Thursday, February 9, 2017

Omnitrend's Universe

This Omnitrend's Universe ad appeared on page 92 of issue 13 of ANALOG Computing magazine in November 1983. 

Universe, designed and programmed by Thomas R. Carbone and William G.M. Leslie III with ATARI 3D Graphics routines by William Volk, is an immersive and complex spaceship simulator and science fiction role playing game. The original version was created on an ATARI 800 in valForth. In addition to the ATARI 8-bit release, there were also versions for the Apple II and the IBM PC. It was Omnitrend's first published game.  

While ads for Universe began appearing in the fall of 1983, reviews didn't start to emerge until the summer of 1984. There are two reviews of Universe starting on page 14 of the June 1984 issue of Computer Gaming World magazine. ANALOG Computing magazine had a review beginning on page 33 of Issue 20 in July 1984. Antic magazine had a review beginning on page 81, in Vol. 3, No. 5 in September 1984. Even BYTE magazine had a review in Vol. 10, No. 5 on page 311 in May, 1985.   

For more details on the ATARI version, Chris Edgar maintains a Universe FAQ which contains a wealth of information on the game including versions, bug reports and possible workarounds.

Isaac Asimov

What is Universe? Great question. Have you ever read the phenomenal Foundation series of books starting with 1951's Foundation by Russian-American author Isaac Asimov? Did you ever play (and hack) Mike Mayfield's text-based BASIC computer game Star Trek or Dave Kaufman's text-based BASIC computer game Star Trader. Have you ever played the 1977 Traveller table-top role playing game by Game Developer's Workshop? Did you ever wonder what Han Solo was doing BEFORE he met Luke? Have you ever watched the amazing, but short lived (with possible reboot in the works) TV series Firefly? Imagine combining all of these and you begin to get the idea. Universe is a highly detailed spaceship simulator were you get to design your ship and then take it out for adventure and profit (legal or otherwise).

Role Playing Game
by Game Developer's Workshop

Universe is a very involving game. It requires the player to calculate hyper jump coordinates for intermediate jumps between known stellar systems for the navigation computer, calculate minimum orbits for planets in order to launch shuttles and analyze nearby contacts to determine if it is time for flight or fight! It is so immersive and complex, with a detailed manual approaching 100 pages, you could spend an inordinate amount of time outside of the game just planning the design and layout of the equipment aboard your spaceship for optimal energy usage and defense or planning your next Axia to Zeath trade run for maximum profit.

Omnitrend's Universe
High Definition Scan Of Near By Contact
"Too Close For Missiles, Switching To Laser Projectors"

At $89.95, Universe was by far the most that I ever paid for a computer game, then or since. I also purchased the optional Complete Product Guide for another $15 or so. Add in a box of 5 1/4 floppy disks for the player disk and player disk backups, a package of loose leaf paper for notes and some loose leaf hole reinforcements for the well-used manual pages, and I was in for well over $100.00 on one game. This may have been the most expensive (and most complex) game released for the ATARI 8-bit line. It was for me anyway.

If you know of a more expensive or more complex game for the ATARI 8-bit, please leave a comment below and let me know.

Calculating Planetary Orbits!

The Complete Product Guide was helpful when playing Universe as a trader. It helped to avoid bringing contraband items to planets where they were banned, saving you violations, fines or worse! To be honest, for the price of this game, these few extra pages should have been included as part of the manual.

Omnitrend's Universe
Successfully Clearing Customs

Universe was one of my top three favorite games/series for the ATARI 8-bit computers. The others are Richard Garriott's Ultima series (Ultima IUltima IIUltima III and Ultima IV) and the Infocom's Enchanter interactive fiction series (EnchanterSorcerer and Spellbreaker).

To learn more about Interactive Fiction, check out Jason Scott's amazing documentary Get Lamp, Nick Montfort's Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction and/or Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 by Aaron Reed. These are three great sources on the subject.

Other than Universe, to date, I have not played any of Omnitrend's other computer games such as Universe II, Universe III, Breach, Breach 2, Breach 3, Paladin, Paladin II, Rules of Engagement or Rules of Engagement 2, none of which were released for the ATARI 8-bit.

Other Contemporary Science Fiction Role Playing Games

It was a great time to be an armchair star ship captain, within a few months of each other, Omnitrend's Universe (September 1983) came out for the ATARI 8-bit computers, SunDog: Frozen Legacy (March 1984) by FTL Games came out for the Apple II series of computers and Elite (September 1984) came out for the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron computers. At the same time, Trade Wars by Chris Sherrick, a cross between the board game Risk created by Albert Lamorisse, Gregory Yob's Hunt the Wumpus and Dave Kaufman's Star Trader, began to appear on computer bulletin board systems (BBS). Trade Wars and its offspring would go on to be one of the premier BBS door games of BBS era, 1978-ish to 1995-ish. What is a BBS? Check out Jason Scott's BBS The Documentary

SunDog: Frozen Legacy

Maury Markowitz had an amazing website that he eventually moved to a Wordpress site were he detailed the history of Mike Mayfield's Star Trek, Omnitrend's Universe and SunDog: Frozen Legacy as well as other space-themed games that shouldn't be forgotten. Additional Elite history and information can be found on co-developer Ian Bell's website and in the The Making of Elite documentary.

Playing Omnitrend's Universe Today

Playing Universe when it was first released on the ATARI 8-bit was very frustrating. The game required five diskettes: Construction, Flight I, Flight II, Starport and the player disk. The original release, version 1.1, only supported one disk drive during game play. This version required so much disk swapping, it would grind your ATARI 810 disk drive into a pile of melted plastic and metal shavings! One minor mistake, like pressing the START key instead of the SELECT key at the wrong time, could cause you a quick death in the dark and lonely void of space and the game would format your player disk just to keep you honest! If you didn't have a good back up with detailed notes on where you were and what you were doing at the time, you would have to start all over again, a very lengthy process.

Also, on native ATARI hardware, the speed of the game tended to creep along in areas were graphics, 3D or otherwise, were drawn or when the game performed highly complex calculations such as orbital mechanics or planet generation.

Playing Universe is even better today. Using an ATARI 8-bit emulator such as Altirra (I've had success with Altirra 2.4, but had issues with newer releases of the emulator when playing this game), you can use one of the versions of Universe that supports multiple drive (versions 1.2 or 1.3). This significantly cuts down on disk swapping. Upgrading to a better in-game computer and mass storage device cuts down on even more disk swapping. You can also use the emulator's warp or turbo mode to speed up the slow parts of the games such a planetary scans, hyperjumps, shuttle launches and the like. Finally, if you have multiple monitors, you can have Google docs open on one screen to keep notes and view trading spreadsheets.

Need a good notebook for your Universe adventures? Check out the Galactic Gaming Journal by Urban Realms. Seems kind of expensive at $19.95 for a 300 page notebook, but it looks like it might fit with the genre.

Galactic Gaming Journal
by Urban Realms

If you are interested in playing Universe, I suggest that you:
  • Read Chris Edgar's Omnitrend's Universe ATARI 8-bit FAQ
  • Download and peruse the Universe manual (or here)
  • Download and skim the optional Complete Product Guide
  • Download Altirra 2.4
  • Download the Universe 1.3 disk images
  • Along with the Getting Started/Sample Game in the manual, David Milsop created a Quick Start Guide
  • Start playing
Keep judicious notes and back up your player disk often. Using an emulator makes it easy to keep a running back up of player diskettes so your can recover from a player mistake or a game bug (read the FAQ).

Start out as a trader and passenger ferryer. Create profitable trade routes and acquire some wealth. Explore the galaxy. Upgrade your ship's equipment. Try your hand at mining. When your ship is fully equipped with the best hardware, you've explored the galaxy from one end to the other and you understand how all the systems on your ship work, try your hand at piracy and ship to ship fighting.

If you really want to go all out, hack your spare ATARI 400 into a Mission Control Desk and Spacecraft! OK, maybe that is a little much.

Want to try a more modern computer-based space simulator?  Check out EVE OnlineElite Dangerous from David Braben co-developer of the original Elite (and co-founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation) or Star Citizen by Wing Commander developer Chris Roberts. Watch this video to find out more about Star Citizen. Or for the pen and paper crowd, check out the upcoming release of the Starfinder role playing game by Paizo, the publisher of the Pathfinder fantasy role playing game. There is also (possibly) a pen and paper Elite:Dangerous Role Playing Game in the works.

One additional note, Omnitrend is still around today. While they are no longer in the computer game business, they still have a small and dwindling supply of New Old Stock computer games, if you are interested.

Alright, my shuttles are full of Ore IV, exotic trade goods and impatient passengers. Time is money and I got a hyperspace booster to find. 
"Axia Launch Control, this is Seeker Shuttle Two, ready to clear the surface and rendezvous with Spacecraft Seeker in orbit."  
"Seeker Shuttle Two, this is Axia Launch Control, you are clear for takeoff." 
"Roger that Launch Control, commencing boost sequence. Have a nice day. Seeker Shuttle Two out!"
Twitter: @BillLange1968


1.  Be on the lookout for an upcoming interview with Omnitrend's Universe co-developer William Leslie on the Antic The Atari 8-bit Podcast. I'll create a direct link when it is available.

2. I created an Omnitrend's Universe themed 24 inch by 36 inch poster. Enjoy.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Talk Is Cheap

Talk Is Cheap Ad
ANTIC Magazine
October 1982

This Talk Is Cheap ad for S.A.M. (The Software Automatic Mouth) appeared on page 55 in the Vol. 1, No. 4 issue of Antic magazine in October 1982. There is also another, less colorful S.A.M. ad on page 56 in the Vol. 1, No. 3 issue of Antic magazine in August 1982.

S.A.M., written by Mark Barton and published by Don't Ask Computer Software was a software-only, diskette-based speech synthesizer for the ATARI 8-bit home computers. It was also available for the Apple II, the Commodore 64 and other home computers of the era. As mentioned, S.A.M. was software based and it output speech directly to the TV or monitor speaker. For the ATARI 8-bit version, no additional hardware, speaker, amplifier, power supply, special interfaces or cables were needed.

S.A.M.'s best selling point was its Talk Is Cheap $59.95 (1982 dollars) price tag compared to hardware-based speech synthesizers which could cost in the hundreds of dollars.

The major drawback of the ATARI 8-bit version of S.A.M. was, however, that by default, it turned off the ATARI's ANTIC chip during speech output blanking the screen in the process. It can be configured to leave the ATARI's ANTIC chip on during speech output, but this severely degraded the already marginal speech quality.

There is a review of the S.A.M. speech synthesizer starting on page 50 of Vol. 1, No 4 of Antic magazine in October 1982.

While the output of S.A.M. (and other ATARI 8-bit speech synthesizers) would never have been mistaken for a human voice and the verbal quality is understandable at best, it was a fun and interesting addition to anyone’s home computer setup as shown in the 1983 movie Wargames (though Wargames is not using speech synthesizer technology but rather actor John Wood's recorded voice as the voice of Joshua/WOPR).

Jerry White's PokerSAM

A few other programs that made use of Don't Ask Computer Software's S.A.M. speech technology are PokerSAM and Chatterbee by prolific ATARI software developer Jerry White. Kevin Savetz, ATARI Archivist Extraordinaire, and co-host of the outstanding ANTIC The ATARI 8-bit Podcast interviewed Jerry White in January 2016.

From Moby Games: "Chatterbee is an educational game that teaches spelling. It uses the speech synthesizer Software Automatic Mouth (SAM) to read out word and sentences. The program will read a word, then define it in a sentence before reading it out again. The player's task is simply to type the word and as the letters appear on the screen the synthesizer will repeat them. Spelling a word correctly leads to points being awarded and if wrong the player gets two more chances. The game consists of ten rounds each with either five or ten words. There are 25 levels and the player can start on any of them. If the player does well the level will automatically change to a higher one."

Chatterbee is interesting in that while S.A.M. blanks the screen as usual, the bee character is still visible during the screen blank. Nice trick Jerry! He explains it in this article.

Jerry White and Randy Simon

There is a type-in BASIC program title Spelling.SAM by Ed Rybczyk starting on page 13 of issue #22 of the September 1984 issue of ANALOG COMPUTING magazine that used the S.A.M. speech technology.

The February 1985 issue of Antic magazine has a BASIC/Assembly Language article beginning on page 63 title S.A.M. Handler - Less typing for your ATARI's voice, which shows you how to set up S.A.M. to work using the BASIC OPEN command. Note that the assembly language listing has an error which is addressed in the Help! section of the June 1985 issue of Antic.

Another type-in BASIC program title Speech Editor - Menu-driven S.A.M. talk! by Mark Giambruno appears in the April 1985 issue of Antic magazine beginning on page 45. This program allows you to edit S.A.M. speech using a menus.

I still have my original ATARI S.A.M. floppy diskette, which I purchased back in the day at The Program Store, a platform agnostic software retailer at the Monmouth Mall in nearby Eatontown, NJ, but unfortunately, the instruction manual and the box are nowhere to be found.

S.A.M. Atari Diskette

What to try experimenting with S.A.M.? Some interesting projects with S.A.M. could be to add a computerized voice to Mike Mayfield's text-based BASIC computer game Star Trek or Dave Kaufman's text-based BASIC computer game Star Trader. Star Trader appeared in the book What To Do After You Hit Return. It was one of the original space-trader themed computer games. This classic book really should be archived online somewhere. [2017-03-01 And now it is, here.]

For more information on the various hardware-based speech synthesizers available for the ATARI 8-bit home computers, see section 6.7 (and 6.8) of the ATARI 8-bit FAQ maintained by Michael Current. S.A.M. is not included in the ATARI 8-bit FAQ as it is a software-based, not hardware-based speech synthesizer.

I also recently wrote a blog post on the hardware-based Voice Box speech synthesizer by The Alien Group.

The June 1982 issue of ANTIC, Vol. 1, No. 2, has a review of two additional hardware-based voice synthesizers for the ATARI 8-bit home computers beginning on page 18.

If your planning on attending the Vintage Computer Festival East XII in Wall, New Jersey during the weekend of March 31st though April 2nd, 2017, come and see my ATARI Says Its First Words exhibit where I'll be displaying a sample of the various speech synthesizers that were available for the ATARI 8-bit home computers.

Twitter: @BillLange1968