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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