2nd Sinclair User Annual, 1984
IT IS NIGHT. Save for a few
who pick their way amongst the bodies of the dead, searching
for the faces of friends and brothers, it is time for battle-weary
warriors to rest. Wakeful, however, is Luxor, the Moonprince.
The sounds of wailing and the shrill whistle of spears in
the darkness assail his ears from all corners of the world.
The reek of death and the stench of decay is forever present.
And when, finally, dawn comes, there before the stronghold
the serried ranks of the Foul stand, wave upon wave of black
clad foemen, come out of the shadows of night to renew the
What would you do? Take your stand there, and maybe die a
glorious death, or flee with those men still fit to march,
seeking new allies with whom to continue the long war against
Such are the choices of Luxor the Moonprince, and yours too,
if you play the adventure game Lords of Midnight. Not
since The Hobbit have imagination and programming artistry
been combined to such good effect in an adventure, creating
one of the most engrossing and spectacular games of 1984.
But however gripping the game, the true Lord of Midnight is
not Luxor, nor his comrade Corleth the Fey, nor any of the
great Lords whose citadels lie scattered about the land. He
is an ex-English teacher from Wallasey, Mike Singleton.
Mike's first program had a distinctly seedy atmosphere about
it, far indeed from the heroism and nobility of Lords of
Midnight. "I first got into computing four years
ago, with a horse-racing game written for the Commodore Pet,"
he says. No ordinary horse-racing game,however, since it was
specifically designed for use in a betting shop. A colleague
at school suggested the idea, knowing Mike's interest in mathematics,
and Mike taught himself how to program in Basic. His first
attempt was an accounting program, but he clearly had his
sights on more exciting things.
"We went into association with a Liverpool firm of bookmakers,
and produced a fully working version of the game," he
says. But there was a problem with the gaming act, which draws
a distinction between genuine races and entertainment. In
order for bookmakers to operate, they are not allowed to entice
customers into their shops with other forms of entertainment,
and a test prosecution found against Mike's program.
To have one's first effort at professional programming squashed
with the force of the lawcourts might discourage some, but
Mike persevered. His first programming success was with arcade
games for the Commodore Pet, that grand old workhorse of the
pre-Sinclair days in microcomputing. Through working for Petsoft,
Mike came into contact with Sinclair, and wrote a set of games
for the ZX80, forerunner of the ZX81.
"The deal fell through after I completed six 1K programs,"
he says, "but Clive was interested, and so was Sinclair
Research." Travelling to Cambridge to visit the company
he was shown a top-secret version of the ZX81 with the operating
system still in temporary form on an EPROM. "The whole
thing was still under wraps, and I was asked to convert my
games for the machine." The result was Gamespack 1,
a set of 1K programs all in Basic, and one of the very first
commercial programs for the ZX81. "It took two weeks
work during the school holidays," says Mike, "and
I got £6,000 in royalties. I don't think I've ever had
Mike Singleton has always been a games player. In his early
teens he got hooked on board wargames, by companies such as
Avalon Hill or SPI, whose complex rules and efforts at realistic
simulation have had considerable influence on aspects of computer
games. "It was wargames that started me off," he
says. "I invented my own board games, although none of
them hit the market. I suppose I really came to computers
from board games."
The hobby did not die with childhood. While pursuing a career
in teaching, Mike was also participating in a play-by-mail
game called Starweb, run by an American company, Flying
Buffalo, creators of the Tunnels and Trolls fantasy
role-playing game. There was a special game for overseas players.
"We played by airmail, with one month between turns.
It took me two years to win my game." Win it he did,
and in late 1981 set up his own multi-player game, Star
Lord, which was umpired by Mike with the aid of the Commodore
Pet and a hard disk drive. There were about 700 players in
the game whose moves were processed by the computer, and the
multi-player game Starnet which runs on the Micronet
network is directly based on Star Lord.
Enter at this stage one Terry Pratt, now the managing director
of Beyond Software, but then editor of Computer and Video
Games magazine. Terry approached Mike with a view to an
article on Play-by-Mail games. The result was that Mike designed
a game especially for the magazine, called Seventh Empire,
which ran for about a year.
During that period Mike had also kept his hand in "churning
out the odd arcade game" as he puts it. When Beyond Software
was set up by the owners of Computer and Video Games,
Terry Pratt moved from the magazine to run the company. "Terry
started pressing me for programs," says Mike, "and
eventually we came up with Lords of Midnight."
The idea was not a simple flash of inspiration, but the result
of careful thought. "I was looking at the way things
were going. I was interested in having a go at adventures,
and it struck me that the graphics in most so-called graphic
adventures could be improved. Pictures in ordinary adventures
look very nice but don't tell you very much. I like to make
everything very functional."
the graphics of Lords of Midnight are nothing if not
functional. Every detail in the screen picture is of some
significance to the game. In fact, in a real sense, the game
is played through the pictures, which represent the view of
the landscape from a particular character's position. Caverns,
forests, mountains, towers, wolves and many other features
all appear on the screen and affect the play of the game.
"The graphics were the initial thing," Mike explains.
"I naively thought everything else would fall into place.
I underestimated the mechanics of the game."
The game was specified beforehand in some detail, as the
manual had to be sent off early to be printed, and a keyboard
overlay was necessary because of the wide number of single-key
entries required to play the game, where all decisions are
taken simply by pressing the appropriate key. "That meant
I was committed to producing a particular game without having
confronted the actual problems of programming it. The major
problem was the memory. With one or two K extra it could have
been finished earlier. Believe it or not, it was streamlined
three times. I squeezed the extra out of it by compression."
In fact, the game was a full six months in the writing. Incredibly,
the whole thing was written on a single Spectrum without even
the aid of microdrives. "The microdrives hadn't arrived,"
says Mike, laconically.
He is pleased with the final graphics routines, which give
a possible 32,000 views on the screen from 4,000 locations.
"I think the code is very neat," he says, which
is probably a gross understatement. "It takes less than
1K to control, and a further 17K for the individual objects
shown. Different-sized images are stored in advance, which
is why the pictures come up so fast. It is awkward to have
routines to expand or shrink objects, and when they get very
small they look bad."
The fact that there is virtually no text in the game, and
only single-key entry commands, is not simply a question of
saving memory. "It would be inappropriate for the game
to have text," says Mike. "There is such a lot going
on that written commands would slow the game down."
If the graphics routines are unlike anything previously seen
on the Spectrum, the game, the story and the construction
of the Land of Midnight are also impressive.
"It was entirely my creation," says Mike. "I
started with the first chapter of the story setting out the
characters of Luxor, Morkin and Doomdark." Luxor is the
possessor of the moonstone with which he is able to communicate
with his allies, thus enabling the player to control a wide
number of characters. Morkin, his son, is the pure and fearless
hero who must seek the Ice Crown, the source of the power
of the evil Doomdark. Having established those major characters
Mike went on to draw the map, a rather more detailed version
than the one provided with the game, including all the place
names and major features."I got the detail straight and
then continued with the story. Rather than write the whole
plot first, I let it run a bit and surprise me. I knew roughly
where I was heading."
Tolkien, the guiding force behind modern fantasy writing,
worked in a similar manner, not always knowing what was going
to happen next in the story. Many of the elements in the game
are found in Tolkien's work, the quest into the heart of the
enemy stronghold and the fighting of an apparently hopeless
war form the main strands of both the game and The Lord
Of The Rings.
"I am familiar with the literature, and of course it's
impossible to avoid being influenced by Tolkien. I was after
a game with a war in it, and the plot of the long defeat coupled
with the quest for an object fitted in with the sort of game
I was after. Once I had decided on the war/quest theme it
was impossible to get away from Tolkien. There are other elements
with a smack of Tolkien also. Fawkrin the Skulkrin is bound
to be compared to Gollum."
Lords of Midnight has proved a great success, and
by the time you read this the sequel, Doomdark's Revenge,
will also have been released. "We always have a sequel
in mind," says Mike. "But Terry wanted to wait before
he committed himself to a second game. I've been working on
it since finishing Lords of Midnight."
Revenge is set in the Icemark, a land to the north-east
of the area in which the earlier program is set. Shareth the
Heartstealer has captured Morkin and you must rescue him,
with the aid of Rorthron the Wise, a character from the first
game, and Tarithel the Fey, Morkin's lover, who appears for
the first time.
The game is considerably more complex than Lords of Midnight,
with 2,000 more locations and 128 characters - Lords of
Midnight contained 32.
"I learned lessons programming Lords of Midnight,"
says Mike. "Towards the end I found ways of rationalizing
the data structure to save space. It is a more complicated
situation. Rather than having Good versus Evil, there are
other factors, and more independent characters. The Land of
Icemark is divided between five races. In the far northeast
there are men under the command of Shareth, real baddies.
Then there are giants, dwarfs, feys, and barbarians. All are
independent and may fight each other."
The independence of the races means that Luxor must engage
in complex diplomacy to win support in his quest. That may
involve performing miniature quests for a particular object
or goal desired by a race, thus providing possibilities for
mini-adventures within the main game.
Another new development is the introduction of female characters,
the evil Shareth and the good Tarithel. "I would like
to have had female characters in Midnight, but left
it to a later game." That was not out of raw sexism,
but because of the limitations of memory. Involving both sexes
means additions to the vocabulary of descriptions and a gender
factor to be added to each character, eating up the precious
bytes. "There was a brief mention of a female character
in the story; I was keeping the options open," explains
Although most of his time is taken up with work for Beyond,
Mike Singleton retains his independence as a freelance programmer.
He gave up teaching two years ago to work full-time on computers,
and says he is satisfied with the switch. "I thought
I would regret giving up teaching," he says, "but
I don't. I do miss the kids - they kept me on my toes. It
was always useful programming part-time, as I could take games
in to the club at school. But it was getting to the stage
where I had to make a choice because I was working all the
hours God sent."
He is also sure that remaining freelance is the right decision,
at least for the time being. "It's a nice idea to own
your own company but it might restrict my programming time
which would not be particularly appealing. The days of backroom
companies are over. Perhaps if you had a set up with administrators
you can trust . . ."
That attitude fits in with Mike's view of himself as a games
designer rather than programmer, although his ability as a
programmer is clearly in the front rank. "What would
really suit me is to get a team of programmers and just feed
them ideas. Terry had a position in mind for me at Beyond,
but I think I make more money on the outside."
Mike plays fewer wargames now that he is writing them, but
frequently has a game of Go, the Japanese strategy game which
represents the next big challenge to programmers following
the landmarks of draughts and then chess. "I play wargames
every three months or so, and Go more frequently." He
adds, "I'm also in the pub a fair amount of the time."
He finds writing enjoyable, and welcomed the opportunity
to write the story for the Lords of Midnight booklet.
"With anything like that there's feedback from the story
to the program," he says. "At university I wrote
a short novel - English teachers are always writing great
works. It's called The Eternal Empire and there have
been six or seven versions. When Terry mooted the idea of
a novel as the prize for Lords of Midnight, I did say
I wanted to have a go at writing it. But time was pressing."
When Lords of Midnight was released, a prize for the
first winner was that the game should be written as a fantasy
novel, using the winner's game moves as a basis. Whatever
the book turns out to be like, we can at least say that literature's
loss has been the game world's gain.