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Digital 80’s IV: Little Knight Arthur's Awesome Anniversary and Publishing Day!

Päivitetty: tammi 7


TL;DR The game as zipped d64 file

The Game That Was Not (Published For 30 Years)

I’ve already covered the origin story of this game in my blog post in December. As my readers may recall, the development of this game was started in 1985.

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For chrissakes, has this development project not lasted long enough? Is it not time to wrap up, stop brewing design ideas for the still missing 8th level, and overlook any still misplaced pixels, out-of-rhythm notes, and possible playability issues raised by the ever fickle gamer community?

And can’t say there has not been some unpleasantly long hiatus periods in the time since starting the project. If one should release a game ’when it is finished’, this game should perhaps have been published decades ago…

Well, I did try to get it published a few times in early 1986.

Golden Age of Game Publishing

When the home computing took off in the late 70s and early 80s, it spawned what is often called a cottage industry. Individuals started programming, then sharing and selling programs, then setting up small businesses to publish and sell software created by themselves and others. The hardware business in micro computers became big in a short period of time, but arguably the software side grew even bigger. And most software for home computers were games.

Viable commercial home computer game software ecosystem soon produced the core roles of the developer, the publisher, and the retailer. The model was similar to modern music and book publishing industries that had been established much earlier. Most successful game publishers that had started as self-publishing developers kept the dual roles and had in-house development.

The best games brought most sales, and raised the most successful publishers. The publishers with the most hit games became the best known, both in local and in international markets.

By the time home computing reached Finland, publishers from bigger markets had already gained recognition and been in the business a few years at least, and also those bigger markets provided more opportunities for new publishers to start their business. Therefore, most well known independent game publishers for Finnish home computer hobbyists were soon from a few of the biggest markets: USA, UK, Germany, France.

Game developers/publishers/labels that me and other old-timers may well remember from that era are numerous: Activision, Infocom, Electronic Arts, Epyx, Broderbund Software, U.S. Gold, Mastertronic, Gremlin, Sierra-On-Line, Infogrames, … and so on.

Only a few brave souls were setting up game publishing in Finland. ’Their business was limited to the amount of money available in Finnish game players’ pockets. For every game sold, there were numerous illegal copies being swapped around. For the first two decades of Finnish computer and video gaming, there was more money to be made by importing games from international markets and computer and game related print media publishing than in publishing games for Finnish market only.

For a game developer, self-publishing has been an option since the beginning. But time in the 80s was different, before bulletin boards, before internet, and before modern app stores spawned by a renaissance of independent mobile game publishing.

Pet and hobby game projects, unless picked by the few fledgling Finnish publishers, were mostly swapped among friends, by copying files from tape to tape or from diskette to diskette.

The Almost First Finnish Computer Game To Be Published Internationally

In the last few days of the year 1985 I was implementing final details in Little Knight Arthur for Commodore 64. I had been working on this ambitious project on the time spared from going to school and doing my mandatory household chores.

When the school restarted after the New Year in early 1986, so did the awkward teenage social life. In those times, many developers seemed to include greetings to their friends and buddies in their games. So I also slapped a few greetings and thanks for my close ones in the smoothly scrolling text on the title screen of the game.

I had finished 7 out of the originally planned number of 8 levels, but did not have much ideas left for the missing one.

But I did have the seven playable levels, a bit clumsy but adequate sound effects and game music, title screen with its intro text, demo mode to show off levels before playing, and a high score screen. The game was rather complete, I thought. Certainly good enough to publish and sell, I thought as well.

So I scouted a few addresses from computer magazines for game publishers or developers that I considered to be top names for Commodore 64 games, prepared a loading screen and a game loader and created a master floppy disk. I even did a few variations of the loader and title screens with the targeted game publisher logos displayed, in case some of them would accept it.

On 14th of January, 1986 I mailed the first submission to Epyx, and marked the occasion in my ’Teinikalenteri’ school diary book: ”ARTTU SENT TO EPYX”. In the following days I sent my game also to Electronic Arts, Brøderbund, Sierra On-Line, and to about the only Finnish game publisher at the time, Amersoft. And begun waiting for what would happen.

Well, nothing earth-shattering happened. Over time that spring my submissions were returned from the publishers one by one, rejected. All the rejections were kind and friendly - publishers took care to explain that they could only release very limited number of games at a time. Some went in to more detail, explaining the game was not the kind of game they were looking to include in their selection at the moment.

I’m sure many writers and developers have received similar rejection letters and know the feeling of excitement and disappointment while opening and reading them.

Should I have been luckier with my submissions, Arthur could have been the first internationally published computer game by a Finnish developer. Of course, later that year that honor went to Stavros Fasoulas who got his Sanxion published by Thalamus in UK. And deservedly so for the obviously large amounts of coding, polish and legwork that were required.

The Three Aspects of A Good Game According To Electronic Arts

By far the most interesting rejection letter for Little Knight Arthur came from Electronic Arts. It was written in encouraging tone and actually gave advice of the general qualities of types of the games they were interested in publishing. I don’t remember if the advice was undersigned by any specific person from EOA, but I do remember the three qualities a game should have that it listed.

A game should be three things, EOA told me: Simple, Hot, and Deep.

Simple meant easy to get into and easy to play, with good playability through out the game.

Hot meant it featured interesting, imaginative content, with wide appeal among players.

And Deep meant it had enough content to provide entertainment and challenge for tens of hours, not minutes. It should continue to provide challenge with preferably various ways over the experience of playing the game until its conclusion.

I feel ’Simple, Hot, Deep’ checklist is still a good advice still to any game developer and designer considering to provide maximum entertainment to the players.

Perhaps Outdated, But Out There, Regardless

So Arthur C64 is finally done and (self-)published, free for anyone to copy, play and modify. Only thing needed is a bit of retro skills to get the good ’ol Commodore 64 loading and running it. Easiest may be to use an emulator, but those true C=hearts of course copy the diskette image back to a floppy and play it using real Commodore 64 + 1541 diskette drive. For a joystick I recommend a Totally Accurate Controller Mk2.

If you do happen to play Little Knight Arthur today, preferably on your authentic Commodore 64 home computer, and have some feedback in terms of the three qualities or other criticism or comments, please drop me a few lines. I’m still as interested in hearing how people like the game as I was in when I first enclosed it to a mail envelope addressed to Epyx.

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