a superior scrolling routine for Ice Palace when a simple page scroll would not have detracted significantly from the overall effect of the complete game. Rupert remembers spending hours and hours perfecting the masking that would allow an object in one of his earlier games to pass through a triangle without colour clash. ‘Nobody even noticed let alone appreciated my efforts’. They did agree, however, that much was owed to authors who had invented new techniques which had combined to produce games that, as Chris observed, ‘...two years ago people said were impossible’.
As a team two and a half persons strong, EPC are ready to face their next task, even though it means upgrading their underpowered and overworked Beeb. I was mildly surprised that they had managed to used an unexpanded Beeb for code development — it must take an age to compile and re-compile the source code. Rupert agreed, but insisted that since the compilation takes so long they tend to take a lot more care making sure that the code will work before putting it to the test: ‘if you like, the inefficient system makes us produce more efficient code’. They have already decided that a second processor is needed. The only question remaining is, will it fit into Benni’s flat?
At no stage during the conversation, not even when we all received a ticking off from the Italian waitress for using the shop as an office, did my mind wander far from the plastic carrier bag at Benni’s side. Peering over the lid and clearly anxious to escape its polythene confine was a Red Zoid, another Redhorn The Terrible, just like our own big Kidd’s back at the Towers. Do Zoids like sandwiches? Perhaps. The only way to find out for sure was to try. I reached across the table and gingerly laid down my cheese and tomato on brown. It was working, Redhorn had caught the scent, he began ripping his way out of the bag, what a monster! He made a bee-line for the offering and was followed, to my delight, by a clockwork Serpent Zoid, and a battery powered Stegazoid. Now that the Zoids were out in the open it was time to talk about the game.
The idea to produce a game based on the new range of Zoid toys came from Martech, here represented by the ex taxi-cab business owner, and self taught computer nut Chris Fayers. Chris is no stranger to the computer games world having converted games to the MSX as well as developing software for some of the DK’tronics peripherals. Now that he has recently become a Martechean he will be responsible for the Spectrum conversion of the game. The alliance with Tomy, the purveyors of these beasts, promises to be a very worthwhile move for Martech as well as the EPC.
Rupert explained: ‘the backup from Tomy has been marvellous, they are offering all kinds of help while managing not to impose silly conditions. Another advantage is that we hope to be getting a lot more Zoids, for development purposes only, naturally’. I did experience a slight twinge of jealousy. With over seventeen different types of Zoids to collect, these guys have something of a head start.
The design for the game is impressive; it is stamped with the quality that EPC work so hard at, originality. The action surrounds the planet Zoidos, a planet ‘gripped by war’. Two factions are trying to gain control of the planet, and thus the source of Zoidal power. In the game, you must try to seize this opportunity and, amidst the mayhem, take control yourself. Within the hold of your space craft you have the invincible Zoidzilla. With him you can land your ship and conquer the planet. At the last moment disaster strikes — your ship is attacked and destroyed, and you barely escape with your life. In the attack, Zoidzilla has been smashed into 12 pieces and scattered around the planet sure face. If you can find the pieces and re-build Big Z then you may still achieve your aim.
The terrain on the planet varies widely, and you will be provided with a variety of Zoids, each of which is suited to the particular tasks you have to undertake. But you will still have to rely on your skill and judgement to destroy any local opposition that you may encounter. You must fight and destroy the enemy red Zoids, not only to preserve your own soul but also because your Zoid needs energy, energy that can only be taken from other Zoids.
A Zoid is a machine... well, sort of. A Zoid is a machine that is so complex that it is more than a mere machine. It is very nearly alive. This element of life is something that EPC intend that you should experience to the full when playing the game. When you take control of a Zoid in the game you are connected up via the neuro-emphatic reflex arc to the Zoid itself. The idea is that your mind should merge with that of the Zoid; what you experience will not simply be through a visi-screen in a cockpit but more through an ‘eye’ into the Zoid’s own experiences. To be adept at control you must learn how to interpret the Zoid’s sensations and experiences. Your own powers of thought must dominate, and control, Zoid-thought. As the team puts it, ‘Live the game. Become the machine’.
There is no doubt that what EPC have here is much more than a 3D arcade shoot em up. First, the idea of being able to represent information in terms of how the programmers think the Zoid would interpret it and then forcing the gamer to interpret those patterns opens vast new areas for fresh ideas and techniques. Secondly, the game will be divided up into elements; some tasks will primarily require arcade skills, while others will require strategic and/or adventure skills. Rupert’s intention is that the game should bear more resemblance to a ‘science fiction film than a computer game.’ One final element EPC are toying with is the idea of restricting the level of information given by the instructions; in effect, if you want to command a Zoid you will just have to suss it out for yourself. That idea isn’t so new as Paul pointed out, Cauldron was packaged in the same way.
It was shortly after I had spread sugar across the table, in an attempt to provide the Zoids with a desert to make them feel more at home while I photographed them, that we got thrown out of the cafe. The rest of the interview had to be conducted in the street.
I wanted to know how long it would be before we could all be killing red Zoids at home. ‘Not KILL’, Rupert reprimanded me. ‘No?’ ‘No, definitely not kill. Kill is a banned word, anything but kill... destroy, mutilate, incapacitate, put out of action, rend apart — even tear in strips, anything but kill’. Well that seemed fair enough, after all if someone had seen fit to ban one little word, it wasn’t so unreasonable when there where many more alternatives available. Rupert continued his discourse. ‘You know toys with guns are banned in Germany? Well fortunately even though Zoids are bristling with the things they aren’t banned’. I wasn’t surprised. What customs officer was going to walk up to Zoidzilla with a clipboard as his only means of defence and say ‘Was denken Sie, Spielzeugwaffen sind hier nicht erlaubt, machen Sie dass Sie weg kommen’ (‘oi mate ’op it, no tooled up toys ’ere’!). ‘No it isn’t that’, Rupert persisted, ‘Zoids are fantasy toys and they don’t count’.
As I travelled back to Ludlow I toyed with a fantasy of my own. Maybe Graeme will let me play with his Zoid when I get home.