The Mak­ing of: The Ei­dolon

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS - Pub­lisher: Ac­tivi­sion De­vel­oper: Lu­cas­film Games re­leased: 1985 Plat­form: Var­i­ous Plat­form: First-per­son shooter Words by Rory Milne

Rory Milne chats to Char­lie Kell­ner about this unique first-per­son 8-bit ad­ven­ture

Af­ter join­ing Lu­cas­film Games and help­ing out with Res­cue On Frac­talus!, Char­lie Kell­ner re­pur­posed the game’s en­gine for a new project. Char­lie tells us how this in­no­va­tion paved the way for his fan­tasy shooter, The Ei­dolon

In 1983 Ap­ple Com­puter, Inc was pre­par­ing to usher in an ex­cit­ing new era for per­sonal com­put­ers in the shape of a prod­uct called the Mac­in­tosh. How­ever, one of the team mem­bers de­vel­op­ing soft­ware for the sys­tem, Char­lie Kell­ner, had re­ceived an in­vi­ta­tion that would lead to an even more ex­cit­ing ca­reer. “I was work­ing for Ap­ple at the time, and had learned some things about how to speed up 6502 code,” Char­lie says of his time with the renowned tech firm. “I was in­vited to a party by David Fox, and he handed me his new busi­ness card, which said: ‘Lu­cas­film Games’. I just did a dou­ble-take, I said: ‘What use does Ge­orge Lu­cas have for videogames?’ But it sounded re­ally ex­cit­ing, and Lu­cas­film in­vited me over for an in­ter­view and hired me. My first task was to help Loren Car­pen­ter to speed up his frac­tal draw­ing rou­tine for Res­cue On Frac­talus!. Af­ter Res­cue, we were look­ing for other things to do with it, and I fig­ured out a way to turn the moun­tains up­side down to gen­er­ate caves.”

Of course, Char­lie’s first-per­son cave sys­tems re­quired some ac­tual game­play, and so the coder wrote up his ini­tial thoughts in a de­sign doc­u­ment with the place­holder ti­tle: The Dragon Game. “It was a tour­na­ment with a dragon ver­sus a knight, where you played the dragon,” Char­lie re­mem­bers. “But the prob­lem was that it needed a lot of scenes. At min­i­mum, it would need the caves – which were the dragon’s home, a maze, some sort of open field – where he would do joust­ing, and a cas­tle – where he would get stuff and bring it back to his lair. But the num­ber of scenes grad­u­ally di­min­ished as we re­alised that we were very lim­ited in how much art­work we could do and how much time we had to do the cod­ing. It even­tu­ally got down to just caves, but just a dragon walk­ing around caves didn’t seem very in­ter­est­ing, so we cre­ated a whole bunch of in­ter­est­ing crea­tures, and I put a sci-fi shell around it with a nod to HG Wells.”

An ad­di­tional change saw the makeshift ti­tle

The Dragon Game re­placed with some­thing that Char­lie felt bet­ter re­flected his evolv­ing project’s vi­su­als and its Vic­to­rian theme. “I’d been fas­ci­nated by mythol­ogy for what seemed like my whole life,” Char­lie re­calls, “and there were cer­tain words that I stum­bled upon while I was read­ing. One of them was ‘ei­dolon,’ which is an imag­i­nary im­age that car­ries power. Ba­si­cally, that was what we were do­ing with the com­puter graph­ics; they

were in­sub­stan­tial images that were mean­ing­ful, and you needed to in­ter­act with them. ‘Ei­dolon’ also sug­gested to me some sort of steam­punkpow­ered ma­chine that you could travel in.”

But in or­der to por­tray this Vic­to­rian craft within a first-per­son en­gine, its de­pic­tion had to be lim­ited to a con­trol panel cov­ered with di­als and gauges. “The look of the Ei­dolon’s con­trol panel wasn’t re­ally in­tended to be so­phis­ti­cated,” Char­lie ar­gues, “it was Vic­to­rian style, in keep­ing with the genre in which the game was set. Back in those days, play­ers would usu­ally de­ter­mine what a cer­tain gauge did by how it was af­fected by the game­play. Peo­ple didn’t usu­ally read the man­ual, they just launched in and played the game. So the Ei­dolon’s con­trol panel was a lit­tle cryptic, but the idea was that af­ter playing once or twice you un­der­stood what each gauge did.”

As well as the Ei­dolon’s con­trol panel, fur­ther de­sign du­ties awaited Lu­cas­film Games artist Gary Win­nick, who sub­se­quently struck upon a bril­liant solution for cre­at­ing crea­tures for Char­lie’s game. “Our char­ac­ters were done by cell an­i­ma­tion, where the body, legs, tail, wings and head were all sep­a­rate pieces,” Char­lie re­veals. “Each crea­ture was maybe ten dif­fer­ent pieces of an­i­ma­tion that all needed to be drawn on top of each other ev­ery frame. That was the only way we could store that many graph­ics in the avail­able me­mory. We didn’t have proper draw­ing tools at the time, so our artist Gary Win­nick drew out­lines of the char­ac­ters on pieces of cel­lu­loid film that he would tape to the game mon­i­tor, and then use the joy­stick to colour in the pix­els un­der­neath. He was able to op­ti­mise the graph­ics on the screen be­cause he could make ev­ery pixel count.”

Gary’s cre­ations com­bined sci-fi, fan­tasy and the sur­real, and in­cluded ev­ery­thing from trolls to house­flies with he­li­copter ro­tors, but equally im­por­tant were the dragon bosses he de­signed. “Gary was into dragons, and I guess I was too, so dragons wound-up be­ing a nat­u­ral in­clu­sion,” Char­lie rea­sons. “We tried to make the dragons as di­verse as we could. Each one looked dif­fer­ent, and they rep­re­sented a dif­fer­ent kind of magic, but I guess that didn’t re­ally come off in the game­play. The story was that an in­ven­tor was ex­plor­ing the depths of his own mind, and that the dragons rep­re­sented the lim­i­ta­tions that he thought were stop­ping him from suc­ceed­ing, so he would need to use dif­fer­ent strate­gies to de­feat each one.”

How­ever, Char­lie’s in­no­va­tive an­i­ma­tion en­gine placed lim­its on the strate­gic el­e­ments of The Ei­dolon’s boss fights, and so he de­vised a sys­tem where fir­ing blindly would re­sult in fire­balls ric­o­chet­ing off bosses’ pro­jec­tiles and back at the player. “It was a way to make the con­test seem fair,” Char­lie points out. “You couldn’t just walk up to the dragons, shoot them and win, you had to use strategy. We had a very lim­ited amount of dodg­ing that you could do, but you could aim and de­cide where and how to hit them. They didn’t move around, but that was mostly a lim­i­ta­tion

“The Ei­dolon’s con­trol panel was a lit­tle cryptic, but the idea was that af­ter playing once or twice you un­der­stood what each gauge did” Char­lie Kell­ner

of the graph­ics, as it cost ev­ery­thing we had in the stor­age of the game to be able to put all of those dif­fer­ent dragons on the screen.”

Ad­di­tional con­ces­sions fol­lowed, in­clud­ing plans to have mul­ti­ple crea­tures mov­ing around the screen, which proved too much of a stretch for Char­lie’s an­i­ma­tion rou­tines. “I tried hard to get these vari­ably-sized crea­tures to be as fast as pos­si­ble and man­aged to get them up to onequar­ter of the speed of a fixed-size draw­ing, which was pretty fast con­sid­er­ing,” Char­lie pon­ders. “But still, it was barely fast enough to have one crea­ture on the screen at a time. Of course, we had no hard­ware as­sist at all, so it was a bat­tle to try and make some­thing that was mov­ing fast enough that you could ac­tu­ally have fun playing.”

An­other con­cept was scaled back rather than be­ing dropped al­to­gether, which started out as peace­ful char­ac­ter in­ter­ac­tion and ended up with crea­tures that were docile un­til fired on. “The idea was that any crea­ture would try to de­fend it­self when it was at­tacked, but you didn’t nec­es­sar­ily need to at­tack it,” Char­lie ex­plains. “We were try­ing to ex­tend the whole idea of com­puter games; we wanted our games to be more film-like than you had seen be­fore. There wasn’t any way we could give play­ers a movie-like ex­pe­ri­ence on such a small screen with such a small pro­ces­sor, but to the ex­tent that we as­pired to it I felt that we made it a bet­ter game.”

A de­sign de­ci­sion of a dif­fer­ent sort re­volved around the dif­fi­culty of The Ei­dolon, which Char­lie re­solved by care­fully gaug­ing the chal­lenge of the game’s cave sys­tems. “It was a con­stant bat­tle be­tween sim­pli­fy­ing the game and mak­ing it com­plex enough to be in­ter­est­ing,” Char­lie con­cedes. “So I chose to make the mazes com­plex, but not too com­plex, so that you could solve them by wan­der­ing around. The caves were ac­tu­ally ran­dom. There was a cave-build­ing rou­tine in there that would gen­er­ate caves. The idea was that we wanted to have an al­go­rithm that could gen­er­ate caves that were dif­fi­cult to ex­plore be­cause they were dif­fer­ent each time.”

But while Char­lie’s code ren­dered dis­tinc­tive caves for each of The Ei­dolon’s core stages, the de­signer took in­spi­ra­tion from the ar­cades when it came to de­sign­ing the game’s fi­nal level, and its boss ended up be­ing just as unique. “One of the other games that I found fas­ci­nat­ing back in that day was Tem­pest,” Char­lie en­thuses. “There was a level high up where the grid that the crea­tures were climb­ing around on was in­vis­i­ble. So I wanted to have a level in The Ei­dolon where the

cave maze was in­vis­i­ble, and you could only find your way around it by bump­ing into the walls. We wanted the fi­nal boss to be a tough op­po­nent, so we had a mul­ti­headed dragon, and that was a real an­i­ma­tion night­mare. But Gary did a won­der­ful job, and it wound up be­ing be­wil­der­ing to look at con­sid­er­ing the lim­i­ta­tions of our graph­ics.”

The Ei­dolon’s stun­ning vi­su­als, not to men­tion its hy­brid genre game­play, also drew praise from mag­a­zine re­view­ers and play­ers when it came to the game’s re­lease, but Char­lie’s mem­o­ries of The Ei­dolon’s re­cep­tion are in­cred­i­bly hum­ble. “Re­ally the ex­cite­ment about The Ei­dolon’s graph­ics was down to Gary’s ex­tra­or­di­nary art­work,” Char­lie re­marks. “I was re­ally wor­ried about the game be­ing a to­tal flop be­cause I wanted to do so much with it and wound up, in my opin­ion, do­ing so lit­tle. So I was just re­ally thank­ful that peo­ple liked it.”

Time has given the de­vel­oper a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, how­ever, and al­though there are as­pects of The Ei­dolon that Char­lie would change given hind­sight, he ul­ti­mately has noth­ing but pride for his team’s cre­ation. “I think it wouldn’t have cost very much to make the dragons move around a bit,” Char­lie notes, “and I would have

tried to make a more mean­ing­ful com­bat sys­tem. I def­i­nitely would have made a more peace­ful way of in­ter­act­ing with the other crea­tures. But look­ing back on The Ei­dolon af­ter so many years, I’m proud of what we did. I think it’s kind of amaz­ing that we were able to do that much back then with those ma­chines. Our lit­tle team of pi­o­neers loved to try the un­tried and to ex­plore what was pos­si­ble, and I think that ev­ery­one that was in­volved with The Ei­dolon can be proud of it.”

» [Atari 8-bit] The odd-look­ing Grep avoids con­flict, but you have to dis­patch him to ob­tain his jewel.

» [Atari 8-bit] Hit­ting a wall in­stead of an op­po­nent will drain your en­ergy if a fire­ball bounces back at you.

» [Atari 8-bit] This blue mon­stros­ity is in­de­struc­tible, and has to be trans­formed into a less-durable form.

Char­lie Kell­ner was the driv­ing» force be­hind Lu­cas­film’s in­no­va­tive first-per­son ad­ven­ture/shooter.

» [Atari 8-bit] Blue fire­balls freeze time, which is use­ful in your race against the clock.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.