Amiga Lore finds out about the classic Hunter and speaks to its programmer, Paul Holmes.
For some the ideal game contains mind-taxing puzzles or waves of enemy sprites. There is a type of game, far less common, that doesnt restrict the player to limited levels but that creates an open and sometimes randomly generated virtual world.
The appeal of virtual world games is clear. Whereas a horizontally scrolling shoot-em-up directs the player along a set path with predetermined enemy attack patterns, an open world creates fundamental elements and lets the player decide how their game plays out.
CRLs Siege On London was one such virtual world game, although it was perhaps more akin to a shoot-‘em-up set in a 3D world. The aim was to fight off a War of the Worlds style invasion in a 3D reproduction of London within the Amiga. However, Siege On London was never released and remained incomplete. Its programmer, Paul Holmes, left CRL but still had plans to create a 3D virtual world game. This desire led to Hunter.
Paul approached the publisher Activision: "Initially I had a meeting with Colin Fuidge at Activision, with an early version of what became Hunter, it was not much of a game at that time but had the landscape and a few objects, including a couple of vehicles. He offered me a beer, looked at what I had and then immediately offered me a contract (6 months). From there on in I basically had a free hand and was left to get on with it, with an occasional hook up with Colin to discuss how it was going."
Hunter's concept wasn't a difficult pitch, according to Paul: “No not difficult at all really, "you get to take various vehicles, travel round and blow things up with various weapons, in 3D". I guess there was a little more scope for creativity and innovation back then, but then it was far cheaper and less risky for publishers to fund a development than it is now.”
There had been 3D action adventures before and Paul was a fan of Mercenary in particular: "Interesting you mention Mercenary, the 8bit version of this game was one of a few games that inspired me to do games in the first place. A real classic."
The Mercenary and Midwinter games tended towards sprawling worlds with key features interspersed throughout the expanse. Hunter, on the other hand, is more compact. Was Paul restricted by the technology? "I think it was more a game-play and a feasibility decision, working alone in the time given there was only so much I could put into game world building and populating. Plus there was not enough (um, any) variation in the landscape for it not to become bland or repetitive if it were too large. It could already take too long to get anywhere if you were on foot or shot down over water as it was."
Unlike Siege On London, Hunter isnt set in a real world location. Did Paul have any plans to base the maps on existing places? "No not really, again it would have required time and resources that I didnt have.”
The world construction and programming combined into one development phase: "I put most of the early effort into the object editor app, but that was well in development by the time I got the contract, so from then on it was game coding, object creation, attribute setting and map editing. This was all intermingled so I couldnt really tell you what the relative efforts were."
A strange atmosphere and Hunters unfamiliar geography combined to form a world that may be best described as "otherworldly". Was Paul aware of this? "Yes kind of, part of the problem was that I could only really have 2 other characters on the scene at one time because of the polygon count required. I also wanted to have in game music which would change to reflect the current mood, but I never got the music so it never happened. Instead you got the peculiar wind and sea sounds!"
Hunter offers a distinctive fleet of vehicles with which to traverse the landscape. The available vehicles and other items evolved during development: “I did make an initial list, mainly the military stuff and key buildings, but lots of things were added along the way. The windsurfer for instance was requested by Colin, Bermuda shorts included, which was about the same time that I added the sharks!”
Walking – The initial mode of transport and one which the player will have to fall back on throughout the game. A slow way to travel.
Bicycle – Although not very exciting, the bicycle is faster than walking and doesn't require any fuel. If available, it's a good vehicle to fall back on.
Car – Small and fast. As a civilian vehicle the car doesn't have offensive capabilities.
Truck – A fairly unexciting vehicle, the truck seems to have more armour than the car, due to a military build.
Ambulance – This specialist hospital vehicle doesn't seem to grant any advantages.
Scanner Van – Despite sporting a spinning antenna on its roof, this van doesn't offer any radar facilities.
Armoured Car – This military vehicle has a simple mounted gun. A step up from the car but not as powerful as the tank.
Tanks – According to the manual the two types of tank are the “Sheridan” and “Angus”. The Sheridan is the faster of the two but the Angus is more powerful and better armoured.
Swimming – Like walking, swimming is the last resort and is just as slow. It is also dangerous as it causes tiredness and the seas are shark-infested.
Rowing boat - The bicycle of the sea, the rowing boat doesn't require any fuel. Useful if your motorised boat has been destroyed but travelling long distances with it isn't recommended.
Windsurfing board – This is an alternative to the rowing boat. More fashionable.
Rocket Boat – The Rocket Boat is a fast powered craft with offensive capabilities.
Gunboat – A military version of the Rocket Boat with a mounted gun.
Ship – Large, unwieldy and slow, the ship is a last resort on the seas.
Submarine – Sadly, the submarine cannot be commandeered and appears only as a periscope travelling along the surface.
Helicopter 1- The long model of helicopter is fast.
Helicopter 2- The fat model of helicopter is easier to control than the long version.
Parachute – Jump out of a helicopter and you can safely make your way back to earth using the parachute (if you've packed one, that is).
Light Aircraft - The Hunter titlescreen clearly shows an aeroplane but nobody has ever encountered it. Paul explains the omission: "There is an aeroplane, it is in the game data but does not appear on any map. It had to move too fast for the size of the map so I left it out. I used to use the plane in the in-game editor, because it was fast. The title screen was done by T.D.C [The Disc Company] and I had no say in it, I didnt let them know about the plane in case they insisted on it being in."
Hovercraft - The hovercraft is a dual-mode vehicle that can, of course, travel on land and by sea.
Amphiunisuperduperbigmobile - Like the hovercraft, this secret vehicle is amphibious. Paul reveals more: "However, there is a hidden vehicle in a hidden building, the ‘Amphiunisuperduperbigmobile' (what can I say, I was young). The publisher never knew about it and I do not know if anybody ever found it, (a quick check reveals that Google doesn't know about it either) In the Hunter mode game if you go to the patch of water at location 200/249 and swim north into location 200/250 you should enter the hidden building."
One aspect of Hunter that makes it feel unique is its graphics engine. The 3D polygon display uses chunky models which give a fine impression of solidity. The objects were designed using the editor that Paul had created before approaching Activision. However, according to Paul the base maps were created in a different manner: "The maps were generated by a random seed until I got a one that I liked, then populated via an in game editor."
The development of Hunter's engine was assisted by Paul's separate object editor: “Well I think the most important thing there was the application I wrote to create the 3D objects, I could create objects quickly using mouse and keyboard, set rotating parts and other forms of animation, select colours, trigger points etc. and do all this in real time. This was a huge improvement from working out the objects on paper, which I had done previously.”
The engine itself utilised 3D mathematics and the Amiga's special graphics chipset: “Other than that, it was basically a flat shaded n-gon renderer, using the blitter chip on the Amiga.” In game the side-on view is fixed although there are keys to zoom in to and zoom out from the main character or vehicle. Could Paul have extended the engine to rotate the viewpoint or was this a limitation? “Yeah sure, it would have been technically possible, but I had to deliver a game in 6 months. Those things and others were in my plans for the next game.”
The complex calculations required in 3D open world games often slowed down the engine. This was a consideration for Paul: “Well it was all about balancing the object/polygon count to keep the frame-rate somewhere near reasonable. I was aware it could be a bit of a problem when the frame-rate was low, if you were trying to land a helicopter without crashing it. Of course during the development of a game you become a complete expert at it, and so I probably didn't notice these things as much.”
Although the maps could have been stored in their entirety on disk they were created in a different way: “The landscapes were generated from a seed at load time.”
Most of Hunter's action takes place in the wide world but every so often the player must enter a building perhaps hoping to locate an object or collect supplies. Interestingly, a different method was used to display the room once the player walked through the door: “Interiors were just rendered once and then stored and displayed as a bitmap.”
Hunter provides various tools to help you navigate around the world in your chosen mode of transport and weapons to bring the fight to the enemy once you get there.
Fuel – It's important to keep your vehicle topped up with fuel, lest you become stranded in the middle of the sea or fancy a long walk.
Clock – If you want to know when darkness will fall or when a mission is due to end you'll want this.
Radar – The radar gives a rough idea of what's mobile in the general area. Useful if you're desperate for transport but beware in case you run into an enemy soldier or angry bull instead.
Log Book – Very useful for noting where items are located, especially when told by a contact.
Map – This map gives an excellent overview of the world and as it's overlaid on the game view it can be used whilst travelling.
Medical Kit – Heals and keeps you alive a little longer.
Flare – Use this to light up an area during night time (or turn up the brightness on your monitor).
Aerial Observation Unit – More detailed than the radar, this is used to find out just exactly what is in the general vicinity.
Enemy Uniform – Wear the enemy's uniform to confuse opponents and infiltrate dangerous areas.
Key Items – certain key items, including money, a nuclear device, a security pass and the general's head are used during to barter for information during the Hunter mission.
Pistol – The weakest weapon and one that is best used against enemy soldiers.
Bazooka Shells – A powerful weapon that is useful for most destructive purposes.
Grenades – The grenades are difficult to aim so it's best to lob and forget.
Land Mines – Drop these to stop pursuing forces. Despite the name they can also be used at sea.
Timed Explosives – Very useful for destroying large structures and for getting away before the explosion.
Surface-to-Air Missiles – Used to fire at enemy helicopters.
Air-to-Surface Missiles – Hit ground targets from your helicopter.
80mm Shells – Used in the tanks to pound the enemy.
100lb Bomb – Drop this from your helicopter.
Enemy Soldier – the ubiquitous enemy in Hunter, this soldier wears the same red shirt as Star Trek's expendable characters.
The First Man – this mysterious figure holds the crucial first clue in the trail that will eventually lead to the General.
The Second Man – just as mysterious as the First Man and is similarly dressed.
The Third Man – not Orson Welles, but another mysterious man who hides behind a large rock.
The Old Man – found living in a lighthouse, the Old Man will provide information for cash.
The Professor – the Professor asks for a nuclear device for some unspecified purpose.
The Prisoner – the Prisoner requests a hack saw, for obvious reasons.
The Green Monk – living in a tree stump and standing on a rotating yin-yang symbol, the Green Monk desires a rabbit.
The Injured Soldier – wounded in some unnamed conflict, this soldier demands antibiotics for information.
The General – the ultimate aim of the “Hunter” mission, this is the enemy whose head you are fighting for.
Civilian Man – The archipelago may be engulfed in war but there are still a few civilians to be found.
Civilian Woman – The female counterpart is similar to her male counterpart but smaller and almost hobbit-sized.
Sun Goddess – This temptress seems more interested in sunbathing than the war.
The Grim Reaper – The Grim Reaper appears in person in Hunter. Not who you really want to meet in a warzone.
Mad Bill – An in-joke about Paul's first C64 game.
Seagull – A common sight in the skies over the islands of Hunter, sometimes the cry of the gull and the sea will be the only sounds you hear.
Rabbit – The rabbit bounds over the grassy hills and, if caught, can be given to one of the characters.
Fish – A fairly unexciting inhabitant of the sea.
Duck – The duck will run away from your character across land and sea.
Shark – A good reason to travel in a vehicle instead of swimming.
Cow – A large bovine occupant of Hunter's world.
Bull – Similar to the cow and dangerous.
Vulture – This bird will follow you and is presumably looking for a meal.
Eddie's Hedgehog – Perhaps an in-joke of some sort.
Paul wrote Hunter for the Amiga but the game was also converted to the Atari ST: “It was developed entirely on an Amiga 500, the ST version was a port that took a few weeks, mainly replacing the bits of code using the Amiga's fancy hardware which the ST didn't have.”
Hunter features three main game modes, called “Hunter”, “Missions” and “Action”. The “Hunter” mode is fairly free-roaming with the aim of retrieving the head of an enemy general. “Missions” presents the player with a series of tasks and “Action” is a free-for-all action fest.
What came first, the largely open-ended adventure or the more focused mission structure? “Hunter mode was initially what I wanted to do, but the missions mode was a fairly natural addition, and made it easier to sell. Also the game world seemed well suited to a locate and destroy mission format so I did not want to pass that up. I had some concerns too that the Hunter mode game alone, in the time I had to do it, would not be substantial enough. The Action game was just a big mission strung on the end.”
A large proportion of Amiga owners will be familiar with Hunter but how many actually bought it? “I think it sold reasonably well but I do not have the actual figures. That said, I don't think I have ever met anybody who had owned Hunter and actually paid for their copy. That is mainly people I have met from within the games industry though.”
There are two versions of Hunter in existence, distinguished by different titlescreens. One shows a man with a gun and the other is an island panorama bordered by the different forms of transportation. It seems that one version was leaked by a magazine: “Right, well the one with a man holding a gun was a pre-publication version, which to my knowledge was only sent to a certain magazine, as a preview, *somehow* it found its way onto the pirate scene. The other one was the official release.”
The open-ended nature of Hunter causes a few strange situations and non-critical bugs to occur. The submarine periscope can sometimes be seen travelling across the land and attempting to interact with some items triggers amusing messages “(A grenade cannot be entered”!). In today's gaming world PC titles are usually patched but this wasn't really an option for Amiga floppy releases. Did Paul find the release process pressurised in this respect? “Hmm, well at least the grenade message is logically consistent! I was not aware of either of those particular bugs. As far as I know there was no formal test department/procedures at Activision back then, so it was a case of fixing problems as and when I or the publisher identified them, so yes, bugs were missed and/or deemed not important enough to hold up publication.”
One unplanned development was a requirement for different languages which suggests that the publisher knew that Hunter would be popular in different countries: “Approaching the release date the main pressure on me was when T.D.C decided they wanted French and German language versions at the last minute, the text generation engine was very much geared to English so it was quite a bit of work to implement. Though I did get flown out to Paris twice to sort it out so I wasn't complaining too much. “
Although all but the aeroplane vehicle had made it into the game, Paul recalls an obscure reference that omitted: “there was a small robot named Mad Bill, this was a cameo from the first (unpublished) game I did on the Commodore+4, I do not recall why I left it out now, maybe it just didn't fit or maybe it is actually in there somewhere, I can't remember now.”
What aspects of Hunter is Paul most and least happy with? “As you phrase that question in the present tense I will assume you mean in terms of the whole enterprise. Most, That it was a critical success and a lot of people seem to have liked it at the time, more so that people still seem to have fond memories of it 20 years later. Least, the publisher's post publication accounting practices.”
There were some features that Paul would have liked to add: “Yeah lots, the music, a better targeting system, better character logic, more enemy foot-soldiers etc. to name but a few. Alas, time and resource constraints didn't permit.”
The Hunter source code still exists today: “I have it archived with the source data, the code is all in one ridiculously long 68000 assembler file, hunter.s, perhaps I should have learned how to use Devpac properly!”. Although the Amiga never saw an updated Hunter or a follow-up, a sequel was planned after the Amiga's commercial lifetime: “There was one started around 1997 for PC and Playstation, but for various reasons it never came to fruition.”
Paul has recently revisited Hunter for a quick play: “Oddly enough yes, today, I could not remember the location of the hidden room so I had to see the map again and go find it. I had to start the game three times before I made it there without being killed, I must have lost my touch. :)”
Paul still owns the copyright for Hunter but has no plans to resurrect the game: “The rights reverted to me after a few years, but I no longer have any desire to do a sequel and am not in the games industry anyway. I do not think it would make much sense though, it was nearly 20 years ago and there are now lots of far better known games where you can do the same kind of things and a lot more.”
Indeed, the ideas and themes contained in Hunter can be seen in many games today. Grand Theft Auto III/IVs 3D open world and vehicle hijacking brings to mind Hunters commandeering of transportation. Minecraft is set in a similar strange, somewhat abstract world, although it uses blocks instead of polygonal shapes, and has something of the atmosphere as Hunter. For a modern version of the game it's worth checking out Just Cause 2, which is an open 3D roaming game set on an archipelago, features many vehicles that can hijacked, has a parachute and includes a number of special missions across the islands.
So, was Hunter a game before its time? “Yes, it should have come out two or three months later, then I could have added all the above mentioned features, and fixed all those ‘non-critical' bugs!”
Gamers will remember Hunter as a game that pointed towards what we know as modern 3D gaming – and it all started on the humble Amiga!