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Robin Keir about the Microcosm CD-i prototype

>> Thursday, February 19, 2009

Microcosm was one of the more notable games that was cancelled from the CD-i roster of unreleased software to date. Mainly due to the fact it was publicised on release schedules in the press throughout CDi Magazine and other publications of the time. It was even advertised in CDi Magazine USA March 1995 Issue 4 pages 36-37, featuring a review quote from Video Games, "Microcosm on CD-i is 100% absolutely, postively the best version period. It puts all other game systems to shame...excellent sci-fi adventure."! The Black Moon Project went digging for answers to this missing CD-i game and we found Robin Keir lead programmer of Microcosm for the CD-i, he prepared the following statement for us.

"I was the lead and eventually the only programmer on the Microcosm CD-i project. It's been a long time but I'll see what I can remember about it...

Psygnosis were the original developers of the Microcosm game. We went up to their offices near Liverpool to talk to the people there and find out more about the game. They had developed a version on some weird Chinese PC clone type system - I can't remember it's name, but Philips bought one for us to play with.

USA Advertisement from CDi Magazine Issue 4 March 1995 Pages 36-37 Double Page Spread

Since most of the rest of the programmers in the Dorking studio at that time were working on porting 7th Guest to CD-i, I was pretty much the only programmer assigned the project.

The whole deal with Microcosm was for us to port it to CD-i in order to show off the MPEG movie hardware add- on. The computer rendered scenes of traveling through the internal organs in your "spaceship" were to be presented via MPEG movie clips whilst the actual gameplay items comprised software "sprites" layered on top of the movies.

There were 2 main problems to overcome:

1) The MPEG movie clips had to be joined together on-the-fly to provide "seamless" jumping from one clip to another, giving the illusion of total interactive user control over the movies.

2) The CD-i system was not known for its great graphical processing power so any software generated "sprites" had to be as optimised as much as possible in order to produce any meaningful sensation of a fast "arcade" style game.

Problem (1) was the hardest task. MPEG video sequences on CD-i contain many elements and need to be carefully synchronized. This synchronization is achieved with timestamps built into the MPEG stream on every "sector" of data. If 2 completely separate MPEG movie sections are to be played back-to-back in a seamless fashion we had to buffer them through memory as they are played off disc and manipulate the timestamps in realtime, buffering enough of the 2nd stream in memory so when the 1st stream ended we were ready to branch right into the 2nd section.

Several people had worked on this so-called MPEG "seamless branching" technique but nobody had really nailed it at that time. To make life even more difficult, in Microcosm we were required to branch up to 3 different movie clips in real time. An example is where you are traveling down an artery (or whatever they were supposed to be!) and you came up to a 3-way split. The user could take the left, center or right branch by selecting it with the controller right before reaching the junction and the game was supposed to "seamlessly branch" into the correct movie segment and continue on its way.

Problem (2) was interesting to work on. I developed a system of "compiled sprites". This worked by taking an image of a spaceship or whatever kind of sprite was to be used and "compiled" that into a sequence of position independent 68010 assembler instructions that would actually directly draw the pixels onto the screen. For example, suppose the first line of the sprite consisted of 10 red pixels followed by 3 green pixels. The sprite compiler code would generate assembler where 5 mov commands of 2 bytes each using a value corresponding to a red pixel would be created followed by another mov command of 2 bytes followed by another mov command of 1 byte. It was all setup to create highly optimized assembler code to draw things in the fastest possible way. For each sprite you then had a mini assembler program that when called would actually render the image on the screen.

John Piesing at PRL (Philips Research Labs) in England had actually developed a similar "compiled sprite" library, but mine was even faster and used less RAM.

It was around this time, March-April 1994 that it became evident that the Philips labs in Dorking, England where all this was taking place was going down the drain. People who hadn't already got new jobs lined up were not exactly wanting to hang around working on potentially dead-end projects. I had already grown tired of the project and its lack of support and had hoped that the project would be canned since it was eating money and it was also obvious that Microcosm wasn't after all a very playable or exciting game. It was desperately lacking any gameplay. The graphics were its only attraction. Luckily (!) for me I was offered a position at the Santa Monica, Los Angeles Philips CD-i studio. I decided to take it. Unfortunately (!) I was still required to work on Microcosm.

Jean-Pierre Abello (sp?) in the Philips Santa Monica, CA offices was the only person I was aware of that was working on the elusive MPEG "seamless branching" technology. He had some very simple demos kind of working but still nothing really useful. I was committed to solving this problem and did eventually produce usable working code after a few weeks in my new USA job. There was some tricky low level assembly language involved for manipulating the MPEG timestamps and some hairy buffering code that managed the loading on the individual movie clips from CD but it did work and actually looked really cool.

The compiled sprites technology was also looking rather nice. Nobody had really created technology that pushed so many or such large sprites to the limits that Microcosm was doing and people would not have believed that such a game was even possible on such pitifully weak hardware.

As often seems inevitable in the games industry (even though Philips was never really /in/ it) the people in charge came to realize what I had known for a long time -- that Microcosm was doomed to failure. Other than the fancy graphics of was a deadly dull and boring game. It was dropped and we moved on to new projects.

I daren't think how much money was thrown away on that project. We even had mini movie shoots for some of the "cut sequences" -- sections between the gameplay where SGI rendered scenes were coupled with live action video. The SGI machines that performed the rendered movie sequences cost an arm and a leg. I think we had something crazy like 4 or 6 of them, just for this project!"

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Games 0-F

3rd Degree - PF Magic
7th Guest, The - Philips Freeland Studios
Accelerator - SPC/Vision
Adventure of the Space Ship Beagle, The - Denshi Media Services
Affaire Morlov, L' - Titus
Alfapet - Adatek
Alice in Wonderland - Spinnaker
Alien Gate - SPC Vision
Alien Odyssee - Argonaut
Aliens Interactive CD-i - Dark Vision Interactive
Ange et le Demon, L' - Smart Move
Apprentice, The - SPC Vision
Apprentice 2, The - Marvin's Revenge - SPC Vision
Arcade Classics - Philips ADS / Namco
Asterix - Caesar’s Challenge - Infogrames
Atlantis - The Last Resort - PRL Redhill (Philips ADS)
Axis and Allies - CapDisc
Backgammon - CapDisc
Battle Chess - Accent Media (for Interplay)
Battleship - CapDisc
Big Bang Show - Infogrames
BMP Puzzle - Circle (for ZYX)
Brain Dead 13 - Readysoft
Burn:Cycle - Trip Media
Caesar's World of Boxing - Philips POV
Caesar's World of Gambling - CD-I Systems
Cartoon Academy - Bits Corporation
CD-i mit der Maus - SPC Vision
CD Shoot - Eaglevision Interactive Productions
Change Angels Kick-off - HMO
Chaos Control - Infogrames
Christmas Country - Creative Media
Christmas Country - The Lost Levels - Creative Media
Christmas Crisis - DIMA
Clue - 3T Productions
Clue 2 - The mysteries continue - 3T Productions
Connect Four - CapDisc
Creature Shock - Argonaut (for Virgin)
Crime Patrol - CapDisc
Crow, The - Philips POV
Cyber Soldier Sharaku - Japan Interactive media
Dame was Loaded, The - Beam Software
Dark Castle - Philips POV
Dead End - Cryo
Defender of the Crown - Philips POV
Deja Vu - Icom Simulations
Deja Vu 2: Lost in Las Vegas - Icom Simulations
Demolition Man - Virgin Interactive Entertainment
Demon Driver - Haiku Studios
Discworld - Teeny Weeny Games
Dimo's Quest - SPC Vision
Domino - Wigant Interactive Media
Down in the Dumps - Haiku Studios
Dragon's Lair - Superclub / INTL CDI
Dragon's Lair 2- Time Warp - Superclub / INTL CDI
Drug wars - Crime Patrol II - CapDisc
Dungeons & Dragons - PF Magic
Earth Command - Visionary Media
Effacer - CapDisc
Escape from Cybercity - Fathom Pictures
Evidence - Microids
Falco & Donjon & The Sword of Inoxybur - BMi / Zephyr Studio
Family Games I - DIMA
Family Games II - Junk Food Jive - DIMA
Felix the Cat - Philips Sidewalk Studio
Flashback - Delphine/Tiertex (for US Gold)
Flinstones Wacky Inventions - Philips Funhouse
Fort Boyard: The Challenge - Microids
Frog Feast - Rastersoft

CD-i Games Index G-M

Go - CapDisc
Golden Oldies - SPC Vision
Golden Oldies II - SPC Vision
Golgo 13 - Japan Interactive Media
Great day at the races, A - CD-I Racing, Dove Films, Total Vision
Guignols de l'Info, Les - Canal+ Multimedia / INTL CDI
Heart of Darkness - Amazing Studio (for Virgin)
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The - Philips Kaleidoscope
Holland Casino CD-i - HMO
Hotel Mario - Philips Fantasy Factory
Inca - Coktel Vision
Inca 2 - Coktel Vision
International Tennis Open - Infogrames
Jack Sprite vs. The Crimson Ghost - PF Magic
Jeopardy - Accent Media
Jigsaw - Novalogic
Joe Guard - DIMA
John Dark: Psychic Eye - CapDisc
Joker's Wild!, The - Accent Media
Joker's Wild Jr., The - Accent Media
Kether - Infogrames
Kingdom - The far reaches - CapDisc
Kingdom 2 - Shadoan - CapDisc
Labyrinth of Crete - Philips Funhouse
Laser Lords - Spinnaker
Last Bounty Hunter, The - CapDisc
Legend of the Fort - Microids
Lemmings - DMA Design / Psygnosis
Lettergreep - Wigant Interactive Media
Lingo - SPC Vision
Link - The faces of evil - Animation Magic
Lion King, The - Virgin Interactive Entertainment
Litil Divil - Gremlin Graphics
Litil Divil 2: Limbo Years - Gremlin Graphics
Lords of the rising sun - Philips POV
Lost Eden - Cryo (for Virgin)
Lost Ride, The - Formula (Lost Boys)
Lucky Luke - The video game - SPC Vision
Mad Dog McCree - CapDisc
Mad Dog McCree II: The lost gold - CapDisc
Magic Eraser - Circle (for ZYX)
Mah-Jong - Japan Interactive Media
Making the Grade - 3T Productions
Man Before Man - Cryo
Marco Polo - Infogrames
Mario Takes America - CIGAM
Master Labyrinth - AVM AG/HQ
Mega Maze - CapDisc
Memory Works, The - Compact Disc Incorporated
Merlin's Apprentice - Philips Funhouse
Microcosm - Philips Freeland Studios
Micro Machines - Codemasters
Monty Python's Invasion from the Planet Skyron - Daedalus CD-i Productions
Mutant Rampage - Body Slam - Animation Magic
Myst - Sunsoft (for Cyan)
Mystic Midway - Rest in pieces - Philips POV
Mystic Midway 2 - Phantom Express - Philips POV

Compact Disc Interactive

Compact Disc Interactive

Games N-Z

Name that tune - Philips Fantasy Factory
New Day - Bits Corporation
NFL Hall of Fame Football - Philips POV
Othello - HMO
Pac Panic - Philips ADS / Namco
Palm Springs Open - ABC Sports / Fathom Pictures
Pool - SPC Vision
Pinball - CapDisc
Plunderball - ISG Productions
Power Hitter - ABC Sports / Fathom Pictures
Power Match - Two's Company
Pursue - BEPL
Pyramid Adventures - Compact Disc Incorporated
RAMRaid - PRL Redhill
Return To Cybercity - Fathom Pictures
Riddle of the Maze, The - Fathom Pictures
Riqa - Bits Corporation
Rise of the Robots - Mirage Technologies
Sargon Chess - Spinnaker
Scotland Yard Interactive - AVM AG/HQ
Secret Mission - Microids
Secret Name of Ra, The
Shaolin's Road - Infogrames
Skate Dude - Viridis
Smurfen, De - De Telesmurf - Infogrames
Solar Crusade - Infogrames
Solitaire - BEPL
Space Ace - Superclub / INTL CDI
Space Ranger - Studio Interactive
Special Operations Squadron - SPC Vision
Sport Freaks - SPC Vision
Star Trek - Philips POV
Star Wars: Rebel Assault - LucasArts
Steel Machine - SPC Vision
Striker Pro - Rage
Strip Poker Live - Greenpig Production
Strip Poker Pro - Interactive Pictures
Super Fighter - The Super Fighter Team / C&E
Super Mario's Wacky Worlds - NovaLogic
Surf City - Philips Sidewalk Studios
Tangram - Eaglevision Interactive Productions
Taco's Toyroom Troopers - Creative Media
Tankdoodle - Creative Media
Tetris - Philips POV
Tetsuo Gaiden - Creative Media
Text Tiles
Thieves' World - Electronic Arts
Tic-tac-toe - BEPL
Tox Runner - ISG Productions
Treasures of Oz - Philips Kaleidoscope
Ultra CD-i Soccer - Krisalis
Uncover featuring Tatjana - SPC Vision
Uninvited - Icom Simulations
Video Speedway - ISG Productions
Vinnie the Pinguin - Pandemonium Labs
Voyeur - Philips POV
Voyeur 2 - Philips POV
Whack-a-Bubble - Creative Media
What's it worth - Marshall Cavendish Multimedia / Spice
Who shot Johnny Rock? - CapDisc
Wordplay - BEPL
World Cup Golf - US Gold
Zaak Sam, De - Toneelschool NL
Zelda - The wand of Gamelon - Animation Magic
Zelda's Adventure - Viridis
Zenith - Radarsoft
Zombie Dinos From The Planet Zeltoid - Philips POV

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