The Making of: The Eidolon
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.