Added: 7 Mar 2011
The name of Mike Singleton was little known in the industry prior to the release of LOM. After dabbling with a Commodore Pet in the early 1980s, he moved onto the ZX81 and wrote Games Pack 1, released by Sinclair as one of the first commercial programs for the computer. Around this time he was also involved in play-by-mail gaming and it was this interest that put him in touch with Computer & Video Games magazine, who wanted him to start a PBM game for them. When C&VG decided to set up a software company called Beyond, it was Singleton they turned to again. The game he eventually came up with was Lords of Midnight, and it changed the face of adventuring forever. Forget about poking around some text-only dungeon, here you could view the world through the most sumptuous graphics yet seen, and explore a total of 3904 locations. You were able to look in any of eight compass directions, giving a total of 31,232 views of the beautifully drawn Land of Midnight. The game is far from being solely about visuals though. It is an absorbing and compelling adventure, placing you in control of multiple characters on a quest to defeat the evil witchking, Doomdark. Lords of Midnight was undoubtedly the first 'epic' game to be released on the Spectrum.
Issue 9 (Nov 1984)
Added: 26 Mar 2017
It wasn't that long since computer adventures were solely text affairs. Now there are hundreds that boast total graphics or a hybrid text/graphics name tag.
Now standards are set to rise again with the release of Beyond's Lords of Midnight - an adventure featuring a new system of graphic design called 'landscaping'. It may not be what you had in mind for gardening, but with landscaping, Lords of Midnight is able to provide some 32,000 different panoramic views. Astounding!
The adventure itself has strong Tolkien overtones. You control four characters, including Luxor the Moon Prince, to defeat the extremely evil Doomark the Witchking. The game is very complex, but always fascinating.
Apart from the landscaping system, the other feature which sets is apart from the rest is the way you control the characters and see the world through their eyes. Each of them must be guided using commands which, unlike the majority of adventures, are given to you - there's no need to search for them in the game. Each character has his own distinctive personality which colours the way each character thinks and helps to determine the options open to you as the controller.
Mike Singleton, master adventurer and renowned 'Play By Mailer' has produced a program that, with luck, will start an industry trend towards more complex plots, multi-character interaction and superior graphics. Lords of Midnight is a must for all serious adventurers... you'll find it a taxing and exciting change from the usual crop.
Clive Gifford, Gary Smart, Neil Mackintosh, Peter Shaw
Added: 25 Nov 2010
The Making of Lords of Midnight
Format: ZX Spectrum
Publisher: Beyond Software
Developer: Mike Singleton
Lords Of Midnight was truly a thing of beauty. Its icy wastes, craggy citadels and distinctive deep blue sky brought a dimension of style to the ZX Spectrum of 1984 which served to dignify, rather than trivialise, videogames. And, like all the games which alter the way we think about electronic entertainment, it wouldn't fit neatly into any given category. Strategy, RPG, text adventure - it was all of these and something quintessentially more. An independent universe which would leave a residual trace in the memory of all those who traversed its furthest reaches.
The goal was straightforward: to overthrow the evil witchking, Doomdark, and restore stability to the land of Midnight. The execution was somewhat more complicated, as sole creator Mike Singleton explains: "I wanted to allow the player to explore and discover new places and new allies in a game environment that had the breadth and depth of a real country. The vital seeds were the map and the story; with those two elements finalised everything else very quickly fell into place."
Singleton admits to Tolkien's influence, yet Midnight's narrative certainly had its own power to captivate. Four characters were playable: Luxor the Moonprince; his son Morkin; Rorthron the Wise; and Corleth the Fey. Each character could be moved independently around the vast world, recruiting armies and battling creatures. Doomdark's own 250,000 Iceguard warriors were determined to hunt down and kill your men, and had the dreaded Ice Fear on their side - a terrible psychological power which could sap an army's motivation to fight.
However, the allies had two powerful weapons. Luxor owned the Moon Ring, which gave him powers of command and vision. This enabled him to direct all the other characters. Morkin, meanwhile, could totally resist the Ice Fear, giving him the opportunity to seek out and destroy the Ice Crown (Doomdark's power source) at the Tower of Doom in Ushgarak. In this way two strategies could be employed to win the game: the military campaign with Luxor, or the stealthy approach with Morkin.
Singleton's vision was ambitious, and he would have to apply his programming skills towards organising and calculating vast armies across a map consisting of 4,000 independent locations with 32,000 separate views. Though movement commands were simple enough (typing NE, E, SW, and so on), the player would have to consider when to rest, when to recruit and which terrain to attempt to negotiate. Each had a significant effect on the player's forces status. Interestingly, the adventure game The Hobbit provided the motivation for the technical intricacies. "It was one of the very first adventure games to include pictures, and I was suitably impressed by it," says Singleton. "But two things struck me about the graphics. Firstly, although the cameos and landscapes were nice, they were purely decorative - they had absolutely zero function in the game. Secondly, it took ages for the graphics to be drawn, and I mean ages - not half a second or maybe a whole second, but one minute, maybe two."
The limitations of the Spectrum's 48K memory and difficulty in displaying colours would actually define Midnight's stark visuals and gameplay mechanics. "I described [to Beyond Software] my idea of 'landscaping' - 3D panoramas which would be composed and drawn realtime by scanning a map of the game world and using scaled graphics for each of the landscape features. The graphics were all drawn directly to screen using the graphics utilities I had written and were largely dictated by the limitations of the medium. I wanted all of the characters to be bright and colourful, in contrast to the uniformly blue-and-white landscape. But on the Spectrum, you can't colour individual pixels, you can only colour whole 8x8 pixel cells - a maximum of two colours per cell. This means that the characters had to be designed so that their colours fit to the cell boundaries, but also so that they don't end up looking like Lego bricks."
Due to Midnight's complexity, the project had to be meticulously planned from the start. "The real key was not to write the game first and then try to compress it, but rather to write the game in compressed form right from the word go. I knew the landscape graphics would take up a lot of memory, so the first couple of weeks were spent writing routines that used a specially modified form of run length encoding and decoding for these graphics, as well as some utilities in BASIC that would enable me to interface with a graphics tablet and automatically scale and then manually touch up the landscape features I had drawn."
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. Like what you've read? Buy your copy of Edge now for £4.50 and get it delivered to your door (UK and Europe only). www.myfavouritemagazines.co.uk/gamesradarshop.