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January 2013

The Epic Simplicity of The Lords of Midnight

TLoM We can not only learn from the design of this inventive strategy-adventure from the dawn of videogame history, we can learn from its outstandingly authentic port how to fix problems without detracting from the essence of the original. Come with me on a journey to revisit the epic world of Midnight!

Today we are spoiled by the rich contents of the fictional worlds in our games. GTA, Elder Scrolls or Assassin's Creed games are filled to the brim with things to do and find, places to explore, and stuff to play with. But as polished and stylish as these hugely expensive titles are, they can never achieve the elegance of those games made by very small teams, or even lone programmers. There is a charm to the simplicity of smaller games that never tarnishes – like Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion animations, they may age when compared to the top-of-the-line but they also mature with age, like a fine wine. And Mike Singleton’s The Lords of Midnight is a vintage wine of outstanding quality, a game that I first played when I was 12, then again on an emulator in my late 20s, and now once more in my early 40s. Both a strategy game and a simple adventure, it has a unique feel that nothing since has ever recaptured. Every time I return to it, I get more out of the experience. While other games have certainly achieved timelessness – Tetris, for instance – the world of Midnight is remarkable for offering so much from so very little, and it is this elegant simplicity in its design that makes it not only a worthy object of study, but one of the great videogame masterpieces. It may be shamelessly ripped off from Tolkien's “The Lord of the Rings”, but no-one has made a game that captures the feel of that tome as admirably as this ZX Spectrum classic.

When it was released in 1984 it formed part of an incredible posse of games, all released within 18 months of one another, that were to set the tone of the mature videogame industry some two decades later. Elite was the first procedural world; Paradroid and Mercenary created the template that GTA perfected; and The Lords of Midnight? Well, nothing since has really perfected its heady blend of adventure and strategy. This is part of its unique appeal. All these games were created in fewer kilobytes than an empty Word document – Singleton’s original game uses just 41k. When facing technical limitations such as memory, early game designer-programmers had to devise incredibly inventive approaches if they were to produce anything substantial, and as a result the most memorable titles from the 1980s almost always involved a touch of genius.

In The Lords of Midnight, the inspired step was to create a rendering pipeline that could compose geographical scenes out of simple primitives like trees, mountains, forts and towers. A 64x64 grid records the objects at each spot in the world, and then the algorithm simply composes the different primitives at appropriate scales in order to create a first person view from any place in the 4,000 location world. Singleton called it landscaping, and it allowed him to radically surpass the quality of graphics offered by his contemporaries. More than this, though, the views created by landscaping still have a remarkable aesthetic appeal. Although Chris Wild had to recruit an artist to redraw the primitives, the graphics on the new port of the game combine the sharp resolution of contemporary games with the unique art style of the original. This alone is a triumph in porting, since it would have been all too easy to either accept the pixelated look of the original, or to revise too completely and lose the charm. Instead, playing the port has all the feel of the original yet with a pleasing crispness. If you know the original, take a look at the iOS screenshot above – it looks just like the ZX Spectrum version, but zoom in and you’ll see just how well-defined it really is.

The play rests on a simple movement point system coupled with the snowball effect of recruiting more Lords to your cause. You start with four characters at the dawn of the War of the Solstice: Luxor the Moonprince (surrogate Aragorn), his son Morkin (a less whingy Frodo), Corleth the Fey (the local equivalent to elves) and Rorthron the Wise (surrogate Gandalf), who all begin at the Tower of the Moon. (Notice – no dwarves… I couldn’t be happier about this!) You can choose to play the adventure game by simply focussing on Morkin, who must sneak into the Tower of Doom to steal Doomdark (a far more vicious opponent than sulky Sauron!) and steal the Ice Crown. This can then be destroyed in four different ways, all of which can be learned by visiting the towers of the Wise, who dispense occasionally useful advice. As most players of this game know, winning with Morkin is really quite easy as you can sweep in and melt the Ice Crown in just one carefully timed single day raid. Far more challenging, and far more rewarding, is the quest to save the free citadel of Xajorkith and sack Doomdark’s capital of Ushgarak. To date, despite thirty years of (intermittent) attempts, I have still not quite won the siege of Ushgarak, although I am getting ever-closer!

The key to the strategic game's design is recruitment – there is no ludicrous internal economy coughing up troops overnight in this game, instead there are 32 lords scattered around Midnight, each with a thousand to two thousand warriors or riders, and the challenge is how to deploy your initial four to recruit them – or rescue them – and where to send them afterwards. You win if you either use Morkin to destroy the Ice Crown or sack Ushgarak, but you lose if Morkin is dead and either Luxor is also dead or Xajorkith has fallen, and deciding how to split your forces between Luxor and Xajorkith is a great deal of the challenge of the battles. The reason the game possesses its players so effectively is the number of questions you constantly ask but which can only be answered by further play. Where should Luxor make his stand? How can I prevent the citadel of Shimmeril from being sacked? Who should defend Xajorkith? When should I sweep my forces up the western passes to bolster Lord Gloom? Every time I end a game – even when I win - there are things I want to know, things I want to try out. The interest it generates is not so much about how to win but where and when with whom.

Because of the tiny file size, there was no hope of clever AI. Instead, a devilishly simple algorithm creates a surprisingly compelling illusion of an aggressively menacing foe. The world contains a number of pre-specified strategic points, mostly forts and citadels, and Doomdark’s troops effectively flip a coin at each to then proceed to one of two other strategic points, with some influence from the position of Luxor whose moon ring not only makes him immune to the ice fear emanating from the crown, it also gives away his position to Doomdark.  If this system sounds trivial, rest assured that the effect on players is demanding since you never know whether to watch for a pincer movement, expect a blitz of five thousand riders to arrive at once, or if your valiant defence of a citadel is entirely pointless because the Doomguard have besieged somewhere unexpected en masse. Expert players, who set strategic goals beyond mere victory, have to work hard to perfect resilient strategies.

Chris Wild’s port to iOS and other platforms begun with the assistance of Mike Singleton before he unfortunately passed away last year, is careful not to disrupt any of the elements that make the game so compelling. However, it is also mindful of the problems inherent in bringing the original to a contemporary audience. Chief among these is the fact that the original requires every single lord to be controlled individually – even when they are moving along identical routes. With up to 32 lords to move, this could get tedious. Wild's port adds a select screen that shows all the recruited lords and allows you to drag them onto other lords to make groups. Fans of the original breathe a sigh of relief at this elegant refinement of the movement system. However, there is a flaw: there are times when lords cannot move, either because they have run out of movement points (represented as hours left in the day) or because they are too scared. With the groups, it is sometimes entirely unclear why you can't move, and new players (if it is possible for this game to reach them) will not understand why it is being so recalcitrant.

Another improvement is the save management. Although the original allowed a save to magnetic tape, it was notoriously unreliable and slow. These are easy fixes, but Wild has to think about whether to implement a self-contained system with minimal backtracking or a maze of saved states with the ability to backtrack anywhere. Sensibly, he chooses the former and thus emphasises playing forward over constant reloading (a problem I forced onto myself when playing with an emulator). However, an undo for the last action, and a return to dawn (which undoes an entire game) are a welcome concession to error-fixing, and contribute to a far smoother play experience, although it would have been nice to undo an individual lord’s day rather than just one action.

One significant change is the inclusion in the game of not one but two maps. One is the standard explorable fog-of-war map that players have come to expect, and believe me it is extremely welcome. The other is modelled on the original map that the game shipped with, printed in its manual and showing all the key landmarks. This brings up an interesting change in the nature of games that has occurred in the last twenty years. When The Lords of Midnight came out, there wasn’t the resources for a mapping subroutine to ship with the game and so you either had to map manually by hand or wait for magazines to publish the map for a game (which they always dutifully did). Role-playing games and games of similar ilk, like this one, that were published in the 1980s almost always expected the player to make their own map. The interesting thing is, mapping was a big part of the fun. Both for The Lords of Midnight and for other games like The Bard’s Tale, which came out the following year, there was a definite pleasure to be gained by constructing the maps by hand. As the system resources have expanded, this gameplay has been obliterated by subroutines that do it for you. These have definitely been a gain – I don’t have the time I did as a child to map a game! Yet we have also lost an entire aspect of gameplay from videogames that was fun. I can’t help but think there is an opportunity here for a game that turns map-making into the core of its play. However, this aside, Wild’s mapping tools are a welcome addition to the game, making it far easier to get to grips with.

One of the main reasons that The Lords of Midnight has enduring appeal is the incredible sense that all this truly epic play emerges from just 41k of quite simple code. Obviously the new port expands that, but not gratuitously, and it is to Wild’s credit that everything that has been done helps show off the wonder that was Singleton’s original masterwork. I fear, as Wild himself has suggested, that this may be too much to expect the new generation of gamers to get to grips with… It’s too quirky, too different from what’s expected. How many games today would consider offering a ‘think’ verb as the means to illicit status information! Yet, for those with the nostalgia for it, or those with an interest in the history of videogames, the iOS, Android or Blackberry port of The Lords of Midnight (or the forthcoming Windows port) are essential purchases. This is porting of a classic game conducted expertly and admirably. There are lessons here to learn for anyone trying to keep the videogame past vibrantly alive in the present.

The iOS, Android and Blackberry versions of The Lords of Midnight are available now, with a Windows version to follow. The website for the port is at, and Chris Wild's blog is the Icemark, which is also his Twitter handle. Support the preservation of gaming history by buying this classic!

Loyalty Cards, Gamerscore, and Vanity

Xbox Live Rewards What connects loyalty cards, G, vanity, and the psychology of bias?

I realised yesterday that I now have seven different loyalty cards for seven different coffee shops. Of course, this is hardly a sign of my superlative loyalty! Quite the reverse. The very reason I have so many is precisely because I'm not consistent in where I buy coffee, but don't want to lose out on the advantages of repeat custom. The loyalty cards work on a system identical to B.F. Skinner's fixed interval schedule of reinforcement, which I talked about many moons hence in a piece entitled Designing Rewards in Games. Although now rather tatty, this piece still pulls in traffic to my blogs from Google quite regularly. For the coffee shop loyalty schemes, the schedules pay out roughly 1 in 6, with the best offering a free coffee every 5 and the worst (Costa) effectively offering just a 1 in 20 (5%) return. But all these loyalty schemes are superior in dividends to Microsoft's Gamerscore scheme (or G), which until last year offered no tangible rewards at all.

And yet, G is far more effective than the coffee shop loyalty cards at promoting loyalty, and it is interesting to see why that might be. It is worth recognising as an initial point why loyalty cards work when they do work. Most people have fairly steady and regular routines. They may have a choice of coffee shops on their way to and from work, but it's a static choice and once people settle on their preference they will tend to stick to it. Loyalty cards exploit this in two ways: discouraging infidelity, and encouraging marginal purchases. In the case of infidelity, the cards discourage customers from going elsewhere if, say, the queue is too long, or they've come on a slightly different route. “If I go elsewhere, I won't get my free coffee”, the putative punter thinks, and sticks with the regular shop. In the case of marginality, the cards give an extra reason to buy even if coffee isn't what's on their mind. “Well, it's a step towards my free coffee”, is the thought process.

Gamerscore leverages the same kind of thoughts, even though there is no explicit reward. In this respect, the new Xbox Live Rewards scheme with its paltry 2% maximum rebate on online purchases is farcically negligible in its effects. What makes G work more than anything else is vanity, the same motive your parents had for buying that new car, TV or VCR in the classic game of “Keeping up with the Joneses”. Players on Xbox’s subscription service literally compare themselves to other players via their Gamerscores, trying to remain one step ahead of their friends. The psychology of this is in itself intriguing. If someone you know has slightly more G, that motivates you to get more G to get ahead. If someone you know has slightly less G, that motivates you to get more G to stay ahead. If someone has considerably less G, you feel satisfaction at your superior sense of ‘achievement’. And the icing on the cake: if someone has radically more G, well, they have no life and are obviously a freak. Cognitive bias, the bedrock of so much human behaviour (not all of it negative), ensures that we recognise how sad it would be to be obsessed with accumulating the meaningless reward currency G, even while we steadfastly resist applying that judgement to ourselves, because clearly we do it “just for fun.”

The striking thing about this comparison between the two kinds of loyalty scheme (both of which are mildly addictive Skinner reward schedules) is what a difference publicity makes. The coffee shop cards are private to individuals and only work if the individual’s lifestyle happens to run regularly enough for it to be a factor. But G is necessarily public – it is mandatory, inescapable, and shown publically to everyone who cares to look at your profile for any reason. Indeed, it was precisely these reasons – that I couldn't opt out, and that it was necessarily public – that inclined me to avoid collecting G, and ultimately led me to mothball my 360 after just one boxed game. G was not the only factor, of course – the Xbox controller gives me terrible hand cramps, and of course, see last week’s remarks on my disinterest in contemporary boxed videogames. But unlike the vast majority of Xbox players, the G was always a reason for me not to play and never a reason to play. I could make a very similar case about Facebook, in fact.

The rewards of G, and the commoditisation of friendship in social media, work the same basic way as the loyalty cards, but instead of tangible rewards (free coffee) they are predicated on socially constituted vanity and insecurity. The thought processes run similarly, though. In the case of discouraging infidelity, G ask players to think: “If I play elsewhere, I won't get my G”. In the case of encouraging marginal purchases, G asks players to think of certain so-so games: “Well, at least it’s easy G”. The most effective part of the new Xbox Live Rewards scheme isn’t going to be the birthday gift or the miniscule rebate, but rather the vanity associated with the titles ‘Contender’, ‘Champion’ and ‘Legend’, because players will put in extra hours on otherwise humdrum games in the pursuit of these rather meaningless title. They’ll want to say “I’m a Legend”, even though before they get there they might say “How sad do you have to be to have earned enough G to be a Legend?”. To be fair, many of us (myself included) did exactly the same just to earn the title ‘Elite’ in the game of the same name. This isn’t exactly a new phenomena, it’s just taken upon new stakes by the increased publicity of these new social media dimensions.

We like to think that we desire money because of its value, but actually many people desire money because they associate it with status. Which is ironic, because we mostly tend to despise the rich, even while longing to be like them. In many ways, G taps into the same powerful combination of vanity and cognitive bias that makes all materialistic acquisition so pointlessly circular. In this respect, the simple Skinner schedules of the coffee shop chains seem positively innocent by comparison.

What Would Make Me Buy a New Console?

consoles I’ve been wondering: what would make me consider buying a new console? The answer, it seems to me, would be “running out of games to play with my wife on our existing consoles”. On the whole, this doesn’t sound like much of a reason to ‘upgrade’, since there are huge numbers of games out there – but the interesting thing is, the kind of games that my wife and I play together seem to exist in shockingly small numbers.

We have recently been favouring platform games – which is why we’ve mostly been playing on the Wii, since Nintendo are one of a very small group of companies still making platform games (rather than, say, “run and guns”, or even just “guns”). We’d like to play puzzle games of the kind we used to enjoy – something like, say, Bust-a-move or The New Tetris – but we have no way of finding them. I used to look at the demos coming down the pipelines for PS3, but you can only eat so many turds before you lose your appetite.

I simply don’t have the time to play the kind of games that the consoles are offering as boxed products, unless I play with either my wife or my “Boy’s Night” gaming group, and the latter isn’t console-based because I refuse to pay Microsoft a subscription fee for anything, forcing us to play on PC instead. I still stay abreast of the new releases by getting people to demonstrate them to me, and I have to say I don’t feel like I’m missing much. Of all the boxed products released in the last year, the only one I would have liked to have played was… erm… no wait, it’s on the tip of my tongue… nope, it’s gone. That’s how enthusiastic I am for boxed games – I can’t even name one I want to play.

I played some great games in 2012, like Journey , Dear Esther, Proteus and Bientôt L'été – but not one of them was a boxed product. I have owned ten different home consoles over the years; in order, they were the N64, Megadrive (just for Micromachines Turbo Tournament!), Saturn, Dreamcast, PS2, GameCube (still one of my favourites), Wii, PS3, Xbox 360. I have huge crates of Dreamcast, PS2 and GameCube boxed games. I have a stack of Wii boxed games. I have one boxed game for the PS3 and one other for the Xbox 360. Partly, this trend reflects less available free time (from working multiple jobs and from being a new father). But partly, it reflects a dissatisfaction with what is being offered, which is primarily gun violence with a side order of misogyny, cars and blade violence. In short, I am bored of what boxed videogames have come to offer even though I still enjoy videogames and would like there to be more I want to play.

Have I fallen away from boxed product gaming? Or has it simply failed to retain my interest? The answer seems to be a little of both. But looking at this situation all I can  really say is that I will eventually have to buy a Wii U in order to keep a supply of quality platform games, but I have no reason at all to even consider the new Sony or Microsoft consoles – even though I have no idea what they will turn out to be. I may not be typical of the audience for games, but I doubt I’m alone.

What would make me buy a new console? The answer seems to be, very little indeed. Yet oddly, I feel quite sad about that.

Skimming Stones

Alas, since I am only two thirds through the manuscript of Chaos Ethics, I'm not going to be able to commit to resuming blogging this month in the manner to which I have become accustomed - namely, writing short essays on various topics that interest me. Since I don't want to stop blogging, I'm going to try and return to a form of blogging closer to what I used to do in the early days - writing more stream-of-consciousness pieces, possibly even writing content on the day I post it (instead of scheduling in advance). Instead of building little sandcastles, I'm going to have to switch to skimming stones for a while. You're more than welcome to skim them with me!