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The Making Of Starglider

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Starglider is one of these games that everyone wanted to own. With its spectacular wire-frame visuals and hardcore blasting action, it instantly reminded people of Atari’s brilliant arcade coin-op Star Wars. Here Jez San reveals how it all began.

“My father was exporting people’s personal effects when they emigrated,” says Jez San of his importer/exporter father. “It came in handy, because in 1978, when I was 12 and a half, he imported one of the first computers available, a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I Level II. After playing all the games I could find on it, I got frustrated and learned to program 
so I could try and make my own. Then the BBC computer came out in 1981 and I was hooked. Finally, I had colour and multi-channel sound – the essential elements of a computer game – and having the built-in assembler was the most amazing idea.”

2

Take a hit and this is what happens. It’s a very clear way of saying
‘don’t do that again.’

You may well have heard of Jez San. Since the age of 16, when he set up Argonaut Software, he has been deeply involved in the industry, first developing games; then hardware, even working with Nintendo to develop the Super Famicom’s Super FX chip; and more recently online gaming and mobile applications. Oh, and he was awarded an OBE, too.

After first writing two books about the Sinclair QL, Jez began working on 1984’s side-scrolling shooter Skyline Attack for the Commodore 64, and then something caught his eye in the arcade. It was a cabinet that threw vectors around the screen like they would one day be superseded, and had that theme tune: the Star Wars cabinet. “I loved it so much I tried to buy the home computer rights from Atari,” says Jez. “They were playing ball, so I started development of my own version, and then all of a sudden they said they weren’t interested. So I detoured my game and made it more original, inspired by, rather than based on, the Star Wars coin-op.”

And that, folks, was the genesis of something very special indeed.
“I was talking with Amiga in 1984 and was negotiating to get one of their prototype models, codenamed the Lorraine. Then Commodore bought them and everything changed, so I bought a classic Mac and started work on my 3D technology, and Starglider was born. When the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga machines finally came out, I ported to them from the Mac.” The Mac version was later dropped as Jez didn’t feel the system was really a home machine at the time. “It was many years,” he remembers, “before a Mac version came back.” What with all these trials and tribulations, the game would be in development for three years.

7

The space combat was fast and furious. Easily capturing the spirit of Star Wars.

Project manager Gary Sheinwald remembers how his own involvement with the game began: “Although Starglider was under way when I joined [Starglider publisher] Rainbird in May 1986, I’d known Jez for about four years by then, and had seen Starglider evolve from a rotating cube on a rented Apple Mac to something a bit like the Star Wars arcade game, and then start to become the Starglider we all know.”

And was he immediately blown away? “Pretty much anything in 3D was exciting then. Only a handful of people in the world had figured out how to do it, and to see hidden line removal and animating objects – remember that games such as Battlezone didn’t have any significant animation; Starglider had bird-like craft with flapping wings – was very impressive at the time.” So no, it was no longer a Star Wars game. There were no Jedi involved and very little heavy breathing, but Starglider was a revelation in its own right – crisp vectors, a free-roaming 3D world, and smooth gameplay that mixed the best of the blaster and flight sim genres. Impossible as it may seem now, in this time of big development teams and even bigger budgets, Starglider ‘evolved’, as Jez explains: “The game had an initial design and several of the elements were there, as well as a whole lot of stuff that didn’t work in reality. The game mostly evolved from the loose spec. I just wanted to make the best game I could in the time available.”

And feedback was, of course, important. “Jez was very open to feedback, especially on gameplay difficultly ramping, damage values, scoring, etc,” Gary remembers. “I designed all the level maps on graph paper and typed in all the values for everything such as hit points, scores, damage, refuelling/recharging rates and so on. Gameplay developed as we went along. If I wanted something changed and Jez agreed, he’d make a code change, or I would make a data change directly myself. These days it’d be rounds of focus group testing and QA department input. None of that existed then. I did 99 per cent of the QA – there was no testing department and no external testing. Everything was very organic, and also quite informal. Back then there were no rigid production processes like we have today.”

18

Like Elite, Starglider came with its own space novella.
This one written by James Follett.

“I’m one of those coders that likes to informally think about how things are to work and then tries it out,” Jez continues. “Then tweaks and retries. The continual tuning led me to eventually make my own assembler program called ArgAsm to reduce the turnaround time between tweaking and testing a game. I also, jointly with Foo Katan, developed the first PDS, the Programmers Development System. It was used by David Braben and Ian Bell on porting Elite from the BBC to the C64, and it’s what got me my first break with Rainbird. I agreed to help them port Elite, if they agreed to give me my own game deal – Starglider.”
And so Starglider, along with text adventure The Pawn, became the launch title for Rainbird’s line of games for the Atari ST and Amiga, and the technical prowess on display in the game assured its success. As did its innovation…

Long before MechWarrior, Starglider had a neat little idea to do with firing missiles: you fire it and then switch to that missile’s POV, guiding it to its demise – and, hopefully, one of the enemies’ as well. “I loved the idea of changing the 3D viewpoint,” Jez remembers. “That sounded exciting to me, but then I wanted you to be able to control it and see where it went, to guide it. Nowadays, I guess we call them RPVs in the military and ‘after touch’ in games, but back then it was sort of novel.” Groundbreaking as it was, the production of Starglider was not without its trials, especially for a bedroom coder. Sort of…

“I did have an office at home, so I wasn’t technically in the bedroom,“ explains Jez, “but it was certainly a home project, so effectively my parents financed it because I was living at home for free. Starglider took from 1984 to 1986.” No dev kits back then, though. “There were many challenges, like inventing the 3D system, and on the Atari ST Starglider was the first game to use sampled sound. I was sat with my ST open, measuring voltages off the sound chip, and modulating the volume controls in real-time on the three channels to find what voltages came out so that I could play samples. I hired a Roland Juno synth to sample the song, and the title music by Dave Lowe let the Starglider theme sing out and was much appreciated at the time. He has since moved on to make TV themes like Grand Designs.”

Producing the game was becoming a mammoth task, and was certainly a labour of love for more than just one man. “Although it was a bedroom-developed game, we shouldn’t forget that even then plenty of other people contributed to the final product,” Gary says. “Paul Hibbard did all the 3D models on graph paper; I was the poor bastard who had to type in all the co-ordinates for every point and every frame of animation by hand; Clare Edgeley was the voice of the ship computer; Rick Clucas coded some of the low-level system stuff like mouse input/output; and Jez’s mum, Zoe, brought up tea and biscuits throughout the day and night during the final days of sleepless development. I don’t think the game would have been released on time without her…” I farmed out the bits I didn’t have the time or skill to do,” Jez recalls. “So I could focus on the gameplay.”

11

We like to use the strategy of shooting first and asking questions later.
In fact, forget the questions.

Coding back then was a hardcore thing, not for the faint-hearted. The good old days, when coders were inventive and computers were stubborn in their limitations, are something that Jez fondly remembers: “You took control of the machine and hit the pedal to the metal. You programmed in assembly or machine language, and you accessed the hardware directly to make it ‘sing’ in ways it was never designed to. Nowadays, you don’t talk to the hardware directly; you use libraries and APIs. All the hard stuff is done for you and all you do is tell it what you want it to do, rather than help it do it, like we used to do. And gone is assembly language. Nowadays people program in C or even higher-level languages where they have little control over what is happening on the actual microprocessor at a register level. Back then, I used to program very efficiently. I knew at any point what was in all of the registers so I didn’t need to push and pop things onto the stack. This made the code run much, much faster than if someone had written it the normal way, and also no compiler at the time could create code like that. Probably even to this day, a compiler couldn’t beat that style of programming.”

But for those on the joystick end of things, Starglider remains a vivid memory because of just how immersive it was. It was the sandbox game of its day. And just like it sometimes seems that we can never quite recapture the spirit of those days, so too have other aspects of games changed – we all remember that buzz from a new, innovative release, but we should not forget the joys to be beholden even before that. We are talking, of course, about the packaging. Environmentally friendly they perhaps weren’t, but who can forget that feeling of holding one of those huge boxes and letting the bottom half slide out? And how much sweeter was it when you found more than just a disk or two in there? Well, Starglider contained a novella, written by author James Follett.

“My and Follett’s agent was Jacqui Lyons, a former literary agent who had decided to be the first agent in computer games,” Jez explains. “It was Jacqui’s idea to include the novella in the box, as it had been successfully done with Elite the previous year.“ (Elite: The Dark Wheel, written by late fantasy author Robert Holdstock, was packaged with most versions of Elite.) “James turned out to be an excellent choice, and he and I hit it off,” Jez continues. “We bounced ideas off each other and he was involved early enough to influence the game design with his story, so it worked really well.”

You can read the rest of our Making Of Starglider in issue 86. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com

Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from Imagineshop

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