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.”

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World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 22, doctors predicted he would live just a few more years. But in the ensuing 54 years he married, kept working and inspired millions of people around the world. In his last few years, Hawking was outspoken of the subject of AI, and Factor got the chance to hear him speak on the subject at Web Summit 2017…

Stephen Hawking was often described as being a vocal critic of AI. Headlines were filled with predictions of doom by from scientist, but the reality was more complex.

Hawking was not convinced that AI was to become the harbinger of the end of humanity, but instead was balanced about its risks and rewards, and at a compelling talk broadcast at Web Summit, he outlined his perspectives and what the tech world can do to ensure the end results are positive.

Stephen Hawking on the potential challenges and opportunities of AI

Beginning with the potential of artificial intelligence, Hawking highlighted the potential level of sophistication that the technology could reach.

“There are many challenges and opportunities facing us at this moment, and I believe that one of the biggest of these is the advent and impact of AI for humanity,” said Hawking in the talk. “As most of you may know, I am on record as saying that I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.

“Of course, there is unlimited potential for what the human mind can learn and develop. So if my reasoning is correct, it also follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it.”

Moving onto the potential impact, he began with an optimistic tone, identifying the technology as a possible tool for health, the environment and beyond.

“We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one: industrialisation,” he said.

“We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty; every aspect of our lives will be transformed.”

However, he also acknowledged the negatives of the technology, from warfare to economic destruction.

“In short, success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation, or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined or conceivably destroyed by it,” he said.

“Unless we learn how to prepare for – and avoid – the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.

“Already we have concerns that clever machines will be increasingly capable of undertaking work currently done by humans, and swiftly destroy millions of jobs. AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.

“In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”

In the vanguard of AI development

In 2014, Hawking and several other scientists and experts called for increased levels of research to be undertaken in the field of AI, which he acknowledged has begun to happen.

“I am very glad that someone was listening to me,” he said.

However, he argued that there is there is much to be done if we are to ensure the technology doesn’t pose a significant threat.

“To control AI and make it work for us and eliminate – as far as possible – its very real dangers, we need to employ best practice and effective management in all areas of its development,” he said. “That goes without saying, of course, that this is what every sector of the economy should incorporate into its ethos and vision, but with artificial intelligence this is vital.”

Addressing a thousands-strong crowd of tech-savvy attendees at the event, he urged them to think beyond the immediate business potential of the technology.

“Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit”

“Everyone here today is in the vanguard of AI development. We are the scientists. We develop an idea. But you are also the influencers: you need to make it work. Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit,” he said. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity.”

In particular he raised the importance of working across different fields.

“Interdisciplinary research can be a way forward, ranging from economics and law to computer security, formal methods and, of course, various branches of AI itself,” he said.

“Such considerations motivated the American Association for Artificial Intelligence Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures, which up until recently had focused largely on techniques that are neutral with respect to purpose.”

He also gave the example of calls at the start of 2017 by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) the introduction of liability rules around AI and robotics.

“MEPs called for more comprehensive robot rules in a new draft report concerning the rules on robotics, and citing the development of AI as one of the most prominent technological trends of our century,” he summarised.

“The report calls for a set of core fundamental values, an urgent regulation on the recent developments to govern the use and creation of robots and AI. [It] acknowledges the possibility that within the space of a few decades, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity and challenge the human-robot relationship.

“Finally, the report calls for the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI that can provide technical, ethical and regulatory expertise. If MEPs vote in favour of legislation, the report will go to the European Commission, which will decide what legislative steps it will take.”

Creating artificial intelligence for the world

No one can say for certain whether AI will truly be a force for positive or negative change, but – despite the headlines – Hawking was positive about the future.

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the world that can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance,” he said. “Perhaps some of you listening today will already have solutions or answers to the many questions AI poses.”

You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big

However, he stressed that everyone has a part to play in ensuring AI is ultimately a benefit to humanity.

“We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity but the determination to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfill our potential and create a better world for the whole human race,” he said.

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be. You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big.

“We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting – if precarious – place to be and you are the pioneers. I wish you well.”