Universe

Universe splash screen
An early adventure game with a trading theme.

History

Authors: Thomas Carbone and Bill Leslie at Omnitrend
Released on: Atari 8-bit machines with floppies in late 1983
Comments: One of the most detailed adventure/trade engines to be attempted.

I remember the first time I learned of Universe. I had just picked up a copy of the latest Analog magazine on my once-monthly trek to the local corner store and was flipping through it on the way back to school. In it was a review of this new game, and as soon as I opened the page I knew I wanted a copy. The review had a picture showing all the parts that came with the game, and happened to have the manual open to a page about plotting orbits.

Plotting orbits!

Of course being a high school student at the time was a little different than it is today, and I had no cash. Not only could I not afford the game, I certainly couldn’t afford the disk drive it needed to run. C’est la vie. So never having run the game, writing this article was going to be a bit of a challenge.

One of the nice things about writing history about computers is that the industry is so young you can still find most of the people on the internet today. In Oct ’99 I found that Omnitrend was still making software and I was able to talk to the original author (and owner of the company), Thomas Carbone:

Universe was originally the brainchild of Bill Leslie. Bill had approached Omnitrend in 1981 (Omnitrend was doing business software at the time) about the idea for a really detailed and complex sci-fi computer game. [I] was really taken with the idea, and in 1982 [we] began working on the game using an Atari 400 computer.

I can’t speak in much detail about Bill’s original inspiration, but I know he was an avid reader and a sci-fi fan. I think the inspiration came out of his readings.

Work began in 1982 and was completed in the Fall of 1983. The code was written entirely by [us] on an Atari 400 and later an Atari 800. Universe used the ValForth language (a variation of Fourth) in addition to a 3-D toolkit written by William Volk. The software finally shipped in the Fall of 1983.

The game had three possible endings, one good and two bad. It was played keyboard only (no mice in those days) using three “control” keys to navigate through a series of menus that allowed you to control your ship, make landings, trade products, and deal with combat.

The game was first advertised in ANALOG in Nov.-Dec. 1983 (bimonthly at the time), and was reviewed later in Sept ’84. This puts it on the market at about the same time as Elite and SunDog, surely one of the more interesting bits of timing in the industry. Versions of Universe later shipped for both the Apple II and IBM PC.

A big update to the Universe engine was shipped in 1985 as Universe II (by Bill alone?) which was released on the PC. Here the game was primarily role-playing, the strategic aspects were reduced to a secondary consideration.

At this point Omnitrend moved to the ST and Amiga platforms. Here they released a game that would go on to spawn it’s own series, Breach. Released in 1987, Breach was a tactical warfare game based loosely on the combat concepts in Universe when attempting to capture other ships.

The ship to ship combat portion of the game was also spun off into it’s own game, Rules of Engagment. The engine was a generalized tactical combat system, and their sequel Breach 2 was built using the RoE engine. A planned Universe III on these platforms failed to materialize. Today Omnitrend is back in the business software side of things, selling products for using your PC with pagers and fax systems.

It’s interesting to compare Universe and SunDog. Essentially they’re the same game in concept; adventure games with a single goal, where the path to achieving the goal can take many forms. The big difference between the two is where they decided to apply their computing power – SunDog to an immersive world environment, Universe to powerful modelling.

It’s also worth comparing the game with Elite, which could be considered to be closer to Universe in terms of interface. In this case the big difference is that Elite had no single mission goal, you could play the game forever doing all sorts of things, and many players did. Personally I’m not sure which concept I prefer more, the open-endedness of Elite is certainly fascinating, but I can’t help thinking that actually solving Universe must have been rather satisfying.

The Game

Type: Adventure, and Trading
Viewpoint: First-person
Time: Real time
Synopsis: You captain a trade ship around a cluster of stars in hopes of being able to afford upgrades to your ship to allow you to retrieve a near-mystical device, the Hyperspace Booster.

The lead-in story tells of a time in the not too distant future when mankind discovers hyperspace technologies, allowing for the exploration and colonization of the galaxy. The hyperspace drive, useful as it was, it was limited to smallish masses and required an enormous amount of energy to operate. This means the drive has a practical limit to how far it can go, it’s based on the maximum size of a ship you can use with the engine, and the amount of fuel it can carry on that ship.

During exploration near Tau Ceti an alien artifact is discovered, and this turned out to be an alien race’s version of a hyperspace engine, the hyperspace booster. Unlike our engines, the booster stays at home and has no effective mass limit, so any amount of mass could be sent -one way- to distant stars. The booster is shipped to Earth, and then the real push for stellar colonization starts.

The game starts two centuries later, after man’s colonization of a portion of the galaxy called the Local Group. The local group is still getting itself off the ground, and it’s kept up to date about happenings and tech advances back home through the delivery of a cargo container sent via the booster every 25 days. Until 3 months ago that is, when the containers stopped arriving.

With no contact with Earth, people are getting ansy, and rumors of a disaster back home are spreading. More recently another rumor has surfaced, that a second booster has been found somewhere nearby. That’s where you come in.

The game uses five disks in total:

  • Construction
  • Flight 1
  • Flight 2
  • Starport
  • a player disk that you supply

You start the game by booting the construction disk, which starts up an intro. You first see a title screen then the lower half has words that scroll upwards, pausing for a few seconds as each line appears:

16,000,000,000 years ago the Universe begins
4,000,000 years ago, man emerges
380 years ago the USSC Gerardus enters hyperspace
320 years ago, the hyperspace booster was discovered
221 years ago, Axia is colonized
4 months ago, communication with earth is mysteriously broken
15 days ago evidence of a second hyperspace booster is found
The Need for a Hero has never been greater

Universe opening sceneAfter the intro, the game starts with a conversation between you and a banker at the Axia bank, where you are applying for a shipowners loan. The interface for the game switches between text-based “conversations” like a classic adventure game, text menu driven systems, and various graphics screens.

Standard ship parts in the loanThe loan is a standardized $300000 mortage. In order to get the loan you have to buy specific parts for you ship which the shipyards consider to be a bare minimum needed for any viable commercial trade ship. Added up these parts alone would account for $223000 of the money you’re borrowed, but in this special offer the package deal costs only $175000, a $50k savings!

Ship detailsAt this point you take a text-based trip to the local shipyards, from there you can choose among ten standard ship designs.

You can choose any ship from the menu, but it’s wise to ask for it’s stats before buying it. Here you are taken to a new screen showing you its stats and what it looks like from all angles.

You want to get a ship that isn’t so big that it attract attention, nor get a ship that is so small that you can’t fit all of your equipment on it. The price of this ships is actually surprisingly low, there are parts on your ship that cost considerably more than the ship itself.

Loan repayment detailsAfter agreeing on everything at the bank the woman asks you to name yourself and your new ship, thus creating your character for the rest of the game. All of this is then recorded on the player disk, and (after a lot of disk access) your player disk is ready and you boot the Flight 1 disk. This brings you to a large menu of ship options.

The first thing you want to do is hire a crew and buy lots of provisions. Each hyperspace jump takes 6 days no matter the distance of the jump, and if you don’t have enough provisions, you starve and your player disk gets formatted. This was a big problem, so it was important to back it up a lot.

With whatever money you have left over after buying the ship and its supplies, you can buy new, more efficient parts. It was also usually a good idea to sell parts from the basic package and upgrade them as soon as possible.

The coolest thing by far is the hyperdrive. I have never seen any hyperdrive as slick and cool looking and sounding as it is in Universe. You select Hyperdrive on the menu, the star cluster appears with coordinates of each system. You enter the coordinates you want to go, and the computer computes how far it is, and beeps at you if you try to activate it when your jump engines can’t reach that far. If everything is a-ok, then you see and hear the hyperjump engines building up power, up, and up, until… pow.. a spiraling vortex of hyperspace takes you to your destination seemingly instantly (but 6 days have really passed).

You then select your sublight drive, and it scans the system you are at, displays the planets in relation to their sun and in relation to you, and you press option until your destination in highlighted, then press select to go there. You see a line in space as your ship accelerates to its destination. If I remember correctly, you do have the option to skip the graphic display and simply “get there”, since it may take quite some time to get there depending on how fast your sublight drive is.

Like many games of the genre, “space” only really existed in and around the planets. You could never meet another ship in deep space, which makes sense here because you’re warping from system to system.

After getting to your planet, you scan the planet and it displays it and any objects in its orbit. These objects could be other ships, some hostile, some friendly, or it could be a orbital dry-dock which you could repair your ship. Sometimes these other ships attack you, and you can buy all sorts of weapons and hi-rez scanners to scan your enemy.

We started with really cool names for our ships. USS Enterprise. Millennium Falcon. Then, just after our first hyperjump, all the crew dwindled away due to lack of provisions, and it erased my disk and reformatted. This sucked. The new names weren’t so inspirational. USS Hunk-of-Junk. We went through so many ships for so many reasons that we knew there was a good chance that our new ship would suffer some terrible fate as did all our ships before, but each was a learning experience. Never run out of Ore 4, or you might end up like our USS Float-in-Space. Try to remember when your loan is due. We kept forgetting what year our loan was due, so we named one of our ships USS Payment 107.

Ok, you have a ship, a crew, some food, and are ready to charge off into the universe. Now it’s time to make money. You could do this by contract shipping, mining, trading or passenger transport, the brave could also try their hand at become a pirate.

Mining consisted of finding ore-rich planets and dropping mining probes onto them, then the ore could be picked up later and sold at starports for a profit. The machines were expensive, and open to attack by people on the planet, so Universe also included the ability to send down assault capsules to take control of the area before sending in the miners. All of this was handled via the “mining program” on the ship’s computer, which displayed a graphic of the desent/ascent of your ships, as well as the progress of the battles on the ground.

Trading was easier because the manual listed tech levels and items available at each planet, no hunting involved. The trick, like almost all trading games of this sort, was to buy items at high tech planets and sell them at lower tech planets. To make things a little more interesting, Universe’s engine would only buy items within a certain tech level of the planet’s own.

The various tech levels of items, ship parts and even people, were measured on a sliding decimal scale. Stations would trade in goods up to 9 above or below their own level, and the price of the item was adjusted up or down based on it’s tech level vs. that of the station it was being sold at. You couldn’t simply go to Arbest, pick up the latest and greatest, and then offload it on some podunk for tonnes of cash.

Passenger transport was pretty much identical to trading, except you were paid a fixed fee on both ends of the route. Planets were looking to “import” people with higher tech ratings in order to boost their knowledge, and would pay you to bring them in. Other planets were looking to offload their untrained workers and would pay you for that too. Finding a route was easy enough, find one planet with a sophistication no more than 18 higher than another one nearby, and go to town.

Contract shipping was simplest of all, you simply had to deliver the contracted items before a certain date and take the cash. In this case the randomness was taken out of the equation and you had a good idea of what you’d end up with. You could take on up to 16 contracts at once, so with some luck you could end up with a number all ending up on the same planet and make a bundle in one landing.

The game included a complete spectrum of political systems which placed additional limits on the various types of “legal items”. Some planets could care less if you were shipping drugs back and forth, others would confiscate your cargo as soon as you docked. Combined with the tech rating system, this made for a complex trade system.

There is one planet 30 light years away from Axia, Arbest, which has the highest tech level and thus all the best parts for your ship. The tricky thing is that your hyperjump engines only jump a fraction of that distance at a time, so long range planning and strategy is involved to get there. At that point you could replace your engines with better models which would make jumping easier.

I found a series of planets I could go to starting at at fairly high tech place, buy items, and sell them at a less hi- tech place. The manual had a complete list of merchandise, and some of it was illegal in some places. You would get to a planet, and it looked quite beautiful as you select the planetary scanners. Each planet looked different. You then would launch a shuttle to the planet’s Starport. The manual has a list of planets with Starports. The shuttle would descend, and when it arrives safely, you are then instructed to boot the Starport disk. Another menu appears which leads to trading on the open market. A list of 10 items randomly appear with their price. This is a fast action part where you need to press the number of item (0-9). You may have as little as a split second to choose as they disappear and are replaced instantly since “others” are also also buying.

Universe used a pretty advanced game engine for its day. For instance the computer on your ship is limited in power and thus needs to swap programs in and out of memory [oddly similar to the game itself]. You can upgrade either the storage space or the CPU, allowing you to store and run more programs. Then you can buy various programs, like mining or boarding, which would be needed for certain types of missions.

But even that wasn’t the end of it! The user was in control of swapping these programs in and out of the CPU by hand as needed, or assigning priority levels from 0 (low) to 9 (high) to each program to allow the computer to do it for you. In most games details like this would simply be ignored, or alternately simply represented by a “better computer”, hiding all the specific details.

A similar example was that transfering to and from the ground required you to use a shuttle. The amount of energy the shuttle used on the trip was dependant on the distance it had to travel. The ship would normally enter orbit at four times the radius of the planet, which is pretty high, whereas the minimum orbit was 1.5 times the radius. So basically every time you wanted to land you changed orbits – by hand of course. One person wrote me saying that he had some time while doing laundry one day, so he did all the calculations for minimum-energy orbits for the various planets while sitting on top of the washing machine.

Essentially users were buried in details. Some liked that, saying that it added to the depth of the game in ways no other game has since (although MOO is similar in a non-adventure setting). Others complained that the depth was simply too great, and felt that the gameplay suffered as a result.

Making up for some of this, and unlike almost every game I’ve reviewed, the manual was amazing. Most manuals cover how to install and run the game, some have a few details on play, and most toss in a quick ref card. Not Universe. Omnitrend shipped one of the best computer manuals I’ve seen for any program, not only games. The detail of the game was such that reading the manual was an requirement, so it’s a good thing it was so readable.

The manual shipped in a large three-ring binder which could stand open upright on your desk, which made it easy to read as a reference while you were playing the game. It started with a map of the local group to make navigation planning easier, and illustrations of the basic navigation concepts, like orbital plotting. It then included complete details on how the game and trade systems worked, so there were fewer surprises and “learning on the job”. Finally it went on to include a huge number of appendixes listing details about the various planets, and most of the items available for sale and their tech level (so you could guess where they would be available).

The really big problem with the game was that it pressed the disk drives too hard. The game stuffed a lot of needed information onto the very small and slow drives of the day, and performance suffered both in terms of speed and in the annoyance of disk swapping. When I was researching this article the problem with the disk swapping came up in every conversation about the game, and many people noted that they gave up on the game because of this issue.

Two disk drives are recommended. This game is probably the sole reason why we purchased a second drive. Your player disk is always in one drive, and you are prompted to insert the other disks in the second drive. With one drive, the constant disk swapping can be tedious.

It reminds me of when my uncle would insert the wrong disk. It would beep.beep.beep at him, and then he would have to wait those excruciating long few seconds for the disk to stop. Then, in his less than lucid state brought on by the tedious disk swapping, he would insert another wrong disk. I could hear the beeping from the other room and I just about rolled on the floor laughing. He tried to make this easier by holding a TV Guide by the bound edge, and inserting the Universe disks in the open end so that they were more easily accessible.

It’s interesting to ponder what faster and larger drives would have done for gameplay. Perhaps if the various menus could have been moved to without any delay, the issues surrounding the depth of the game would have simply disappeared.

Links

On Digital Antic Magazine you can find the original review of Universe, which appeared in the magazine. This is an amazing site where copies of every Antic (a wonderful mag for the Atari 8-bit machines) are being lovingly rendered onto the web. Be sure to check out Seven Cities of Gold in the same review, another classic game.

Thanks to

Thomas Carbone, without whom I likely wouldn’t have been able to write this.

Mike Hopkins wrote a review of the game for me some time ago, because I hadn’t seen the game. A good chunk of The Game description is based around his outline, and most of the items in block quote style are (slightly edited) quotes from his work. Thanks Mike!

Rainbow for the Mac, a fine Atari emulator. Without it I wouldn’t be able to show you what this game looked like.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s