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Welcome to the Academy
ZX Computing, December 1986

With so many games now being created by teams, the solo programmer is becoming a rarity. ZX sought out Pete Cooke, author of Tau Ceti, who is now working in splendid isolation on the sequel to be called Academy.

Nobody knows more about the risks of the computer games market than the professional programmer who works entirely alone. For Pete Cooke, writing Academy, the follow up to Tau Ceti, has represented five months of sustained effort and he won't know whether it's all been worthwhile until the game playing public has decided its commercial fate.

Worse still perhaps is the prospect of finding that even after months of programming, a game may be simply unworkable.

"You have to be extremely careful as a freelance programmer," said Pete. "If you've taken months to produce a game and it doesn't work then you are simply not going to be able to eat. I've never had a project that has crashed on me but it must be a devastating experience to find all that time's been eaten up for nothing."

Despite the risks Pete prefers working on his own. Being in total control has its compensations. "I've always worked on my own and I like it that way. You can work your own hours and there are no distractions. I can't imagine working in the same room as a group of programmers. I'd find it impossible to concentrate."

Formerly a maths teacher, Pete got into programming via a familiar route. "When the ZX81 came out I knew I had to get one so I answered one of those tiny adverts. The first one I got didn't work but the second one did and things took off from there."

After writing several games including a couple of adventures Pete attracted attention with the critically acclaimed Tau Ceti. Academy is a game in the same vein but could be considered as a 'prequel' rather than a sequel.


"In Academy you are training to be a skimmer pilot and undertake missions similar to that of Tau Ceti. In order to pass your training you must complete, 20 different missions. These will be loaded in blocks of four. The missions rise in difficulty the further you progress and you confront different planetary conditions and various enemies on each outing. Really it's like having 20 games in one.

"Each mission may require a different kind of skimmer so apart from three skimmers which are equipped and ready to go, there are three additional ships which can be designed to your specifications. So as well as choosing which equipment you want there is also a skimmer ship designer so that using a cursor and pull down menus you can place all the instruments as you want them in the cockpit console.

'As soon as your mission has been completed you are presented with your table of scores and you need an average score of 90% to progress to the next level. There are five levels and once you've completed the lot there's the chance to go back to the first level and increase your average score.

"One idea for the future is to release a mission designer or perhaps produce a batch of missions that can be incorporated into the game."

Pete's expertise has progressed since Tau Ceti and there are a number of enhancements.

"There's a lot more to do, it's faster and the graphics include a lot more shading. In Tau Ceti there were two shades - now there are four of which three can be used at any one time so everything is more detailed. There is more kit to take aboard the skimmer and of course now you can design your own. The program can deal with a lot more missions than before and there are a lot more objects and movement in the planet landscapes."

Programming a game as complex as Academy presents its own special problems. "The most difficult thing is keeping the whole structure together so that everything interlocks properly. There are dozens of flags and each shape has 50 bits of information attached to it and you have to keep track of it all and make sure it all integrates."

In the shade

When designing a game Pete starts off with either a technical problem he wants to solve or an idea of a screen image he wants to create

"Tau Ceti evolved from wanting to create shaded objects and shapes. Once that had been established there were already limitations to work within. The techniques I wanted to try dictated that the game would have to be on a planet surface."

Once the basic idea is set, the next major decision is the size of the display. "If you decide on a large screen display you are going to have to settle for slower processing as there is a larger overhead for each screen copy. If you look at scrolling games for instance they have a smaller screen to prevent taking up too much time with processing.

"With the screen display set you can then assess how much memory you have to play around with presentation. It's only at this stage that you can assess whether you can go for fancy menus and pointers."

Juggling chunks of code is not a skill learnt without dedication and Pete has this advice for budding programmers: "Get some good books on programming, after that it's 99% perseverance. My bible was Rodney Zak's book, Programming the Z80, but almost any book on Z80 assembly will be of benefit. To get to grips with handling blocks of code you have to see the documentation - you can't do that just by looking at someone else's program."

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