ZX Computing, September 1986
Level 9 are celebrating
five years in business but with a multifarious range of projects
in the making there is no time to put on the party hats as
ZX found when we visited L9's west country retreat.
Down in the valley below, miniature cows chew the cud, daydreaming
perhaps that they will inspire the programmers in the house
at the top of the hill to star them in Friesian Adventure.
So far the Level 9 programmers who moved into 'Rocklease,'
a few miles outside Weston Super Mare, 18 months ago, have
resisted the ever present bovine influence on their writing
- but if it ever happens you'll know why.
Rocklease, an impressive house built into the rock of the
hillside and giving panoramic views for miles around is a
far cry from L9's previous programming base in High Wycombe,
but, surprisingly, all this rustic tranquility has not caused
distractions from the keyboard.
"The real advantage," says Peter Austin, "is
that we get far more work done because we're away from the
phone." But there is the odd bit of excitement? "Oh
yes," said Peter, "occasionally a horse goes by."
One of Level 9's current projects has a definite rural theme.
In conjunction with Mosaic, L9 are writing a computer game
based on the long running radio series, The Archers.
"We wanted to do a soap opera and thought that The
Archers would have an extra intellectual appeal, as some
soap operas no one will admit to watching.
"In the game you take the part of the scriptwriter who
has to decide how the characters will live their lives and
how this will effect the audience ratings. If you make a bad
decision and lose half a million listeners you get an angry
memo from the controller of Radio 4. All the background was
supplied by the scriptwriters and it's just a case of writing
the game based on that."
Games like The Archers make an interesting diversion
from writing the adventures that have become Level 9's forte,
but Level 9's first products as a company were actually utilities
and arcade games for the Nascom.
The company evolved from a family hobby with Peter, Michael
and Nicholas Austin all programming in their spare time, but
it quickly developed into a family business requiring a full
time commitment. Margaret Austin runs the marketing side of
Level 9 from Reading and Mr Austin senior looks offer the
Now the workload has increased due to the licensing deal
with Rainbird, aimed at pushing Level 9 games in the American
market and additional programmers and artists have been brought
was a couple of years before Level 9 released their first
adventure. "Like an awful lot of people I'd played Colossal
on a mainframe and the challenge for me was to take it and
try to cram in onto a home micro," said Peter. Michael
added, "After that was a success we tried doing other
adventures and decided to stick in that field."
From Colossal Adventure came Adventure Quest
and the trilogy was completed by Dungeon Adventure.
What became known as the Middle Earth Trilogy has been revisited
by Level 9 and been enhanced. The result is Jewels of Darkness,
a £14.94 package containing the three adventures on
three cassettes plus a booklet, Darkness Rising by Peter McBride
which acts as a scene setter for the adventures.
Jewels of Darkness is the first Level 9 product to
be packaged and marketed by Rainbird and brings the pure text
adventures up to date by including graphics, a new parser,
and advanced features introduced in the recent Price of
Magik. The vocabulary in each adventure has been increased
to 1000 words and all told the trilogy contains over 600 pictures.
On the Spectrum each adventure will be in two versions with
a choice of a text-only version on one side and text with
graphics on the other. This, said Peter, was to head off the
ongoing debate between the purist text adventurers and those
in the graphic adventure camp.
"It's a business fact that if we leave out the graphics
we will halve our sales, but of course if we put the pics
in and take out the text we get complaints so if we give them
the choice they can just pick which version they prefer."
Another feature is that the trilogy can now be played as
a complete adventure.
"If you get a maximum score at the end of one part you
can save your position, but of course finishing all three
will be quite tricky."
A help system has been added with seven or eight help messages
towards the beginning of the adventures. But some help messages
are more helpful than others, "Beware of some really
bad puns," warned Peter, who said the tips had been included
to get new adventurers off to a smooth start.
New commands have been added to save time. You can now "take
all" or "drop all except" - which prevents
the laborious listing of objects.
added is the death defying "Oops" command introduced
in The Price of Magik. If you get killed you can back
to your former position and on the 128 version of the trilogy
it will be possible to resurrect yourself 20 or 30 positions
earlier in the game.
The enhanced trilogy runs a lot faster than the original
and will also accept multiple commands up to 80 characters
in length. The Middle Earth Trilogy is one of the best known
and most played adventure series but Michael believes that
it will appeal to those who missed It first time round.
"I suppose if you had played two parts it might be difficult
to justify buying it for the third but if you hadn't played
an adventure before or you came relatively late to the Spectrum
I think it will be of great interest."
Whenever a genre becomes established there is only a short
time lag before the spoofs appear and Level 9 who did so much
to establish adventures have an adventure parody called Knight
Orc in preparation for release in November.
"Knight Orc is a three part multi-load adventure
with each part being linked together to form one continuous
game. It's a complex scenario with a couple of twists. You
plan an Orc who is constantly pursued by human adventurers
and you team up with other poor creatures who have been beaten
up by the humans. It's meant to be a dig at adventure playing."
Did bringing out a spoof mean that Level 9 felt adventure
writing had gone as far as it could go?
"No, I think spoofs appear when there is enough history
to base it on and I think there are more areas to develop
in adventures. I don't think we are anywhere near what is
possible. Even with the 48K Spectrum there are things like
multiload, multitasking, more text and greater characterisation
that can be done."
To the non adventurer the appeal of adventures can seem unfathomable
so why do people enjoy them?
"There is an appeal to the hack and slay instinct,"
said Michael, "and that was what we tried to emphasise
in The Price of Magik where the hack and slay method
got you absolutely nowhere."
I think the appeal is that adventures are good, all round
entertainment," added Peter. "We try to provide
interesting settings, scenery, puzzles and a substantial slice
of humour in each game."
Plans are underway to start a Level 9 Multi User game called
Avalon. At present the Austins are still toying with
which hardware system to use but say that the system should
be operational around Christmas.
"The number of players is theoretically infinite - you
just add more processors. But realistically we hope to start
with about 30 and work up to a hundred or so, but if it proves
popular we will support as many people who want to use it."
Multi user games are a natural progression from Adventure
playing said Michael, "When most people play adventures
it's a solitary thing - there's no club spirit. A multi user
game is really an extension of a chatline with extras thrown
New adventures will continue to appear from the hilltop HQ
at Rocklease and old favourites will emerge in new, updated,
"We don't view games as something we bring out and forget,
we like to think that they will be around in some form in
ten years time."