The Making of... Mercenary

Context

I love the Mercenary series. It's as though they were written personally for me, the mixture of an open world to explore, multiple paths to completion, hidden features, clean graphics and, of course, jokes. Mercenary is one of the most influential British games of all time, and it now seems to be remembered less and less, which is practically a crime. It's very much a programmer's game too, and wonderfully set in place and time. I was living in Birmingham when this game was released, and even went past Bruce Jordan's Atari & Commodore Centre on Broad Street in the car on my way to school. I always wanted to visit, but never did. Don't know what I'd have done or said of course as I was only eleven at the time and didn't know the connection to Novagen. 

This article was taken mostly from material provided by Bruce Jordan, who I interviewed one lunchtime over lunch in Edgbaston where he was based, dragging him away from the smoke-filled offices he shared with Tim Bosher. 
Bruce is sadly no longer with us, which is a great loss and I feel privelidged to have been able to share his recollections and even lend him a copy of James Kract's Mercenary-influenced novel The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism

 Other excellent contributers were Novagen artist Mo Warden, Simon Guyart the curator of The Mercenary Site, and MDD clone author, erm, MddCloneAuthor.

Despite many attempts I never did get to talk to Paul Woakes himself, although he's not the hermit he's sometimes made out to be. I've worked with people who've worked with him on various things, but not the man himself. Seems to have just been bad timing on my part.

This is the article as submitted, before copy- or sub-editing so it has my usual problems of too many commas and a broken up style. It was my first article for Edge, so that's reasonably understandable.

Having only started as a freelance writer about a year before, to be suddenly writing for Edge was something of a shock and an honour. That would have been my ideal end point, having worked my way up through the ranks, but suddenly I was there and managed to stay there until my second son was born and I had no more time for writing. 

So, thanks to Editor Margaret Robertson, Tony Mott, Kieron Gillen & Stuart Campbell for giving me some pointers,  everyone else on Amiga Power for inspiring me to want to do this in the first place (Come back, J. Nash) and Reader Millington for showing that readers could be writers too.

The *s are sub-editing notes for sections I thought wise to not mention for legal reasons, and I've omitted the other end of the notes for the same reason. 

Strap

A city to explore, vehicles to steal, money to be made from rival factions, all with a dose of humour and plenty of secrets. Sound familiar? Edge goes back to Targ.

Caption 1

Unlike contemporaries such as Elite, there was no attempt to remove ‘hidden’ lines behind the front surface. Being able to see completely through objects not only made the game significantly faster, but was exploited in in-game jokes such as the ‘Essential 12939 supply’

Caption 2

The ‘infamous pirate Novabill’ was another in-joke, this time a reference to one Manchester-based developer* who were using the Novaload system without paying.

Caption 3

 In another innovation, your arrival on Targ used an in-engine cut-scene. The 3D system allowed the dramatic switching of scale required to go from seeing the whole planet from space, to the detail of this rather less than dignified ‘landing’.

Boxout: For those in need of Instruction

At Paul’s suggestion, the original Mercenary shipped with minimal instructions, which explained the controls and little more. Public and retail demand however forced the inclusion of a detailed type-written ‘hint sheet’ to get people started.

With the release of The Second City expansion pack Novagen went further still, producing a high quality Targ Survival Kit. This featured a tourist guide to Central City, including a street map, which required road names to be invented as they weren’t present in the actual game. As with the locations, things were oddly familiar to Birmingham residents. Reading carefully through the accompanying notes revealed clues, such as a rental craft called the ‘Casper Hanley Eagle 8 Special Edition’. This was a sly post-rationalisation to explain why a high-performance aircraft was called a ‘Cheese’. A bundled novella Interlude on Targ was written by Bruce. The help provided was limited however, as the kit did not give anything away about the far harder Second City.

Article

It was not immediately obvious what auteur programmer Paul Woakes had in mind when he first showed Mercenary to business manager Bruce Jordan in Novagen’s small offices above a row of shops in Birmingham.

“I think it was second half of ’84 that I first saw Mercenary as an exercise in free flight, viewing a green horizon against a blue sky with an economically representative vector road network and a rotating vector graphics cube”

 “The on-board flight simulation element of the demo was fully functional, but that, as I remember it, was it. So, yes nice, but where was a game?”

For Woakes however this was the first step towards a simple, although startlingly ambitious result.  “He did say that he planned to generate a ‘cityscape’ as a backdrop to the flying experience and that he was taken with the idea of simulating a ‘real environment’ in which the player could go anywhere and choose to do anything. And to that end, he was going to develop a routine where the player could land and get out and walk.”

“I do believe that Paul already had quite advanced ideas of what should be going on here, but it certainly wasn’t in his nature to rattle off a presentation of his thoughts.”

The highly introverted Woakes had formed Novagen with Jordan as a way of releasing whichever of his programming projects could be turned into something marketable. Like many a highly accomplished programmer Woakes was, and still is, an extremely shy and private person. With Jordan to take care of the business and with PR Tim Bosher, talk to the media, he could concentrate on producing software without too many unpleasant distractions. It was an arrangement that worked well, and continues to this day.

It was not unusual for Woakes to suddenly turn up with complete or near-complete programs. He worked from his home, playing around with ideas, and when he felt something was ready to show he’d bring it in. Sometimes he’d completely forget to mention valuable innovations entirely. The Commodore 64 version of his 1984 shooter Encounter had incidentally included a custom loading scheme that worked ten times faster than Commodore’s own. The first Bruce had known about that was when a magazine phoned up asking “How does it do that?”. “Do what?”, he’d replied, and when he found out quickly realised the potential in what became Novaload, a turbo loader that brought much relief to players and programmers, and was so successful even Commodore licenced it to use themselves.

The heavily Battlezone inspired Encounter had been a great success, but had used solid graphics, rather the arcade machine’s trademark vectors. With Mercenary the clear blue sky and lush green ground were now home to a series of crisp vector lines. Plans for this game were far advanced over Battlezone’s simple premise.

“He was taken with the idea of simulating a ‘real environment’ in which the player could go anywhere and choose to do anything”. As with many influential titles, Mercenary spanned exisiting genres. From adventures it took the idea of freedom of movement and action, and crucially not being able to die, but presented them in the clothes of flight simulators, driving games and shooters. There were multiple solutions, and several routes to get there, but you could completely ignore them if you wished and just look at the scenery. There was no judgement of right or wrong, just consequences for actions.

On several levels Mercenary was as much about what wasn’t there as what was. From the brief game aims, Escape from Targ, to the sparse, vector graphics that formed your view of Central City, the abstraction allowed the user to fill in much of what was missing. Targ was enormous, but largely empty. Keeping the game running at a high frame rate was vital and it was a straightforward optimisation to spread the buildings far enough apart so that only one set of structures would be in view.

The Mercenary program itself was what we’d now call a game engine. Save files contained almost all the data needed to recreate Central City. This ironically gave the insubstantial Targ a sense of solidity for the player; It never ‘forgot’ where you’d left a ship or object. It also allowed development of the game data using a slightly modified version of the game itself. “Paul produced a sort of utility where you'd in effect float something in the air, and you'd ride a ship around to view it, whatever you'd keyed in as data". Objects within the game, such as the cobweb skeleton key, were useful debugging tools left in for the final release.

The city architect was Woakes’ friend Gary Walton. A not-so-modest monument in the shape of a giant W stands in stead of a written credit. Design was minimal, a structure or object could be suggested using just a few lines, and once completed Woakes and Jordan would have a look and come up with a suitable description. The system was not sophisticated, but was revealing “These were names plucked out of the air" recalls Jordan.

Flying through the city reveals an interesting patchwork of friends, Novagen colleagues, personal references such as a local pub, and incredibly obscure Brummie in-jokes. This arbitrary and unplanned system meant that they were writing the game essentially to amuse themselves. This sense of genuine fun was obvious to players, and contributed substantially to its appeal. So who was responsible for that?

 “The mischief is Paul’s, the cynicism is mine. Actually, the cynicism is Paul’s too”.

Woakes mischief meant the game was packed with little secrets, many of which wouldn’t be uncovered until months after the release. "Paul had great faith in the players", recalls Jordan, believing that “they would find even the remotest things." “People would come back in a year’s time, or write to a magazine ... Did you know this happened?”.

One example of “Pure Paul” was the offer to buy a ship at the start of the game. You could choose to pay of course, but for the more adventurous (or amoral) you could just walk up and steal it. This Grand Theft Aircraft would even attract the attention of local law enforcement.

“The idea was that there was a response for anything that anybody could do. He’d run that to ridiculous levels. If somebody did something stupid they'd suddenly find that he'd recognised they could do it”.  

Rather than coming up with a plot in advance, it was written around features in the world, and evolved as development progressed. The conflict between the Palyars and Mechanoids which gave the player a Yojimbo-esqe freedom to play both sides off against each other was initially included to explain the lack of inhabitants on the planet and why there was a floating colony craft.

Another cinematic touch was the characterisation. The Palyar Commander’s Brother in Law, who was included by Paul as a dig at someone he didn’t get on with at the time*, was never seen, but his presence was felt throughout the game. As events unfolded it became clear that you were slowly making his life a misery. You could steal his old ship, destroy his new one, remove all his furniture and blowing up his house. In later games he would be your nemesis, but here you gradually became his. Rather than being told you had an arch enemy and why, you essentially created him through your own actions. The character’s absence strangely echoed Woakes himself, rarely seen, and yet with oddly personal parts of himself scattered throughout this virtual world.

Getting Woakes to stop adding more and more new features so that the game could actually be released was extremely difficult. "There's always the phrase, oh it would be nice to do this", as Bruce recalls. Features mentioned in previews and adverts, such as more defined missions, ground-based fire and randomising the environment were unfortunately lost when Jordan finally persuaded Woakes that a line had to be drawn under development.

With success came an expansion pack. Completed in about a month and mostly handled by now experienced designer Jordan, The Second City was a particularly evil remix of the original. The objects, their functions and the city map were all jumbled up. New Woakes mischief took the form of teleporter mazes, cloned colony craft and invisible rooms where the vector lines took on the same colour as the background. This radically different and far harder game was delivered as a single save game file, the earlier decision to save the entire world state becoming oddly prescient. Its odd that other home brew configurations of Mercenary haven’t emerged, given that creating them would not be that difficult, but perhaps players had too much respect for the integrity and beauty of the originals to clumsily rearrange them.

Mercenary and its expansion would go on to have a long shelf life. The mathematical nature of the 3D world was platform independent, so once a new engine was written for another machine the game and expansion pack could be ported straight over. Sometimes not even that was needed. " The first thing Paul did as a programmer when he approached the Amiga was to write an Atari simulator. Nothing was ever written for the Amiga."

“Not that we ever told anyone. They were very partisan”.

Indeed.

For an intensely personal game, Mercenary tapped into a broad universal appeal. That we still hail as innovative features that Paul Woakes packed into a game over twenty years ago is a testament to the strength of that original vision.

*Sub Editing notes removed for legal reasons.