Sinclair User, May 1985
PETE AUSTIN contemplates an
empty beermug in a High Wycombe pub, trying to decide whether
he wants another half before he leaves. In doing so he displays
the same measured concentration that his victims in alien
worlds must employ to avoid sudden death from any one of a
myriad traps. For Pete is the king of British adventure, the
driving force behind Level 9 Software. His company has won
a name for text adventures in the classic tradition - Colossal
Adventure, Lords of Time, Snowball - vast
games of 200 or more locations, with more puzzles than was
believed possible on a standard home micro.
Pete's interest in fantasy games goes back to the days of
graph paper and dice. At school he became involved with table-top
wargaming, sending battalions of Sherman tanks across the
chipboard to flush out the German armoured defences. Later,
at Cambridge University, where he studied Psychology and later
Computer Science, he discovered Dungeons and Dragons,
the fantasy role-playing game.
You can tell from the way Pete talks about the game that
he was once a dedicated fan, whatever occupies his time now.
He and his friends also played a game called Empire of
the Petal Throne. "In the evenings we either played
D&D or we went down to the pub ... and played Petal
Computing began with a course at Cambridge "which was
really just an excuse to stay there for an extra year."
On finally dragging himself away from the ivory towers, Pete
set off in search of fame and fortune. He became a programming
consultant and worked for 18 months on an enquiry package
for banks and suchlike. No glittering prizes for young Pete
"You don't get much choice about your next package,"
he says. "I got put on an accounting package. There had
already been 50 people working on it. You end up writing very
defensive code. I didn't fancy that as a full-time job."
Pete moved to mainframe manufacturer Perkin-Elmer. He had
lost touch with his D&D friends but discovered,
to his lasting joy, a version of the original Crowther and
Woods Adventure program on the main computer there.
"We played it during the lunch hours. There had been
a number of simpler games on the computer at Cambridge, based
on the D&D format. Adventure was full of
puzzles, many of which were extremely unfair. I cracked it
in two weeks."
He smiles at the memory. Two weeks to beat Adventure?
Most people take six months. Pete is still proud of the achievement.
Pete has two younger brothers, Nicholas and Michael, and
a sister Margaret. While he was still working for Perkin-Elmer,
he and the brothers formed Level 9 in order to utilise their
combined computing expertise. Nicholas studied computer science
at London university and Michael is currently reading engineering
at Southampton. "He doesn't need to do it," says
Pete. "He could teach it instead."
Margaret joined later to take over marketing and recently
their father John, having retired from the BBC, came in on
the act, soon to become managing director.
Do you remember the Nascom? It was one of the first home
micros, in the days of kits and small RAMs. Pete bought a
Nascom, and Level 9's first program was an extension to Nascom
Basic. It sold well. In those days business was good with
sales of 500 or more.
The first game, also for the Nascom, was called Fantasy.
Pete says it was like Valhalla but with no graphics.
"There were a lot of characters wandering around who
changed according to your actions. What I did was to make
it print out in proper English. I'm interested in the user
interface, what used to be called front-end programming."
Indeed, the series of adventures which has since flowed from
Level 9 is renowned for high standards of plot and literate
description, in spite of notorious spelling mistakes. Pete
is irked by "climable" which still remains in Colossal
Adventure, despite numerous corrections to each new edition.
Colossal Adventure, a faithful version of the Crowther
and Woods original, took about a year to produce, and was
written for the BBC and Spectrum simultaneously. The cramped
office at Level 9 has three BBC micros as well as an IBM PC.
No Spectrums were in evidence, although Pete insisted there
were plenty about.
Level 9 uses a standard adventure writing system for its
products, which was designed by Pete himself. "Michael
then coded it using the a-code language which he invented
for the purpose. I did the text compression section. We brought
out Colossal because there were no adventure games
around of a decent size. I thought it must be possible to
do it in less than 32K. I saw it as a way of getting back
into fantasy wargaming."
To squeeze what was originally a 200K mainframe program into
32K, and then to add an extra 70 locations just for the fun
of it, was no mean feat. Pete's text compressor has been a
feature of all Level 9's mammoth adventures. It works by running
through all the messages and searching for common strings.
For example, "ing" might occur frequently. The compressor
replaces "ing" with a single code wherever it occurs.
That done, it goes through again, and again, each time saving
more space. "It doesn't always pick up what you'd expect
it to," explains Pete. In the phrase "in the room"
the compressor might decide that it was more efficient to
use a code for "n th" and "e r" rather
than pick out "in" and "the". That is
not something which occurs to the human mind. The system has
been rewritten to create graphics as well. Level 9 can now
store a picture in about 30 bytes, using a similar method
to the text compressor. That means a 200 location adventure
- the minimum Pete will allow - can have a picture for each
location for only another 6K of RAM. Not content with these
two areas, the a-code compiler even compacts Basic program
lines. "Most Basic systems have keywords which use a
single byte," explains Pete. "We go further. We
take out the arguments so that each Basic instruction only
uses two or three bytes."
Colossal Adventure was followed by two sequels, Adventure
Quest and Dungeon Adventure, collectively known
as the Middle Earth [later Jewels of Darkness] Trilogy,
referring to Tolkien's mythical setting for Lord of the
Rings. "Trilogies help. Adventure Quest sells
as people play Colossal. Middle Earth was a convenient
fantasy setting. It was a way of telling people the type of
world they were getting."
For the next project, Pete decided to switch to science fiction,
and began to create the Silicon Dreams trilogy. "There
are far too many generalised fantasy games," he says.
"The authors are OD-ing on sword and sorcery novels."
The first SF game, Snowball, featured 8000 locations
and involved spaceperson Kim Kimberley in a giant space station
dangerously out of control. Is the androgynous Kim a man or
woman? Pete says she's a woman, while sister Margaret says
he's a man. Pete considers the point. "No, there's a
credit at the end for the design of "Ms Kimberley's costume"."
Was the ambiguous picture of Kim in the instruction booklet
deliberately vague? "It's very accurate," says Pete.
"I got the artist, Tim, to draw women the way they are,
not exaggerating various features. But it was a deliberately
unisex name." Pete explains that about a third of the
people who write to the company are women. "I'm aware
of the female audience. I always try to write nonsexist prose."
He goes into some detail on the design of Kim's costume,
and why the leotard would make a fine spacesuit in the right
sort of material. It is typical of the man that he should
have considered such problems. The Silicon Dreams trilogy
is meticulously plotted and designed, with features and history
stretching well beyond the confines of the game itself. "SF
books I like the most are those where people have paid attention
to detail. I don't mean like Arthur C. Clarke where what you
get is more like an engineering manual, but authors like Larry
Niven - if you make certain assumptions about things like
ramships then it all hangs together.
"A game is more like a play than a novel - it has a
similar number of words. I would like to put more in than
puzzles. Most other adventure descriptions just link puzzles
together. It doesn't cost much in memory space to create a
Pete tells of one nit-picking reviewer who spotted an error
in the detail. "Apparently Eden, the planet, is orbiting
Eridani E instead of Eridani A," he says, explaining
that Eridani E is the wrong type of star. Or is it A? "No
one gives a damn except this reviewer. But Worm in Paradise
will change that. I shall explain how the planet moved. The
game ends with mankind getting to the stars via an alien transportation
Worm in Paradise is to be the final part of the trilogy
- the second, Return to Eden, was released late last
year. In that, Kim must battle against deadly plant life and
evade the rogue robots of the colony planet, who believe her
to be a saboteur for her attempts to save the space station
in the first game, Snowball.
"Worm is set on Eden, about 50 years in the future,"
says Pete. "The player is not Kim - she becomes mayor
and runs the place. She defeats the plans of the robots to
make the colonists have lots of babies to colonise the Universe.
I looked at the original and thought it was as anti-feminist
as you could get, so I thought to redress the balance. Because
you know less than real people would about our society, I
have the player escape from an asylum. It explains why you
don't know anything and have no possessions." Thoughtful
of you, Pete.
Meanwhile, rather than become stuck in the rut of trilogies,
with each game taking about six months to design and program,
Level 9 has also been branching out into other areas. The
light-hearted Erik the Viking, based on ex-Python Terry
Jones' children's book, was written for Mosaic, a publishing
house which is branching into software, "Erik
was nice," says Pete. "It was a complete break for
"It was nicer for me," interjects Margaret. "I
don't have to sell the thing."
Following the success of Erik, Mosaic has commissioned
Pete to design a game based on the best-selling Diaries
of Adrian Mole. How will Level 9 translate the obnoxiously
sophisticated 13¾ year old to the digital screen?
"It will be a multi-part game with an enormous amount
of text. This is not a promise, but I would like about half
a megabyte of text. It will be on twin cassettes. The game
will have to have a definite sense of time. You won't be able
to go back and buy flowers for your mum if you forgot. People
will behave in the same way from section to section, depending
on your actions. The object of the game will be to make Adrian
Mole popular - not just with his girlfriend Pandora but with
the whole world."
If that sounds ambitious, Pete has even bigger plans for
1986. "By the end of this year I want to be much nearer
to soap opera. I don't mean like Adrian Mole - those are caricatures.
I want characters to be more real, like Floyd in Planetfall
by Infocom." That includes storylines which induce emotion,
such as feeling sad if a character gets hurt.
In the meantime, releases for the near future include Red
Moon and The Price of Magic. Red Moon will depart from
the problem-solving style of Level 9 and use fantasy role-playing
combat and magic systems to produce a more open-ended game.
"It will have an enormous number of pictures all fairly
similar to each other. Players of Runequest will recognise
"The Price of Magic will be based on the Cthulhu
mythos from the stories of H P Lovecraft. Your sanity decreases
as you increase your score. You can only do certain things
if you are sane. If you are too insane you won't be able to
It sounds like a description of a fanatic Level 9 adventurer
. . .