Making Decisions

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An essay is finished when there is nothing left to take away, right? Well a video game is nothing like that, but you have to make some decisions and I need to make a few, even if you later decide that the earlier decisions were dumb. Iteration is the name of the game, so let’s get iterating, open-ended, and see where it takes us.

 

In the original Chimera, the room drawing code never moved beyond drawing a 3d array of blocks. There was no mechanism for including walls, the likes of which were to be found in Knight Lore, Alien 8 and the subsequent Head over Heels.

So the first decision is to allow for walls. A side-effect of this is that there would be more play area.

The essential elements of Chimera are:

1) isometric graphics, geometric shapes

2) puzzles

3) great audio and music

 

Only one animated sprite other than the player was in the original game, this limitation should be removed.

So the second decision is to allow for multiple animated objects.

Another artificial limitation was not allowing movement vertically. There was no good reason for this.

So the third decision is to not artificially restrict movement in the y-axis. If it’s needed, use it.

There were food and water elements in Chimera. I don’t know why. I think these were hacked in as well as the timer. These should be replaced by energy. So now we have time and energy. We could probably include another variable, but that might make things too complicated. Let’s make energy the currency through which many puzzles have to be solved. Every move takes energy.

So the fourth decision is to have every move or decision in the game require energy.

People seemed to love the music, there are at least four re-mixes of it available. Might be worth featuring them again. The game is my copyright, but I don’t remember what the contract said about music ownership. In any case, it’s been years (decades!) since I last spoke with Rob Hubbard, I should contact him and ask him if I can feature it, or perhaps re-write my own version?

Interesting bit of history, I asked for Rob Hubbard specifically for Chimera because a few weeks before the C64 version was done, I’d heard the Krazy Komets slap bass and being a bass player myself, wanted to know if he could do fretless bass. I’m very pleased with what he achieved for Chimera.

Fifth decision: Feature original music in some way, plus remixes, youtube videos, interviews, etc.

The game was a 64-screen open-ended map. The game could probably be played through in a very short time, maybe 10 minutes, assuming you knew how to do it. A Rubik’s cube can be solved in seconds too, if you know how to do it. Allowing for multiple, smaller maps gives a level-based approach and allows energy to be managed more easily, with bonus for saving energy for later levels. The game had a slow pace, a faster pace would actually suit it quite well.

Sixth decision: Have multiple levels, each with a smaller map than the original.

Seventh decision: Increase the pace through better placement and player motivation

Eighth decision: Keep the heartbeat proportional to energy expenditure to allow for player tension management.

Ninth decision: Have a lot more events that require energy expenditure. It’s a resource management game and your resource is energy. Every verb uses energy. (Verbs in games are not Crawford’s idea, I described them as a way of describing games along with nouns, adjectives and adverbs in 1996 at a Games Awareness Day at BITS, though Crawford remains one of my heroes and he will always be way, way smarter than me)

Tenth decision: Have energy displayed as a bar or other visible, linear metric indicator, not a number. Numbers are so 1985. Actually, they were probably out of fashion then too.

The verbs in Chimera were:

Rotate (right)

Rotate (left)

Move forward one tile

Pickup/Use

 

Consider adding:

Drop

Push

Energise (block in front)

Levitate (player)

Materialise (block in front)

Dematerialise (block in front)

 

New objects:

Energy packs

Artefacts

 

How about a score? And multiple paths through the game? And randomly generated levels?

 

I’m not an “Indie”

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I suppose I was an indie when being an indie was highly unfashionable and nobody called it being an “indie”. They called it not having a proper job. I did it for many years and I frittered away more cash than was good for a 19-year-old to fritter away and one day I came to the end of my cash and instead of being brave and finding a way to carry on, I got scared and believed in fear and started working for other people.

After a while, it felt perfectly normal. I enjoyed being in the company of people. And in return for my time, I got a fixed amount of money. What I didn’t get to do was choose what I was going to work on. It wasn’t always restrictive, but getting a job is like voting. You make a decision and then you put up with whatever the next few years throws at you.

Sometimes that means that the opportunity for doing what you really love doesn’t mesh with what your “party” (the job) needs from you at that point, so you have to seek that fulfillment elsewhere. If you love martial arts, but you’re a stonemason, you have to do martial arts in your own time.

Well, I want to write a game. Obviously, I work for a large corporation, heavily involved in the making of video games and the consoles that run those games, but the organisation is very large, and there is little opportunity for someone in Developer Relations to code as part of their job. My job is after all, account management, not programming. So I’m obviously not an “indie”. Real indies don’t have jobs and they struggle with income. I have a job and I struggle with my waistline.

Programming is as close to snowboarding or base-jumping as I am likely to get. And yet all I have so far is some gear and very little idea. A modern programmer would eat me alive, but then there is a whole new breed of games designers and programmers who are making small, well-formed games. Perhaps I could somehow blend in.

I make it sound like I’m trying to join a community. Not really. When I started, what community we had was found in magazines and user group meetings. This expanded to BIX (very expensive – calling America in those days was over £3 a minute, though some people were set up PSS so that they could go on BIX and play MUD games) and then the British CIX, which I believe is still around in some shape or form. For years I was either montana@cix.co.uk- CIX, whose members were known as “CIXen” (taken from BIX’s “BIXen”) was a wonderful, supportive and knowledgable community.

The tools we have available today are shocking in their scope. Shocking to anyone who might have been transported forward 25 years. I’ll tell you what I had for Chimera. A ZX Spectrum, a tape machine, a Microdrive, a black and white CRT portable telly, ZX thermal printer, some paper and pencils. I bought DevPac and found the tape loading so slow that I decided to write a turbo-cassette loader just to re-load the environment faster. Whenever my code crashed, I had to pull the power out and re-load my entire environment, then re-load my code (from Microdrive, thankfully, which was faster, but not that much faster than cassette tape – in fact, my ZX Spectrum turbo tape loader was faster than the C64 1541 floppy drive!)

Debugging was done on paper. I’d write my assembler using pen and paper and I’d single-step, on pen and paper. That’s how debugging was done. It was ages before decent debuggers became available. PDS (for whom I did a stint) came along some years later and totally transformed the development scene. Once reasonably cheap cross-development arrived, we never looked back. We certainly didn’t miss the old ways.

So hard limitations were what stopped games being better. The fact that the entire dev environment had to be reloaded after every crash discouraged experimentation. The whole idea of having a rapid development cycle was some way away. Code was frequently kept in a single file loaded off cassette. It included everything, data, the lot.

The amount of support now available is bewildering. I am currently running 15 programs and my machine isn’t breaking a sweat. There are dozens of processes running. My screen is 1920×1080 and 24″ widescreen with millions of colours.

My Spectrum was 256 pixels across by 192 pixels down, showing its lack of colours on a 12″ portable black and white telly. My single-tasked Devpac assembler/editor could display 32 characters per line. This wasn’t such a big deal when your Z80 code used 3 to 8 characters of course, but comments were at a premium.

I feel like that young man now, transported 25 years into the future and the choices are utterly bewildering. So much so, that I’m distracted by not just the Internet and all that entails, but the endless choices, the obscene power at my disposal, the plethora of languages (no longer limited by assembler, I can use pretty much any language I want) – it has led to a kind of paralysis by analysis and that is the biggest daemon I face.

 

A Simple Puzzle Game

More than 25 years ago, I wrote a video game called Chimera. Chimera was the first true copy of the Ultimate Filmation style, if not the technique (not until the C64 version anyway).

Now I have everything I need to make a game, and a week to make a significant start, but I feel paralysed by fear, indecision and self-doubt. The same daemons that have stalked me since the early 90s and the end of Pandora.

I have been taken aback at just how many people played Chimera and claimed to have liked it. I think the audio played a big part in that, and the stark graphics helped. so I will go for a stark isometric look, with strong audio in the remake.

Chimera is essentially a bunch of simple puzzles operating under time and resource limits, with extremely simple rules, as follows:

1) Find and pick-up spanner.
2) Take to all electric fences that bar your way and disable them
3) Go to bolt and combine, missile created
4) Take missile to a blue room and arm – get the hell out

Rinse and repeat for four puzzles, then make your way to the green exit room, avoiding radiators and managing your food and water supply along the way.

Chimera didn’t start off as a game. It started off as a tech demo, on the Spectrum. My background was in 6502 assembler, having completed Jet Set Willy in 1984 on the Commodore 64, so the move to the Spectrum was probably the first commercial decision I made of any importance. Like many others, I was hugely inspired by Knight Lore’s arrival on the Spectrum. It changed what we thought was possible on a machine. It was sensational, without parallel and I don’t think any game, other than perhaps Ultima Underworld has ever had that degree of impact on me. I was determined to copy it.

So Chimera started off as a tech demo on the Spectrum. Though I didn’t reverse engineer their code (that would come much later and is another story), I did come up with an elegant solution to masking moving sprites at a reasonable speed on the Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC versions, which were to come later. I used a slower method on the Spectrum and Atari 800.

My first version was rejected, so I spent a day brainstorming ideas with my good friend David Eastman, with whom I’d go on to collaborate on a number of other games. These were then hacked into the game in around two weeks and the second version was accepted. A detailed story is available at The Bird Sanctuary.

In the end, Chimera on the Spectrum used a number of advanced techniques, like the use of speech on the Spectrum (which scared the living daylights out of a lot of people) and the border effects on the spectrum and colour-cycling on the Atari version.

Why did the original tech demo use a spaceman? Well, it was boxy and easy to draw. I couldn’t draw organic shapes and so Chimera featured mainly simple geometric shapes. The story was also tacked on right at the end and was essentially nonsense.

The game received on balance, acceptable to good critical reception and commercially did well too. If I made the same out of the game in a 25th anniversary edition, that’d be fine, but I’m more concerned about getting the critical acclaim up.

Several questions now arise.

1) I have a good job, why am I doing this?
2) Why choose Chimera? Weren’t there better games I could re-make?
3) How would I remake this?
4) Which platform?
5) Where are you going with this, Ikea boy?

Chimera

I’m about to try something really unusual.

I’m going to remake a game I made 25 years ago. There’s nothing particularly special about this game. Well, not that special anyway. There’s nothing I particularly want to change about it, but I will.

It’s just that I stopped programming way too early in my games programming career, and even though I accept that my skills are certainly no match for most programmers nowadays, there’s this urge I have not been able to control, this itch that just has to be scratched.

It’s absurd, I know, but I’m about to remake a game I made a quarter of a century ago and I’m going to share the process with you. I hope you’ll stay with me.