Norns taught me how to code

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I’ve had the opportunity to speak to students over the past few months about my career path and how I got into developing apps and games. The catalyst for me, the thing that made me consider programming as a career, was a 90s PC game called Creatures, and the furry little Norns that existed within the world of Albia.

The year was 1997 and I was fourteen years old. I’d picked up a copy of a computer gaming magazine, and there was a double-page review of a game called Creatures. It sounded so strange, and intriguing, and I re-read the review over and over. I wanted this game.

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My history with computers had begun ten years earlier when my parents bought me my first computer — a Commodore Plus/4 — when I was just four. My cousins had computers and I really wanted one. We later upgraded to an Atari 520ST on the condition that I learnt about computers and how they worked.

My parents weren’t exactly technology enthusiasts. I, however, was always interested in technology and had learnt how to program the family VCR before I started primary school, establishing myself early on as the family’s technical support department. But my mum would buy Atari coding books, and we’d sit for hours, typing in code inside STOS, getting the computer to draw shapes, speak to us in a robotic voice, and more. Learning together. Bug fixing. Hacking.

Flash forward to 1997, and I had my first proper PC in my bedroom. At the time, I was playing games such as Jedi Knight, SimCity, Are You Afraid of the Dark, Theme Park and Doom.

Creatures was the kind of game that just appealed to me. I loved simulation games and other games that required creativity, and I’d put a ton of time into the original Theme Park game and the SimCity series. The reviews I read really emphasised the artificial life aspect of the game which was so intriguing. The Norns (the creatures in Creatures) had digital DNA which was passed down, with mutations, to their offspring, meaning that your game became an experiment in evolution too.

My paper round money of £9 a week wasn’t stretching all that far, so I headed up to Electronics Boutique (which later rebranded as Game) in Bristol and traded in my Sega Game Gear and games, and returned home with Creatures. I remember feeling pretty ripped off with this trade-in deal at the time, but it ended up being maybe the best transaction I’ve ever made.

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I was immediately hooked. The game was extremely addictive. My first Norn was called Riley (I still have his digital DNA backed up on a floppy disk somewhere!) and I enjoyed exploring the world of Albia and raising my Norn population.

More intriguing was that Creatures was one of the first games to support downloadable content. Alongside extra objects (Cobs — as in Creatures OBjects) from the game’s creators, Cyberlife (later known as Creature Labs), there was a small but vibrant community of unofficial websites where creators had made their own objects which you could download and import into your world. New toys, food types, gadgets, and even methods of transportation for your Norns to navigate Albia.

It’s something we take for granted today, but the very idea that there would always be new content to make the game feel fresh was novel at the time and extended the lifespan of the game immeasurably.

I was really intrigued by this. How did these normal people create these really cool things? Could I make something for my favourite game? That would be pretty cool!

So I began downloading other people’s COBs and opening the code, written in a language called CAOS (Creatures Agent Object Script) in Notepad. To begin with, it was confusing. But I started figuring out how the code was working, and tweaking things to see if I could change their properties or their appearance.

The first object I made, if I remember correctly, was really bouncy cheese, having tweaked some of the properties of an existing object to see what would happen. Following that, I made some new pictures which could be hung in the world, then a music player toy that would decrease boredom and loneliness of any nearby Norns. Each object I made would be more complex than the last.

My evenings and weekends were spent creating content and I grew more proficient with my programming skills.

By this time we had switched from CompuServe to AOL as our dial-up provider and AOL offered some webspace to each customer. I set up Albia 2000, a Creatures fan site (teaching myself HTML in the same way that I’d gotten to grips with CAOS) where I could share my creations as well as track progress on the recently announced sequel. The name Albia 2000 came from my love of SimCity 2000 and the fact that in 1997 (when I started work on the site), I thought the name sounded so futuristic. It launched on February 17th 1998.

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Creatures had, by now, a thriving and growing community. Albia 2000 grew extensively and became a popular Creatures community website. Websites by Ping, Slink, Frimlin, Miff, LummoxJR, and others were also destination sites. We all used to get together in an IRC chatroom, and on a Creatures newsgroup, to discuss the latest Creatures news and share our own content.

My own coding skills had developed, entirely through my work on Creatures COBs, and I’d released some pretty major add-ons including entirely new areas for Albia. I’d also dabbled with the digital DNA, creating Norns with different traits.

It was a fun time and Cyberlife, now called Creature Labs, were very supportive of the community. They launched the Golden Shee Awards to highlight the community’s efforts and websites and Albia 2000 came joint second. We were also invited up to Cambridge for a day hanging out with their development team who were putting the final touches on Creatures 2. The team there also released some development tools to make the creation of content easier.

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With the release of Creatures 2, the community grew further.

In the real world, I’m now 16, and my then-best friend and I thought it would be cool to work on a major project together. My parents, ever supportive of my crazy ideas and interests, let me convert their den room into an office and so we began creating a new world for Creatures 2 to replace the existing world of Albia, funding our work by creating websites for local businesses. The team at Creature Labs were incredibly supportive and wanted to be our publisher. They provided us with development tools to help us out, and they provided support, testing, and feedback, including the use of their PCs to act as soak machines (where they’d leave our game running for days on end and provide us with any crash reports).

Suddenly, at 16, I was a 1.5 party developer for my favourite computer game. That was wild, and exciting. The new world went on sale and was an immediate hit. I took two gap years after finishing my A-levels, during which time I worked, earning money in events and marketing, whilst spending my free time working on a new world (or terrarium) for Creatures 3.

I decided to study Time Based Media at UWE in Bristol. Without a Computer Science background, and with an interest in film editing as a potential career choice alongside game development, the course was a perfect fit. I spent the first two years experimenting across media, working on animation, film, interactivity through programming, radio, advertising… It was very much a diverse course. I even had the opportunity to interview , the father of Creatures, as part of the documentary module.

The final year of my course was wide open. We could work on, pretty much, whatever we wanted. I split my final year projects between film editing and making a game.

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I used the Creatures engine to create a game called Melloweh. It was an Artificial Life game, just like Creatures, and used the digital DNA underpinnings from the engine, but I built, on top of this, a narrative. I involved a ton of amazing people from my course, working with musicians, artists, a set designer (who helped build the world of Melloweh which we then photographed and used in the game) and a writer. Many of these people went on to do amazing things, and I went on to work with many of them on other projects.

I also took part in a design challenge in London, organised by Nesta, where we had to build a piece of software for education, solving a problem that a teacher we were paired with was facing. Again, I used the Creatures engine for our project as I was the programmer on our team of three.

The teacher from a rival team saw what we had created and he got in touch with me soon after and invited me for a job interview at his start-up, Electronic Blackboard, working on their iboard product. During my interview, it was my work with Creatures and Melloweh that I demoed. It was this, and my ability to teach myself programming (I would need to learn a new programming language for the role), that got me my first job, developing educational software and games.

I remained with the company for many years until they were acquired by TES. I then set up (the name coming from CAOS, the programming language from my Creatures work) where I continued to work freelance for TES whilst beginning to work on our first in-house projects.

Creatures taught me a ton of skills. It taught me how to program, but it also taught me how to teach myself programming. In the years since, I’ve had to learn multiple programming languages for various projects and roles. I also had the opportunity to collaborate with some amazing people on many pieces of Creatures content, and we figured how to do it in a pre-GitHub/Slack/Teams/Skype world.

Had it not been for Creatures, its amazing community (which is still going strong, despite the fact that the last game was released in 2001, with being the best place for all things Creatures), and a super-supportive development team, I may never have written my first line of real code.

It’s been years since I’ve fired up a game of Creatures. But with a bit of a break coming up over the Summer, maybe I’ll dust off my old copy of Creatures, and the content I created, and thank some Norns.

I code apps/games through my company (Follow @ChaosCreatedApp). I also run coding workshops in UK schools (Follow @Code_Created) and present at TeenTech events.

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