Level 9 Country
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."

The Archers

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 accounts.

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 in.

It 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.

Also 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 in."

New adventures will continue to appear from the hilltop HQ at Rocklease and old favourites will emerge in new, updated, forms.

"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."

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