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
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
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.
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
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
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