in a Teacup
CRASH, June 1987
MIKE SINGLETON, Lords
Of Midnight creator, the man behind Doomdark's Revenge
and the notorious Games Pack One, decided it was about
time he spilled the beans. During a visit to Ludlow with fellow-members
of the CONSULT programming team, he was pressed hard by RICHARD
EDDY and BEN STONE, and answered irrepressible questions such
as 'What's really happened to Dark Sceptre'?
When you think of a computer games programmer, you probably
imagine a fanatical whizz-kid, Coke-swigging into the late
hours as he develops highly innovative and exciting games.
Such frenzied activities aren't usually associated with retired
school teachers - and yet that's exactly what Mike Singleton
He stopped teaching in 1980 to enter into a business which
happened to involve a computer. But as he says, 'The venture
went badly wrong, so I took the computer and ran...'
The machine in question was a Commodore PET (there's one
on display in the Science Museum), and with it he hoped to
produce a few programs to re-establish his diminishing bank
balance. The first game was called Space Ace, and it
occupied a staggering 12K of memory. Written entirely in machine
code, it had to be hand-assembled, a memory that still causes
Mike to shudder. 'By the end of that I must have known every
Op code off by heart,' he says bemusedly.
Bank account still firmly in mind, Space Ace was handed
over to Petsoft for marketing, and it broke box-office records
when it sold around three hundred copies - a very respectable
achievement in those days! But Mike's association with Petsoft
and Commodore machines was to be short-lived. At the time
Petsoft were due to sign an agreement with Sinclair to write
software for the Cambridge-based company's new 'mega-machine'
- the ZX80. Mike spent some time messing about with it, eventually
getting a tiny machine code program up and running in its
1K of memory.
'Actually, the ZX80 didn't even have 1K's worth of memory,'
Mike recalls. 'Because of all the bits of bobs inside there
was only about 750 bytes of memory left to play with!'
Before the agreement details were finalised, a change of
mind resulted in Psion securing the software contract with
Sinclair, and Petsoft were dropped; a situation which left
Mike up the creek without a joystick, so to speak. 'So, I
rang Clive - just plain old Clive in those days - and he told
me to send my games along. I did, and heard nothing, until
one day when I was invited to Cambridge to look at his new
The new project was, in fact, the ZX81. At that stage it
was hardly a computer in its own right, merely an Eprom fitted
into a ZX80. Mike, along with some other programmers, were
all given an Eprom to take away with them so that they could
'Do things with it.'
'Believe it or not,' he says with the fondness of remembrance,
'the 81 had even less memory than the ZX80, because it had
an extra 32 system variables occupying its memory banks, er,
make that bank. I knocked together six BASIC programs which
fitted into its miniscule memory and sent them off to Clive.'
The six games became Games Pack One, and notched up
the kind of sale that today would be the envy of any programmer
or software house - some 90,000 copies. Gratifying for Mike's
ego, the success was even more welcomed by his bank manager
when a cheque for six grand finally arrived.
Mike's next project was Computer Race, a horse racing
game, designed to be used in betting shops when the racing
was off - a little gallop which was soon stopped by an obscure
law. However, the Singleton career continued with a few games
on various machines for Postern, a now-defunct Cheltenham-based
software house, the most notable probably being Snake Pit.
And then came the big time...
'I wanted to create an adventure with the same degree of
atmosphere as others, but with graphics which really meant
Of Midnight, Mike's epic adventure quest for EMAP's newly
launched venture into games software, Beyond, became his next
game. He is still very coy when it comes to explaining how
he designs a game, and especially those areas where imagination
is foremost, preferring to deal in technical topics. When
you ask him how he leapt from the arcade simplicities of Snake
Pit to the atmospheric sophistication found in Lords
Of Midnight, all you get is - 'Ah, that would be telling!
Seriously though, I very rarely start with a concept or theme
with an intention of working around that. Instead I usually
begin with a technique and build a game around it - doing
it that way you're sure of getting the guts of a program together
Mike thinks that's where a lot of today's licensing deals
go wrong: 'The programmers have the problem of working a game
around a theme and then fitting the technique round it, and,
as well you know, that can end in a real mess.'
'Landscaping' is Mike's own technique, and is the one on
which his Midnight Trilogy is based. 'When I was considering
the game I felt the graphics had to be more relevant to the
action. So often the graphics in other adventures appeared
Using Landscaping, a player can actually see his journey
in real time, with, in the case of Lords Of Midnight,
32,000 views. From the technique, perhaps, came the theme.
Mike wanted to create a massive playing world, so objects
like spy satellites were out, because so many view points
would be taken away from the landscape below. And so the murky
Middle Ages were chosen as the setting, with all the scenes
set firmly at eye-level and the landscape features seen from
the player's viewpoint.
'The Land of Icemark,' explains Mike, 'simply came about
from the graphic capabilities of the Spectrum. I happened
to like the combination of white on blue and so it fitted
in rather well.'
Having developed his Landscaping technique, the Lords
of Midnight game was planned. 'I plan the game in advance,
but should I have a sudden flash of inspiration for an idea
then I can usually find room to slot it in.' However, having
completed it, Mike saw many ways to further compress his technique
and improve the program, improvements which found their way
into the next game. Work on Doomdark's Revenge started
immediately afterwards, and although much of it was already
planned, Mike re-wrote many of the battle routines in the
light of his new thinking.
So much for history. Talking about the Midnight Trilogy made
us wonder whatever had happened to the third part, Eye
Of The Moon? 'Oh I'm still working on it,' Mike exclaims,
'not so much as a project, it's more of a hobby. I've been
constructing some new graphic routines so that the Landscaping
should be in full colour. Oh, and the map should be about
four times the size of Doomdark's.'
But Doomdark's was already pretty vast, isn't he
creating a world that's just a bit too big for one quest?
'There isn't just one quest. The map is divided into 12 realms,
and within each realm is a mini-game. This means that Eye
can be played quickly, because you can just solve one or two
problems, or tackle the whole game. I think that was one of
the faults of Doomdark's - it took too long to get
into. Hopefully with the 12 mini-games it should appeal to
a much wider audience.'
With regard to characters, Mike's intending to have even
more in the game than before, but this time a player can select
a commander and then make up teams of characters which are
controlled as a whole rather than individually.
There's no date for completion for Eye Of The Moon,
'It'll be finished when it's good and ready - and it won't
be published by Beyond, or Melbourne House for that matter.'
So, that leaves one alternative - his own software label,
'Dark Sceptre - oh that, it's nearly finished ...
was set up to deal with the Play By Mail (PBM) version of
Dark Sceptre. Are we ever going to see the computer
version? Mike says it's nearly finished, which prompts screams
of merriment from the assembled members of Consult! 'He's
been saying that for years - well, it seems like it,' says
'It is nearly finished,' Mike pleads, 'After all, I've got
you lot working on it.'
It becomes apparent that Consult (Dave Kelly, Glenn Benson
and Dave Sharp) are having some problems because they want
to keep all the original ideas from the PBM version in the
game, and it's proving difficult with only 48K to play with.
The PBM Dark Sceptre is still going ahead - but only
on Microdrive. Which brings up the question of how many Microdrives
are around these days. Offered figures indicate as many as
100,000 units have been sold, but as Mike gets through one
Microdrive every year it's dubious that so many are still
in use. However, the Spectrum Plus Three with its built-in
disk drive may come in useful. Mike sees it as a possible
re-birth for the Spectrum, and looks wistful as he says, 'There's
all sorts of things that I could do with it - if I could get
my hands on one!'
'Can you imagine a game with 16,000 characters, and you've
got complete control over every one of them?'
Melbourne House, Mike Singleton and Consult are working on
Lord Of The Rings - The Arcade Game [published as War
In Middle Earth] which, unlike the adventures, concentrates
on the battle scenes. The player should be able to hold sway
over the entire map of Middle Earth, and control all the characters
and armies to which they belong. Fights take place in real-time
but, of course, you won't have a constant view of all of the
The 3D battles will be displayed in isometric perspective,
having characters standing an average 70 pixels high - so
there should be about 20 to 30 figures on screen at any one
time. 'The control system is a very interesting one,' enthuses
Mike. 'It's possible to give orders by selecting a character
to attack, move, or help another character. And don't worry,
a player won't miss out on any of the fighting as characters
are controlled directly - all ready to hack the opposition
to pieces. There'll be a total of 128 armies, each with a
legion of up to 128 men.
'As far as the graphics go, there's quite a bit of freedom.
Some may be taken from the film, others from RPG miniatures,
but we do have to work within the Spectrum's limitations.'
For the future Melbourne House have signed him up to do a
few more titles - 'One of which,' he says proudly, 'is totally
new. Nothing has been done like it before.'
Yes Mike, but how long will we have to wait this time?