Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Merry Pranksters of Automata

The Piman and Uncle Groucho

I closed my last article by noting that Ultimate Play the Game’s works can feel just a bit soulless to me with their slickness and unrelenting commercial focus — an opinion I’m sure many of you don’t share. Well, rest assured that I can’t attach any such complaint to my subject for today.

Automata UK was the creation of a pair of agitators named Mel Croucher and Christian Penfold who became the Merry Pranksters of the early British software industry, mixing absurdist humor with the DIY ethos of punk rock and more than a hint of an agitprop sensibility. Whatever else you care to say about them, you certainly can’t call them slick or commercial. Their works and their rhetoric harkened back to older utopian dreams for personal computing as a means to universal empowerment for all — dreams immersed in the ideals of the counterculture and promoted in the likes of the People’s Computer Company newsletter and the early issues of Creative Computing. With home computing taking off in Britain and the traditional forces of business and culture getting involved in a big way, those dreams were already beginning to sound quaint and anachronistic by the time Automata peaked in 1983 and 1984. Possessed as they were of about the level of business acumen you might expect from a pair of self-described “old hippies,” they were doomed from the start. Still, they had one hell of a lot of fun while they lasted.

Croucher was a disillusioned architect coming off a stint working under Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum to construct the modern Dubai. He’d also worked as a cartographer, played bass in rock bands, and briefly entertained the idea of becoming a painter. If Croucher was the would-be artist and visionary, Penfold was, relatively speaking, the more grounded; he’d sold everything from cars to plants to advertising space amidst various other jobs. Like many fruitful partnerships, they weren’t always sympatico with one another. Croucher declared that he was “to the left of Tony Benn” while Penfold was “to the right of Enoch Powell“: “That’s why it works — otherwise we’d come in in the morning and agree!”

Automata was founded circa 1977 on Croucher’s Dubai windfall. Like Melbourne House, it wasn’t initially conceived as a game or software developer, as is betrayed by the original full name: “Automata Cartography.” Capitalizing on Croucher’s background in cartography, they made tourist-friendly informational brochures and maps for the likes of the Sealink ferry service and British Airways. Those soon morphed into audio travel guides and promotions for foreign hotels as well as radio spots. Their guide to their home base of Portsmouth, narrated in the persona of, of all people, Charles Dickens, was heard by every tourist who booked a pleasure cruise around the harbor. They even produced some feature radio programming, such as a quiz program for Radio Victory that Penfold described as “rather like University Challenge without the brains.”

Mel Croucher and Christian Penfold, 1983

Mel Croucher and Christian Penfold, 1983

They were aboard a ferry on the English Channel, returning from working on a production for Sealink in the Channel Islands, when Croucher told Penfold about the Sinclair ZX81 computer he had just purchased, his first exposure to computing since the 1960s, when he’d struggled to teach the big machine at his university how to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and flash its lights in rhythm. He’d seen advertisements for computer games in magazines for £4 or £5, a princely sum compared to what he and Penfold were used to getting paid for their work. And he recognized that the world stood on an artistic precipice.

I knew that computers were not for performing business functions at all, but would transform everything I was involved in. I was absolutely convinced that computers would facilitate the convergence of film, book, theatre and music, with the added miracle of interactivity.

Having learned from his struggles with ALGOL in earlier decades that he wasn’t much of a programmer, he asked Penfold if he’d like to take up the task, to implement his (Croucher’s) many ideas; Penfold seemed like he would have a better mind for the task. Penfold, as Croucher has delighted in telling interviewers ever since, promptly threw up — not in reaction to the idea, but because the crossing was rough and he was prone to seasickness. On that auspicious note, the new venture was born.

Options were of course decidedly limited on the ZX81 with its 1 K of memory. So Croucher and Penfold would put ten mini-games onto a cassette, each necessarily trivial in itself but building as a collection to address some overarching theme. Both reacted viscerally to violence in games even in this era when that meant no more than onscreen blobs knocking off other onscreen blobs. “If there is such a thing as an alien, it doesn’t want to come down to earth and get killed,” noted Croucher. “I have yet to find an arcade game where there is a full trial at the start,” rejoined Penfold. Croucher later put it even more strongly: “I think people who create violent games are lazy, ignorant, and have poodle shit for brains.” Thus Automata’s games from first to last would be resolutely nonviolent.

Yet that didn’t keep them from offending in other ways, as evidenced by their aptly named first tape, Can of Worms, with its “piss takes” (Croucher’s words) involving acne, vasectomies, Hitler, and Reagan, and featuring a Space Invaders satire along with Royal Flush, an anti-monarchy screed which, yes, does involve a toilet. It all seemed to Croucher the appropriate response to those combative early years of Thatcher’s reign, times of “repression, depression, recession, and political mayhem.” Some reviewers were predictably outraged, accusing Automata of “peddling pornography to kids” (exactly the sort of reaction, one senses, that Croucher and Penfold were hoping for). Others took it all more casually; Eric Deeson noted bemusedly in Your Computer that Can of Worms “must suffice for readers with bad taste until something more revolting appears.” Croucher and Penfold obligingly tried to up the ante with Love and Death, a progression from fertilization to death (a theme to which they would eventually return for their most famous work) and The Bible, always a subject guaranteed to enrage. All were storyboarded by Croucher and then programmed by Penfold in crude BASIC, which he bragged was like his poetry — “unstructured.”

When the Spectrum appeared and sold like crazy, Automata, like most software houses, quickly made the switch to the new machine with its color graphics and luxurious 48 K of memory. They came into their own with their first game for the Speccy, the most commercially successful they would ever release. Pimania is an illustrated text adventure involving the Piman, a pink fellow with a grotesquely huge nose whose relationship to the player lives on some uncertain ground between ally and antagonist. Croucher had based him on a neighbor, “a deadpan poet with a great Scottish accent and peculiar vocal delivery.” He quickly became Automata’s mascot. Children took to calling the office wanting to speak to him; Croucher or Penfold obligingly played the part. He starred in a comic strip drawn by Robin Evans which ran on the back cover of every issue of Popular Computing Weekly. And he became a beloved presence at shows and other events, with Penfold usually inside the costume. Penfold:

He is an escape — an extension of our own personalities — all the nice and nasty bits rolled into one. But now he no longer just exists in our minds. He is real. He has his own character.

As for the game itself, the first puzzle tells you just about everything you need to know about what you’re in for. The opening screen simply says, “A key turns the lock,” then refuses to do anything else until you figure out that it wants you to press the Spectrum’s PI key. After that you get to work out that navigation is based not on the usual compass directions but the hands of a clock. And then things start to get difficult. Depending on how you look at it and how charitable you’re feeling, Pimania is either a surrealistic but tough-as-nails old-school adventure game, a confused and confusing and essentially unsolvable effort all too typical of beginning designers and programmers writing their first adventure, or a piece of sadistic satire sending up the absurdities of early adventure games.

Whatever its virtues or flaws, Pimania sold quite well, largely on the back of the Piman’s inexplicable popularity and a brilliant promotional idea. This was inspired by Kit Williams’s 1979 children’s book Masquerade, which encoded within it the location of a hare made out of gold and jewels and buried in a secret location somewhere in England. Thousands scoured the book for clues to the golden hare’s whereabouts until an intrepid seeker finally recovered it almost three years after publication. The book itself became a bestseller.

The Golden Sundial of Pi

The Golden Sundial of Pi

Croucher and Penfold commissioned De Beers Diamond International Award winner Barbara Tipple to make a Golden Sundial of Pi out of gold, lapis lazuli, obsidian, and diamond, at a claimed price of an extraordinary £6000. Winning Pimania would provide the clues as to where and, crucially, when to show up to claim the prize; only one day of the year would suffice.

Contests were quickly becoming de rigueur for almost every major adventure-game release in Britain, but few attracted the attention and passion of this one. And yet the Pimania mystery went unsolved, even though Penfold’s BASIC was an accessible target for would-be code divers. As months stretched into years, some began darkly hinting that maybe there wasn’t actually a Golden Sundial at all, that the whole thing was an elaborate practical joke being played on the gaming public — which admittedly would fit right into Automata’s public persona, but would also be unspeakably cruel. One poor fellow, convinced he’d cracked the code, even made plans to jet off to Bethlehem for Christmas. When Penfold and Croucher got wind of that, they were kind enough to tell him through the press that he was on the wrong track; I don’t know whether he believed them or went off anyway. The rather more accessible Stonehenge was a favorite target of many others, while yet more, having worked out a connection to Pegasus, visited seemingly everything everywhere having anything to do with horses. All for naught.

Uncle Groucho (Croucher) and the Piman (Penfold)

Uncle Groucho (Croucher) and the Piman (Penfold)

Even as the Pimania mystery remained unsolved, Automata launched a new contest to go with their next adventure, which bore the intimidating title of My Name is Uncle Groucho… You Win a Fat Cigar. As trippy as its predecessor, it had players chasing Groucho Marx — who now became Croucher’s alter ego to join Penfold in his Piman suit — around the United States. It was all surreal enough that it led interviewer Tristan Donovan recently to ask Croucher whether “drugs were a factor.” Croucher insists that he and Penfold were running on nothing stronger than beer and cigarettes.

This time the contest at least was a bit more conventional. The first player to identify a celebrity from clues provided in the game would win a trip to Hollywood on the Concorde and passage back home on the QE2. This one had an actual winner in relatively short order, one Phil Daley of Stoke-on-Trent. The celebrity in question, it turned out, was Mickey Mouse.

Piman and Friends

In addition to their own games, Croucher and Penfold also published quite a number of titles which they received from outside programmers. Each would be retrofitted into Automata’s ever-growing lore, which soon included a cast of characters largely drawn from the comic strip, with names like Ooncle Arthur, Swettibitz, and (my favorite) Lady Clair Sinclive. Each outside submission got an appropriately Automatatized new name, usually an awful pun: Pi-Balled, Pi-Eyed, Pi in the Sky. And each also got a theme song on the other side of the cassette, recorded on a little studio setup in Croucher’s front room. On these Croucher, who was something of a frustrated rock star, could run wild. The results are some weird amalgamation of musique concrète, New Wave synth-pop, a Monty Python sketch, and Croucher’s personal hero Frank Zappa. Or, for another set of comparisons: Your Computer called the track below (included with the Groucho game) “a curious fusion of a Mark Knopfler vocal and Depeche Mode backing, with a Bonzo Dog Band playout.”


And then came 1984 and Croucher’s magnum opus, Deus Ex Machina. He largely retired from Merry Prankstering for some six months to pour his heart and soul into it. He described it not as an Automata project proper but a “personal indulgence.” He believed he was creating Art, as well as the future of computerized entertainment:

I thought that by the mid-1980s ALL cutting-edge computer games would be like interactive movies, with proper structures, real characters, half-decent original stories, an acceptable soundtrack, a variety of user-defined narratives and variable outcomes. So I thought I’d better get in first, and produce the computer-game equivalent to Metropolis and Citizen Kane before the bastards started churning out dross. I wanted individuals to become totally immersed in the piece.

Penfold recognized Deus Ex Machina as “the crescendo of an idea” for Croucher, “an emotional achievement.”

Croucher had the idea of synchronizing a soundtrack to a computer game, to create an integrated, multimedia experience well before that word was in common usage. Because the Spectrum’s sound capabilities were rudimentary at best, the soundtrack would come on a separate cassette which the player must play at the same time as the game. The theme would be worthy of a prog-rock concept album: the journey of an individual through Shakespeare’s Seven Stages of Man in a vaguely dystopian postmodern world of mechanization, media saturation, and “Defect Police.” Perhaps it didn’t make a whole lot of literal sense — you’re somehow born from a dropping left behind by the last mouse on earth “as the nerve gas eased its sphincter” — but that hadn’t stopped Tommy or The Wall, had it?

The soundtrack, some 45 minutes in length, was mostly recorded by Croucher at home; he would have loved to have put a “half-decent band” together, but finances wouldn’t allow. He was, however, determined to get some well-known voices to feature on it, and to record them properly. He therefore booked precious time in a big London studio.

He recruited Frankie Howerd, an old-school showman and perennial on the British comedic circuit known if not always loved by everyone in Britain in the same way as a Rodney Dangerfield or Gallagher in the United States, to play the role of the head of the Defect Police, a “terrifying idiot.” (“It turned out that the real thing would eventually appear in the form of George W. Bush, but let’s not get into that.”) Howerd showed little understanding or interest in the project. He did his job — no more, no less.

More enthusiastic was former Doctor Who Jon Pertwee as the master of ceremonies. He angered everyone by arriving two hours late for his session, but explained that he’d fallen off his motorcycle on the way over and literally limped in as quickly as he could, bruised and still in leathers. All was forgiven, especially when he did a brilliant job. He and Croucher became fast friends, so much so that they later wrote a book together full of absurdist ramblings.

Croucher first wanted Patrick Moore, an eccentric popularizer of astronomy who was sort of the British Carl Sagan, complete with unforgettable tics that made him a television natural, to play the part of a sperm — “that would have been utterly surreal.” But when that fell through, he lucked into pub rocker Ian Dury of “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” fame. Dury “hated what mainstream games were offering kids,” and was excited to work on an alternative.

For the female voice of the machine, Dury recommended Marianne Faithfull, but she “was buried in drugs and we couldn’t get a meeting together.” After a bid for pop diva Hazel O’Connor also fell through, Croucher settled on a local singer named Donna Bailey, who wound up contributing the best singing on the soundtrack by far. The choir from nearby Warblington School also popped in to provide some “Another Brick in the Wall”-style vocals.

The game that accompanied all this was programmed to Croucher’s specifications by Andrew Stagg, a “boy genius” assembly coder he had discovered. It consists of a series of simple action games synchronized to the soundtrack. Your goal, such as it is, is to keep your “degree of ideal entity” as high as possible; each mistake in the games costs you percentage points. However, play continues inexorably onward no matter how badly you screw up, an obvious limitation of syncing a non-interactive soundtrack to an allegedly interactive experience. Then again, maybe that’s for the best: the games are not only of rather limited interest but also brutally difficult. I’ve never seen anyone get to the end with anything other than the worst possible score of 0%. For Croucher, the score wasn’t the point anyway:

The metaphor of the score is incidental, and I hoped people would interpret it to suit themselves. Do nothing — you’ll never win. Do everything right — you’ll feel good for a while, you’ll be regarded well according to society’s rules, but you’ll still never win. However, as the man [on the soundtrack] says — Imagine if this was nothing more than a computer game and we could start our lives all over again, and do it better. That was the only meaning really.

I have some problems with Deus Ex Machina and the rhetoric deployed around it, which we’ll get to momentarily, but when it works it can approach the total immersion Croucher was striving for, gameplay and music blending into a seamless whole. “The Lover” is a particular favorite, a gentle ballad, well sung by Bailey, that morphs into something more disturbing along with the game on the screen.

Despite good reviews by writers who admittedly weren’t entirely sure what to make of a piece of unabashed multimedia art sandwiched into their usual diet of Jet Set Willy and Manic Miner, despite being released just in time for the big Christmas buying season, sales were about as close to nonexistent as they could conceivably be. By February, some five months on from release, just 700 copies had been sold on the Spectrum; a more recent port to the Commodore 64 had sold all of twelve. Still, Deus Ex Machina won “Program of the Year” from the Computer Trade Association that February. But it was now, as a profile in Sinclair User from this period put it, “an angry, bitter world” for Automata, the easygoing insanity of Groucho and the Piman replaced by uglier sentiments. Penfold dropped all of the jokey pretensions at his acceptance speech to voice his opinion of the state of a changed industry in no uncertain terms.

He and Croucher blamed Deus Ex Machina‘s failure entirely on new systems of software distribution. When they had gotten into the business back in 1981, software was sold mostly via mail-order advertisements in the hobbyist magazines, with the remainder being sold directly to the handful of computer shops scattered around the country. This approach became untenable, however, when computers came to the High Street and the big vanilla chains like Boots and W.H. Smith got into the game. As in virtually every other retail industry, distributors stepped in to act as the middle men between the publishers and the final points of sale. With far more software being produced by 1984 than they could possibly handle, these could afford to be selective; indeed, they would say their survival depended upon it. They carefully evaluated each game sent to them to establish not only whether it was a reasonably professional, bug-free effort but also whether it had enough mass appeal to be worthy of precious shelf space. There was an inevitable power imbalance at play: small publishers, desperate to get their games onto shelves in what was turning into a very uncertain year, needed distributors more than distributors needed them. Thus the distributors could afford to drive hard bargains, demanding a 40 to 60 percent discount off retail price and a grace period of up to two months after delivery to pay the bill. They also wanted games to fit into one of three price points: £2 for older “classics” and newer discount titles; £6 for typical new games; £10 for big prestige releases like The Lords of Midnight or anything from the demigods over at Ultimate Play the Game.

Automata bucked every one of these demands. Not only did they continue to demand high margins and cash on delivery, but they insisted that Deus Ex Machina retail at a grandiose £15. They weren’t entirely alone; others fought the new world order and sometimes, at least temporarily, won. The most famous among them is Acornsoft, who insisted on a similarly high price point for Elite. When a number of distributors refused to carry the game, Acornsoft simply shrugged and sold to those who would, until Elite became a transformative hit and the recalcitrant distributors came back begging for Acornsoft’s business. The artsy, avant-garde Deus Ex Machina, however, obviously lacked the mass appeal of an Elite. This time it was mostly the distributors who shrugged and moved on, with a predictable impact on the game’s commercial fortunes.

Given these circumstances, Croucher was and is eager to attribute Deus Ex Machina‘s fate to the age-old struggle between art and commerce:

The corporates had taken over as they always will when they spot a new lucrative market. They wanted standard product. Deus was designed as non-standard and I got the market completely wrong.

I suppose that’s fair enough as far as it goes, even given the odd fact that Automata was in a death struggle to charge their customers more than the going rate. The thing is, though, the suits were kind of right in this instance. Taken as a one- or two-time experience, Deus Ex Machina is intriguing, even inspiring. As a game, however, it’s not up to much at all. It took a retrospective review in ACE magazine to finally acknowledge the obvious: “the actual gameplay was strictly humdrum.” Now, Croucher and others might respond, and not without justification, that to evaluate it the same way one evaluates a more traditional game is rather missing the point; Deus Ex Machina is more multimedia experience than game. Fair enough. Except that it’s hard to overlook the fact that players were being asked to pay £15 for the privilege, one hell of a lot of money in 1984 Britain. For that price — or, for that matter, for £10 or £6 or even £2 — they deserved more than an hour or two of entertainment. Deus Ex Machina‘s failure to find a market was indeed a failure of distribution. Yet it’s not one that can really be blamed on the distributors; again, that’s just the way that the retail business works, whether you’re selling shoes, books, or computer software. It wasn’t their fault that there was no practical way to get shorter-form works to the public for a price that wouldn’t leave them feeling ripped off. The distributors just recognized, probably rightly, that there was no practical place for Deus Ex Machina in the software industry of 1984. Such is the curse of the visionary.

Automata never recovered commercially or psychologically from the failure of Deus Ex Machina. The old spirit of anarchic fun became one of passive-aggressive petulance. “Automata’s next product will be something truly wonderful, but we’re just not going to release it until everybody pulls their socks up,” Penfold declared. “Automata are too good for this industry.”

Croucher walked away in mid-1985. Penfold at first did the expected, declaring his intention to struggle on, but Croucher’s departure marked the effective end to Automata as a going concern. Penfold dropped out of sight, while Croucher continued his career as (in Jaroslav Švelch’s words) a “perpetually failed visionary.” He designed another avant-garde game or two for other publishers; tried and failed to launch a multimedia game console that would combine laser-disc video with traditional computer graphics; wrote a linked series of comic fantasy adventures of one Tamara Knight for Crash magazine; wrote a column for Computer Shopper; designed a game and a viral-marketing campaign for Duracell; did God knows what all inside and outside the computer industry.

Deus Ex Machina has become a minor cause célèbre of academics and advocates for games as art, who tend to overrate it somewhat; it’s certainly interesting, certainly visionary, but hardly a deathless masterpiece. It’s simply the best that could be done by these people with these resources at this time — and there’s no shame in that. Much the same could be said about the rest of Automata’s works. They’re great to talk about, but too crude to be all that engaging to play today. Automata embraced a punk-rock ethos of production, but failed to recognize that games have in some senses a higher bar to clear. A bit of hiss on a record may be discountable, even charming, but a game with similar technical flaws is simply excruciating to play; it’s right here that comparisons between independent games and independent music break down horribly. Appropriately enough for what often seemed more an exercise in performance art than a real software company, Automata’s crazy catalog of subversive games is most fascinating simply because it existed at all.

Mel Croucher, Sue Cooper, Christian Penfold (as the Piman), and Lizi Newman

Mel Croucher, Sue Cooper, Christian Penfold (as the Piman), and Lizi Newman

But before Automata leaves the stage and I end this article, there’s one more piece of the story to tell. On July 22, 1985, Sue Cooper and Lizi Newman, a schoolteacher and music-shop proprietor respectively from Yorkshire, arrived at an odd local landmark on the Sussex Downs: a gigantic horse cut into a chalk hill. They stood at the horse’s mouth in a driving rain, looking around nervously. Then the Piman clambered out from behind a clump of bushes. He presented the ladies with their prize while Croucher played his theme song one last time. Automata had played fair after all; the Golden Sundial of Pi was real. Perhaps due to the fact that Automata was winding down and they were tired of spending their July 22s crouching in the Sussex mud, they had even shown the women a bit of mercy: they really should have been standing at the horse’s arse.

Penfold and Croucher wave bye-bye

(If you’d like to experience Deus Ex Machina for yourself — and despite my reservations it’s well worth the effort — I’ve prepared a care package with the Spectrum tape image, the soundtrack as MP3 files, and the manual. Both sides of the tape are in the same tape image. The emulator should automatically load in the second side when the time comes, leaving you only to start the second soundtrack. That how it works under Fuse, anyway.

Information and art for this article were drawn from the following magazines: Your Spectrum of December 1984; Popular Computing Weekly of June 30 1983, January 12 1984, April 4 1985, November 28 1985; Home Computing Weekly of July 19 1983, December 13 1983, February 26 1985; Computer and Video Games of November 1982, December 1982, January 1984, October 1985, September 1986; Crash of February 1984, May 1985, April 1986; Big K of December 1984; Sinclair User of September 1984, February 1985, April 1985; Your Computer of February 1982, December 1983; ACE of May 1988; Computer Choice of January 1984. Also invaluable were ZX Golden Years, the new Automata website, the Deus Ex Machina 2 website, and the Piman Files. The last includes all of the Automata songs as MP3 files, including the one I’ve sampled here.)


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The Legend of Ultimate Play the Game

Ultimate Play the Game

Although the sorts of games they created are a little outside of my usual beat, I couldn’t possibly write an overview of 1984 in British gaming without including the little company with the big, unwieldy name of Ultimate Play the Game. During their glory years, which numbered no more than two, Ultimate was unabashedly worshiped amongst Spectrum owners. They took the place that the screw-ups at Imagine Software had thought was reserved for them: that of the most talented, innovative, cool, and fabulously successful developer in the country. No other Speccy developer, before or after, would ever come close to equaling Ultimate’s reputation. Amongst British gamers of a certain age or just a certain historical bent, the name “Ultimate Play the Game” is still spoken in positively reverent tones. No one, but no one, carries the mystique of Ultimate. Far from being a disadvantage, their short life only adds to their aura. They’re British gaming’s Joy Division.

Much of Ultimate’s mystique is down to their elusiveness. When they debuted their first games in 1983, the four founders of Ashby Computer and Graphics (trading name Ultimate Play the Game) — brothers Chris and Tim Stamper along with Tim’s girlfriend (later wife) Carole Ward and John Lathbury — did the usual dance, inviting the press out to their modest office in the Midlands town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch for interviews. Little did anyone realize that those first two interviews given that summer to Home Computing Weekly and Popular Computing Weekly would also be the last. At first, so the partners claimed, they were simply too busy writing and selling games to deal with the press. But it couldn’t have taken them long to realize that their silence only intensified gamers’ fascination. It was the best kind of promotion — the kind which costs nothing and for which you have to do nothing. The veil of secrecy has never really lifted; you don’t need two hands to count the total number of sit-down interviews given by the Stampers in the last thirty years. That can make things complicated for a fellow like me, but we shall do the best we can to ferret out some facts.

Born in 1958, Chris Stamper discovered computers while studying physics and electronics at Loughborough University. He was soon making one of his own, built around an RCA 1802 microprocessor, and learning to program it; this comfort with hardware as well as software would be key to his career. By 1979 he’d finagled a job at Associated Leisure, a new British firm set up to not only import Japanese and American arcade machines into the country but to continue to support the needs of the arcade owners who purchased them once they arrived. In that spirit, Chris spent much of his time working up conversion kits which would allow an owner to, say, convert a Space Invaders machine to a Galaxian when the former started getting long in the tooth. He also found a job for his less technical little brother Tim in graphics and design, and became firm friends with John Lathbury, another coder and hardware engineer.

Tim, Carole, and Chris Stamper

Tim, Carole, and Chris Stamper

Their manager at Associated was a fellow named Norman Parker. Realizing the talent he had working under him, he convinced them all to leave Associated with him for a new venture: a company called Zilec, which would become one of just two British companies to manufacture and sell original arcade games. They became his secret weapons, engineering and programming games that were sold in Britain under the Zilec name or licensed to big Japanese companies like Konami and Sega.

The Stampers made a big deal of their time in the arcade industry in those first interviews as Ultimate, and with good reason. The experience they gained was invaluable. For one thing, the games they made were all built around the ubiquitous Zilog Z80, the chip also at the heart of the Sinclair Spectrum; Chris and John had every opcode and register permanently etched into their brains long before they saw their first Speccy. But just as important were the personal contacts they made. Barely out of their teens, they got to travel the world. Parker: “They saw all the best products from around the world. They learned their trade well.” They learned the delicate feint and parry of Japanese business decorum, and forged a bond with a Floridian named Joel Hochberg who had been in coin-operated entertainment since the days when that meant pinball machines; he had helped the young Nolan Bushnell launch the original Pong. Parker and Hochberg inculcated them with their own unsentimental view of electronic entertainment as first and foremost a business that should make them money. Parker:

They are completely down to earth about games. They know what a game has to do to make money. In the arcades a game has to make money immediately or it will almost literally be scrapped. They learned this important lesson from the arcade business.

Developing using Ultimate's workstation

Developing using Ultimate’s workstation

With the arcade industry beginning to go soft and British microcomputers sweeping the country, the Stamper brothers and Lathbury decided to bail on Zilec and start their own company to cater to that new market. Carole Ward came in as well as another graphic designer and “company secretary.” From the beginning, Ultimate developed games in a way very different from the typical Speccy bedroom coder. As with so much else about Ultimate, details of their development system are not entirely clear, but those early interviews do describe it as a 32-bit multi-user system on which they could write and compile their code and ship it over to an attached Spectrum for execution. (A best guess would be a 68000-based Unix workstation.) The methodology obviously borrowed heavily from that used by Zilec and their competitors for writing arcade firmware, and cost “several thousand pounds.” They chose the Spectrum, its low-end model with just 16 K of memory, as their target platform for reasons “purely economic — to finance the costs of the development system and to provide revenue quickly they needed a big-selling computer, and the 16 K Spectrum fit the bill.”

Ultimate made their public debut in mid-1983 with Jetpac, followed by a spurt of three more games in two months and no shortage of self-confidence. Tim:

There is now an awful lot of software out for the Spectrum, but ours will always sell because it’s better. We have worried a lot of our competitors. Suddenly Jetpac came out from nowhere, but in fact we have more experience than all of them. I think we have raised the user expectation of what the Spectrum can do and software houses have been forced to raise their standards in line with us.



The games justified the hubris. Those early titles are fast-paced, colorful, and smartly designed, and pack a staggering amount of content into 16 K. They really did seem to transform the Speccy into a whole new machine which no one had ever suspected it had within it and which no one but Ultimate knew how to access. While gameplay remains firmly in the three-lives, ever-more-difficult-levels mold of the arcade, the concepts are not only original but, gratifyingly, have you building things rather than just blowing them up. In Pssst you’re a gardener trying to grow a flower and protect it from rampaging insects; in Cookie you’re a baker trying to make a cake, Swedish Chef-style, with animate ingredients that don’t want to be baked. Gamers responded. Ultimate was soon rewarded with the biggest overall sales in the industry and the beginnings of the incomparable reputation they still enjoy today. By year’s end their games sat at #1, #3, and #4 on Computer and Video Games‘s Spectrum sales top ten — and they had retreated into their offices, protected by thick perspex windows, an entry phone to ward off casual knockers, and “Private: Keep Out” signs on the garage at the rear that would soon hold a Lamborghini or two.

Ultimate's sealed offices

Ultimate’s sealed offices

But the games that would really make Ultimate legendary would come with the next batch, for which they stepped up to the 48 K Spectrum, the one almost everyone was actually buying by now.

Atic Atac

Atic Atac

The first of these bigger games was Lunar Jetman, a sequel to their very first game Jetpac with more complex play and a vastly larger area but still with the standard arcade structure of level after level, each more difficult than the previous, unfolding until you die. Then, between that game and the next, Ultimate’s design approach underwent a quiet revolution, from bringing games that could have been arcade hits to the Spectrum to longer-form experiences that could only have been born and bred for the home. The next game, Atic Atac, is another real-time action game with Ultimate’s by-now-expected superb graphics, but it drops you into a haunted castle full of rooms to explore, connections to map, monsters to defeat or avoid, objects to pick up, little puzzles to solve, all while contending with a time limit. There’s a score, but it’s not the real point of the endeavor — that’s to collect the three keys which will let you escape the castle. If you do so, you’ve actually won and the game is over. Remind you of anything? Crash magazine’s reviewer grappled with what kind of game Atic Atac really was: “Atic Atac is no way a true adventure, but neither is it a shoot-the-baddies game.” In those days, a “true” adventure meant a text adventure (possibly with illustrations for flavor) because that’s all there was. The genre that Atic Atac pioneered would within a year be named the “action-adventure.”

Which is not to say that Ultimate was the absolute first to tread this ground. The canonical first example of the form is Warren Robinett’s game Adventure, which he coded for the Atari VCS in the United States in 1979. Robinett had seen and been fascinated by the original Crowther and Woods Adventure on a visit to Stanford University. His game for Atari was an explicit attempt to translate the elements that had intrigued him on Stanford’s big PDP-10 to a form playable on the very different hardware of the VCS — so explicit an attempt that he even appropriated the name. Robinett:

I think you could describe what I did as translating the adventure-game idea from one medium to another. You can call text-adventure games a “medium”: the output to the player is text descriptions, the player types text commands to the game. That’s all there is: no graphics, no sound, no animation. The medium I was translating to was the videogame, where you have a joystick — one button and the four directions (or eight if you want to think of it that way) — and it has graphics, has color, has animation, has sound. So it had to change to work in that medium.

Robinett’s game was primitive even by the standards of Spectrum software of just a few years later; it had to be to run in 4 K of cartridge-based ROM and 128 bytes of RAM. But it threw down a gauntlet — albeit one which few American software houses, working the fertile ground of Zork-style text adventures and Ultima- and Wizardry-style CRPGs, took up. The folks from Ultimate, who had traveled far and seen much of the international videogame business while at Zilec and thus had to have seen Robinett’s Adventure, now picked it up for Britain instead. Atic Atac and the Ultimate action-adventures which followed — Sabre Wulf, Underwurlde, Knight Lore, Alien 8, Nightshade, Gunfright, and Pentagram — touched off a veritable gaming subculture of copycats and, eventually, games which took the concept even further. The big open-world action-adventure would remain a cottage industry in British software through the end of the decade and beyond, with a string of iconic titles: Mercenary, Fairlight, Spindizzy, Head Over Heels, Exile, the Dizzy series, just for starters.

Ultimate reached their pinnacle of success at the end of 1984, when they released Underwurlde and Knight Lore simultaneously just in time for Christmas. The former was a continuation of what they had already wrought in Atic Atac and Sabre Wulf, but the latter marked the last big innovation they would gift to their eager public: the first isometric action-adventure.

Knight Lore

Knight Lore

Ultimate’s worlds prior to Knight Lore, like those of virtually everyone else, were worlds of just two dimensions. (See my article on Elite for the reasons behind that and its ramifications.) They were viewed from directly above, from a strangely depthless sideways, or from even stranger, Pac-Man-like perspectives that conform to no obvious reality. Game developers had been frustrated by the limitations of 2D for years, but true 3D graphics, while David Braben and Ian Bell among others proved them not to be impossible, were very, very difficult on a simple 8-bit computer, and usually limited to wireframes if you wanted to get any performance at all out of them. Isometric perspective would turn out to offer a compromise, a way to get many of the benefits of 3D without most of the costs.

Engineers and architects had grown frustrated with the limitations of their 2D blueprints many years before videogames existed. They had realized that drawing a rectangular object like, say, a building from a sweet spot above and canted 45 degrees horizontally gave an excellent view of it in all its 3D glory without being very taxing on the drawer: it’s essentially just a matter of leaving vertical lines alone, rotating horizontal lines by -30 degrees, and rotating depth lines by +30 degrees. Best of all, a quirk in the rules of perspective means that objects deeper in the picture remain exactly the same size as those closer to the viewer — again, a huge burden lifted from the drawer. Or from the programmer and her computer. The transformations required to display an isometric view on a computer are fairly trivial compared to full 3D rendering. There are inevitable limitations — the real world isn’t generally so neatly rectangular — but, still, isometric graphics offered a magic bullet, a way to get something for, if not quite nothing, a very reduced cost.

Given that, it’s if anything surprising how slow game programmers were to catch on to their wonders. The first prominent games to use isometric graphics were a couple of arcade releases of 1982, Sega’s Zaxxon and Gottlieb’s Q*bert. Isometric graphics first came to the Spectrum in late 1983 in the form of Ant Attack, written by a young sculptor named Sandy White who applied his knowledge of real-world 3D construction to the construction of a virtual world inside his Speccy. But all of these titles were games in the traditional arcade mold. Ultimate applied the isometric perspective to a more ambitious, expansive action-adventure for the first time with Knight Lore. It was a match made in heaven; within a year virtually everyone else would make the switch as well. (One wag writing to Crash magazine labelled Knight Lore the “second most cloned piece of software after Wordstar.”) Not only did the isometric view bring a whole new depth (sorry!) of play, but it was stunning eye candy, becoming for most the ultimate (sorry again!) demonstration of Ultimate’s graphics prowess. One reviewer on a Spectrum nostalgia site: “I think that setting eyes on Knight Lore for the first time must have been like seeing King Kong on the screen back in the 1930s when the film was released. It (Knight Lore) was the single most staggering thing I’d ever seen on a Spectrum.” Another: “I was there in the computer shop on the day Knight Lore was first loaded into the demonstration Speccy. Within thirty seconds there was a crowd about seven deep, everyone clambering over each other to get a better look.” It really was that amazing. As with Ultimate itself, a gauzy patina of awe still surrounds Knight Lore today amongst British gamers. A 1994 article in Edge magazine pronounced it nothing less than “the greatest single advance in the history of computer games.” That’s an assertion that reveals a certain loss of perspective (done now, I promise!) in my opinion, but it’s nevertheless a very, very important moment whose reverberations would echo for years through British gaming and well beyond.

Knight Lore is also enshrined in Ultimate lore for another reason. In an interview given to The Games Machine magazine in December of 1987 (the first they had agreed to since those early pieces back in 1983), the Stamper brothers dropped a bombshell:

Knight Lore was finished before Sabre Wulf. But we decided then that the market wasn’t ready for it. Because if we released Knight Lore and Alien 8 — which was already half-finished — we wouldn’t have sold Sabre Wulf. So we released Sabre Wulf, which was a colossal success, and then released the other two.

This little anecdote has had huge resonance in the years since because it so confirms the legend of Ultimate as both technical and artistic geniuses (they were doing isometric action-adventures even earlier than we thought!) and iconoclastic masters of PR and marketing (who else was thinking in terms of what the market was “ready for” in the wild and wooly days of the early British software industry?). And indeed, and assuming that it’s completely true, it does show uncanny foresight of a sort which many other publishers could have used. (Just to give one example: it strikes me that Beyond and Mike Singleton would have done better to wait another few months at least before releasing Doomdark’s Revenge, to let the buzz from The Lords of Midnight run its course and fully prime the pump for the sequel.)

Ultimate’s star dimmed somewhat during 1985, beginning as early as the next game, Alien 8, which prompted a few grumbles amidst the usual superlative reviews that it was really just Knight Lore in Space. By the time of Nightshade and Gunfright a developing critical consensus had it that Ultimate was not only failing to advance their action-adventure formula but actually beginning to regress, offering less interesting puzzles, less control, and less to do. A handful of underwhelming Commodore 64 games done by outside contractors — this after Ultimate had sworn they would always do all of their games in-house — damaged their reputation even more. In truth, the divide in quality pre- and post-Knight Lore was probably exaggerated; the British gaming press had more than a whiff of the tabloid about it, and generally delighted in tearing down heroes even more than it enjoyed building them up. (One magazine was so cruel as to gleefully follow Mark Butler around from developer to developer as he desperately searched for a job following the Imagine Software debacle. With that example of how the press treated previous golden boys, the folks at Ultimate could probably count themselves lucky that their own fall from favor was confined to some harsh reviews.) Then, just as 1986 began, Ultimate did something else they’d said they’d never do: sold out to the big, well-funded house U.S. Gold, who had become a huge player by licensing, repackaging, and distributing American software for the British market. Some more underwhelming games followed, and then the Ultimate imprint disappeared entirely, making its final appearance on a Collected Works anthology that packaged together their first eleven Spectrum games — all of the ones which the founders had actually programmed. Lathbury and the Stampers disappeared entirely for a couple of years. Speculation about just where the hell these most legendary Speccy developers of all had gotten to ran rampant.

What had happened, it eventually emerged, was one of the strangest transformations in the history of gaming. The Stampers claim that as early as late 1983, even before the run of action-adventures which would form the cream of Ultimate’s legacy, they brought the first Nintendo Family Computers (Famicoms) into the office. These strange little toylike game consoles, completely unknown in Europe or North America, were the hottest thing going in Japan, as Ultimate knew well from their ongoing international contacts. As home consoles crashed everywhere else in the world, as the received wisdom from all the British and American pundits said that consoles were dead and home computers were the future, the Famicom was motoring past the half-million unit marker after a matter of months on the market. Tim Stamper:

The machine, for the price it was available in Japan then [about $100 US], had colossal potential — we looked at this and we looked at the Spectrum — and then the Spectrum was hot stuff, but this was incredible. So we spent possibly eight months finding everything out about this system — its custom chips, and it takes a fair bit of work — we managed to do that and then started to write on the machine.

It was at this time, around the point when Knight Lore was about to hit store shelves, that the Stamper brothers set into motion a master plan to gradually divest themselves from the Speccy. The Speccy was huge in its home country, but it was in some sense provincial; it would never penetrate far beyond Britain and a few other European markets despite hopeful arrangements with Timex and others that tried to introduce it to North America and other such tempting places. (Eastern-bloc countries cloned the hell out of it, but that of course didn’t lead to more software markets for the Western likes of Ultimate.) Yes, you might make the same argument about the Famicom, but Nintendo was a smarter company than Sinclair with far more resources at their disposal and long-term plans in the offing for worldwide domination, as the Stampers knew well from their Japanese contacts. Ultimate was doing brilliant, unprecedented things with the Speccy graphically, but the Nintendo was more obviously capable in that area right out of the box; just imagine how far they might push it. And the Famicom had one other hugely appealing quality: its programs were sold on cartridges rather than tapes or disks. This made it a much more appealing system for children, novices, and the computerphobic: playing a game was a simple matter of shoving a cartridge in and turning on the machine; no entering arcane commands, no waiting twenty minutes with fingers crossed. Best of all, cartridges made casual piracy impossible — piracy which many Speccy publishers claimed was costing them half or more of their revenue.

So, for most of the same reasons that other publishers would also cite but far, far earlier, Ultimate decided to jump on the console bandwagon. Working without manuals or Nintendo’s development kits, they figured out how the Famicom worked and developed ways to program it. Nintendo, however, ruled the Famicom ecosystem with an iron fist. The only way to publish for the machine was through them, and they weren’t in the habit of granting licenses to companies outside of Japan. Enter their old American friend Joel Hochberg, who had longstanding relationships with Nintendo. He approached Nintendo executive Minoru Arakawa and finagled a meeting for the Stampers. Nintendo was impressed enough with the demos they showed that they signed them. Hochberg and the Stampers — Lathbury quietly dropped out of the picture around this point for reasons that have never been explained — formed a new company, Rare, to develop for the Nintendo, using the money still coming in from Ultimate and, eventually, Ultimate’s sale to U.S. Gold to fund this new entity. Rare went on to become one of if not the most valued software partner of Nintendo and one of if not the most prolific and successful maker of Nintendo games outside Nintendo themselves, while the odd little Famicom went on to change everything everywhere as the Nintendo Entertainment System.

That, anyway, is the story as the Stampers have told it and the one that has gone down in gamer legend. I don’t have any evidence to refute it, although I do have a sneaking suspicion that there’s a bit of PR and self-mythologizing going on here, that it wasn’t all that meticulously plotted from the beginning. Certainly one must admit that it smacks just a bit of, say, a really convoluted Homeland plot which depends on every person reacting just so and every link on the chain connecting flawlessly. Ah, well… I suppose gamers need their legends too. Whatever the dirty details, the Stampers have proved themselves to be very adroit businessmen under anybody’s terms. And we’ll leave it at that.

Technically superlative and meticulously crafted as they are, I’m not a huge fan of Ultimate or Rare’s games in general. They’re just so commercially calculated, so plainly aimed with pinpoint precision at the center of a market demographic that I can’t feel much, for lack of a better word, soul in them. I’ll cast my lot with the dreamers and crazed would-be electronic artists instead, even if their games aren’t quite so air-tight technically. I’d perhaps feel better about the Stamper legacy if there was any mention of joy or fun in the few interviews we have with them to balance all the talk of competencies and markets and competition and games as “products.” (Tim: “We actually act, I suppose, as Nintendo’s development team. If they feel they are lacking a product on a machine, they tell us, we develop it, and so we are sure of licensing product to them.”) But I must also acknowledge that I wasn’t there when Knight Lore and the others first wowed players, and my view of them might be different if I had been. Certainly the legend of Ultimate Play the Game will live on, and perhaps that’s as it should be. Yes, gamers do need their legends.

(Magazine sources: Your Computer of June 1983; Home Computing Weekly of August 9 1983; Popular Computing Weekly of August 18 1983, November 10 1983; Personal Computer Games of Summer 1983, January 1985; Computer and Video Games of March 1986; The Games Machine of March 1988; Retro Gamer #20; Edge of September 1994; Commodore User of July 1985; Next Generation of November 1995. Warren Robinett and Atari Adventure material drawn from Racing the Beam by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost and Jason Scott’s Get Lamp interview with Robinett. Nintendo material drawn from Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff.

Rare has consistently refused to grant permission to distribute the old Ultimate catalog and been quite aggressive with those who do so without approval. Since their lawyers are doubtless bigger than mine, no downloads this time. Sorry!)


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Mike Singleton and The Lords of Midnight

The Lords of Midnight

If Ian Bell and David Braben, brashly young and brashly nerdy in that traditional math-and-science sort of way, became the baseline expectation for British game developers, Mike Singleton, creator of the beloved adventure/strategy hybrid The Lords of Midnight, was the outlier. He was older for one thing, already in his mid-thirties at the peak of his fame in the mid-1980s. And his background was also different. After a failed stab at becoming a theoretical physicist, Singleton had graduated university with of all things a degree in English, and spent a decade teaching the subject before computers arrived to provide an outlet for his latent talents for game design and programming. As Singleton himself put it, this background gave him an advantage over many of his peers in that “I am able to spell correctly, thank goodness.” More significantly, there’s a certain sense of nuance, even of grandeur, to The Lords of Midnight and some of his other games that distinguishes them from the more typical teenage-Dungeon-Master virtual worlds that crowded them for space on store shelves. His road from English teacher to one of the most famous developers in Britain not named Bell or Braben began in the late 1970s with, of all things, a betting shop.

The shop in question was owned by a friend in his home town of Liverpool. Said proprietor was always complaining about the math involved in some of the more elaborate bets favored by his patrons, such as the “around the clock,” which consisted of thirteen individual wagers placed on three different horses. Singleton offered to help out by writing some routines on the Sinclair programmable calculator he’d just received as a birthday gift. When that looked promising, they spent £100 on a Texas Instruments TI-59 calculator to take things to the next level. When that also went well, they upgraded yet again, this time to a Commodore PET with the idea of creating a complete PET-based software suite for managing all of the functions of a betting shop — a package which they could sell. But it didn’t work out. They just couldn’t figure a way to get the software to run fast enough to keep up with the fingers of an experienced bookmaker with a line of eager punters to service.

Looking around for some alternative use for their hardware investment, Singleton and his partner came up with an idea that was, in its way, visionary. What if they let customers play and bet on the computer whilst hanging about the shop waiting for race results? Singleton’s first game (of a sort, anyway), Computer Race, was born for this mercenary purpose. Customers who fed it money were rewarded with an onscreen, animated horse race. Singleton based his horses’ movements on a picture to be found on the wall of half the betting shops in Britain, Eadweard Muybridge’s “The Horse in Motion.”

The Horse in Motion

The outcome of each race was determined randomly, with the customary small edge for the house. Again, Singleton and partner envisioned selling the game to betting shops all over the country. But again, their hopes came to little. This time they were undone by a legal rather than a technical problem. They ran afoul of British laws designed to keep betting shops as unwelcoming as possible. Singleton: “Having chairs is a little bit dicey, you might be contravening the laws — you’re encouraging people to go in a betting shop.” After narrowly losing a test prosecution, they decided the plan was too risky to go ahead with. It seemed the era of virtual racing must still be some years away. They sold exactly one Computer Race setup, to a betting shop in Ireland not subject to British law, where it played merrily for some years.

Having failed to become a gambling mogul, Singleton “took the computer and ran” to see if he could find another way to earn back its purchase price. Already a pretty good assembly-language programmer thanks to his experience with the betting shop, he wrote an action game he named Space Ace and sold it to PETSoft, one of the first software publishers to spring up in Britain. It sold 200 to 300 copies — not bad given the size of the British computer market at the time. But Singleton sensed a bigger opportunity in the offing. Despite their name, PETSoft had entered negotiations with Sinclair Research to market a line of programs for that company’s first microcomputer, the ZX80. Unfortunately, the deal fell through. Fortunately, Singleton was a persistent sort. He called Clive Sinclair directly to offer his services as an experienced programmer with a published game to his credit. Uncle Clive took a shine to him, and invited him up to Cambridge to pick up a prototype of and sign a contract to develop some games for Sinclair’s second machine, the ZX81.

To say the scope of possibility was limited on the ZX81 hardly begins to state the case; the machine had all of 1 K of memory. Over his two-week break from teaching that Christmas of 1980, Singleton knocked out half a dozen simple BASIC games and shipped them back to Sinclair to become Games Pack I. Now he began to reap some real financial rewards from his efforts at last: Games Pack I, that product of two weeks’ effort, earned him an astonishing £6000 during the following year. By way of perspective, know that £6000 was the average Briton’s yearly salary in 1980. “It was the best rate of pay I’ve ever had or am ever likely to have!” noted Singleton wryly.

If he’d been chasing the money until this point, that didn’t mean that Singleton didn’t genuinely love games. He was an avid board gamer and would-be game designer from childhood; he designed his first “James Bond-style” board game at 13, and retained an enduring fascination with Go throughout his life. In 1977 he discovered his first computer game (again, of a sort). Starweb was a play-by-mail game from the pioneer of the format, the American company Flying Buffalo. A harbinger of countless space-based grand-strategy games to come, Starweb required that players communicate each move on paper via post, writing their commands out using an arcane language to be entered into the game’s host, an exotic Raytheon 704 minicomputer. Once all of the players’ moves were entered, the Raytheon spit out the results in another arcane format that was, just for extra fun, completely different from the command-entry format. These reports were sent to players by return post. When two players met in the game, each was provided with her counterpart’s address, so they could talk amongst themselves and plot alliances and wars. And so it went, at a cost of $1.75 per move. Despite the extra postage cost and time delay entailed by his living in far-off England, Singleton was entranced. His first game lasted two years, ending in his victory over about fifteen others. He continued to play avidly thereafter. (Starweb, now approaching its 40th anniversary, is still an ongoing concern. The only obvious change from the game Singleton knew is that the communication can now be done via email.)

With that £6000 burning a hole in his pocket, Singleton now decided to press his faithful PET into service yet again to be the host of Starlord, a, shall we say, tribute to Starweb more accessible to British and European gamers. The PET got some pricey exotic technology which ate up a good chunk of the £6000: a hard disk and a color ink-jet printer. The latter allowed him to send players full-color maps of the galaxy and their position in it. Indeed, he made the entire game more colorful and friendly than its inspiration: “order forms” were now used to communicate your moves and their results were sent back in plain, readable English along with the map and copious status reports. All for the modest fee of £1.25 per turn. It was a lot of fiddly work for Singleton, but with players soon numbering in the hundreds (the game would peak around early 1984 with over 700), it was also quite profitable. When he realized he was earning more from Starlord than he was from teaching, he quit his day job.

He supplemented his Starlord income with more action games for the low-cost microcomputers that were now starting to flood Britain. First came Shadowfax, an unauthorized Lord of the Rings knockoff of the sort the rising profile of the computer-games industry wouldn’t allow for much longer. It had you playing Gandalf riding against the Black Riders; he reused the horse animations from Computer Race. It was also the first sign of a Tolkien fixation that would flower more elaborately in The Lords of Midnight. Shadowfax was followed by Siege and then Snake Pit (Singleton’s personal favorite from this early stage of his career). All were released for the Commodore VIC-20 and later the Sinclair Spectrum on the Postern label, and all did quite well.

Computers and Video Games magazine, October 1983

He went through a phase of being fascinated with the possibilities for 3D displays — meaning 3D in the sense of those funny glasses you wear at the movies, not 3D rendering as in Elite. 3 Deep Space, released initially for the BBC Micro — Singleton apparently never met a machine he didn’t want to program — would be, Computer and Video Games magazine confidently predicted, “the first of a flood of stereoscopic games to hit the micro shops.” Or not, although Singleton gave it a hell of a try, porting 3 Deep Space to the Commodore VIC-20 and 64 as well as the Spectrum and publishing a bunch of 3D type-in listings along with the bound-in glasses to view them in the same issue of Computer and Video Games that made the aforementioned prediction (funny how that worked out). 3 Deep Space became the first flop of Singleton’s career.

His close relationship with Computer and Video Games was thanks to his friendship with that innovative magazine’s founder and editor, Terry Pratt. He even once ran a special simplified version of Starlord (called The Seventh Empire) just for the magazine’s readers. Pratt left Computer and Video Games in 1983 to take charge of a new publisher being set up by the media conglomerate EMAP, to be called Beyond Software. He immediately started urging Singleton to leave Postern and come write games for him. In September of 1983 Singleton invited Pratt to his home in Chester, where they discussed three different ideas that might be turned into games. By the time of a 2004 interview for Retro Gamer magazine Singleton had forgotten what two of them were, but the third had been indelibly stamped not only in his head but in that of many thousands of gamers. It was a new graphics technique he called “landscaping” which he believed could be made to work on the Speccy. Given a grid-based map containing forests, plains, mountains, lakes, etc., landscaping would let him programmatically generate and draw a first-person view from any square on the grid, facing in any of the eight compass directions. He thought he might use it in a game far more ambitious than his previous simple action titles: something like the current bestseller The Hobbit, only much, much better. He believed he could pack a 64 X 64-square “game board” into his Spectrum’s 48 K of memory. This added up to 4096 individual locations to visit, each with eight possible views: over 32,000 individual pictures to see. The ad copy would practically write itself. Pratt told him to go for it: “I would first implement the technique and then, providing it worked, we’d go ahead with the full game.”

As would be the case with David Braben’s first rotating 3D spaceships, from this technical germ would be born a spectacularly innovative game design. Singleton envisioned a strategic war game that would play like an adventure game. Instead of viewing the conflict from on-high, you would see it through the eyes of those whose actions you controlled, whom you would be able to switch among and order about individually. The experiential aspect of war games, the role of the imagination in evoking their unfolding narratives of conflict in the mind’s eye, had always been an important part of the form’s appeal, much as stuffy grognards muttering about analyzing history and scoffing at games of mere make-believe might have sometimes been loath to admit it. Now Singleton could really bring that aspect to the fore, really let you live the experience through your generals’ eyes in a way that felt more like an adventure game. Yet there would be no parser, and text would be kept to a minimum to save memory for code. Singleton, who like many hardcore strategy gamers had little use for traditional adventures with their static worlds and static puzzles, was determined that his game be an unpredictable, dynamic, replayable experience like the cardboard war games he loved: “Routes aren’t dictated by the programmer in advance. You are in control of the main characters and their ultimate destiny.”

The Lords of Midnight

Of course, he would need a fictional context for the game. He thought of adopting the setting of a new play-by-mail design he’d been working on called The Lords of Atlantis, but Pratt wasn’t excited about that. Anyway, an underwater setting probably wasn’t worth the trouble. A medieval fantasy setting, he decided, would yield the best combination of popular appeal and ease of implementation, and be a natural fit for the sensibility of a Tolkien fan like himself. He decided to make his land a cold, icebound place simply because he “liked the combination” of the Spectrum’s shades of white and blue. He conceived of a land in which seasons last eons. His story would take place on the winter solstice, the darkest, coldest point just before a hoped-for new dawn and gradual thaw. The Lords of Atlantis became The Lords of Midnight. Now he started in earnest to build a world:

I drew a large map, which I still have, in nice felt-tip colours. It isn’t quite as difficult as it sounds and really I bet Tolkien did the same — you start off with a few word endings and tack different syllables on the front until you come up with something that sounds good, so you sit there going “Ushgarak, Ashgarak, Ighrem” to yourself until you get something that sounds nice or horrible according to what you want. [In reality the linguist Tolkien, who started with rigorously worked-out made-up languages and wrote The Lord of the Rings and the rest of the lore of Middle Earth largely to learn about the people speaking them, would have been aghast.] And once I got the map, then I started doing the story before I got on with any programming, and it was really the story that built up the atmosphere. I managed to get through the story quite quickly, in about three weeks. And that clarified all the major characters.

The story Singleton wrote, the preamble to the War of the Solstice, would eventually be included with the game as a novella. Taken on one level it’s just another Tolkien knockoff, if reasonably well written as such things go. We’ve got the usual stand-ins for Sauron (Lord Doomdark), Aragorn (Luxor), Frodo (Morkin), Elrond (Corleth), Gandalf (Rorthron), Gollum (Fawkrin). The game itself flies its Tolkien flag with equal pride. There are two ways to win which neatly parallel the two stories told in The Two Towers and The Return of the King: use Luxor (Aragorn) and as many of the thirty other Lords of the Free as he can rally to his banner to defeat Doomdark (Sauron) militarily, or sneak Morkin (Frodo) deep into Doomdark’s realm to destroy the Ice Crown (One Ring), source of Doomdark’s power.

The Lords of Midnight

The Lords of Midnight

The Lords of Midnight

The Lords of Midnight

Yet there’s a sense of the timeless to The Lords of Midnight which is seldom seen in other games then or now. Singleton does not just appropriate the surface tropes of The Lord of the Rings but also manages to capture some of its epic grandeur. In their advertising copy, Beyond would ceaselessly pound on that word “epic”: “The Lords of Midnight is not simply an adventure game nor simply a war game. It is really a new type that we have chosen to call an epic game, for as you play The Lords of Midnight you will be writing a new chapter in the history of the peoples of the Free.”

“Epic” is a word, like “tragedy” or “hero,” that’s been overused by our Hollywoodized culture to the point of meaninglessness; these days movies based on toy robots are epic sagas, and that party your friendly local teenager went to last weekend was epic, dude. The Lords of Midnight, however, reaches back to the word as it applies to The Iliad, The Odyssey, Paradise Lost, and, yes, Tolkien’s modern epic The Lord of the Rings. Not that I’m making direct artistic comparisons here, mind you. It’s just that there’s a similar if more modest windy majesty blowing through Mike Singleton’s land of Midnight, something I can’t quite put my finger on that makes it more than your typical fantasy pastiche. One need only read a few comments from the many players who remember the game well to realize that I’m not the only one to feel it. More so than strategic depth (which it has to a surprising degree; folks continue to discuss and refine their strategies to this day) or anything else, that feeling seems to be the defining trait of The Lords of Midnight for most players. It manages to be epic in the classical sense when other games settle for adjectives like “exciting” or “interesting” or “immersive.” It’s in the graphics; it’s in the simple elegance of the mechanics (there are only a few actions each character can perform); it’s even in the text, which is stately, literate, and dignified while necessarily remaining very succinct. Even when you lose — and you will lose, early and often, before you work out how everything works and develop a serviceable battle plan — you feel like the destruction of the People of the Free also has an epic resonance of its own; the story of Hector can be as compelling as that of Odysseus, after all.

Although they are very different games with very different personalities, The Lords of Midnight and Elite have a similar sense of scope about them. Both are incredibly complex systems in light of the hardware on which they run. More importantly, however, both are masterful examples of the Eliza effect writ large: they make you want to believe — make you actively imagine — that there is more to their universes than there actually is. Paradoxically, their very verisimilitude can be linked back to their hardware limitations. With scant memory and no disk storage to fall back upon, their creators were forced to generate most of their content procedurally rather than constantly slurping up static assets — whether in the form of graphics, sounds, data, or just text — from disk. The result feels unpredictable, flexible, and responsive to you in a way that most contemporary “epic” American adventure and CRPG games, which by The Lords of Midnight‘s time routinely spanned multiple disk sides, never manage with all their reams of static data. Taken purely in terms of the feeling of scope and possibility that they evoke, The Lords of Midnight and Elite are still some of the most awe-inspiring virtual worlds ever made.

Whatever other qualities The Lords of Midnight shares with Elite, it had nothing like that game’s extended gestation time. Having spent the last three months of 1983 developing the landscaping technique and designing the game and its world and of course writing the novella, Singleton didn’t start actually coding the game until January. He finished in a bare three more months of twelve-hour days, turning the whole thing in to Pratt that April. The whole project consumed less than seven months from start to finish. Within weeks, the game was on shelves. The final product was, in defiance of Beyond’s less than rigorous testing regime and the hard-won wisdom of anyone who’s ever programmed seriously, very nearly bug free. It’s a remarkable achievement indeed, one of the last of the great lone-wolf games. Singleton had done everything: design, graphics, coding, even writing most of the manual in the form of that novella. Technology and ever-greater player expectations would soon make such an approach, even for an apparent near savant like Singleton, untenable.

Mike Singleton shows off The The Lords of Midnight, 1984

Mike Singleton shows off The Lords of Midnight, 1984

Beyond, who had failed to make much of a splash with their first few titles, knew they had something special in The Lords of Midnight. They began previewing the game even before Singleton was completely done with it, creating a buzz of interest. By now it had become standard practice in Britain for publishers of hot new games to tell players to contact them as soon as they won for booty and ten minutes of fame that was either explicitly or implicitly up for grabs to the quickest and the cleverest. Recognizing the game’s literary texture, Beyond came up with one of the craziest such contests ever staged. Prospective winners, they said, should laboriously print every single screen of their experience, using a command Singleton had helpfully added for that purpose, to create “an illustrated history of the War of the Solstice.” The first person to send in a complete history of a winning game would become “the coauthor of a fantasy novel based around your adventures in Midnight,” which Beyond would “arrange for a fantasy writer to turn into a book to be published by one of the UK’s top fantasy publishers.” An audacious idea indeed, but one that turned into a fiasco. Whatever agreements Beyond had or thought they had, they ultimately couldn’t find any name author to write such a book nor anyone to publish it. The winning player, who had sent in his thick sheaf of papers just two weeks after the game was released, was quietly pacified with some alternate prizes and the whole episode flushed down the memory hole as quietly as Beyond could manage.

That hiccup aside, everything went smashingly. The Lords of Midnight sold 10,000 copies in its first two weeks at the unusually expensive price of £10. It turned into a solid success, albeit one that hovered around the tenth position on the sales charts for months on end rather than a chart-topper. No worries; that felt somehow appropriate, given the sort of slow-building but ultimately entrancing experience it is to play. Almost every Speccy-focused or platform-agnostic games magazine in existence published tips, maps, and often complete strategic solutions for both the quest victory and the military victory over the next year. There’s no better illustration of the esteem in which it came to be held by at least the more cerebral wing of Speccy gamers than Crash magazine’s big 1984 year-end poll. The Lords of Midnight was voted “Best Text/Graphical Adventure” by no less than 51% of voters; its closest competition came in the form of Sherlock with all of 10% of the vote. The game’s reputation only continued to build as the years passed and magazines like Crash turned more and more to dwell on past glories in light of the slowly dwindling supply of new Speccy games. In 1991 they dubbed it and its sequel “probably the two most exciting computer games ever written.” Its position in Spectrum lore remains inviolate today. (Beyond also funded ports to the Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC, but those, while very positively reviewed and successful enough, never quite attracted the worship that Speccy lovers continue to bestow on the original.)

That aforementioned sequel, Doomdark’s Revenge, appeared, following another frenzy of design and programming on Singleton’s part, just in time for Christmas 1984. It was largely what one might expect: an even larger map, a few new commands to try, “few major surprises” (as Crash admitted in an otherwise glowing review). It was undoubtedly (as another reviewer noted) “more sophisticated and more difficult,” and became another big success for Beyond, but most today feel it failed to improve on its predecessor as either game or fiction. While it’s not a bad game by any stretch, even Singleton himself eventually came to recognize the original as superior. Ironically, some of its flaws were down to its increased “sophistication,” particularly its elaborations on the rather simplistic AI of the original. Singleton:

With 20/20 hindsight, the way the characters in Doomdark’s Revenge made and broke alliances of their own accord and moved about the map on their own quests made things too unpredictable for the sort of strategic planning a player could do in Lords. Perhaps some other feedback — in the form of news or intelligence information — to the player on what was actually going on in the (largely unseen) background between the other characters would have made this feature really work.

That said, I should also note that there is a substantial minority of players who prefer the larger map and more unpredictable play of Doomdark’s Revenge. Whatever else we say about it, the fact that a program running on a 48 K Spectrum is making and breaking alliances amongst non-player characters is pretty amazing in the same way as are the dynamic characters of The Hobbit and Sherlock — and, perhaps, similarly problematic from the standpoint of playability, falling into an uncanny valley of the AI which lessens rather than furthers the Eliza effect.

Singleton posing for Crash magazine at the peak of his fame

Singleton posing for Crash magazine at the peak of his fame

The scope of The Lords of Midnight and Doomdark’s Revenge as well as innovative techniques like landscaping were so inspiring that Singleton couldn’t help but become a hacking hero even amongst Spectrum owners who lacked the patience to sit down and properly play the games. While he would never challenge Bell and Braben in the mainstream-fame sweepstakes, he was a big, big man in British computing for several years, with the magazines all jostling to interview him about not only coding and design but also such pressing concerns as his favorite food (steak and chips) and favorite pop groups (Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin; 1970s hard rock was quite the staple amongst 1980s hackers).

But the interviewers’ favorite question was always about the status of The Eye of the Moon, the final game in what had been promised from the first would be a trilogy (how could such an unabashed Tolkien pastiche be anything else?). Singleton delivered tidbits about what the last game would entail, including a yet larger map and a different structure that would break the game (and the map) into a number of smaller quests, each building upon the previous and increasing in difficulty, to keep it from getting overwhelming in the way in which Doomdark’s Revenge was already arguably verging. But first he wanted to write a new, different sort of game for the Commodore 64, his first with a collaborator — thus marking the end of this lonest of lone-wolf coders, a sign of changing times if ever there was one — called Quake Minus One. Then Beyond, after barely two years as an independent entity, got bought by the giant British Telecomsoft, who were throwing their weight and money around the British games industry like crazy during the mid-1980s. BT had already, you may remember, outbid everyone else for the biggest game in the industry, Elite. They had also bought a Star Trek license from Paramount, and Singleton was drafted to work on that game for a while while The Eye of the Moon continued to languish. The Star Trek project didn’t go well at all, and he left to form his own small development house, Maelstrom Games. In the end, The Eye of the Moon never appeared, doomed by some combination of other pressing priorities, over-ambition, and legal uncertainty about who really owned what; Singleton and Pratt, you see, hadn’t bothered with contracts, only “gentleman’s agreements,” which was fine until a big, fussy company like BT came into the picture. Maelstrom did finally make and release an alternative concept as a third game, Lords of Midnight 3: The Citadel, in 1995 on the Domark label, but probably shouldn’t have bothered; few have much good to say about that effort.

Singleton’s career after his glory years of the mid-1980s is a motley mix of worthy and similarly underwhelming games, with one more unimpeachable classic, 1989’s Midwinter, thrown in for good measure. Lords of Midnight 3 marked his last project in the role of designer. He remained in the industry until his untimely death in 2012, but was forced to content himself with lower-profile, mostly purely technical roles on big teams, working on games whose titles sometimes sound like something from an Onion parody of manic videogame culture: HSX: Hypersonic Extreme, Wrath Unleashed. A long, long way from the stately dignity of The Lords of Midnight

Having praised that game so effusively here, I should note before concluding that it isn’t as playable as, say, Elite. Formulating a strategy and keeping track of up to 32 individual leaders of the Free, not to mention Doomdark’s hordes, all but requires extensive notes and visual aids. The map views and more usable status screens that a modern strategy game of this ilk would have are painfully missing, leaving your own elbow grease as the only viable alternative. Perhaps the most practical approach is to print out one of the detailed maps published by one of the magazines on the biggest sheet of paper you can find, then to borrow some counters to use on it from the nearest handy board game. I’ve included a pretty good map, from Crash‘s July 1991 issue, along with the Spectrum tape image and the manual in a zip file which you’re welcome to download.

If all that sounds like too much effort, I highly recommend that you check out Chris Wild’s loving remake for iOS, Android, OS X, and Windows. It adds exactly those conveniences that can feel so painfully missing to modern sensibilities while still preserving the atmosphere and wonder of the original. Either way, by all means play it if you haven’t already. It’s one of the greats — and, particularly when taken in tandem with Midwinter, more than legacy enough for anyone.

(Sources: Crash of June 1984, January 1985, February 1985, March 1985, June 1987, April 1989, September 1991; Micro Adventurer of August 1984, November 1984; Personal Computer Games of August 1984; Your Computer of April 1986, December 1987; Big K of July 1984; Computer and Video Games 1985 Yearbook and of May 1982, January 1983, October 1983; Popular Computing Weekly of November 29 1984, March 13 1986; Retro Gamer #4. The painted flavor illustrations were taken from the August 1984 issue of Personal Computer Games.)


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