Friday, 24 July 2015

ZX Open World Part 1 (revised)

More retro-memories.

I was reading about No Man's Sky and Outerra Anteworld the other day and - apart from being blown away by the sheer audacity of scale - it brought home to me how out of touch I've got with gaming. This thing looks absolutely incredible. It looks like it could be the game that I've been dreaming of since about 1985, but vastly larger and more complex than I ever thought could be done.

Outerra Anteworld: one view from one angle of
one tiny part of a planet, all apparently procedurally-generated
Basically, the concept behind my dream game, as I envisaged it in 1985, was the creation of a virtual world which could be explored and examined at every level. It would have lots of objects in it, with different sizes, weights and properties, so a proper physics engine would be essential for it all to interact logically. So, if you were on foot, outside a house, you would be able to go into the house (assuming an unlocked door) and explore its rooms. If the living room had a TV in it, you would be able to turn it on and change channels; you would be able to open all the drawers in the kitchen and examine things found inside the drawers, and so on.

You'd be able to pick things up and carry them around, but again it would all have to be logical - you could conceivably carry one or two televisions, but not ten; however, you would be able to load ten televisions into a car, or onto a cart, and move them that way.

That was about it really, there wouldn't necessarily be any objective beyond exploring and finding things (actually the way I describe it above, "stealing things" would probably be more apt). The point wasn't about making a specific type of game anyway, it was about simulating a world in which any and all games could then subsequently take place, possibly at the same time.

Probably because I was young and technology seemed to be moving so fast, and because there were games already in existence that contained the basic elements of my dream game, I was convinced that it would happen...oh, definitely within ten years. I wasn't daft enough to think it could be done on a Spectrum, but I was daft enough to think that I'd be playing some sort of version of it on whatever future super-Spectrums we'd be using in 1995 (ahem).

OK, that didn't quite turn out the way I'd envisaged, but there were some really interesting games released for the Spectrum that can be seen as moving towards this grand concept I had - either by making programming advances that would be necessary, or by containing some of the elements required - even if they inevitably would fall short of the concept in my could they not? A world in 48K was only ever going to be a very limited world.

This post might end up being very long; I was going to try to do a brief history of open world games on the ZX Spectrum, but when I came to think about it, there are too many strands to include and still keep it relatively brief, so I'm just going to concentrate on the style of arcade-style controlled open world game that we're familiar with now (the real open world games in early computing were all text adventures and that's a whole other subject).

In 1983, when I got my ZX Spectrum, the closest thing to an open world game was probably something like Ant Attack. Although being set in a walled city - so more of a closed world game, really - it had the ethos of an open world game, in that you could follow the objectives of the game if you wanted, but crucially you could just run around and explore and have fun if you wanted to.

Hey honey, bet you're glad we came to Giant Crazy
Killer Ant World on our honeymoon, huh?
It was actually a great game too, primitive though it looks now (once you were used to the finicky rotate-move forward control system).

Plus - in an era when it was assumed that girls just didn't play games - you could play as either a male or female character. That was really going against the grain in those days - it was unusual to be given a choice of character at all - and on the odd occasion a game offered it, the choices were generally things like warrior, knight, warlock, wizard, serf, that sort of thing, i.e. all male.

That said, it was only a gimmick here, it didn't actually change the gameplay. The only change was cosmetic - a few judiciously-placed pixels on the character you controlled - but the principle was novel.

Hot zombie on zombie action amidst the colour clash

There was a follow-up the following year called Zombie Zombie, based on the same game engine (by Sandy White, a real pioneer of this sort of thing), but it could never hope to have the same impact as Ant Attack. After all, it was 1984 now and callow youths were not so easily impressed. It did have a helicopter in it though, which you could get into and fly in order to lead zombies off tall buildings and so on, thus introducing another key open world concept - modes of transport - you could run around on foot, then get in the helicopter, fly it, and crucially, leave it anywhere to come back to and fly again.

Elite for the Spectrum - too little, too late

If Ant Attack was a distant predecessor of the GTA-style format, then its analogue in space was Elite. But Elite was a Commodore 64 and BBC Micro (of all things) game! I only had a Spectrum so I never really played it (by the time it eventually appeared for the Spectrum, it was late 1985 and things had moved on apace).

Again though, it was important in that - as far as I can recall - it was one of the first games to use the concept of procedurally generating a large reproducible 3D game space with defined objects and characters to explore and interact with; a standard now, but hard to do in 48K.

Lords of Midnight - over 31,000 distinct views from any
 angle...all of them the same (joking, it was great)

Though it doesn't really fit with my theme, I should really mention Mike Singleton's Lords of Midnight and Doomdark's Revenge here, as he was the king of the vast procedurally-generated landscape game on the Spectrum.

I can't go into this in much more detail because I always found his stuff a bit impenetrable, but others swore by it. For me, I could never get over the impression that most of the locations were so similar as to be impossible to tell apart, so I never really got the sensation of exploration which I think is key to this sort of game. There was to be a final part of the trilogy called Eye Of The Moon, but I don't think it ever appeared (possibly it ended up becoming Midwinter).

So that was pretty much the scale of it towards the end of 1984.

Then Ultimate released Knight Lore.

There were other, bigger games, and isometric 3D games weren't new, but it was the feel of solidity to the graphics that was the breakthrough here. The addition of (very rudimentary) physics made it feel like a real world, with movable and immovable objects, which was pretty good for the end of 1984. And while not huge (128 rooms rings a bell) it was large enough to get lost in. We were getting there, or so it seemed, but then everything got a bit confused.

The huge success of Knight Lore meant that seemingly every software house then went on a mad rush to get their own clone of it out. Coincidentally, Marble Madness was big in the arcades at the time, and a lot of software houses were also working on their own ripoffs of that. Cue an absolute slew of isometric 3D games, some good, some bad, some bloody awful.

Spindizzy: not at all like
Marble Madness, honest guv
Gyroscope: even less like that
 Marble Madness game, honest guv

It didn't help that - as it turned out (although not revealed until years later) - Ultimate had actually had Knight Lore ready to go a full year earlier, but held it back to sell more of their other games. Well, you could hardly blame them. They were so far ahead of the opposition that it would have been madness to put Knight Lore out ahead of Sabre Wulf.

In fact, Knight Lore was pretty much the extent of what Ultimate's two main programmers (Chris and Tim Stamper) thought they could get out of the Spectrum and they were already planning to move on (which they did, forming Rare Ltd. and making shitloads of money). Ultimate did continue to put out games for the Spectrum, but other programmers were responsible and the quality definitely dipped.

Part 2 soon, with any luck...

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