Magnetic Scrolls was formed in 1983 by Ken Gordon and Anita Sinclair. They had met through an Apple user group and shared an appreciation of text adventures in general and Infocom games in particular. Having used Anita’s savings to help get the company started in South-East London, they hired a couple of Ken’s old school friends to help create their own adventure on the new Sinclair QL computer. Hugh Steers was employed on the programming side and Robert Steggles was brought in to help create the story, the game text and the puzzles. Ken became Technical Director and Anita was Managing Director as well as the public face of the company.
The Pawn was the result of months of brain-storming between Ken, Anita, Hugh and Robert (who was on his Summer break before he started studying for a Philosophy degree at University). Ideas were scribbled on large sheets of A1 paper and were then either thrown away or stuck to the walls during the game’s development.
The title came from a fellow Apple user group member and mutual friend, Tony Lambert (who went on to set up his own development team called Mindware, who wrote the 16-bit versions of Tracker for Rainbird). Seeing how the main character was essentially being manipulated by people and events beyond his control, calling the game The Pawn was entirely appropriate for their debut release.
The game system that Hugh and Ken wrote was jokingly code-named ELTHAM (Extra Low Tech Highly Ambiguous Metacode) after the area of London where Magnetic Scrolls’ first offices were located. Robert entered the game data directly into a text editor called FRED23 junior, defining each game element – rooms, objects, Non-Player Characters (NPCs) and so on. The parser was nicknamed Eliza, and used a technique Magnetic scrolls liked to call ‘context free parsing’.
Sinclair Research published The Pawn for the QL in 1985. It came supplied in a black plastic wallet which simply said “QL-Pawn” on the cover. Inside was a small instruction booklet (showing the tree stump and a white light radiating out of it), and two microdrives labelled “Game” and “Key”.
It was around this time that the Atari ST was launched in the US. The ST used the same Motorola 68000 CPU as the QL (as did the Apple Macintosh, and subsequently the Commodore Amiga range), and so Magnetic Scrolls made the decision to convert The Pawn to the ST. They took a work-in-progress version of the ST game to TelecomSoft, who were creating their new premium publishing label called Rainbird. Telecom liked what they saw, but felt that the game needed to have graphics added to make it more appealing, as the QL original was a text-only affair.
TelecomSoft suggested Geoff Quilley be used to create a couple of initial location graphics (using Neopaint for the Atari ST), and despite some initial reservations Ken and Anita agreed. They were so impressed with the results that they went ahead and used Geoff extensively throughout the game. The pictures were of a particularly high standard for the ST, but they didn’t actually contain any important information or clues.
Other versions of The Pawn were to follow, across a wide range of different machines – not all of them 68000-based. To get around that technicality, Magnetic Scrolls wrote a 68000 CPU interpreter for each platform, so that the same data file could be used across all conversions.
As it turns out, The Pawn was just the first of five titles that Magnetic Scrolls developed for Rainbird over the next four years. The follow-up, also set in the land of Kerovnia was The Guild of Thieves.
The Pawn became one of Rainbird’s first releases, along with Jez San’s Starglider and the 8-bit utilities The Art Studio and The Music System. The game received rave reviews from the computer press, both for it’s witty and imaginative text, tricky puzzles and luscious high quality location illustrations.