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Worlds of Wander: Commander Keen's legacy lives on

id Software's Commander Keen series never continued thanks the rise of Doom and Quake. Studio co-founder Tom Hall tells Dave Cook why his new project keeps Keen's spirit alive.

I recently finished David Kushner's engrossing id Software biography 'Masters of Doom' while travelling. It's fascinating. You should read it.

The book perfectly captures the rise of the two Johns - Romero and Carmack - painting them as as petulant but gifted coders.

You can almost smell the congealed cheese welded to stacks of old pizza boxes in their office, and see their gleaming new Ferraris shining vibrantly in the Texan sun outside.

While the implosion of Carmack and Romero's friendship makes for a great tale, there was another story buried beneath the smashed keyboards and plastic debris that lined the floor of id's office.

Muffled by the sound of coders hurling equipment around freely to vent their frustration, a voice was going unheard for some time.

Tom Hall was instrumental in id Software's creation. He worked as a designer on the studio's Commander Keen titles, then all the way through Wolfenstein 3D and Doom.

Once the success and controversy of Doom got its hooks in Romero and Carmack, their love of gory, gun-heavy experiences grew. There was no turning back.

Like a child sat between two bickering parents undergoing divorce, Hall continually suggested that Carmack and Romero develop more space-hopping Commander Keen games. Much to Hall's disappointment, both Johns seemed reluctant to return to their colourful, playful roots.

Hall eventually left for Apogee, the company that had given him his break by publishing Keen years earlier. The studio never continued the series, due to id Software still owning the license, but a devoted fan community still exists.

Bedroom coders occasionally put out Keen tribute games and remakes from time to time, which in an odd way taps in to the spirit of id Software's early years. You can also buy the complete Keen collection on Steam for less than a Big Mac. You have little to lose in doing so.

Today, thanks to the emergence of crowd-funding and wider routes to market, Hall has returned to platforming in Worlds of Wander. It's an intuitive platform game creation tool that features a quirky title called Secret Spaceship Club. It is the spiritual successor of Commander Keen.

Looking at the Worlds of Wander Kickstarter page, it's clear that Hall never lost his love of colour and whimsy. I caught up with him recently to talk about the educational and creative merit of the project, and to find out what really happened to Keen back in the day.

Previously, Hall had wanted to crowd-fund a sequel to Anachronox, but he told me that Square-Enix wouldn't entertain selling or licensing it, and that the required budget was too big. He returned to Commander Keen as a result, but explained that he didn't want to just make a game, he wanted to inspire new game makers as well. Worlds of Wander was the end result.

"I wanted to enable everyone to be able to make games," Hall stated. "Game-making tools are great, but they need to be super easy and fun to use, like an iPad app, on any decent-sized device that's near you.

"They need to have modes so if you go beyond simple mode you really can change stuff, start with a finished game with data you can look at, and start in the finished game, with brief exits to change things. That keeps it understandable, tangible. You aren't mentally blocked by unfamiliar tools. You're just popping up the data on something in the game, changing it a bit, and running it again."

Simplicity without compromising power is the key here, as Hall wants you to litter your custom platform game with a whole range of wall slides, ropes, ladders and more. He gave me a practical example of how anyone can make something that may seem complex to the layman.

"Imagine an up-down platform," he said. "You drag it from the menu into the world. It has a bar through it with little dots on the top and bottom. Move the platform. Drag those ends with a finger or mouse out to where you want the platform to travel. Hit "Play". The platform works. 

"In Advanced Mode, you can see the WanderScript that generated.  And you can change things like the speed it moves at. Or have it fire lasers when it turns around. Or it's deadly when it turns around. Or it changes into another platform. Everything in the level has a script, plus the whole level does, plus the whole world does. You can control it all: level goals, level to level flow, everything."

Like all good creation-led titles, sharing is important, and Worlds of Wander is no different. At the touch of a button players can upload their levels or full games to the community and let other users tinker around with them, or lock them entirely. There are grounds to fashion an involved community here.

Creationism in games has grown considerably thanks to prolific titles such as LittleBigPlanet and Minecraft. These games aren't popular because of their intricacy alone, but for how they make the intricate understandable. Anyone can make games now, even those without base coding knowledge. Empowerment is very much in style.

"I really want to empower folks, especially kids," Hall stressed. "Young kids can run iPads. So that means they can make games. MP3s made it so people can easily make and share music. Digital cameras made it so people can easily share photos. It's time to do that for games.

"It should be easy to do. And it should be on every device you have that's big enough to play on. Give people amazing, fun tools and they will make amazing fun things. Kids have wonderful creative ideas. This will let them actually do them."

Hall also believes that Worlds of Wander could be used as a gateway to full coding, as users can dip into their creation's script at any time to decipher how everything works from a technical perspective.

He said, "Once you see how things work, and with a simple scripting language, you can ease into coding after you get your feet wet creating. Hundreds of examples, working in a finished game with lots of tutorial levels too, are just waiting there to teach you."

Despite Hall's noble prospect, it's a shame that the Worlds of Wander Kickstarter campaign draws to a close today. At the time of writing it has raised just $45,649 of its intended $400,000 goal.

History may repeat itself if the Worlds of Wander project doesn't see the light of day. Plucky space explorer Billy Blaze may not have enough purchase left to topple the might of Minecraft and other creation titles. Perhaps Keen's legacy is best reserved to memory and cheap downloads on Steam?

I asked Hall just how far id Software got in conceptualising The Universe is Toast, which was the planned, but never developed third trilogy of Keen titles. "Carmack had the engine going," he revealed, "which sort of looked like a VGA version of Keen 4-6, with a parallax background. But while doing early design, we moved on to Wolfenstein 3D.

"I actually formed the rest of The Universe is Toast's idea after I left. If I don't get to make it, I'll lay out the basic idea for folks someday."

As a big fan of the Commander Keen series, I hope someone does help Hall turn his dream into reality.

How about you? Would you like to see Commander Keen return? Does the Worlds of Wander concept deserve to see the light of day? Let us know below.

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