Incentive Software Ltd and Freescape
By Paul Howard
Probably every reader of this article will be familiar with the trade mark Freescape, the revolutionary system used to create a number of 3D games on the Spectrum and other machines. In this article I shall describe Freescape and what it did for the games scene at the time, as well as some background information on its parent company.
It was Incentive Software Limited of Aldermaston, Berkshire (near to where I live!) who developed and used the Freescape system. Until now, they had always blended into the background of Spectrum software, releasing various management games (such as Millionaire), adventures (Apache Gold, Winter Wonderland, the Ket Trilogy, the Karyssia Trilogy etc...) and the occasional development tool, the most famous being Graphic Adventure Creator (GAC) which simplified the creation of adventure games. This came in a professional looking laminated case, like that of a video tape, with a manual (my original copy has sadly fallen to pieces!).
Released suddenly in 1987, Driller, the first Freescape game, quickly became a number one seller. It included a 20-page science fiction novella (from which a password must be entered to start the game), various reference sheets, a cut- and-fold 3D mapping model of the planet, and some excellent artwork. I am lucky enough to have a pristine copy of this indisputable classic, lacking only the 3D model.
There have been claims that Driller was unplayable and slow, but in my opinion such criticism is unjustified. The short loading time - due to that rare occurrence, a reliable turbo loader - is well worth it to see the graphics of this game, and the slowness of movement doesn’t matter; Driller is an intellectual game rather than an action game like Doom. Though monochrome, the shading is spot on and there are controls to let you view the current area from all angles.
You can explore freely, flick switches, pass through doors and destroy certain objects. Unlike such modern virtual reality games as Tomb Raider (in which it is possible to stand ‘in’ a wall and disappear) (and Wave Race on the Nintendo 64, where I managed to make my head ‘pop up’ through floorboards! - ED), the 3D effect, though modest by today’s standards, is faultless in this respect.
The only other Freescape game of which I posses a boxed original is Total Eclipse, released in 1989. This had two separate parts, but both were also released together in a special edition, which offered an A2 colour poster, mission briefing (with storyline) and the chance to win a holiday to see a real total eclipse in Hawaii!!! While perhaps more payable than Driller, Total Eclipse simply doesn’t appeal to me. I see Driller as a very special game, one which broke Spectrum boundaries, and Major Developments (Ian Andrew, Chris Andrew and Stephen Northcott, the in-house team who developed the system for Incentive) deserve recognition for the feat.
Of course, it wasn’t only the Spectrum which had Freescape games created for it. They also appeared on various other 8-bit machines and IBM compatibles. Two other games in the series were Castle Master (usually thought of as the first Freescape game actually to be a game rather than a sensation) and its sequel, The Crypt.
In comparison to modern 3D engines such as those found in Doom and Heretic, the Freescape series is obviously unable to stand up to the competition - but when ‘Gobbi the Dog’ (a writer for the ZX Files) insulted Driller in favour of the PC game Quake, he was missing the point entirely. Driller was a new sensation, the start of a trend which is still continuing. Quake, for all its underwater special effects and realistic textures, is nothing more than an uninteresting remake of a now stale theme.
The culmination of Freescape was in the 3D Construction Kit, a powerful 128k only program allowing the user to create their own 3D landscapes filled with all the features of previous games. I have seen an unofficial +D disc conversion of this program, and it isn’t at all difficult to place a few solid objects and navigate around them. However, creating room boundaries and complex items (e.g. switches) is much harder and not really very profitable when the best games have already been made.
The commercial version of this program was the first and only piece of Spectrum software to include a video tape - in this case, a ‘guided tour’ of how to use the program. I have never had the opportunity to see this, but would love to do so!
Finally I think it’s worth mentioning the existence of a 3D Construction Kit demo game, featured on at least one magazine cover cassette at the time. This game included such delights as an expanding cottage, teleport computer and even a moving enemy - not at all easy to create in three dimensions on a Spectrum!
To conclude, then, any of these games are worth picking up. As I have said, I personally have a penchant for Driller, the storyline and depth of play of which seem so much more profound than those of the games which followed. But I think everyone has their favourite, with Castle Master probably leading the vote.
While it is unlikely that any more Freescape games will be produced - despite the existence of the Construction Kit - the ones which Incentive released are without doubt, true Classix.