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A Feather In His Cap - Graeme Yeandle and The Quill

You are stuck in the early 1980s. You are standing in front of a huge box. Around you is total darkness (and ignorance)(and boredom to spare)

>EXAMINE BOX

As it turns out, the box is actually a cardboard box containing computer software. Maybe the cover contains some valuable information?

>OPEN BOX

A strong beam of light emerges from the box, completely blowing you away. You've opened the doorway to a new era in home computer software.
But wait, perhaps you'd better have another look at the cover?

>READ COVER

"This box contains The Quill, first widely available program for writing adventure games. In the 1980's, hundreds of games were written with The Quill, or its successor, PAW. For the first time, common people without prior experience with programming could write good adventure games. The Quill was available for the Spectrum, Amstrad, C64, and many other computers. It was even translated into Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish! Even today, "homegrown" games are written using The Quill. Its impact on the text adventure genre is massive."

>CONTACT AUTHOR

Graeme Yeandle, author of both The Quill and PAW, dashed to his keyboard to enlighten the unenlightened...

And thus, an interview could begin:


 

Please give us a few details about your background

I was born in 1954 in Barry, South Wales (where Gilsoft [The Quill's publisher] was based). I'm now married, with an 11 year old daughter and living in Cardiff, South Wales (not far from Barry). I have worked with all types of computers since 1979, from Sinclair ZX80 to very large mainframes. Writing Adventure games and The Quill was a hobby.

"He looked just like Clive Sinclair
when he came to the house"
- Tim Gilberts on Graeme.
From South Wales Echo, Dec. 8th, 1984.
Even with this doubtful honour, Graeme
managed to get his Quill sold.

[excerpt from The History of The Quill and PAW]

I was aware of an article by Ken Reed in the August 1980 issue of Practical Computing that described an adventure creating program. It appeared, to me, that the Artic adventure was based on Ken's article. I thought, "I can write an adventure at least as good as this" and wrote to Artic offering my services. They didn't reply.

In 1982 I owned a Spectrum and had bought a number of Spectrum programs that had been advertised in computer magazines. Some of them were better than others. One day I noticed an advert for a program by Gilsoft in Barry. I was born in Barry and was living in Cardiff (Wales) at the time which is only about 12 miles from Barry. I phoned Gilsoft and arranged to call in and have a look at some of their programs before I bought them. (I did buy some of their programs) During the time I was with the Gilberts the conversation turned to adventure games and I subsequently agreed to write an adventure game for them to sell.

You mention an authoring program from Practical Computing. Was this merely a theoretical article or was it based on an actual program? (I.e. was The Quill the first tool of its sort?)

I wouldn't call the Practical Computing article an "authoring" program but it depends what you mean by authoring. It was certainly an "Adventure-creating" program. It contained a printout of, what looks like, pseudo-assembler source code for an interpreter, and a way of creating a database using an assembler but there was no vetting that the various parts of the database fitted together correctly. From the quality of the code I would guess that it was based on an actual program.
"Was The Quill the first tool of its sort?" It wasn't the first adventure-creating program but, as far as I'm aware, it was the first adventure authoring program that was easily available to the general public. It was on sale in many of the main retailers all over the UK and in many other countries. I was certainly worried while writing it that someone else would get something similar on sale first. I have a full page advert from the July 82 Practical Computing for "The Adventure System" for TRS 80 Model 1 & 3. I didn't see it advertised again nor any review of it. I can't remember exactly when The Quill went on sale so I don't know who was first

The initial cover.

You also mention going to visit Gilsoft, where they ended up asking you to write an adventure game for them. Was it really that easy back then, getting a game contract??

Contract? I don't think I ever had a contract! This was in the early days of the Spectrum when much of the software offered for sale was produced by teenagers in their bedrooms. I went to visit Gilsoft (as it was local) to check the quality of their software before buying any. At this time Gilsoft were operating from a teenager's bedroom but the software was well written and the teenager "Tim Gilberts" knew what he was doing. I don't remember the exact details of that first meeting but it was agreed that I would write an adventure game that they would have a look at with a view to publishing.

What do you think of the early adventure scene, as opposed to the way it developed later on?

In early adventures that were "Verb Noun" based, the main problem was finding the correct verb and noun to use. As an example, you enter a location and there is a torch on the floor. I would want to use the command "Pick up torch" to which you can get a variety of responses depending on the words defined in the vocabulary. You eventually work out that "get torch" is required and later it gets dark. Now, I want to "switch torch on" or "turn on torch", neither of which is verb-noun. So the adventure player spent a lot of time trying to work out which words were understood and how to phrase his commands rather than actually solving the adventure. Later adventures e.g. Monkey Island, only allowed valid phrases to be generated by only allowing valid words to be used. This was certainly much better. The PAW actually went the "wrong way" with commands by allowing the adventure writer to define adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, etc. so that "get the sharp knife and kill the large Orc with it" could be understood.

[excerpt from The History of The Quill and PAW]

"[The first adventure game] was called Timeline. This was all done on the cassette based Spectrum and it took quite a time just to make a small change to the database.

It soon became clear that an easier way of editing the database was needed so that I could write more adventures quicker. The idea of selling this adventure writing system soon followed and The Quill was born, written entirely in Assembler"

How powerful was Timeline, as opposed to The Quill?

The Quill used the same interpreter as Timeline so they were equally powerful. The Timeline database was written in assembler and took a long time to ensure that all the bits fitted together properly even though Timeline is a very small adventure. Any change to the database source meant a re-assemble of all the changed bits, then a re-link with the interpreter, then save it all and load it in again to test the changes. As all of this was done with cassette tapes it took a very long time. The Quill made any changes to the database much easier and quicker.

What was the initial reaction from Gilsoft when you talked about The Quill as a new programming tool? Did they have a lot of confidence in the program's abilities?

The initial idea was to write a tool that I (and maybe a few others) could use to write better adventure games much quicker. I think it was Gilsoft's idea to actually sell it as a programming tool. They were very enthusiastic. Writing a program to sell is much different to writing a program that a handful of people would use. My main worry was including a bug that would corrupt the database. I spent a lot of time testing the code that manipulated the database to try to ensure that there were no errors. We did get a few very minor bugs in The Quill but I'm not aware of any causing a corrupt database so all the testing was worth it.

Gilsoft must've had every reason
to be satisfied - The Quill is named
Utility of the Year.
(C) Gilsoft News.

I read different reviews of The Quill back when it was released originally, most of them seemed quite positive. How did you experience this yourself?

I will always remember the review in the November 83 Micro Adventurer that starts

Once in a while, a product comes along to revolutionise the whole microcomputer scene. The Quill is one such, and will change the face of microcomputer adventure.

I can't imagine a better review than that so I was very pleased. The review ended with

Such an important program really needs more space devoted to it than I have here, and next month, Micro Adventurer will be looking in depth at The Quill.

Obviously, I bought Micro Adventurer the following month, to find...nothing. However the January 84 issue did cover The Quill.

Most of the early games had adverts, which seemingly were drawn by the teenage author's baby sister. "Crude" doesn't begin to describe it. Since it represented a whole new genre in software, how was The Quill marketed?

I wasn't involved in the marketing, but it was done in a small way to start with, as we didn't know how well The Quill would sell. There was no point taking a full-page ad in a major newspaper as that would have cost much too much. I've looked at the Gilsoft ads in the Nov 83 Micro Adventurer. There were two, quarter page ads, on pages 26 & 46 but I think that the teenager's babysitter [actually, I meant baby sister, but never mind :) -JG] must have had an "off" day because they are "text only" ads. As The Quill started to sell, more money became available and the ads and cassette inlay cards became more elaborate.

So, did The Quill turn you into a billionaire overnight - how did it fare, commercially?

A work colleague's wife word-processed the first Quill manual. We had an arrangement that it wouldn't cost me anything until I made my first million (pounds) from it. I never got anywhere near a million let alone a billion. It sold better than I expected and in one year I got more from The Quill than from my day job. But, that didn't last long.

An original ad for The Quill.
Flashier things were to come!

Were you also involved with The Illustrator [an add-on program that allowed pictures to be added to the game]?

The Spectrum Illustrator was written by Tim Gilberts but I transferred the code to the Amstrad e.g. CPC464, computers.

Was it released as a response to a public demand, or did you yourself feel the need of such graphic enhancements?

Adding pictures was the obvious next stage after text only adventures. However I don't think that adding static pictures to a text adventure improves it very much. It looks nicer, but apart from showing the player the directions of the exits from the current location, it doesn't add to the game.

[excerpt from The History of The Quill and PAW]

The second generation of Quill, better known as Professional Adventure Writer (PAW), included an enhanced parser that understood adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, conjugations and prepositions as well as verbs and nouns. It was produced in two versions. The Editor version (e.g. Spectrum) included the ability to split the screen and have pictures in the upper section and text in the lower section. The Compiler version (e.g. CP/M) compiled databases from source files and didn't have any picture capability - the compiler was written in C.

Seeing how you later managed to write PAW, which is quite more powerful than The Quill, were you satisfied with The Quill initially, or were you thinking: "I can do better than this" right away?

The only thing I was unhappy about the initial Quill was the inability to change the System Messages.

Funny, those messages always bugged me, too. However, I had a hunch that the programmers were just being lazy!

"Bye, Have a nice day." or whatever the message was that ended every adventure, seemed like a good idea at the time but it soon annoyed me.

I was annoyed that I hadn't thought about including that option as it was an easy thing to include. Apart from that I was satisfied with it.

About PAW, I'm not an artist so I'm not really interested in creating pictures. PAW was jointly written by Tim and myself although he did most of the graphics bits while I did most of the CP/M version which was adventure-compiler based rather than adventure-editor based.

It seems that PAW never reached the same degree of widespread usage as The Quill. It certainly wasn't because it was an inferior piece of work! Was it too complex for users or was time simply running out for "normal" text adventures?

I don't think it was too complex - it wasn't that different to Quill. It was, as you suggest, that time was running out for text adventures. PAW's parser was good but a lot of people don't want to know the difference between an adverb and a preposition.

Comparisons with Sean Ellis' GAC [Graphics Adventure Creator] are inevitable. What do you think of his program?

Umm. Errr. I've not actually used GAC and I'm not aware that I've played any games written with GAC. It's got pictures in it, hasn't it? [Yes! Ed] As I had no chance of creating a picture, there wasn't much point in me looking at the program. However, I've seen several good reviews of GAC.

A happy man holding a very import piece
of gaming history!
(C) Gilsoft News.

A quill is merely a tool for writing. You can use it to write the worst kind of pulp literature or grand epics. This goes for both the computer Quill and its physical counterpart. Yet reviewers tended to be biased towards the former, with many games getting a "it's really good for a Quilled adventure" label. I know that GAC had similar problems.
The problem seemed to be that tools like Quill and GAC made it easy - perhaps too easy? - for normal people to write decent adventures. I.e. you didn't have to possess great programming skills or writing abilities to make a game. Did it ever bother you that the good Quilled games were "drowning" among the hordes of more average ones - that people were "mistreating" your program?

It didn't bother me much. One good Quilled game was all that was needed to prove that The Quill could produce good games. The way I looked at it was that it was up to the publisher to decide whether an adventure would sell. It shouldn't matter whether it was written with Quill, GAC or BASIC. It is similar to someone writing a novel with a typewriter - if someone writes abad novel it doesn't mean that the typewriter is no good. Maybe it is not a very good analogy because you can't tell what type of typewriter was used to write a novel.

What have you been doing since those days?

Trying to think of something else to write that would make some money! Seriously, I'm still writing software but not selling much of it. The last thing I wrote was for helping to design Corrugated Steel Pipes. A long way from adventures. [Hmmm... it would defintely make an original topic!! - JG

Are you into retro gaming?

Nope. However, I'd like to get a copy of Mindfighter that would run on a PC just to see how it turned out. It was written with a modified PAW called SWAN (System without A Name) and then transferred to a number of OSs. I've seen the finished Spectrum version but not the PC version

Okay... how do you feel about the point'n'click adventures? I know purists couldn't care less about them, but as you point out, they did remove a lot of the "guess the word" problems.

I don't think that today's kids are interested in text only adventures because they are used to pictures and sounds. My daughter, Heidi, had a brief try at Timeline but got bored with it very quickly. I don't like calling graphic adventures point'n'click because some of them e.g. Grim Fandango don't use a mouse at all. Adventures have changed from "guess the word" to "guess what I've got to do next"

Do you think that the kind of economical scale that games are working on today has killed creativity? Or does it merely mean that quality has risen to a point where we no longer have to fork out lots of money for yet another abysmal arcade game created in a bedroom?

About 2.5 km from my house there is a "PC World" (a very large shop selling all sorts of computer hardware and software). As far as I can tell they don't sell software produced in bedrooms but anyone buying a game is taking a chance on the quality of the game. You can't judge a game buy the size of the box it is in nor by the quality of the pictures on the box.
I don't think that creativity has been killed, but people who want to write a good game need to have a lot of determination. It is still possible for a single person to write a good game but it will take a lot longer than it would have in the 80's.

Why do you think that the text adventure genre has had such a revival in recent years? The Internet is teeming with high quality Inform and TADS games which, if not surpass, are on par with the much heralded Infocom titles. Are people sick and tired of the multimedia extravaganzas released these days?

Perhaps I should try one of these Inform or TADS games. As for the revival, I don't know why, but it would be interesting to find out what age groups are playing these games. Maybe some people prefer the multimedia games while others prefer text adventures.

So, are we merely a bunch of nostalgic geeks (haha!), or isn't gaming what it used to be?

There's a bit of "gaming isn't what it used to be" but it is also due to people getting older and moving on. These days I prefer puzzle type games - something like Sokoban.

And so, the game came to an end. Bye. Have a nice day.

I'm very grateful for Graeme's participation and interesting answers, not to mention a heapful of pictures. Good to know that he's still around. Now all he needs to do is to get into something a little more adventurous than corrogated steel pipes!
If you feel like having a go at Graeme's original Timeline, download it here>
Otherwise, why not try one of the many excellent games writting using The Quill or PAW: Hampstead, The Big Sleaze, The Boggit, Dodgy Geezers, Tower of Despair, Dracula, Wolfman, or ... well, it's a long list!!!!

- Jacob Gunness, February 2000