Books Issue 37 Contents Dancing Ogre


Fantastic landscapes

Quill liberates the imagination of adventurers. Richard Price meets its master

WHEN THE QUILL appeared in late '83 it soon became clear that the utility was a milestone in the popularisation of adventure gaming. Before Quill only buffs with extensive programming experience and knowledge of machine code could hope to produce large, fast and responsive home-made adventures.

Quillpower put an end to that. Amateurs and small one-horse companies now churn out truckloads of games written with its aid. Even big software firms, always with an eye on mass appeal and the main chance, will gladly market well-Quilled adventures - Hampstead is one of the most recent and notable.

Budding game designers who buy The Quill find they are given all they need to produce text adventures which can be compared in style with Artic's 'Alphabet' series. User-defined graphics are also provided with the utility but those are limited. Those who want to add more complex location graphics to their games can now turn to - Gilsoft's recently released Illustrator. That is fully compatible with Quilled games and allows locations to be drawn with a cursor-controlled sketchpad.

The Quill is menu-driven. Each section covers one aspect of the data needed in adventures. Descriptions, vocabulary, objects, messages, movements and the rest can be easily inserted, amended or edited. Complete or partial games can be reloaded into the main program for further work., You will find everything you need to produce a polished and professional-looking game.

The manual is very full. At first you may be a little daunted by its occasionally heavy style but if you work through it carefully and use the mini adventure provided as a teaching aid, you will soon pick up the routines used. You won't need any in-depth knowledge of either Basic or code programming before you begin though some familiarity with concepts like Flag functions should help a lot.

All this programming power uses up about only 7K of RAM so there is a lot of memory left for your own data - just the way it should be. You can create adventures with up to 200 locations if you are feeling energetic.

What about copyright? Well, if you try to sell your game Gilsoft's only request is that you give them due credit and mention The Quill. Some games don't do that and there's no justifiable excuse for this discourtesy as it costs nothing. Finding the reference can even form part of the game - in Project X - The Microman you may well discover a box hidden in some foliage. Open it up and out pops Gilsoft and The Quill.

Generally, then, you will be able to recognise a Quilled adventure from the credit but there are other standard features which make it distinctive.

The interpreter operates on the classic verb/noun input and understands only the first four letters of each word. All your entries can thus be abbreviated for speed's sake. Confusion will only occur if there are two words or more in the vocabulary with similar openings. The whole screen scrolls up as you enter text and the location descriptions will disappear bit by bit. Typing Redesc or R will call it back and clear the screen for you. The more familiar Look command operates rather like Examine does on other interpreters.

There are a bundle of preprogrammed messages within the system including a very distinctive Quit routine featuring a yes/no interlude asking you if you really want to end it all. Up to now those messages could not be changed but Gilsoft have issued an upgrade of the original program which will allow everything to be edited.

You will also come across other inbuilt routines which can be used to produce introductory title screens or the dreaded limited move sequence. Game after game employs that to warn you that you are getting hungry, weak or thirsty. In Denis Through The Drinking Glass you are given only ten moves to locate a drop of the hard stuff - right at the beginning.

Surviving in such situations can be tricky and nerve racking. In Runesoft's curious Paradox you not only have to cope with an apparently random location system but also find some water within the time limit, again at the very start of the adventure. The system can be used more subtly than that - for instance, a journey on a train can be given a definite duration.

Gilsoft, the company behind The Quill, is owned and run by Tim Gilberts, a soft spoken twenty-year old Welshman. Tim is a product of the whizz-kid era and left school early to get into computing.

"Gilsoft started mainly as a pocket money venture. I bought myself a Spectrum when it came on the market and pretty soon had a full-scale business on my hands. I suppose I could have gone to university and ended up working for some big company but I haven't got any regrets about that. I'm doing what I enjoy and it all helps to pay for my beer and a car." Not a Porsche, he adds wryly.

His philosophy is to turn out quality products with a long life, not to rely on flash-in-the-pan megagames or the like. "We all know where that leads. You only have to look at all the firms collapsing because they can't pay their advertisers and suppliers. We do some advertising but it's far too expensive these days - we have to rely a lot on people getting to know about us. We may not make big money but it's better to have a regular business."

The Quill came along almost accidentally. Graham Yeandle, a friend of Tim and a systems analyst by profession, mentioned one day that he had been swapping adventures he'd written in machine code - including The Magic Castle in the current Gilsoft Gold series of games.

Tim borrowed the basic program, looked it over and did some debugging. "After that, Graham and I talked it over and decided it was worth trying to develop an adventure writing program based on it. Graham went off and I didn't hear much from him for a few months. He's a pretty dedicated programmer and when he came back he had what amounted to a preproduction copy."

Graham and Tim spent nearly a year developing the system to its current state. Because Graham was working as a freelance and lived some way away, much of the business was done on the phone.

How did The Quill reach its present form? It adopts a fairly 'classic' style in some ways and does not have features like full sentence analysis or 'interactive' character capability.

"I think you've got to remember what it was designed for. We wanted to encourage non-programmers to write their own games and it was specifically intended for the amateur or semi-professional. If we'd made it more complicated and fancy it would have meant that you'd find it far more difficult to produce a decent game. The whole object would have been defeated."

Tim is not particularly keen on highly complex interpreters in adventure anyway. "In some ways that kind of thing can actually limit communication. You'll often have to spend time working out the right phrase to use before a character will respond or you get the action you want. Even then you will find that some dwarf will only end up singing about gold or you just get another free lunch. The 'Inglish' used in games like The Hobbit can be quite quixotic and difficult to fathom. I really do prefer to play games with the usual verb/noun entry."

'Distributors don't seem to be interested in anything but fairly mindless reflex games.'

In the main Tim feels that any increase in the sophistication of the interpreter would have meant a trade-off against memory space - always of prime importance for large atmospheric adventures.

Whilst admitting there are some limitations he still considers The Quill to be the most advanced adventure writing system available for home computers.

One of its major attractions is that Gilsoft expect no royalties on adventures written with it. Now that firms like Melbourne House have started to sell such games does Tim have any doubts about the wisdom of that decision?

"Not at all. I think it's great. It backs our product up. It shows that The Quill can produce top-quality adventures and isn't just some kind of toy. Look at it this way - when you go into a shop and buy a Black and Decker drill you pay your money and take it home. You can then drill as many holes as you like. That's what tools are for - you wouldn't expect to have to send off money every time you put in a rawlplug."

Tim reserves his disapproval only for those who copy and pirate the editor itself. "Nobody's making millions out of The Quill and the writer deserves his rewards. Copying the editor is just the same as someone breaking into Graham's house and stealing his cash box. There are pirated versions around that are just appalling - and it's so difficult to do anything about it. It's worst abroad. I'm scared even to send samples to places like Spain or Portugal."

The Quill has kept Gilsoft busy. There have been conversions for quite a number of other machines including the Commodore 64 and the Amstrad. What about the QL? "Well, the QL is a brave attempt to take the hardware somewhere but Sinclair should really have used a disc-based system. It's possible we'll do a 68000 version but this'll depend a lot on QL sales and the popularity of the microdrive."

In the future Tim hopes that the firm may be able to produce a text compressor, which could help to overcome some of the Spectrum memory limitations. A subroutine editor is also a possibility.

"We'd like a new product if possible, something that hits like The Quill. Mind you we're working full tilt now but you never know how the market will go. I'd like to see programs that have a lot more content than the average arcade game but the distributors don't seem to be interested in anything but fairly mindless reflex games."

What's certain is that Gilsoft will continue to support adventure software at a reasonable price. At £1.99 the Gold range is good value even if some of the games vary in quality.

The company is also collaborating on a range of bargain price 'Double Play' adventures. Those should soon be available at £2.50 or thereabouts. Each cassette will feature two entirely separate games. Tim hopes that they will be sold like paperbacks in newsagents and other smaller outlets - "A bit like Mills and Boon, good value and good entertainment for the same sort of price as a book."

The Quill has definitely helped to keep the adventure alive in the face of stiff competition from the arcade market and uninterested distributors. The last word should go to Gilsoft: "Anyone who wants to write can produce a novel without technical knowledge. You may not create great art but there's nothing to stop you trying. The Quill has opened up the same kind of opportunity to those who enjoy adventuring. We've tried to provide the computer equivalent of pen and paper."

Books Issue 37 Contents Dancing Ogre

Sinclair User
April 1985