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Network: Here's a game that's truly infectious

Computer game developers get their inspiration from some unusual sources. The Israeli creators of Virus found their muse in a Tom & Jerry cartoon. Andy Oldfield talks to them about the strange goings on in your hard drive.
Staring at screensavers instead of getting on with work is a relaxing way of spending some time. If you have always rationalised it as providing a good excuse for enabling creativity to work its magic, it is reassuring to know that it's possible to point at a concrete example of screensaver daydreaming coming good. Look no further than Israel's blossoming software industry.

Rona Segev used to be a developer at Tel Aviv's Kidum Multimedia Ltd, and is now vice president of the games division of the Israeli multimedia company SEA, which bought out Kidum earlier this year. She had an idea, as she sat at her computer watching a screensaver, for developing a game.

"It was a Tom and Jerry cartoon," she said, "they were running around smashing things on my screen and hacking into my computer, and I thought, what if our game was about a computer being destroyed from the inside? We could have something here."

Framing the general concept into a game design, they settled on the idea of a virus. "Computers and computer viruses are so commonplace on the one hand, yet they are so mysterious and unknown to most people on the other," Ran Bronstein, SEA's games division development manager, said, "It's just a fascinating area to explore."

On one level, Virus is yet another strategy game devoted to the "if it moves, blast it" school of entertainment. The moving targets here are computer viruses which the player, piloting assorted crafts on search and destroy missions, pursues through a 3D graphical representation of a computer system and blasts into silicon hell while also building power plants, repairing damage suffered and erecting defences around vulnerable parts of the system. For the social games player, there is a two-player mode where one person gets to play the virus, the other its nemesis.

Typically in this style of game, the key to topping the high-score table is having a near-photographic memory. Remembering every nook and cranny, every ambush point and every place of refuge means that after a few dummy runs the determined can cruise through, concentrating on their prowess with the fire button. The twist in Virus is that the arena in which the action takes place is based on the real contents of your network or hard drive. Every old file updated and every new file added, whether graphic, text, spreadsheet, video or sound, changes the domain and the nature of the conflict.

Creating a visual look and feel for the viruses and anti-virus craft was not that much of a problem. The insect-like fusion between technology and organic life-forms have a well-defined heritage in science fiction and Japanese animation. What was more difficult was bringing the hard drive to life.

"I mean, what on earth does a file look like?" Segev said. The answer lay in literalism: creating texts, sounds and graphics as close to what they really are as possible. WAV files are depicted as wave bars graphically displayed on the labyrinthine walls of the game. Text from files is partially reproduced, while graphics files crop up as wallpaper designs. There's something disquieting about travelling through your own hard drive, whose structure and contents you know well, trying to stop the viruses corrupting everything.

It's one thing to have and design a good idea for a strong game. Coding it is something else all together. "The 3D engine streams the information in real time as it is needed, giving the feeling that the world was pre- rendered," Segev said. The formidable technical challenge of creating a limitless number of worlds in real time based on thousands of the users' own files was met not by licensing or ripping-off someone else's technology, but by going down the difficult route and developing a unique, proprietary 3D engine that uses artificial intelligence (AI).

In some respects, Israeli technology companies are well placed to develop such innovative software. Tel Aviv, where Kidum and SEA are based, is widely regarded as the heart of Israel's version of Silicon Valley - a 60-mile strip stretching from Tel Aviv through Herzliyya to Netanya and the port of Haifa. Money, expertise and a willingness to tackle technical problems are available.

It's not just foreign money and venture capital either. Israel's GDP has grown at an average of 6 per cent per annum since 1991 and exports have grown at almost 11 per cent per annum in the 1990s, according to analysts Testa, Hurwitz and Thibeault. Israel spends 2.3 per cent of its GDP on research and development (the highest percentage in the world), and has a government budget of over pounds 620m to provide R&D grants to hi- tech companies. The country's workforce contains more scientists and engineers per capita than any other country, with nearly twice as many engineers per 10,000 employees as compared with the United States.

"When Kidum started with Virus we thought it was an interesting project with a strong technological background. We believed that a geometrical engine with strong AI might be interesting to the Ministry of Industry and Trade. We approached them as other small companies in Israel do," Bronstein said. "They thought it interesting and compelling as well and decided to help us with the money needed for the technological development. It is a common procedure in Israel, it is the way the government helps hi-tech industries."

Other cultural forces are also at play to help Israel steal a march on American and European software developers. It's a wired culture, with the emphasis on culture as much as being wired. "Tel Aviv is a lively city. It is full of culture: music, art schools, good theatre etc. Like an island in Israel and similar to cities like London and New York," Bronstein said. "A lot of young people in Israel are exposed to hi-tech through the Internet and during their national service. Also as a very politically tense country, people look for ways to escape virtually the tension that sometimes crawls into their mind. All these factors are creating a great atmosphere for software developments in general and games as well."

It isn't just a matter of people being exposed to high technology during their military service and thus being comfortable with using PCs and the Internet, there's also a trickle down of expertise in technologies such as military simulation software that is useful in the development of things such as the engine and AI used in projects like Virus. Bronstein agrees: "People come from places were they need to think a lot and translate that into computer and hi-tech terms. In the air force and intelligence there is a hi-tech orientation, with strong connections to graphics and AI.

"People, when they finish serving in the army, are waiting for the time they will do something with their knowledge: non-military projects which they will benefit from economically and mentally by fulfiling their dreams."

And meshing with the day dreams of others, too. There is something compelling about Virus in a Fantastic Voyage sort of way. Shrinking to a size that enables you to get inside your own computer in order to give the system files a good thrashing whenever your machine crashes is the sort of fantasy that sustains many a computer user through the long, lonely hours of reinstalling a dead operating system. Here it has a constructive edge.

Fighting off viruses directly and keeping your system up and running is a whole lot more satisfying than running the latest anti-virus software package. If only real virus attacks were as easy to deal with, Norton and Doctor Solomon would be hard pressed to sell any of their virus scanners and destroyers.

Virus (Windows 95), pounds 39.95, from Telstar Electronic Studios.