Tuesday, November 02, 2010


Back in the days of hobbyist BBSes, I ran one, called the Crystal Ship, and spent some time programming things for it. One thing BBSes had were "doors", which was BBS-lingo for games. The pecularity of a BBS is that it's a multi-user community but only one is usually logged in at a time (only the largest BBSes were multiple-line, and even those were only a few at once, since the cost of phone lines, modems, and serial ports were too much for a hobby you didn't get any help paying for.) So door games had to work with one user at a time, but the most intriguing ones were multi-player, since a single-player game would be something people could be playing on their own computer without being dialed into yours (and tying up both phone lines). And yet they also had to be designed in such a way that if the other people playing in a game didn't log in consistently or missed days, the game wouldn't become hopelessly dull.

I designed, but never fully implemented, one particular game for that unusual set of design requirements, a game called NetRunner. (It was never fully implemented for my BBS only because the BBS itself changed and then closed down.) The idea of the game was that you released programs onto a cyberspace grid where they tried to collect valuable data.

These programs ran in batch mode overnight, at a time when you couldn't interface with them, so they operated according to some instructions you gave them -- you didn't actually write programs for them (that would alienate too many players) but instead gave them instructions for how to react to different things they detected, which amounted to a simpler version of the same thing. You could log in during the day to see how they worked last night, read what they reported back about their surroundings, make changes to their instructions, and do things like sell the data they harvested and buy new programs or upgrades to existing programs.

Programs could also find and destroy one another, and in doing so, steal the data the other program had collected. However, even the winner tended to suffer a lot of damage in these fights, which would cost you something to repair: time (you could only do so many things per day), money, or both. And there was always the risk of losing such a fight.

This dealt with the multiplayer but asynchronous nature of BBS door programs pretty well. It also meant if you didn't log in, your programs would keep running on previous instructions, which might be good enough to keep you in the game (so if you missed a few days you wouldn't give up on the game, or fail to join the game for fear of the commitment required), but you wouldn't do nearly as well as if you logged in to tweak your programs, sell data to buy upgrades, etc. (so you'd still have motivation to participate).

The game never got put into deployment in that form. Some time later, a friend of Siobhan's who was running a play-by-mail game company (this is before widespread Internet consumer use) liked the idea, so I coded it (twice! the first version was lost in a disk crash) for him as such a game. However, they didn't like the idea of writing semi-autonomous programs, so instead you had to manually control your programs every turn, which he thought better suited the play-by-mail community. I thought it kind of gutted the whole point of the game and left just a simple board game, so when it failed to elicit a lot of interest, I wasn't too surprised, and it was closed fairly soon. I think I made about $3 on royalties.

I was thinking about NetRunner this morning because it occurs to me that, in the spirit of "everything old is new again," the BBS door has been reinvented. That's basically the same thing that today's social network games are. NetRunner could have been Farmville. In fact, if my copious spare time allowed, I could probably write NetRunner as a Facebook game and rake in the dough... well, at least, maybe make another $3. I wonder how hard it is to write Facebook games. (I can see the first problem right up front: NetRunner was all text, but Facebook games are graphical, and I have not enough art skill to even make a 16x16 icon worth a damn, let alone something comparable to the clunky-but-effective graphics of Farmville.)

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