Autoguard: The story of one of the greatest games that never was
By Jason Daniels


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

Actually it was a little village called Aveley located in South Ockendon, Essex, and it was 1985. Two 18 year old guys named Jason Daniels and Tom Lanigan decided to follow their dream of being games designers by starting their own software design house called Pagoda Software. Tom was a talented artist and handled graphics and sound duties, Jas thought he knew something about computers and was responsible for all the coding. They set up in a small industrial unit at a site in the town of Grays. This industrial area was being offered by the local-government enterprise initiative scheme to boost small start-up business in the area, it was a bit run-down but it was very cheap. They acquired a bank loan and bought the necessary equipment, starting with BASIC Lightening on Commodore 64's and using C2N Tape Drives but rapidly moving on to Machine Lightening running on C128 and C128D's using disk drives. And so they set about creating their first game.

That was where it all started to go wrong!

Anybody of a business minded disposition would have written something very commercial and quick and then started fishing for conversion work on the back of it. This would have ensured some sort of cash flow for the business. Unfortunately Tom and Jas were not of the business minded disposition. What they were was ambitious, creative, fairly bright, young and naïve, possibly slightly bonkers too! Nope, their first game – and bear in mind that neither of them had created any kind of computer game before – was what was intended to be one of the most advanced and ambitious Commodore 64 games ever – Autoguard.

Autoguard gameplay
The basic gameplay concept was fairly simple. The player controlled a security droid (the eponymous Autoguard) around a hi-tec, high security chemical refinery and it's immediately surrounding countryside. The refinery would be attacked by waves of bad guys running around planting bombs and shooting at poor old Autoguard if he came within range. Fortunately Autoguard was pretty bad-ass and would shoot the nasty bad guys dead and defuse the bombs – if the player was skilful enough of course.

Presentation
The gameplay might have been simple but the presentation was to be anything but... Tom and Jas had a vision of beautifully drawn forced-perspective environments in full colour, high-resolution bit-mapped graphics. Interacting with these pseudo 3D environments would be equally detailed and colourful sprites representing the Autoguard and whatever type of bad-guys the player had decided to butt-heads with. And when they said "interacting" they meant in the sense that any character could move up to, around, in front of and behind any object on the screen in a realistic manner. This was as opposed to being kept on a strict path away from background objects as seen in many other fancy forced-perspective games.

Bit-Mapped Graphics System
In order to fulfil this vision, Jas came up with the Bit-Mapped Graphics System (BMGS). A combination of utilities to create colourful bit-mapped screens using libraries of pseudo 3D objects, and routines to allow sprites to interact with the objects by the use of 2D maps and dynamic sprite processing. It worked, but it took a long time to develop, a lot longer than Tom and Jas had envisioned, a lot longer... actually it took (with other aspects of the game in simultaneous development) about 18 months! Oh dear.

A lot was done over this period. Tom painted a superb title screen, using Artist 64 software and a Neos mouse, worthy of any 8-bit gallery.

One sophisticated menu section
In order to increase player enjoyment and extend the game's replay-ability the lads decided to create a sophisticated menu section at the front end of the game. This menu had five options available, the first of which was a 'free/preset' mode switch. This would allow players to either tailor the game using the other options ('free' mode) or, if they were feeling lazy, they could use a preset combination of options based on the chosen difficulty level ('preset' mode). The next menu option was a biggie, 'construction' gave the player a certain number of points to spend on constructing their own Autoguard from various levels of armour, weapon, drive unit and special equipment. Obviously the higher the level of equipment the more points it cost and there was not enough points available to have the best of everything. This would encourage different styles of play offensive (high level weapon), defensive (high level armour), speed (high level drive unit) and special tactics (special equipment). Of course, compromises of all of these were also available. Again, this simple idea was to be presented in a graphically exciting manner, at least by C64 standards. The menu section actually showed the Autoguard being constructed in the factory by two relaxed looking chaps who were nicknamed Saint and Greavsie (after two TV football pundits who were famous at that time). Saint would read the specs out from his clipboard and Greavsie would operate the crane arm that would construct the parts of the Autoguard on a platform (or was it Greavsie would read the specs and... never mind, you get the idea!). Any alterations would be illustrated by Saint and Greavsie deconstructing and reconstructing the Autoguard. If you decided to start again from scratch you could press a button and watch the whole Autoguard being trashed through a trap door.

The third option on the menu screen was 'adversaries', which allowed the player to choose the bad guys they would go up against. There were four – Hoodlums, Mercenaries, Robots and Droids. They were progressively more challenging and each would have its particular strengths and weaknesses.

Hoodlums – Were for beginners and were pretty weak all round.

Mercenaries – Were a bit tougher, faster and better armed but still quite vulnerable.

Robots – Were the "standard" adversary for experienced players. They weren't much tougher than the mercenaries in terms of armour but they were faster and much better armed.

Driods – Were for people who wanted a real challenge, or would just take a perverse pleasure in seeing their Autoguard getting his butt kicked. These were basically evil Autoguards and would be fast, tough and pack a punch.

The fourth Menu screen option was the difficulty level (ranging from 1 to 6) which would determine things like time limits, frequency of bombs being planted and the aggression level of the adversaries. It was, as mentioned before, also used to determine the options chosen for the preset menu mode.

Option five was simply to exit the menu and start the game.

This menu section was completed and working, bar the sound and music. However, there was a price to be paid for all this content, the menu section was so large and sophisticated it had to be a separate load from the game. This was a shame as multi-load games were the bane of the tape-based games player and Tom and Jas hated them as much as anybody else but there was just no way around it.

Also during the year-and-a-half of Autoguard's development Tom had mastered the BMGS utilities and was creating lovely looking screens from the objects he designed to populate the Autoguard world.

Bombastic sub-game
Another highlight was the sub-game they designed for when the Autoguard discovered one of the bad-guys' bombs and had to diffuse it. The bombs themselves were shiny orbs the size of a football with a strip of lights around their circumference. When the sub-game started, the on-screen action would be paused and a large graphic of the bomb would appear in the top-left of the game screen. The graphic would briefly show a shutdown code consisting of three colours in a particular order. The strip of lights in the centre of the bomb graphic would then start cycling at a fair speed giving the impression of chase-lights around the circumference of the orb. One part of this strip was the activation point and the player had to press the fire-button of the joystick when the first shutdown code colour appeared in it. Once this was done successfully, the chase-lights would reverse direction and the second colour would have to be activated at the appropriate moment, the lights would reverse direction again and the third and final colour would have to be nailed. Sounds easy enough, but the lights were moving at a fair pace and any mistake and the player would have to start again. All this was, of course, carried out under a time limit which, if not achieved, would result in the bomb blowing up in your Autoguard's face (very unhealthy). And this was just to get the bomb open! If you were successful with the colour code lock, the bomb would pop open, which was animated on the screen, exposing the bomb's innards.

The second part of the bomb disposal routine showed a green grid in which three blocks bounced around in a very pong-tennis like manner. Each block was one of the shutdown code colours and the idea was to zap the blocks in the correct order using a small crosshair controlled by the player's joystick. Again, if you hit the wrong colour, all three blocks would re-appear and you would have to start again and, yes, that countdown timer mentioned earlier was still ticking down. Take too long and... Tick, Tick, BOOM! Nerve-wracking stuff all right! This sub-game was also completed apart from sound and music.

The painful/stupid/brave/right/wrong decision
However, Jas was starting to wonder if the game in the form they wanted it was actually possible within the physical limitations of the Commodore 64's memory and processing power. After 18 months of hard work the game was still in an unfinished state and would need a fair bit more work to complete it.

Tom and Jas now found themselves in a bit of a predicament. They had worked all this time with no income and what they had was effectively a demo of a very impressive but unfinished game. The publishers they showed it to were suitably wowed, Gary Bracey at Ocean called it the most technically advanced C64 game he had ever seen. But none would part with their cash for anything other than a finished game. It was crunch time in a big way. Tom and Jas knew that there was months of work left on Autoguard but they needed the money now in order to fund their kebab and Wispa habits, oh and to pay the bank loan as well. So they made the painful/stupid/brave/right/wrong decision to shelve Autoguard and do what they should have done at the start, write something quick and commercial. Two-and-a-half weeks later they had a finished game – Blip! Video Classics, which was published by BT Silverbird (but that's another story).

After actually earning some money, a new and startling experience for them, Tom and Jas felt loath to get stuck back into Autoguard and all the potential headaches that would create. Instead, they used the experience they had gained from Autoguard and Video Classics and started another fairly ambitious game, but one which they could be confident that they could finish in a reasonable time. They also invested in a PDS development system to help speed up the coding. After 6 months or so, they had another finished game: Die! Alien Slime, a gargantuan single-load mapping and alien blasting extravaganza. This game was published by Virgin Mastertronic and was moderately successful. Unfortunately Die! Alien Slime was to be Pagoda Software's swansong as they ceased trading after that and went on to other things. Also, by that time the 16-bit machines were coming in and the C64 was losing ground as a commercially viable platform to develop software for, which nixed any thoughts of trying to finish Autoguard as a commercial prospect.

What will happen next?
Autoguard has languished on that shelf ever since, it's window of glory long since passed. Mind you, even though Tom and Jas are now much older, fatter and balder they still wonder about Autoguard and what the finished game may have been like. To this end, they have been discussing the possibility of removing Autoguard from the shelf, dusting it down, firing up the old PDS and maybe getting the damned thing finished. There has even been some interest and encouragement from a few in the online C64 community. So who knows! It may happen even though both Tom and Jas are supposed to be spending their time doing other stuff they both have that glint of nostalgic madness in their eyes.

» Take a look at the 26 amazing screenshots from the game
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» Screenshots - Take a look at the 26 amazing screenshots from the game. It sure looks promising!

» Jason Daniels - "I managed to make a great early impression by somehow grounding myself on the metal leg of the table on which sat the C64 I was currently loading the game into. This had the dual effect of resetting the C64 and causing me to yelp in surprise!" Click to read our interview with Jason!

» Tom Lanigan - "We decided very early on that we would promote ourselves in a very professional way. When we visited Ocean Software and met Gary Bracey, we stood there in our business suits and did our very best presentation. Jason, who was much better at talking than me, got into full flow and then as he attempted to load a game into their systems, he received a massive electric shock! He then carried on presenting, articulate as ever, whilst having a stiffie and having strands of hair standing up and waving about in the breeze." Click to read our interview with Tom!