The computer games software field is fraught with pitfalls and lethal as a minefield to a speculating prospector. Prophets as powerful as Elijah would come undone in trying to safely predict when a game will actually appear. So Computer & Video Games must be forgiven their January issue’s confident assertion that January 15th was the day to be ready with £14.95 to purchase Melbourne House’s latest adventure game, the fabled Sherlock Holmes.
The latest date for releasing Sherlock Holmes now is ‘sometime in May,’ according to Paula Byrnes, the PR person for Melbourne House. A program of this scope can encounter all sorts of problems, especially when its author sets such high standards. The author is Philip Mitchell who wrote the Hobbit, the biggest selling adventure for the Spectrum of all time. That took Philip and his expert team some eighteen months to write and get ready for release. Sherlock Holmes, by all accounts is going to make the Hobbit look out of date. At the end of a long haul like that, it’s quite easy to be out on the estimated time of arrival by three or four months!
Melbourne House derives its name from the city in Australia where it is based. Formed in 1977 by Alfred Milgrom and Naomi Besen, the company exploited Milgrom’s knowledge of computer science and Besen’s marketing expertise to move them from being a general publishing company into one exclusively oriented around home computers. In August 1980 they published one of the first ever books for the personal computer market. It was 30 programs for the Sinclair ZX80, and was an overwhelming success. Since then Melbourne House has been responsible for a very wide range of books for several computers including titles like Spectrum Hardware Manual and Spectrum Microdrive Book.
Quite consistently, the two best selling Spectrum programs during 1983 were Mitchell’s Hobbit and a version of the arcade classic ‘Scramble’ game, Penetrator. In between then and now there has also been the worthy but less spectacular Terror-Daktil and the even worthier utility, Melbourne Draw. This month now sees the release of the long awaited game designer H.U.R.G., which is reviewed in detail shortly.
The success of the Hobbit was largely due to its artificial intelligence, present in a very primitive form, but mostly to its user-friendliness in the form of ‘Inglish’. Mitchell worked very hard on trying to make a program which would allow the player to speak to the computer in a more normal mode than is common with most other adventures — the verb/noun form (take lamp) or the verb/noun/conjunction/verb 2/ form (take lamp and light). Inglish allows for much longer sentences and Mitchell has remarked on the fact that with that flexibility built into the Hobbit, players still tend to under-use it, sticking to the verb/noun form. A data base in the program contains all the acceptable words and drives an applicator which applies the commands to the game. But it is the analyser which makes the whole thing tick. It takes the input through several checks that ensure that the words are in the program’s vocabulary, that the syntax makes sense in the game’s context and that they make sense in context of the game’s development to that point.
Sherlock Holmes is a whodunnit on a lavish scale, clues, suspects, foggy London streets are all there and a murder to be solved. Dr. Watson is on hand with his usual bonhomie, common sense and unhelpful advice, a contrast to Inspector Lestrade of the Yard, whom Holmes must first convince before apprehending the criminal can take place.
All this requires a great deal of conversation to take place between the participants in order to peel away the onion layers of mystery and confusion. For the game to work at all in a realistic manner the Inglish of the Hobbit has had to be refined and improved enormously.
One other main attraction of the Hobbit was the element of surprise in each game played, a result of the artificial intelligence. The characters in the adventure seemed to have a life of their own — they didn’t always do the same thing twice. Their lives went on independently of the game’s progress, sometimes turning up dead when you next encountered them as if some disaster had overtaken them while your back was turned. This aspect, too, has had to be refined to give Sherlock Holmes the playing appeal needed to keep adventurers coming back for more.
All this work isn’t undertaken solely by Philip Mitchell. In effect he heads a team which includes another programmer, Veronica Megher, Stuart Richie, the designer of Inglish, and Sarah Byrnes, a Holmes expert who is writing the story line. The whole is presided over by Alfred Milgrom under Melbourne’s warm Australian sun.
Meanwhile, under Britain’s rainy skies, the London end of Melbourne House has just moved into its new offices in Richmond where UK Sales Director Christine Laugharne and Paula Byrnes are busy getting ready for the huge demand for H.U.R.G. The new games designer should do a lot more than brighten our wintry days and fill in the hours until Sherlock arrives in a mist-shrouded Baker Street. H.U.R.G., which stands for High Level User-Friendly Real Time Games Designer, is a highly flexible and comprehensive program which can be used for designing your own games. It has been written and developed by William Tang and is now reviewed in detail by Franco Frey.
Ever thought you were born to become the million-making, hyped and idolised games author of all times, but unfortunately lacking in the small detail of not comprehending black machine code magic, well, what the hex, here’s your chance to join the small elite world of binary and mnemonic whizkids who light up the vast Spectrum of our games universe.
The magic potion doesn’t come in a six pack, but consists of a single cassette and extensive manual. As the doctor would say, ‘take in small dosages and the medicine will remedy your handicap and change your lifestyle as a side effect.’
All stars have humble beginnings and you will be no exception to the rule. After loading HURG your best option will be to load via HURG main menu one of the three sample games programs supplied with the cassette. MANICKOALA is a scaled down version of Manic you know who and demonstrates the abilities of HURG to the hilt.
If you can unhook yourself from this addictive game, you will be able to explore the edit menu, which at first glance may resemble your regular adventure game. Have no fear, intrepid explorer, as absolutely every single facility is menu driven and your intelligence is only tested with simple yes/no and quantity questions. In fact HURG can be manipulated by Kempston joystick if so desired.
As you change each individual feature of the game, you may return to main menu and select to play game to inspect immediately the effect of the particular modification. Eventually you will not recognise the original MANICKOALA for all the radical and devastating changes and this will mean that you are very near to knowing HURG as intimately as your pocket. In fact you will already have transformed yourself into Prince Charming and are ready to kiss to life the most lovely creatures and creations of software land.
Develop in your mind the scenario of your first masterpiece taking into account the player, the objects, the screen and background details and special effects. In effect you should end up with a script for your new creation.
Next prepare the background screen to the game using one of the many screen drawings utilities such as the Trojan Lightpen (reviewed this month), Paintbox (reviewed last month) or Melbourne Draw with its excellent detail magnification facility. Whatever way you develop your background, it should end up as a screen dump on tape for later use.
Load HURG and enter edit mode. Select load background and load the earlier prepared screen file from tape. The action can now be programmed.
HURG allows up to four games variations or stages, where the background remains the same, but the movement and actions of player and objects may vary.
Select normal game. The size, shape and animation of the player will have to be designed and to this purpose you select the player menu. Up to eight frames (or sprites) are available and can be used for one movement direction only or split up into up to four directions. The shape generator is excellent and displays the player magnified and in original size, caters for mirror image and animation sequencing of the frames. The animation to displacement ratio may easily be adjusted visually during the movement display and can thus be optimised. There is even the option of continuous movement of the player (runaway robot).
Next the collision table has to be programmed: No go, go, eat and crash are programmed according to the ink and paper values of the character to be occupied by the player. This sets the relation of the player to the surroundings and the moving objects.
Next game start and stop conditions have to be programmed. Decide on initial position and moving direction of the player during regeneration delay time, existence of objects, amount of lives and limited duration are further variables. The movement of the player may be restricted in any of the four directions and the player may be subjected to gravity in any of four directions.
Boundaries may be set up for restricting the movement of the player within a specified area of the screen and wrap around movement may be selected within these restricted areas. The selection is facilitated by the display of the movement grid over the existing background screen.
Up to three different sized explosions and their colour and relative positions to the players can be selected for when a crash or collision occurs.
Special events may be considered by indicating the collision condition, what the effect of the event is (eat, crash, special score) and whether the change is permanent or of limited duration. The player’s way of life is now established. But the player may well find life boring in the set surroundings. To prevent him or her from dozing off to sleep up to eight different objects (friends or foes) will have to be created. The objects are treated similar to the player: the object menu follows the same pattern as the player menu, but has in addition a movement pattern selection, as the objects are not under the control of the games player. The objects may be programmed to mimic the player or one of the other objects, move randomly, in a straight line (four directions), move towards or away from the player or other objects or along a user defined path. There are eight possible paths which may be accessed and programmed directly from the edit menu and can be made very complex. Up to four paths may be linked up in sequence to create extremely complicated routes.
So far the background, the player and objects and all their movements have been programmed. To help with the odds and to make the game attractive obviously our player must be given a special weapon, which is under the control of the games player’s fire button: The fire button action menu caters for three different options: No fire action, player shoot and player jump action. Selection of the shoot action calls up the player bullet generation program, which is an exact copy of the object generator.
The player jump facility consists of a jump path generator which works similar to the user defined path of the objects. A maximum character fall height may be specified.
Once happy with the normal game stage you should proceed to the other three variations or stages of the game, which require the same programming procedure. The main body of the game will then be completed.
Returning to the edit menu there are still three unused facilities for completing the games design:
The new frame conditions: A new frame may occur if either all objects are non existent (after a shoot out) or after a definable delay (Countdown).
Scoring: A game without a point system is like a fruit machine without a pay out. Points for eating, object deaths and new frames start bonuses should cater for the most mathematical of games players.
Title page: Probably the most restrictive feature of HURG is the title page, which will only allow for text display. It would have been a nice feature to be able to load a screen title picture in a similar manner as with the background. As a bonus though the animated player and objects may be positioned selectively on the title page and will give a hint of things to come.
It is difficult to find fault with such a complete games generation program. Nonetheless two major handicaps become apparent: No provision has been made for music-lovers and noise addicts. This is obviously a move back to the classic silent era. A set of standard noises and tunes could have filled the apparent audio gap.
The other handicap became apparent when trying to load one of the sample games programs without having loaded HURG first. The games produced by HURG cannot be run independently without HURG. This destroys any idea of making fame and fortune with the resulting masterpiece. Big commercial software successes are best left to the professional machine coder...