The Making Of: Lords Of Midnight
Singleton was adamant that the game was not to be about merely wandering around and admiring the scenery. Much thought went into creating the characters and creatures to support the over-arching concept. Small details would prove to be significant once the player was submerged into the game world. “The data that the map had to store included landscape features, armies, place names, magical objects and creatures such as wolves, dragons, wild horses, skulkrin and trolls. Each of these was encoded with the absolute minimum number of bits,” explains Singleton. “The creatures, for instance, were stored in just one bit per cell. That bit said whether there were creatures there or not. Then a number-scrambling routine told you which type of creature it was by scrunching up the map coordinates of the cell. Likewise, all the text in the game was tokenised using a one- or two-byte code per word, and the words referred to were further compressed by using only five bits per character.”
Other technical headaches were to give Singleton more late nights. The 48K memory capacity was just too limited to contain all the code. As Singleton stresses, every spare byte had to be conserved if Morkin and Luxor’s quests were to run with any degree of success: “The code itself was kept manageable by using short subroutines for almost any piece of code that cropped up more than once. Nevertheless, it was only on the third rewrite of the code that I finally managed to fit everything in. By that stage you are reduced to expedients such as rearranging the order of subroutines so that a routine that calls another as its final call is instead placed immediately before the called routine. You can then remove the call instruction and the return from subroutine instruction, and allow the first routine to drop through into the second. This saves four whole bytes.”
Dealing with ordering routines was commonplace in BASIC. More exacting still was dealing with the Spectrum’s infamous storage medium – the cassette tape. “Lords Of Midnight was designed, assembled and tested entirely on cassette tape, which was almost as slow to load as, for example, Windows 2000 was to boot up your PC,” recalls Singleton. “I still have a cardboard box at home full of 100 five-minute tapes which comprise the source code and the graphics of Lords Of Midnight and all the back-ups and back-ups of back-ups. The code itself had to be split up in ten different segments, each with its own little tape, and each with its own declaration of variable and subroutine addresses from the other nine tapes (and all typed in by hand). So, each of the rewrites involved changing each of the ten segments, strictly in order, because the address changes in the first would have a knock-on effect through all the subsequent segments. Things like that make you very careful with your back-ups and your labelling of tapes.”
Terry Pratt at Beyond Software saw the game universe coming together and had great faith in the project. He organised a three-month teaser campaign in magazines, and when the game was finally released it was met with an ‘ecstatic’ response. Very rapidly, the game began to attract a core of passionate gamers who would send fan mail concerned with the most trivial or groundbreaking detail of the game into the videogaming magazines of the time. “The thing that did surprise me was how quickly some people managed to beat Doomdark,” admits Singleton. “In less than two weeks someone had sent in a winning printout to Beyond (you could print out a scene-by-scene record of your game on the Spectrum’s thermal printer). I had estimated at least a month or two. When I was testing the game it took me nine solid hours to gain a military victory against Doomdark, and I had all the maps and data to help me. We reckoned there must have been some fanatically dedicated people out there.”
Singleton has spent most of his working life in the industry, bringing other well-respected titles into the world such as Midwinter. When asked if he preferred the self-sufficient days of 8bit coding to today’s two year development cycles and publishing stresses, he expresses a complete disregard for nostalgia: “Would I rather be programming Lords Of Midnight on a Spectrum or G-Surfers on a PlayStation2? Don’t be silly. The new technology is even more exciting than the old was, even in its day. Our imaginations are still racing to catch up with what’s possible now. There’s so much more scope for creativity now. In five or six years’ time, there will be categories of game no one’s dreamed of.”
The legacy of Midnight still lives on. Doomdark’s Revenge (1984) pushed the Spectrum architecture even further with its 48,000 panoramic views – one full screen for every byte – and The Citadel (1994) brought realtime voxel rendered landscapes to the PC. Plans are even afoot to bring the fourth instalment of the game to the new generation of consoles. But wasn’t Lords Of Midnight a shining example of creativity blossoming because of, not despite, hardware limitations? Some might argue that modern consoles may never have every ounce of their power utilised to such creative effect as displayed in Singleton’s seminal title.
This article originally appeared in E89.