Macrocom: Revolutionaries of Form and Function

ICON: Architecting the game

(Some more background for our readers: To promote ICON, Macrocom released a demonstration program that used the tweaked text mode to display several detailed and colorful still pictures, including some very nice simulated "high-res" 640x200x16 pictures created with an 80-column text mode. Some of these pictures used ASCII #177, the "50% shaded" character, to mix'n'match CGA's 16 foreground and background colors to simulate up to 136 simultaneous different colors.)

MobyGames: The quality of the 80-column "high-res" 640x200x16 ICON demonstration pictures was noticeably better than the 40-column "low-res" 320x200x16 pictures, yet you used the same low-res mode in both ICON and Seven Spirits of Ra. Why was this higher-resolution 80-column mode never used, even though it was standard on all CGA cards? Was it because 80-column text mode did not display in color when a television was used as a monitor, or was it some other reason?

Neal White III: Two reasons, most of the CGA cards available would draw "snow" when a character byte was changed in 80 column mode. A programmer could avoid the issue by only updating during vertical retrace, but that limited data transfer to 4 bytes, 60 times a second. That was too slow for a game. 40 column mode did not have the snow problem, due to higher bandwidth. That allowed me to dump data to the screen as fast as I could.

Rand E. Bohrer: But I remember it took MONTHS to get the timing and debugging right so the data could be shipped to the screen in the vertical retraces.

Neal White III: The second reason was that a 4.77 MHz 8088 could not create 60 frames per second in 80 column mode; it just did not have the horsepower! 60 frames per second was a *requirement* for us. Anything less, was not truly real-time, as far I as was concerned. My original idea for Icon was a colorful, real-time version of the text-based game called Rogue. It was a basic D&D adventure game with randomly generated levels. You can still find Rogue on the web today! In the end we sometimes had about 15 frames per sec -- but that was vastly better than anybody else at anywhere near the detail and color we getting.

MobyGames: Let's talk about ICON itself. The environment for ICON was indeed a fantasy setting but was based more on a sort of generic mythology than traditional sword-and-sorcery. Was this a random reference used as a basis for the game, or did one of you have something more substantial attached to mythology?

Neal White III: The whole story was Rand's idea. It was a conversion of Wagner's Reingold opera. That's right, an opera!

MobyGames: Why the decision to go with real-time gameplay when all other role-playing adventure games of the time were turn-based? Was ICON originally a role-playing game in development that gradually took on action elements, or the other way around?

Neal White III: It was always an action game. We looked at lots of other non-PC and PC games for inspiration. Some elements were taken from Rogue. The idea for the rippling water came from Ultima 1. The water is a good example of Rand pushing me. Originally the water was static and unmoving. I could not figure out a way to animate it at 60 frames per second. However, Rand would not let up and eventually I came up with a clever "hack" that made it possible. Since I could not animate the graphic cell-blocks of the map at 60 fps, what I did was draw the static water as before and then do a post-process step where I scanned for a few water bytes (an ASCII smiley face char with a blue background and a white foreground). Then I would change the smiley to a tilde (~) character. TADA! Moving water (later swamp terrain was added). 60 fps was maintained and everyone was happy! As for the color choices... All of those early 2D shooters had black backgrounds. One of the things I wanted was more variety. Icon used a lot of white backgrounds and 7 Spirits had all that yellow sand. We wanted to stand of from the pack.

Continued: ICON: Successes and failures

Table of Contents: Macrocom: Revolutionaries of Form and Function