Another time, another space. Chris Bourne reaches Level 9
PETE AUSTIN contemplates an empty beermug in a High Wycombe pub, trying to decide whether he wants another half before he leaves. In doing so he displays the same measured concentration that his victims in alien worlds must employ to avoid sudden death from any one of a myriad traps.
For Pete is the king of British adventure, the driving force behind Level 9 Software. His company has won a name for text adventures in the classic tradition - Colossal Adventure, Lords of Time, Snowball - vast games of 200 or more locations, with more puzzles than was believed possible on a standard home micro.
Pete's interest in fantasy games goes back to the days of graph paper and dice. At school he became involved with table-top wargaming, sending battalions of Sherman tanks across the chipboard to flush out the German armoured defences.
Later, at Cambridge University, where he studied Psychology and later Computer Science, he discovered Dungeons and Dragons, the fantasy role-playing game.
You can tell from the way Pete talks about the game that he was once a dedicated fan, whatever occupies his time now. He and his friends also played a game called Empire of the Petal Throne. "In the evenings we either played D&D or we went down to the pub and played Petal Throne."
Computing began with a course at Cambridge "which was really just an excuse to stay there for an extra year." On finally dragging himself away from the ivory towers, Pete set off in search of fame and fortune. He became a programming consultant and worked for 18 months on an enquiry package for banks and suchlike. No glittering prizes for young Pete Austin.
"You don't get much choice about your next package," he says. "I got put on an accounting package. There had already been 50 people working on it. You end up writing very defensive code. I didn't fancy that as a full-time job."
Pete moved to mainframe manufacturer Perkin-Elmer. He had lost touch with his D&D friends but discovered, to his lasting joy, a version of the original Crowther and Woods Adventure program on the main computer there. "We played it during the lunch hours. There had been a number of simpler games on the computer at Cambridge, based on the D&D format. Adventure was full of puzzles, many of which were extremely unfair. I cracked it in two weeks."
He smiles at the memory. Two weeks to beat Adventure? Most people take six months. Pete is still proud of the achievement.
Pete has two younger brothers, Nicholas and Michael, and a sister Margaret. While he was still working for Perkin-Elmer, he and the brothers formed Level 9 in order to utilise their combined computing expertise. Nicholas studied computer science at London university and Michael is currently reading engineering at Southampton. "He doesn't need to do it," says Pete. "He could teach it instead."
Margaret joined later to take over marketing, and recently their father John, having retired from the BBC, came in on the act, soon to become managing director.
Do you remember the Nascom? It was one of the first home micros, in the days of kits and small RAMs. Pete bought a Nascom, and Level 9's first program was an extension to Nascom Basic. It sold well. In those days business was good with sales of 500 or more.
The first game, also for the Nascom, was called Fantasy. Pete says it was like Valhalla but with no graphics. "There were a lot of characters wandering around who changed according to your actions. What I did was to make it print out in proper English. I'm interested in the user interface, what used to be called front-end programming."
Indeed, the series of adventures which has since flowed from Level 9 is renowned for high standards of plot and literate description, in spite of notorious spelling mistakes. Pete is irked by 'climable' which still remains in Colossal Adventure, despite numerous corrections to each new edition.
Colossal Adventure, a faithful version of the Crowther and Woods original, took about a year to produce, and was written for the BBC and Spectrum simultaneously. The cramped office at Level 9 has three BBC micros as well as an IBM PC. No Spectrums were in evidence, although Pete insisted there were plenty about.
Level 9 uses a standard adventure writing system for its products, which was designed by Pete himself. "Michael then coded it using the a-code language which he invented for the purpose. I did the text compression section. We brought out Colossal because there were no adventure games around of a decent size. I thought it must be possible to do it in less than 32K. I saw it as a way of getting back into fantasy wargaming."
To squeeze what was originally a 200K mainframe program into 32K, and then to add an extra 70 locations just for the fun of it, was no mean feat. Pete's text compressor has been a feature of all Level 9's mammoth adventures. It works by running through all the messages and searching for common strings.
For example, 'ing' might occur frequently. The compressor replaces 'ing' with a single code wherever it occurs. That done, it goes through again, and again, each time saving more space. "It doesn't always pick up what you'd expect it to," explains Pete. In the phrase 'in the room' the compressor might decide that it was more efficient to use a code for 'n th' and 'e r' rather than pick out 'in' and 'the'. That is not something which occurs to the human mind.
The system has been rewritten to create graphics as well. Level 9 can now store a picture in about 30 bytes, using a similar method to the text compressor. That means a 200 location adventure - the minimum Pete will allow - can have a picture for each location for only another 6K of RAM.
Not content with these two areas, the a-code compiler even compacts Basic program lines. "Most Basic systems have keywords which use a single byte," explains Pete. "We go further. We take out the arguments so that each Basic instruction only uses two or three bytes.
Colossal Adventure was followed by two sequels, Adventure Quest and Dungeon Adventure, collectively known as the Middle Earth Trilogy, referring to Tolkien's mythical setting for the Lord of the Rings. "Trilogies help. Adventure Quest sells as people play Colossal. Middle Earth was a convenient fantasy setting. It was a way of telling people the type of world they were getting."
For the next project, Pete decided to switch to science fiction and began to create the Silicon Dreams trilogy. "There are far too many generalised fantasy games," he says. "The authors are OD-ing on sword and sorcery novels."
The first SF game, Snowball, featured 8000 locations and involved spaceperson Kim Kimberley in a giant space station dangerously out of control. Is the androgynous Kim a man or woman? Pete says she's a woman, while sister Margaret says he's a man. Pete considers the point. "No, there's a credit at the end for the design of 'Ms Kimberley's costume'."
Was the ambiguous picture of Kim in the instruction booklet deliberately vague? "It's very accurate," says Pete. "I got the artist, Tim, to draw women the way they are, not exaggerating various features. But it was a deliberately unisex name."
Pete explains that about a third of the people who write to the company are women. "I'm aware of the female audience. I always try to write non-sexist prose."
He goes into some detail on the design of Kim's costume, and why the leotard would make a fine spacesuit in the right sort of material. It is typical of the man that he should have considered such problems. The Silicon Dreams trilogy is meticulously plotted and designed, with features and history stretching well beyond the confines of the game itself.
"SF books I like the most are those where people have paid attention to detail. I don't mean like Arthur C. Clarke where what you get is more like an engineering manual, but authors like Larry Niven if you make certain assumptions about things like ramships then it all hangs together.
"A game is more like a play than a novel - it has a similar number of words. I would like to put more in than puzzles. Most other adventure descriptions just link puzzles together. It doesn't cost much in memory space to create a logical world."
Pete tells of one nit-picking reviewer who spotted an error in the detail. "Apparently Eden, the planet, is orbiting Eridani E instead of Eridani A," he says, explaining that Eridani E is the wrong type of star. Or is it A? "No one gives a damn except this reviewer. But Worm in Paradise will change that. I shall explain how the planet moved. The game ends with mankind getting to the stars via an alien transportation system."
Worm in Paradise is to be the final part of the trilogy, the second, Return to Eden, was released late last year. In that, Kim must battle against deadly plant life and evade the rogue robots of the colony planet, who believe her to be a saboteur for her attempts to save the space station in the first game, Snowball.
"Worm is set on Eden, about 50 years in the future," says Pete. "The player is not Kim - she becomes mayor and runs the place. She defeats the plans of the robots, to make the colonists have lots of babies to colonise the Universe. I looked at the original and thought it was as anti-feminist as you could get, so I thought to redress the balance. Because you know less than real people would about our society, I have the player escape from an asylum. It explains why you don't know anything and have no possessions." Thoughtful of you, Pete.
Meanwhile, rather than become stuck in the rut of trilogies, with each game taking about six months to design and program, Level 9 has also been branching out into other areas. The light-hearted Erik the Viking, based on ex-Python Terry Jones' children's book, was written for Mosaic, a publishing house which is branching into software, "Erik was nice," says Pete. "It was a complete break for me."
"It was nicer for me," interjects Margaret. "I don't have to sell the thing."
Following the success of Erik, Mosaic has commissioned Pete to design a game based on the best-selling Diaries of Adrian Mole. How will Level 9 translate the obnoxiously sophisticated 13¾ year old to the digital screen?
"It will be a multi-part game with an enormous amount of text. This is not a promise, but I would like about half a megabyte of text. It will be on twin cassettes. The game will have to have a definite sense of time. You won't be able to go back and buy flowers for your mum if you forgot. People will behave in the same way from section to section, depending on your actions. The object of the game will be to make Adrian Mole popular - not just with his girlfriend Pandora but with the whole world."
If that sounds ambitious, Pete has even bigger plans for 1986. "By the end of this year I want to be much nearer to soap opera. I don't mean like Adrian Mole - those are caricatures.
I want characters to be more real, like Floyd in Planetfall by Infocom." That includes storylines which induce emotion, such as feeling sad if a character gets hurt.
In the meantime, releases for the near future include Red Moon and The Price of Magic. Red Moon will depart from the problem-solving style of Level 9 and use fantasy role-playing combat and magic systems to produce a more open-ended game. "It will have an enormous number of pictures all fairly similar to each other. Players of Runequest will recognise it.
"The Price of Magic will be based on the Cthulhu mythos from the stories of H P Lovecraft. Your sanity decreases as you increase your score. You can only do certain things if you are sane. If you are too insane you won't be able to go outdoors."
It sounds like a description of a fanatic Level 9 adventurer ...