Derek Haslam on IF and Powerbase
June 2007 meeting – report by Steve Fryatt
June’s meeting saw a visit from developer Derek Haslam. While he is perhaps best known for his Powerbase database system, Derek has also produced a number of interactive fiction titles for Acorn machines over the years.
The meeting was opened by Chris Hughes, who was able to present a cheque to Terry Rigg from the Wakefield Hospice. The charity stall at this year’s show raised over £700 for the organization, and Terry thanked the club for our continued support over the years – this has amounted to a not-insignificant amount of money for the hospice.
Derek began his part of the evening by looking back at the history of text adventure games on the Acorn platform. When the BBC Micro arrived on the scene, interactive fiction was already established on other systems, with the success of titles such as Crowther and Woods’ Adventure. As a result, the early Acorn software houses were keen to publish similar games for the new machines.
Having started out writing for the Atom, Derek quickly embraced the new micro and with guidance from a number of sources, including Peter Killworth’s book How to Write Adventure Games for the BBC Microcomputer, Model B and Acorn Electron, he produced his first adventure game. Gateway to Karos was published by Acornsoft in 1984.
Encouraged by its success, Derek began work on a sequel: The Mirror of Khoronz. Unfortunately, by the time it was ready for release, text adventures were on the way to being considered old-fashioned compared to the new-fangled graphical games, and Acornsoft were no longer interested. The game was released through a number of PD libraries, but was never sold commercially.
With the arrival of the Archimedes, Derek began to re-write Mirror to work on RISC OS. The task took a lot longer than he expected and suffered from a number of delays and setbacks, not least from his work on Powerbase. However, ten years later the game is finally complete, and this was what he had come to show us.
Although a number of adventure game creators are available, Mirror has been written using a custom system developed by Derek. It integrates into the desktop, providing both a text-based and graphical interface depending on the user’s preference. The game is free to download from Derek’s website.
For the best part of an hour, we were taken on a fascinating tour of the game, solving the puzzles and searching for useful items to collect. The playing areas of interactive fiction titles are often huge, and we were only able to visit a small number of the available locations during the time we had. Seeing the game played by an expert was interesting, and it was reassuring to see that even Derek could fall for some of the traps that he had himself set.
The game supports multiple players, who can take turns to enter commands and explore the landscape independently. When two players arrive in the same location they can interact, even to the extent of coveting the objects that the other is carrying with them.
Towards the end of the evening, we moved on to Derek’s better-known title: the Powerbase database engine. Although fundamentally a flat-file system, Powerbase contains a number of facilities that allow it to perform tasks that would normally require a relational package. Released as shareware, it costs £10.
One of the key features of the system is that it can make use of plug-ins written in BASIC to add specialised functionality and manipulate or report on data. Derek demonstrated some of the possibilities of this, by showing a few of the example databases that come with the application: this included a system for storing and completing sudoku puzzles.
The meeting finished at nearly 10pm, and proved to be extremely interesting and informative. As someone who has had little success with the genre, I certainly found that seeing a demonstration of interactive fiction being played was fascinating and it encouraged me to have another look at some of the games that I have collected over the years. Now all I need is the time to sit down and explore.
Both The Mirror of Khoronz and Powerbase can be found at www.boulsworth.co.uk.
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