The Secret History of Worms

What started as a distraction from studying A-levels became one of the biggest franchises in gaming. We bring you the story of how Worms came to be

Exploding sheep, holy hand grenades and bloodthirsty invertebrates hurling abuse at each other. If any of these concepts are at all familiar, chances are you’ve played a Worms game.

And you certainly aren’t alone. Since 1995, the war-of-the-worms franchise has entertained more than 70 million players with its zany gladiatorial battles, making it one of the most prolific turn-based artillery games ever made. Worms’ success was also arguably the catalyst for the rise of Team 17, a UK-based publisher and developer that has since become a champion for numerous indie developers.

While indie devs today might have their mind set on a project from the get-go, Worms began life as a distraction. Back in the early 90s, A-level student Andy Davidson was experimenting with programming as an alternative to studying. His aim at the time was simply to create something he could play with friends, rather than one of the most ported strategy games ever.

From schoolrooms to consoles

Speaking in a video interview with GotGame, Davidson spoke of how his game mesmerised his peers but often lead to his teacher’s ire: “I always loves social multiplayer games, like Bomberman and Mario Kart, so I wanted to create a game you could just play and it would never end, never repeat and get people to take the mick out of each other and have a laugh with,” he said.

The original Worms game

The original Worms game

“It ended up getting banned from the school. People were skipping lessons just to come and play it. I sort of took over a whole corner of the art room, and you’d hear things exploding and making strange noises. My form tutor said ‘Andy you are completely disrupting everything – I never want to see that game in school again’.”

His teacher’s dislike of his newfound hobby only fuelled Davidson’s desire to get his game published after he’d finished school. Nevertheless, his original homage to Artillery (1976) had ripped characters directly from popular puzzle games Lemmings (1991), and therefore needed some new branding. While working at an Amiga shop, Andy would spend his nights drawing characters and coding his creation using the Blitz BASIC programming language. He then asked customers in the shop to playtest his newly devised title, christened Total Wormage.

“I wanted to create a game that even people who hated video games would find some enjoyment in,” Davidson said. “So I’d watch how people reacted to it in the shop. A kid would be play-testing it for a couple of hours, and then his dad would sit down, and then his dad would still be there playing it two hours later!”

Around this time Amiga Format, a publication about the Amiga console, began advertising programming competitions. It was to one of these that Davidson submitted Total Wormage, but he didn’t win. Instead of cutting his loses, he took a version of his game on a floppy disk to the 1994 European Computer Trade Show and met Team 17, who liked the idea so much that they told him they would publish the game on the spot.

I wanted to create a game that even people who hated video games would find some enjoyment in

Not only had Andy’s dream of finding a willing publisher for his coding creation had paid off, but the introduction of Worms could not have come at a better time for Team 17. The company had experienced a reasonable degree of success with previous titles such as the Alien Breed series, but had hit a period of uncertainty when console manufacturer Commodore filed for bankruptcy in 1994.

As a result, the console the company had primarily developed, the Amiga, was about to be lost to the annals of history, and Team 17 needed to evolve or die. Despite looking slightly medieval when compared to some of the upcoming games at the time, Worms had the ring of potential, and it was time to capitalise on as many new platforms as possible.

Team 17 signed a distribution agreement with Ocean Software in 1995, under which Ocean would help to sell its games worldwide. With this milestone achieved, Worms was converted into numerous formats, including editions for PC, Playstation and Saturn, and released in 1995.

Standing out from the crowd

Despite looking like a more sadistic version of Lemmings, Worms had its feet firmly in the artillery genre. In the game, players control a team of the creatures tasked with destroying worms from other factions by any means necessary across a variety of 2D environments. Each worm is given a certain amount of time to move and use a weapon or tool, before play is swapped to another worm on the opposing team. The winner is the first team to reduce the health bar of all its enemies to zero, either through attacks or by knocking them off the stage into insta-killing water or lava.

Worms’ turn-based gameplay called back to numerous artillery titles, most prominently Scorched Earth (1991), in which player-controlled tanks battled each other to be the last one standing. Scorched Earth’s particular brand of tank-based combat predated some of Worms’ defining mechanics, such as randomly generated arenas that required players to figure out their lay of the land before they attacked, and customisable game elements. Similarly to Scorched Earth, Worms also challenged players to perfect the trajectory and power of their weapons in order to succeed, as anyone who has ever tried to safely use one of the game’s infamous projectiles can attest.

Worms World Party. Images courtesy of Team 17

Worms World Party. Images courtesy of Team 17

Where Worms really stood out from its predecessors was its zany humour and cartoonish appearance. Critics loved the armed-to-the teeth critters, who quipped sarcastic putdowns at their opponents, as well as the weapons, which stretched from standard issue guns to more esoteric death-dealers, such as fire gloves and exploding sheep. As well as making the game more exciting, every weapon had its own strengths and caveats, adding some depth to their use beyond pointing and shooting. Nevertheless, the game’s inherently random nature would make any match-up entertaining, regardless of skill level.

Worms’ inventive and devious combat was a massive hit with gamers, and won Team 17 numerous awards, including the then coveted BBC ‘Live & Kicking Viewers Award for Best Game’. Once a tool for procrastination, Davidson’s game was suddenly sprung into the limelight: “Even still today in my head it’s the little game that I used to play with my mates just have a laugh with,” he said. “It’s amazing how many people have played it. I like the people who say we played that game so much during college. I’ve had people come up to me and say ‘I loved your game. I failed my degree because of it, but I still loved your game!’.”

Still going strong

With such a breakout hit on their hands, it was only obvious that Team 17 would continue to ride the wave, releasing several more editions of Worms the year after it released. A sequel, Worms 2, was unveiled in 1997, and amplified the cartoon-like nature with a new graphics system. This was swiftly followed by Worms: Armageddon (1997), which offered up new single-player deathmatch and campaign modes, and still has a place on several publications’ lists of the best games of all time.

The Worms saga was born, and it was a rapidly widening one at that; between 1995 and 2010 a total of 16 Worms games were released, with each introducing new additions in a bid to keep the franchise fresh. The series changed tack several times during this period, such as a transition into 3D for the PlayStation 2 era, and a range of spinoffs, such as the mobile exclusive Worms Golf that saw the worms swapping out their killing equipment for nine-irons. The latest title, Worms: WMD, was released earlier in 2016, and added vehicles to the game, together with their own extra layer of strategy.

And yet, despite all its iteration, the series never strayed too far from its original worm-em-up formula. Davidson left the franchise after the release of Worms: Armageddon, citing creative differences, before returning triumphantly to help develop Worms: Revolution (2012), which was praised for blending a new game engine with gameplay that Davidson called ‘true to its roots’.

factor-archive-30With so many games released in such a short time, its unsurprising that Team 17 has made steps to diversify into new franchises, such as its recent hit prison simulation The Escapists (2015). However, the Worms franchise is still managing to go strong, with portable platforms such as the iPad only bolstering the series’ already immense following. As Davidson comments in his interview: “One of the good things now is that Worms suits the digital delivery of games. We haven’t got to worry about boxing things up, so we can pass those savings onto the customer, so it’s nice and affordable. It would be great to have new people discovering it.”

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.