The Hobbit was first released on The Spectrum, and proved to be a colourful, imaginative insight into the world of J.R.R. Tolkien. Created by Australian software developer, Melbourne House, it captured all the mystical elements of the book, while acting as a brilliant adventure game in its own right. He we reveal how this important graphical adventure came to be.
Write the best adventure ever. That was the simple but challenging brief provided to Veronika Megler by Beam Software and Melbourne House co-founder Alfred Milgrom. At the time, Veronika was studying at Melbourne University and had been working late shifts as a computer operator. Wanting something better, little did she know that answering Alfred’s bulletin board advertisement would lead to a part-time games programmer role and a place in gaming history.
The visuals were simple, but extremely effective.
Initially a fan of Colossal Cave, Veronika’s approach in creating the ‘best adventure ever’ was to use her computer science skills and reinvent a genre. “Colossal Cave quickly became boring. Once you’d solved the game, it was always the same – there was nothing interesting from that point on,” she explains. “And everyone at the time was writing interpreted BASIC – everything was hard-coded. You could dump memory to read an adventure’s messages, which is how most people solved them at the time.”
Veronika recalls how the basics of what would become The Hobbit were designed in just two hours on her first day on the job, inspired by computer science work she’d done at university: “I put down the whole concept of having a network or a replaceable database of locations, animals that each had a character that they played themselves, and how all of that would work. I designed it in such a way that rather than hard-coding everything, we could pull out and replace the database of characters and locations and end up with a different game.” At the time, she and three friends collaborated on university projects, and they were, at her recommendation, hired by Alfred Milgrom, with Philip Mitchell subsequently co-authoring The Hobbit, primarily concentrating on the linguistics side of the game.
It’s quite a bit different to Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the scene…
Soon after starting work on the project, it was clear that a theme was required, and it was Alfred who suggested The Hobbit. “That was very early on, within the first few weeks, and all of the key pieces that later turned into the game were already in place. It was then a case of building it all out,” remembers Veronika, who adds that the choice of theme was perfect: “We all knew The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings – I’d read the entire series several times by that point. To lay out the game, I went through the book, picking out key locations and pieces of the adventure that I could imagine how to turn into a puzzle or an interaction between characters and the player.” Veronika recalls that this part of the job wasn’t tricky, nor did it take long, and this enabled the team to tighten up everything within the game, thereby offering players the best experience: “We ended up doing a bunch of things. For starters, we wrote the whole thing in assembler, which drove me nuts during debugging, but it meant we had more power available than BASIC games. Also, Phil encoded the message database, so you couldn’t dump memory to read the game’s messages. More importantly, this gave us the ability to have a richer vocabulary, because we just had a dictionary of words, and sentences were built up out of pointers to those words. We could substitute in whatever the subject or object was that we needed, just as a little placeholder that allowed us to identify where the subject, the object and the verb went.”
These breakthroughs in language and accessible interaction became cornerstones of The Hobbit’s development. Phil worked alongside an English major, who provided insight into grammar construction and worked out how to fashion a working parser within the confines of the TRS-80’s memory, subsequently dubbed ‘Inglish’. Veronika remembers Alfred being very much in favour of the game being approachable in this manner, and the writing of Inglish took as long as the rest of the game: “So Phil spent the entire year writing those pieces while I wrote the game, the characters, the interaction and the engine. There was a pretty clean interface between the two of us, because he would take anything somebody chucked in and turn it into the basic ‘get sword’/‘kill dwarf’ kind of instructions most adventure games used then, and pass that to me to work with.”
Is anyone else scared or is it just us?
As already noted, another of Veronika’s goals with The Hobbit was to fashion a text adventure that was less linear, more flexible and more replayable than most of its predecessors: “The way I handled that was really just to add randomness. I’d had the basic idea that each animal was going to have a character and each character was also going to have a turn whenever the player did. We added a randomiser so whenever the game started, every animal would pick a random place within its character to start from.” Each character was given a list of actions that cycled – something like: pick up randomly chosen object; go in random direction; if someone’s in the room, give them a random object; go in a different randomly chosen direction and put a randomly chosen object down. The loop would be started in a random place and the character went off and did its thing. “Just the very interaction of the characters is what made the game complex at that point, and behaviour emerged out of that,” adds Veronika.
While randomness provided The Hobbit with richness, it came at a price. “Trying to debug the game was a nightmare,” remembers Veronika. “Our development machines would crash as the result of interactions and behaviours in some other part of the game. You had no idea – you just had a dump on your hands and had to figure out what had happened.” Additionally, the manner in which characters behaved caused problematic scenarios: “You could end up in a situation where the game could not be completed successfully. Because the animals themselves interacted, they were playing the game, and they in general did not differentiate between a player and one of the other characters. It was possible for one to chance upon a location containing an aggressor who would kill them, and if that character was someone you needed to do things, you wouldn’t be able to complete the game. You might not find out for several hours of playing [laughs], but that’s just the way it was! I didn’t make any attempt to stop that, because I thought it was cool.”
There was an impressive amount of choice in The Hobbit.
We proffer that these behind-the-scenes interactions may be why the game gained a reputation for being buggy, with players mistaking bugs for the way the game actually worked. “I think that’s true,” says Veronika. “And there were certain other things that happened. We’d get reports from people who’d done things in the game that never really occurred to us.” In part, this was due to the game largely being based around general concepts: “For example, one might say someone could pick up something as long as the object was lighter than them. And there were places with small doors you couldn’t get through when carrying many things. But these were all very general, and so reports arrived from people doing a combination of things that were possible conceptually but that we’d never thought of. But we made no attempt to try and stop it either!”
An example found in various walkthroughs involves the Bard, who can be tricky to give directions to; the recommendation is to carry him. “Yes, right! That’s exactly the kind of thing that would happen,” exclaims Veronika. “We were always running into ‘bugs’ that were literally there as a result of the complete flexibility of the game, as opposed to games at the time that programmed in a small number of things you were allowed to do in a small number of locations. They were easier to test because there was no way to do anything that was not specifically allowed!” The Hobbit’s system was almost the opposite: instead of strict solutions, there were a small number of puzzles that had to be solved in specific ways, but most merely had a set of conditions that needed to be met. If you managed to meet those conditions in a way different to how Veronika had imagined, the problem would still be solved.