Friday, March 25, 2016

Operation: Zero-5

I recently met Andrew Gisby, the creator of a most distinctive game for the Atari STe (and Falcon). Zero 5 is one of the last commercial games ever released for Atari computers by Caspian Software in 1994, a time when most were leaving the 16-bit scene to pursue those silly consoles. A rare gem indeed and it wasn't long before I came up with the notion for an interview!

Set in the year 2044 with a silly storyline of an alien race which are about to invade Earth and (shockingly) you are the only hope for mankind. It will be a bumpy ride taking you into the darkest regions of space so jump inside your spaceship and head out into the heavens. Humanity is depending on you, yes YOU! Set amongst the stars, with some missions taking place upon the surface of remote planets, Zero 5 is a 3D shoot 'em up. It feels an artful mix of Star Wars clones with a dollop of Frontier or Stargate for good measure. Your spaceship is a cool slab of old skool 3D, Perseus which you must pilot it through several missions. This might involve attacking an alien strike force, defending allied ships, and much more.

Graphically, Zero 5 is a bombshell. It displays more colours and makes use of the Blitter co-processor within the STe to produce amazing 3D visuals. Faster computers are also supported, so if you've upgraded or are lucky enough to own a Falcon or TT, then the framerates are far smoother. Audio is outstanding, for both music and the effects, all which use the DMA hardware ticking over at a sweet 25KHz.

Control with the mouse is precise, responsive and feels very natural but a JapPad is also supported if you have one. Momentum provides a necessary learning curve but you'll soon get the hang of it. It's worth getting to grips with the GUI and its instruments as they provide a wealth of information, otherwise, it's easy to find yourself in a muddle.

I always enjoy playing Zero 5 because it is so fast and frantic with exciting missions. The style and presentation are unique and its booming sound effects compliment the overall experience nicely. Zero-5 is a slick 3D space shooter with a wide-range of demanding missions to keep you busy for many hours. If I had to moan, it would be the number of missions - I wish there were expansion packs!

Overall, a fantastic shoot 'em up that incorporates many astonishing technical achievements which puts most other developers to shame. One of the best Atari STe games you could choose to play.


THE INTERVIEW - ZERO 5 CREATOR - ANDREW GISBY

Zero 5 has a wonderful next-gen feel yet is often unknown to many people returning to the scene. Tell us about your game and what it means to you.

I had been trying to get published in one way shape or form for several years. Back in the day, I lived the life of the Indie / hobby / night owl developer. Holding down a job during the waking hours and coming home to hack away on my much loved (at the time) Atari’s. I remember buying my first Atari 512STFm in the late 80’s. I spent many hours teaching myself to program in 68000 Assembler. Bulletin boards, books, magazines & chance discussions at shows to pick up game dev knowledge. I’m no mathematician, but a series of articles in (I think) ST World on transformations and 3D math gave me so much. I could finally make the leap into 3D games. Everything had to be done in assembler to keep up the speed and finally reading something that explained techniques to turn formulas into simplified assembler was a revelation.  To this day, I still keep a pocket “Signetics S68000 User’s Guide” - It was my Bible for machine code programming. An awful lot was learnt the hard way through trial and error (no instant online answers). I used to look at the latest effects in games (and film) and try to do something similar. So I think Zero-5 marked a highpoint for me. The peak of understanding of what I could personally do with (by then) the STe to make a game. I had built up a large library of routines & techniques to achieve some of the visual and audio effects.

So, in summary, Zero-5 was the realisation of a couple of dreams:
  • I really wanted to see a game I had written myself published.
  • My fascination of 3D sim & bring to life things you can only dream about.

Was Zero 5 inspired by anything else from your gaming history?

Everything I had developed was an inspiration for the game. A cheap answer, but my whole gaming exploits (to this day) are a sequence of inspirations. However, if I was to list a few things that inspired the game.

  • Elite (who wasn’t). But for me, I learnt programming on an Acorn Electron and playing Elite planted the seed for wanting to understand game writing and 3D.
  • Carrier Command (an amazing game with a level of automation and sophistication that I was just in awe of)
  • Captain Blood (The art, galactic expanse and imagination was just brilliant)

Sci-fi films and TV programs had a lot of influence. I’m a bit of a science fiction addict. But to list a few that helped inspire ideas in the game:

  • The Last Starfighter (I recall a sequence when the hero ship flies through a swarm of enemy ships ... That was the start of Zero-5).
  • Forbidden Planet (big influence for me, generally)
  • U.F.O.  (Fundamentally, I used the same threat mechanic in the game)

What was your background prior to working for Caspian?

See above ... Self taught hobby game dev trying to get published!

Most commercial companies had left the Atari ST by 1994 so what inspired you to carry on during those dark days?

At the time, I thought the Atari Falcon030 and Jaguar was going to save the day. I only knew how to make games on the Atari’s and thought that if Zero-5 was a success, I’d move on to these platforms properly. The Falcon030 enhancements in Zero-5 were done in the last few months. I didn’t really do it justice (but the extra CPU speed helped push the content level up a bit more).

Zero-5 really was a labour of love and I was under my first proper gamedev contract - Inspiration enough right !?!

Did Zero 5 live up to your expectations?

Technical Stretch: Yes  (I used every chip/trick I knew in the STE!)
Creative Achievement: Yes
Critical Acclaim: Yes (at the time)
Commercial Success: No

I put so much effort and creativity into the game. The landfall sequences were a personal triumph. Turning a bitmap (height map) into a 3D landscape on an STe ... yes!) - One of those 3D simulation dreams realised.  

The lack of commercial success was tough to take - We had lot of trouble with piracy (it was rife by then). I spoke to a lot of people that had played the game and loved it. As you say though, the sun was setting on Atari home computers - a shame for me at the time. Thinking back, I think the sheer effort involved did burn me out a bit.

Looking back, would you do anything different?

Launch the game 2-3 years earlier?

What happened after Zero 5 and how come you didn't continue on after Caspian's demise? (freelance, etc)

Newly married, we started a family soon after Zero-5. I couldn’t commit to working on the Jaguar version of the game (my daytime job in IT paid the bills). Creatively, the console wasn’t a copy of the original other than souped-up manic fighting sequences (arguably something I was trying to do when I first started developing the STe version). I was involved on a consultation basis but the Jag was new and it was a steep learning curve for the guys at Caspian. It was pretty exciting to be working with Atari though.

How long did it take you to code this game, what tools did you use, and was it on an actual Atari?

1 - 2 years to develop. I pulled in a lot of previously developed libraries and routines. Interesting memory about this. I used one of the first routines I’d ever dev’ed in assembler to simulate a 3d starfield. Development of the game went to the wire. I had this intermittent bug where the machine was (every so often) crashing! What felt like a few hours (day or so I think) before the game went to press, I found the cause ... That starfield routine (Randomly, I was managing to plot the odd star just outside memory reserved for the screen - d’oh!).

I used a 1Mb STe and laterly Falcon030 to develop the game. I got an HDD sometime through the project that saved doing the floppy / ram disk shuffle (speeded up game dev no end).

I recall using the blitter chip and new audio chip enhancements to great effect. Certainly without them, there was no way I could have thrown so many things around on screen and in your ears. Although it makes me chuckle at what we thought was a reasonable frame rate back then! Recalling the game audio engine I developed as part of Zero-5 - It give me multiple stereo Left / Right channels and a scripted approach to sound effect generation. The upshot was I could chain, stretch, compress and generally mess around with samples without eating too much precious CPU. 8bit samples of course, so sound pretty harsh nowadays.   

Main tools I used:
  • Devpac (I think that was it’s name) for Assembler dev
  • TCB Tracker (although I didn’t do the music in the end)   
  • Degas Elite (Graphics)
  • A sound sample editing programme (can’t recall name)

Were you active in the ST scene elsewhere or was it just Caspian / Zero 5?

No, not really, I had a brief flirtation with demoscene but game dev was always my interest.

After our chats on Twitter, I'm aware you now see an Atari ST scene which is still very much alive and kicking. What do you think about this and will rejoin in some capacity or have you left forever?

Never say never. Honestly though - I’m well into Unity 3D and what spare time I have goes into that.

Do you still own an Atari computer? What is it and how often are you using it / what for?

I still have an Atari STe and Falcon030 tucked away alongside a massive trunk of floppy disks (Oh and a back catalogue of ST World). I haven’t really used them since the 90’s. I had a gamedev break late 90s till the 00’s really.

Tell us about your future plans and what you're working on today?

I’d like to bring something made with Unity to the masses. My current project is a game called “Konjitto”. With my family more or less grown up, I’m now steadily been drawn back to game dev more and more. A dream would be to give up the day job and spend my days writing games! I get a kick out of doing the coding, graphics, sound and music (although this is my weakest area).  

Anyone can keep an eye on my game dev twitter feed or youtube channel to see what is on the boil.


Thanks for getting in touch, it has been fun reminiscing. Seeing people still appreciate those efforts back in the day is wonderful. Certainly made me and the family smile! Keep up the good work on the site.

Answering the questions has been pleasure!

Thanks
Andy