Friday, May 29, 2020

A retrospective and a look forward

Hey everyone. I hope everyone has done okay so far this year, considering the circumstances. On a more positive note, you will have seen we've recently announced the testing period for three of the games in the Ultima series of RPGs.. Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, Ultima VI: The False Prophet, and Ultima VIII: Pagan. Thanks go to the original projects and all the developers that previously put work into them, as well as in particular to mduggan, who has put a lot of work into Ultima VIII since it was merged in.

So now that we've got three of the Ultima series merged in, are more to follow? That's actually a bit of a tricky question. Of the remaining games
* Ultima IX: This is more in scope for ResidualVM than ScummVM. I remember reading previously that the "Ultima Source Code Offline Archive Project" had obtained the code for Ultima IX. So there may be a future possibility of it being reimplemented in ResidualVM.
* Ultima VII/SE: Exult is currently an independent project with active development and users. So there's no immediate plans for integration until and unless the developers decide they don't plan to do any further development, or decide themselves the time is right to merge it into ScummVM
* Underworlds: I'm vaguely aware that there are projects for the two Underworld games, but I haven't researched how complete they are. Despite their 3d look and feel, these games were done in the DOS days where all 3D was done in software. Because of this, unless the reimplemented code specifically uses 3D APIs, then it would actually be in scope for ScummVM rather than ResidualVM.
* Ultima I: I have previously been working on a reimplementation of Ultima 1. It's currently on hiatus, but I eventually plan to return to work on it. As with Ultima IV, I hope to allow for an enhanced version of the game that uses better tilesets
* Escape from Mt Drash: There is source for a PC reimplementation available here. So support for it could be added. Even if the only real relevance to the Ultima series was a marketing ploy, it is still technically an Ultima game, so support for it should be added I guess for completeness if nothing else.
* The rest. This is where it gets difficult. Apart from Ultima V, the earlier Ultima games were, honestly, less sophisticated, and I'd be less likely to enjoy playing them. So without pre-existing projects for them, it becomes harder for me to justify spending all the time reverse engineering them from scratch for support. It's even more frustrating in that it looks like there's been previous people that reverse engineered the earlier games, such as But since they never released source code for their work, it really doesn't help us that much. If any of those authors happen to read this, or anyone knows how to get in touch with them, we'd really appreciate getting our hands on their work. Otherwise, it's unlikely the earlier Ultima games will be supported any time soon. Or if the previously mentioned Offline Archive Project has source for any of the earlier games, we'd welcome getting access to them.

So in any case, what are my plans now that those three games are working their way towards being officially supported? Well, first of all, I kind of fell into working on integrating the Recomprehend engine into ScummVM. Given the simplicity of the engine, it seems like a fun project to unwind with after all the work on the Ultima games. I don't anticipate it'll take all that long. There are apparently some minor issues in the screen rendering that may require reverse engineering bits of the original games for comparison, but again due to the simplicity of the games that shouldn't be too hard.

Next after that, I kind of want to get Glk into a more officially completed state. Technically all the sub-engines in it so far could be considered complete on their own, but the exception is the Frotz interpreter.. the current one didn't properly support all the version 6 graphical games. I would really like to support them properly. So I've tentatively started working on the newest version of Frotz to convert it to run on Glk from scratch. At this point I'm not sure if this new work will be able to be cleanly set up to handle both v6 and non-v6 games.. it may end up being easier to keep the existing version for non-v6, and just focus on v6 games for this. I'll have to wait and see.

After from that, Glk should be suitable for an official release. Though there are other sub-engines I could work on in the future, such as TADS support. The TADS 2 version in the codebase doesn't currently work properly, and when I previously tried starting on converting TADS 3 to compile under ScummVM, it led me down a rabbit hole of compilation issues. Support for both will likely be on hiatus for work again in a future release.

Apart from them, what else this year? Good question.. I had had some tentative plans to look into early AGS games support.. years ago I did a remake of Black Cauldron in AGS, and it'd be very satisfying to finally support it in ScummVM. However, just the other day Strangerke made an intriguing discovery. A non-interactive demo for Shannara, one of the later Legend Entertainment games, has what looks like debug information at the end of the executable (though it's not in a known format IDA can automatically handle). As long time readers will know, supporting the Legend Entertainment games has been one of my long term goals for years. Whilst the demo itself is effectively just a slide show, the debug information makes it look like they implemented the demo using large chunks of the full game's engine for rendering the demo scenes. In fact, there may even be a bunch of code from the main game the demo doesn't even use that wasn't optimized out. As such, it may prove a valuable insight for understanding the full Shannara game, and from that, the earlier games of Companions of Xanth and Death Gate.

So it may well be that I'll end up switching my focus back to the Legend games for a while. We'll have to wait and see. Considering that I ended up working on Comprehend by chance, there's always a possibility that something else interesting may pop up :)