The Strange Saga of The Realm of Angmar, Elfhelm's Bane, Swords of Chaos, Lords of Cyberspace, Galactic Conquest & The Muinet Entertainment BBS


I can pinpoint the exact moment when my passion for computer gaming was kindled. It was 1972 and I was at a cub scout meeting with my friend Eric Oredson. Eric's father was a programmer at Univac and Eric had brought in his dad's portable teletype (affectionately known as "ticky tack") for us to check out. It's hard to describe (or even explain) the excitement I felt when he dialed up a computer on the telephone, placed the receiver into the terminal's coupler, and then started clacking along playing tic-tac-toe at 11 characters per second, but in that instant my entire life was transformed.

Of course, back in those days computers were these remote, unreachable things; hidden away in temples, jealously guarded by robed acolytes, and generally shrouded in mystery and arcane ritual. You didn't have one sitting on every desk (or tucked away in every front pocket) like you have today, so it wasn't until a couple of years later when I reached junior high that I finally had regular access to a computer. And in that regard, I had no idea just how fortunate I was. Y'see, back in the 50's, 60's and 70's, the Mpls-St Paul area was basically Silicon Valley I, what with all the major computer and tech companies that had huge facilities there (Control Data, Univac, Honeywell, IBM, Cray, et al). Couple that with some very forward-thinking educators and Minnesota public schools were able to provide more computer access to their students than any other school system in the world.

It all started in 1968 when TIES (Total Information for Educational Systems) was formed to provide timeshare computer access to Twin Cities area schools. And when the success of TIES became evident, the entire effort was expanded statewide with the formation of MECC (Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium) in 1973. From their facilities in Lauderdale, MECC started out by coordinating all educational computing activity in the state and eventually went on to make timeshare mainframe access available to every kid in Minnesota.

TIES operated a couple of HP 2000 series computers that the kids were allowed to play around on in the library after school using old TTY 33's. These systems provided such early public domain gaming staples as BAGELS, CIVIL, LUNAR, LIFE, and the like (if you were in school in the Twin Cities in the 70's there's no way you didn't run into these ubiquities). And, yeah, once I discovered all of this I started spending every waking moment camped out in the library at good old West Junior High.

Fun times!

After a few weeks of fun and games, my curiousity finally got the best of me and I decided to take a peak behind the curtain to see what made these things tick. Source code was generally available (well hell, these were educational systems after all), and I was soon bitten by the programming bug. And in that regard, I kind of feel sorry for kids today. I mean, given the extreme sophistication of today's video games, I just don't see kids being able to get started the way I did. Even if source code were available you'd need to be both a rocket scientist and world class graphic artist to do anything with it. But back in those days, you could take somebody else's program, figure out how it worked, make some changes to it and call it your own. And of course, all that tinkering around eventually led me into writing my own games from scratch. Real sophisticated stuff, too. I remember my first one clearly - it asked you to pick a number, 1 or 2. If you picked 1, it would spiral off into an infinite loop, printing out "WRONG! THE NUMBER WAS 2! HAHAHAHAH!!!" over and over (and vice versa if you picked 2). So anyway, I taught myself to program in Basic and had a grand old time writing silly games on TIES for a while.

A couple of years later I was introduced to a new computer system called MERITSS (a CDC 6400 that MECC had set up to serve the University of Minnesota). What differentiated the MERITSS system from TIES was that you could actually interact with the other users. This was accomplished through messaging programs (the first email and discussion group software), a communications program called xtalk (the first chat room), and multiuser games. This served to create a real community, and brother, it was crawling with illegal users (myself included). MERITSS was supposed to be limited to university personnel and college students working on their CSCI assignments, but security was pretty lax and computer mad junior high and high school students like myself were not going to be denied once we'd seen the promised land. We crashed computer labs and looked over peoples' shoulders to get their access codes, we dumpster dived for them, we rummaged through punch card bins, whatever it took. And once we had them, we traded them like so many baseball cards.

As on TIES, I started out on MERITSS playing games and then playing around with other people's programs (source code was a little more closely guarded on MERITSS, but there was still plenty of it around). Thusly hooked, I eventually bought myself a Minnesota Fortran (MNF) manual and dove in headfirst. Early on, I remember spending a lot of time playing around with an old copy of Jim Logajan's classic "COMBAT" game. In COMBAT, you piloted a spaceship around a two-dimensional universe, attempting to hunt down and destroy the other players using your ship's missiles and lasers. The program itself was elegantly simple, although it did employ some pretty sophisticated math (at least to me) to handle navigating your ship around. COMBAT was insanely popular on MERITSS (although a bit of an annoyance as far as the system administrators were concerned, since the earlier / less-sophisticated versions of the game would actually bring the system to its knees when all nine game ports were full).

Yep, I still get chills when I see the game output -

One of my early attempts at a fantasy game involved trying to convert COMBAT from a tactical space game into a combination strategic and tactical fantasy game (called, bluntly enough, FANTASY). And yeah, it was beyond lame. Among other insanities, you had these wizards that you had to rotate around (ala a spaceship) in order to face their enemies, at which point they would then "fire" their spells at their target. I never did get it to work (or even really finish it), but it's still a running gag amongst my friends to bring up the whole "OK, I now rotate my wizard" reference

My first marginally successful game was STARWAR, a "reimagining" of the Mayfield/Leedom public domain "Super Star Trek" game (I forget what it was called on MERITSS - STARTRK maybe?) Anyway, SST was a pretty cool game for its time, complete with a nifty character-based tactical display (your starship was "<*>", the Klingons were "+K+" and so forth).

The idea was pretty basic - move your ship around from quadrant to quadrant and blow up the bad guys. It did, however, supply us with one of the all time great conundrums: How can damage control report that damage control is damaged? Anyway, mine was a file-based empire-building version of the game where you went around amassing resources and then building your own ships and space stations and whatnot that other people would then have to deal with. It was marginally amusing, but again, mostly somebody else's code. My first original creation (at least from a coding standpoint) and first serious multiuser game was also dubbed STARWAR (OK, naming things was never my strong suit - but gimme a break, program names were limited to seven letters). The basic rules and structure of the game were a total knock-off of Starweb (the classic play-by-mail game from Flying Buffalo), with my contribution boiling down to making it something that you could play on a computer. As it turns out, this second version of Starwar wound up being quite popular on MERITSS and would go on to inspire a Muinet BBS version a decade later. However, let's not get ahead of ourselves here.

Anyway, so it went during my teens and early 20s - happily writing games and dodging the U of M computer cops (going by the supremely nerdy xtalk handle of "Elfstone"). Now, I was never really a "hacker" per se (not in the malevolent sense anyway), but I was definitely playing around where I wasn't really welcome. And in light of that, I'd occasionally involve myself with one of those groups formed by high school students who found illegally invading the university computers distasteful and thirsted for the stamp of legitimacy on their activities. And so, off we'd go, hats in hand to the high temples of educational computerdom to supplicate for access - and amazingly enough, sometimes we'd even get it (IE, the grand mucky mucks at MECC would cut loose with some computer accounts for us). And what a motley and embarassing assortment of groups these were. Let's see... there was the SFAF (Star Fleet Armed Forces), the IKF (Imperial Klingon Fleet), PROGRES (I don't even remember what that one stood for) and GAP (Group of Amateur Programmers). Unfortunately, these groups never seemed to last very long (teenagers being what they are), and I'd inevitably wind up back in the shadows and dodging the cops.

Circa 1977, MECC started moving the public schools off of the old TIES computers and onto a multiuser Univac system (an 1110, I believe). However, it proved unpopular (for whatever reason), so MECC opted instead to set up a CDC Cyber 73 timeshare system for the public schools to use (called "MTS" or simply "MECC"). The MECC system was similar in most respects to MERITSS, however it never held much appeal for me (MERITSS was clearly the more sophisticated computing community, and so there I stayed). In 1983, MECC decided that the era of timeshare mainframes was ending and shut down the MTS system (pivoting instead to Apple II personal computers). Unfortunately, the switchover eliminated the communal aspect of the MECC system and created a huge vacuum in the local computer nerd community - a vacuum that was about to be filled by the emergence of the BBS.

Came 1984 and I was still hanging around on MERITSS (tinkering around with Starwar, mainly). Additionally, I had subscribed to a local pay-for-access BBS called "GamBit". The system was run by Alan Kleitz, Bob Alberti Jr, Bob Alberti Sr (now deceased), and Gerry Leone. It was one of the first PC-based multiuser entertainment systems in the country (if not the first) and cleverly capitalized on the opportunity created by the demise of MECC. The primary attraction of GamBit was a multiplayer, interactive, text-based D&D style game called "The Scepter of Goth" (aka "Mileau" or simply "Scepter"). Scepter actually had its origins on MECC (written by the aforementioned Kleitz), although I never played it there myself. The game was hugely addictive and unlike anything I'd ever played before (although I suppose the game's basic "look and feel" can ultimately trace its origins back to "ADVENT" , the old Colossal Cave mainframe adventure game of the mid-70s).

Advent -

I don't recall how exactly I got hooked up with GamBit, but I do remember that it quickly ate my brain and my credit card (at $2.25 per hour, this perennially broke college student was bled dry in fairly short order). Details are hazy, but I believe the owners of GamBit took the whole thing national for a brief period of time (via franchising). Consequently, the original GamBit system went away; replaced instead by a new franchise called "In Search Of" (operated by one Jim Williams, aka "King", who quickly ran it into the ground). Circa 1987, the Albertis relaunched their own local system and briefly tried to relive their past glories (possibly concurrent with King's system - I seem to recall there being a rivalry there). Unfortunately, by that time nobody really cared and both systems floundered rather badly.

Sometime in the mid-90s, Williams revivified the whole thing in pseudo-GUI form under the name of Cyber City (coded by one Brad McDowell, who supposedly is in prison at the moment). That lasted for all of about five minutes and finally went the way of all things BBS when the internet blew up. In the early 90s, a former MECCie (and, by strange coincidence, a current co-worker of mine) named Shawn Stanley also started a multiuser BBS (Wintermute) featuring Scepter. The code was ported from the original Pascal to C by one John Ryan (now deceased). Wintermute lasted until 1997 (and according to Shawn, may yet reemerge). But anyway, this isn't the history of Scepter, so let's press on.

So, it's late 1984 and I'm jonesing for my Scepter fix. At the time I was still one of those annoying computer lab vultures hanging around at the University of Minnesota, except that now I actually had legit access to MERITSS. Yes, I had somehow managed to gain membership into the once elite UCC (University Computer Center) group known as "MUG" ("MERITSS Users Group", or more aptly "Malicious Users Group"). MUG provided privileged/private computer access to students (or even non-students) who demonstrated some sort of special computing aptitude (however nebulous). I know, it sounds insane, but that's the way it used to be back in the mainframe days. As I understand it, MUG was originally formed as a form of detente between the poor overworked UCC staff and some of the more nefarious hackers who'd infiltrated their system - y'know, a "we'll legitimize half of you if you'll stop picking on us and help us against the other half" kind of thing. I think that model was eventually adopted by the federal government when dealing with organized crime, but I digress. Sadly, by the time I got involved, MUG was no longer the elitist clique it once was and I was summarily granted membership when my "review committee" (after many pitchers of beer) literally weighed the printout of the source code I'd submitted for consideration (a copy of Starwar) and judged it "heavy enough". My "sponsor", sadly, was unavailable to participate in my "code review" due to his experimentations in "out of body experience" (oh, don't ask)...

This would seem like an ideal place to document the history of MUG (lord knows it's not documented anyplace else), but like I say, I arrived late in the game so my knowledge is pretty limited. Perhaps we'll get lucky and somebody with some decent memories will google up this page and write me. And maybe THIS will jog some old memories!

Anyway, I couldn't afford to play Scepter anymore, so I decided to teach myself Pascal and write my own version of the game (which I dubbed "The Realm of Angmar"). It wasn't an out-and-out clone of Scepter, although it did share the same basic look and feel (as supplied by Advent). I then supplanted it with all the ideas I'd had to improve upon the original. Now, multiuser games were frowned upon on MERITSS (thanks to COMBAT), so mine had to be single user. Well hell, back in those days almost anything remotely "fun" was frowned upon, and the powers-that-be would quickly descend upon anyone daring to use a computer for such frivolities. IE, I had to keep a low profile. Ruleswise, I cobbled together a gaming system from bits and pieces of the various RPGs my friends and I were into at the time (EPT, C&S, D&D, et al). Surprisingly enough, it turned out to be quite popular. In fact, I remember running into a lab full of guys who told me they had punted all their classes that quarter so they could spend all of their waking hours playing Angmar. Looking back, I suppose the secret of the game's early success was that it allowed everyone to see what everyone else was doing (vis'a'vis their accomplishments), which served to create some real competition. So, despite the fact that players weren't interacting with each other directly, the game still had a "pseudo" multiplayer feel to it.

Somewhere in this era, myself and a couple of my cronies (Greg Noel and Jim Logajan) half-jokingly formed a group called "Muinet" (MERITSS Underground Information Network - pronounced MOY-NET), which was allegedly in response to the goody-goodies of "Coinnet" (Common Information Network - pronounced COY-NET), a group of eggheads who were basically the mystery-shrouded high priests of the University's computer facilities and whom we generally despised and resented. This is of course completely irrelevent to all but a handful of people, but it does explain where the brand name Muinet came from (if you were wondering at all).

Early in 1985, we (the Muinet crew) decided to take a whack at launching our own for-profit BBS (using Angmar as its lynchpin). We brainstormed dozens of pie-in-the-sky ideas and somehow conned an investor into actually buying an Altos (an early Unix PC) for us. We kept the computer in my apartment and I allegedly set out to port Angmar to Unix. Now, calling this project half-baked would be too kind by half. Mainly, I spent my time fiddling around with Angmar on MERITSS and using the Altos to play Hack. Not surprisingly, it wasn't long before our investor finally figured out that we were totally clueless and proceeded to take our toys away (which, admittedly, cut into our Hack playing and not much else). Sadly, I think I spent more time working on this ridiculous ad copy than I did on porting Angmar to Unix...

Later in 1985, I left the U of M (or was asked to leave, depending on whom you want to believe). Actually, the truth of the matter (which I didn't find out until much later) is that my nemesis at MERITSS (Mike Skow, head of UCC) had evidently had enough of my shenanigans and decided to get rid of me by steering a job recruiter my way. So, here I am minding my own business (flooding MERITSS with annoying games, lol) when some guy calls me up from straight out of the blue and offers me my first job as a professional programmer. Can you beat that? I tell ya, that Mike Skow, what a guy!

Said job was coding Apple II programs (in Applesoft Basic) for a local software outfit called Green Valley Publishing (later redubbed Share Data). This was near the beginning of the home computer boom when the Apple II, Commodore and Atari computers were quite popular and people of limited intelligence were looking for any kind of cheap and easy-to-use software to run on their seemingly useless and impulse-bought hardware. And although GVP had a good (albeit short) run cranking out a line of $5 "Load'N'Go" software for these computers, the sad fact is that a lot of it was disposable crap (simplistic public domain software scrounged up by management, gussied up by the sweat shop programming staff, and then bundled in eye-grabbing spinrack packaging that made it look a whole lot better than it actually was). This software was sold at massive retailers like Target and the company made a ton of money (well, at $7/hour I didn't personally, but the president of the company drove around in a limo, so somebody must have).

As programmers, we were all just a bunch of kids in our early 20's working our first pro gigs, so it took us a little while to get up to speed on the Apple. But it wasn't long before we rebelled against the public domain nonsense and started writing our own stuff. For one of my projects, I talked the company into a licensing agreement whereby they would sell an Apple II version of Angmar as part of their Load'N'Go line (renamed "Angbar" to stave off the ravening legal hordes over at Tolkien Enterprises and appease the ten cent lawyer we kept on staff). The initial release ("Elfhelm's Bane") was basically a stripped down and simplified version of the mainframe game (rewritten in 6502 assembly language). I Load'N'Go-ized it to the extent that it would run on a single menu-driven screen and respond to simple single-keystroke commands. It was basically limited to just the main city of the game (Elfhelm), although a number of different/interconnected add-on areas were also scheduled for release.

Unfortunately, my dreams of vast wealth were cruelly dashed when slow sales forced the whole project to be scuttled shortly after its initial release. For my efforts, I received a 15 cent royalty check (which I still have someplace, because who cashes 15 cent checks?). To be honest, I'm not really sure what I was thinking with that game (or why I ever thought it would be successful). Open-ended games like Angmar (where there is no obvious goal beyond simply becoming more powerful) just do not work if you're not playing with other people (either directly or indirectly). But at the time I didn't really understand the essence of what made online games like Scepter and Angmar so popular and addictive, and consequently I didn't think there was any reason to change the basic game to play in a more traditional "solo adventurer" type of mode (y'know, "solve the puzzle, kill the boss, win the game, get patted on the head"). All that said, Bane did (for whatever reason) wind up with a small-but-ardent fan base (many of whom have actually taken the time to hunt me down and ask about the game), so maybe if I'd tweaked things a bit I might have had something. Unfortunately, I wasn't nearly experienced enough as a game designer to recognize any of that.

(The drawing of the blonde warrior with the Fu Manchu was based on a guy who worked in our warehouse - dude was nuts)

Anyway, Share Data wound up relocating to Arizona in 1986 (and going out of business shortly thereafter), so I spent a few years bouncing around from one shop to the next (software companies came and went pretty fast in those days - and hell, they probably still do). During that time, PC technology eventually reached the point where I thought I could tackle creating my own multiuser BBS. At that time (1989) I was fairly heavily involved in comic book collecting and had even helped found the MCBA (Minnesota Comic Book Association) - a group that organized comic book conventions in Minneapolis. And although I didn't have much money, what I did have was a mountain of old comic books. So, in late December of '89 I sold the comic book collection and scraped enough money together (around $4K) to buy a used Tandy computer (386-16 / 287 coprocessor, 40 MB HD, 4 MB RAM), an Arnet 6-port serial port board, a stack of modems, a couple of dumb terminals, several miles of RS-232 cable, and a copy of the SCO Xenix operating system (Xenix being one of the many flavors of Unix out there at the time). I then set about learning Xenix and writing a multiuser version of Angmar in C.

Now, for the true computer geek, tackling a new operating system and programming language is not at all a daunting proposition. Oh heck no, it's like taking a fun trip to an exciting and exotic new land to meet interesting new people and learn fascinating new customs (seriously, I am not kidding). So yeah, getting acclimated to Xenix didn't take me long. Although I must admit that having a friend at my disposal (Greg Noel) who had already spent a good deal of time living in Unixland certainly helped make my own move there a much smoother one.

And oh to be 27 again! In addition to working a full-time day job, I was putting in 40+ hours a week on the BBS project right from the get-go. Consequently, it only took about six weeks to get to the point where I was able to test calling in to the system (the "system" consisting of a simple login shell that placed you into Angmar as a guest - at which point you could request your own private login/password).

Turning that old single-player mainframe game into a multiplayer BBS game was one hell of a lot of work, but by mid-March of '90 I had something that was game enough for my friends to come over and start testing (wild and wooly all-nighters on those aforementioned dumb terminals). Things went well, and by May the system had become stable enough that I felt like I was ready to let strangers in the door. So, I scraped enough money together to purchase four phone lines, hooked up the modems, and officially launched the Muinet BBS.

To attract attention, I went and posted notifications on pretty much every BBS in town and handed out flyers at various science fiction conventions and whatnot. And amazingly enough, the response was overwhelming right from day one. In fact, it wasn't long before the four ports were filled pretty much 24-7 (at which point I had to actually institute a two hour time limit). Of course there were many glitches, stumbles and mini-disasters along the way, but for the most part things progressed quite smoothly.

(Here's one of the flyers I put together and distributed around town - note the blatantly pilfered and uncredited artwork!)

It was around this time (May-ish) that I wrote a letter to Tolkien Enterprises asking if I could get permission to use the word "Angmar" (among other things) in my game. And of course they never bothered writing me back (which I totally took as tacit approval that they didn't give a rip what I did). And already thinking ahead to my next project (converting Starwar to Unix/C), I also sent a letter off to Flying Buffalo asking if I could write a BBS game based on Starweb (which, as mentioned previously, Starwar was largely patterned after). And this time I actually did get an answer back. Quite cordial too - basically they thanked me for actually asking (evidently a lot of people hadn't) but that no, they had their own plans for a BBS version of Starweb. Consequently, when I did finally get around to porting Starwar to Muinet I respected their wishes and punted everything that was overtly Starwebby about it (basically retaining the generic notion of a bunch of star systems inter-connected by a web of discrete wormholes, and that's about it).

Anyway, came June and I was able to actually start charging for access ($5/month to start with, but then quickly up to $10/month in July). As part of that move, I also added a couple more phone lines and modems. And I tell you, when I netted $260 in subscriber fees that first month, the dollar signs really started swirling in my eyes (hey, don't laugh, that was a lot of money for me back then). Unfortunately, I'd also come to the startling realization that running a BBS was not all fun and games. Oh my goodness no, because now I had to deal with all those crazy kids and all their insane drama!

So yeah, the headaches had begun. But the way I figured it, if the money was good enough I could put up with just about anything. Unfortunately, although my game continued to improve and the system had become quite stable, the novelty of it all eventually started to wear a bit thin in BBS-land. Nothing drastic or all at once, but lose a subscriber here and a subscriber there and suddenly you're making just about enough money to pay for the phone lines and not much more than that. And although I enjoyed the technical aspects of it all, I also felt like a little more income would be nice if I was going to have deal with all of the annoyances and squabbling that went into being a sysop. So, hope springing eternal as it is wont to do, I decided to press on (figuring that there just had to be a payoff somewhere down the line - even if I couldn't see it yet).

Up to that point, my system had been living in our rental duplex in Minneapolis (which seemed a little tenuous, what with all the money I was investing in phone lines). So, in January of '91, my wife and I purchased our first house and Muinet was summarily relocated. Between '91 and '94 I continued to build upon the Unix version of the Muinet BBS and eventually put together what I should have started out with in the first place - a complete system with menus, email, discussion boards, a full-feature chat room, automatic user registration and accounting, along with this, that, and the other thing. Also, I did finally get around to writing that Unix version of Starwar (now dubbed "Galactic Conquest"). It started out looking a lot like those old space empire games I'd written back in high school, but went on to include a lot of new ideas (along with a dash of Starweb and bits and pieces from the dozen or so other tactical and strategic sci-fi tabletop games I'd come across over the years). Sadly, it turned out to be ridiculously complicated (not to mention woefully underdocumented) and, as such, wound up being popular with maybe three people (Yo Spamgod!). So, no, definitely not my finest hour (and it probably explains why I never bothered porting it to MajorBBS).

As I recall, I'd pretty much maxed out at eight phone lines (or was it ten? whatever). I have no idea how many subscribers I had at that point, and I honestly don't remember much about the individuals (sorry guys). I guess at any given time I probably had 20 or 30 fairly active subscribers and then an equal number of people who would pop in on a less frequent basis. What I do remember is that the money never really amounted to much (IE, enough to pay for the phone lines and that's about it). And of course being a sysop remained a never ending pain-in-the-ass struggle between myself and all those crazy teenagers (sadly, the bread and butter of BBS-userdom). And yeah, I have no doubt that this was total Karmic payback for every sin I'd ever committed during my own wild computer hacking youth.

Despite all my efforts, I never did figure out the secret of making a real living running a BBS, and there weren't any local examples that I could've looked to for inspiration (not concurrent ones, anyway). In retrospect, I just don't think I was cut out to run a financially successful BBS, and I think you can trace my failure to three or four major mistakes (or failures of vision). First of all, I really should've sat down and created an entire BBS from the get-go. But, I was a game designer and all I really cared about was games. So, in my tunnel vision I wrote a game and called it a BBS. I mean, I laugh when I think about it now. People would call up this BBS they knew absolutely nothing about, log in and find themselves plunked down into the middle of this menuless adventure game. It must have just confused the hell out of people!

Secondly, I was not a business guy. I had no clue how to go about promoting the thing effectively (other than the basics of going from BBS to BBS putting up notices and handing out flyers at various nerdy gatherings). And I really failed in my attempts to find a pricing structure that would have maximized my revenue. Over the years I eventually figured out that your average guy who was going to spend any money at all was either going to be around for a month or two before getting bored and moving on, or was going to find a home there and be around for six months, a year or longer. And that's how I should have priced it. Something like $25 for three months, $75 for a year, or 10 minutes a day for free. These kids very rarely had any money at all, so forcing them to pay every month was simply asking for them to drop out if they happened to have a lean month (or not - who knows? I'm still not a business guy).

Next, and simply put - size sells. At the end of the day, a BBS is a community; and the bigger the community, the more likely it is to attract more people. I mean, if you're looking for people to socialize with, are you going to go to some empty BBS and sit there and wait for other people to show up? No, you're going to look around until you find the really big and active BBS and set up shop there. I eventually got to know a lot of really successful BBS operators around the country - I'm talking about guys who made hundreds of thousands of dollars per year running a BBS. And without exception, these guys ran gigantic systems with hundreds of phone lines and dozens and dozens of people online at any given time of day. Well, who wouldn't gravitate to a system like that? So, if you're going to try to build a real money-making operation, you really hurt your chances if you think you can start out on the cheap and grow it slowly. Four lines to start with and adding a couple more per year? Not much chance of reaching critical mass at that rate. A real businessman with a real business plan would've amassed the necessary capital to start out with 30 or 40 lines minimum.

Lastly, I simply wasn't interested in doing the kinds of things as a sysop that would have attracted and kept subscribers. As noted above, a BBS is a community; a place for lonely young people and other outcasts to get together with other like-minded individuals and socialize. And you needed a sysop (or assistant) who was always around to preside over the festivities. Unfortunately, I was (and am) a huge control-freak, so any attempts at bringing on assistants never really worked out. Also, you needed to organize "real world" get-togethers so that your subscribers could crawl out of their basements and meet their online pals in a safe social setting (something I always dreaded). Basically, the sysop of this kind of system is throwing a big party, and as the host you needed to be on top of it 24-7. Me? I was strictly an anti-social programmer and game player, so none of that other stuff held any interest for me (quite the opposite, actually). So, really, I was pretty much doomed from the beginning.

So anyway, by 1994 it became pretty obvious that I wasn't going to be able to make a living as a sysop (and by that point, nor did I really want to). So, I started looking more seriously into seeing if I couldn't make some money marketing my BBS software. The problem was that although I had indeed constructed a fairly sophisticated and bulletproof suite of BBS software, I just didn't see myself making any money trying to sell it in the Xenix world. I mean, when Joe Blow decides he's going to launch a BBS, Xenix isn't going to be the first thing that pops into his head, right?

At that time there were basically two really popular multiuser BBS systems in the DOS/Windows world - MajorBBS (later called Worldgroup) and Wildcat. And I honestly don't remember why I picked MajorBBS over Wildcat, but whatever the reason, that's where I headed. I do recall spending some time soliciting my stuff around to various software outfits and only getting one serious return inquiry - from Adept Communications out of Louisville. Adept was strictly a reseller and we basically arrived at an agreement whereby I would write a MajorBBS version of Angmar and they would sell it (for a percentage) and provide support. So, in mid-1994 I told everybody "see you in a few months" and pulled the plug on Xenix Muinet.

Suffice it to say, after being a dedicated (albeit reluctant) sysop for nearly five years, the shock of suddenly not being a sysop at all and not having a busy beeping and humming system in my office came as quite a shock. Sysop empty nest syndrome, I guess. I got over all of that pretty quickly though, especially when the full realization of what I was tackling hit me. I had registered as an official MajorBBS add-on developer, purchased the MajorBBS package (with developer's kit) and all of the necessary compilers and whatnot necessary to get the job done. I also purchased a second computer on which to do my development (since, unlike in the Unix world, I couldn't do development on the same computer that my BBS would eventually run on). I have no idea what all that cost, but it must've been two or three thousand bucks at least. That was the easy part, though. The real challenge was going to be figuring it all out and morphing myself into a DOS developer (something I had zero experience with - and this time there wasn't anybody around to help me out).

Although I was still working in C, the conversion of Unix Angmar to MajorBBS Angmar wasn't entirely straightforward. I won't bore you with all the technical details, but the main challenge was converting a classic Unix client/server program into a single-threaded DOS application (with all of the MajorBBS hooks and specificities). Still, as I recall, things went pretty smoothly and quickly. And not having that damned BBS taking up all of my time and attention allowed me to really soar with the eagles programming-wise. In fact, I recall this whole period pretty fondly. Creatively and technically, I was really humming along, and by December of '94 I had a beta version that I was ready to go live with.

Jim (my guy at Adept) and I decided more or less mutually that we couldn't call this thing Angmar (again, living in fear of the imaginary bloodthirsty hordes of lawyers at Tolkien Enterprises). So, we (and everyone we could get our hands on) had a naming contest and the best we could come up with was "Swords of Chaos". Well, not bad I guess. It certainly had some cachet and it did reflect the general goings-on of the game. In any case, it was certainly better than (shudder) Angbar. So, I got my MajorBBS all configured, ordered up some phone lines (I think I started with six, maybe eight of them) and prepared to go back online. One of the very specific memories I still have is plugging the phone lines back into the jacks in preparation for going live and getting a RING/CONNECT instantly. Somebody, by odd stroke of fate, had been trying the old Unix BBS phone number (which I had retained) and BA-BOOM, became my first MajorBBS subscriber. No, I didn't kid myself into thinking that throngs of Angmar-thirsty BBS'ers had been clawing desperately at my door for all those weeks and months, waiting for me to finish the migration. But still, it was a pretty good omen by any measure.

Clearly, I needed as many warm bodies as possible, so once again I went and posted ads on a zillion local BBS's and then threw the doors open wide - totally free access. Not surprisingly, many of my old and faithful subscribers reemerged in fairly short order (along with a host of newbies) and the beta-testing period was seriously under way. Fortunately, the core code of the game itself had been well tested over the previous years, so it was just a matter of a few weeks before I had a product that I could actually put up for sale in the MajorBBS market.

My initial marketing strategy (fairly typical for MajorBBS add-ons) was to offer a downloadable "demo" version on MajorBBS's home system (said demo version being designed to disable itself after two weeks). MajorBBS sysops the world over would dial up said BBS in order to acquire these evaluation copies of new software and then (after the evaluation period) they'd either contact the vendor to purchase a license (an activation code encrypted from their system ID number) or they'd remove the demo and move on. And much to my delight, big orders started rolling in almost immediately. As was typically the case with MajorBBS, we sold licenses based on the size of the purchasing system. The beauty of this was that the huge systems, run by sharp guys who knew what they were doing (and knew quality when they saw it), ordered big licenses right away. I think I paid off all of my student loans with my first royalty payment from Adept, and that was just the beginning.

Our next marketing bonanza came after we published an ad in MajorBBS's quarterly magazine (mailed to every MajorBBS sysop worldwide). Quite naturally, these people were always on the lookout for anything that would attract more people to their systems. So, when something new showed up in the MajorBBS mag, people pounced on it. Suffice it to say, the orders we received after running that ad were even bigger than the first batch.

The guys at Adept put together some totally bitching art for the ad that really pushed the whole "Huntress" concept to its limit (to say the least). Unfortunately, some wanker at Galacticomm (AKA, the people who put out MajorBBS) deemed it too risque for their magazine and ordered a toned-down version (reproduced below) with the Huntress wearing this 50's style chainmail bikini. Well, whatever, it still worked.

Apart from paying off old debts, I also took advantage of this early revenue firehose to build my nascent MajorBBS. I have to admit, after running a totally proprietary system for so many years (one where I had to personally account for every square inch of code), the ability to add new features by simply spending some money on somebody else's software was pretty damned refreshing. Even better, many of my fellow MajorBBS developers also ran their own BBS's and were similarly looking for new and interesting things to add to their own systems. Consequently, I was able to acquire many new games and features by simply trading mine for theirs. One of my personal favorites was Sirius Software's "Game Connection" tool, which allowed me to host (and participate in) multiplayer Doom bloodbaths. What can I say? Blowing my users' heads off with a BFG turned out to be quite the liberating experience

The way money was pouring in, I had no problem adding more lines. I forget the timeline and the numbers, but I believe I was generally able to run 12 to 14 lines during this whole MajorBBS era. I no longer cared about paying for phone lines via subscriber monies, so I simply based pricing on system usage. Basically all I cared about was having warm bodies to test my software. So, when things got slow I threw the doors open wide - no charge to access the system (which, unfortunately, usually attracted a lot of "difficult" users). When things got too chaotic (or the modems were full to the point that my regulars had a hard time getting on), I went back to charging minimal rates for access ($10 a month or less).

The beauty of this whole era was that I was totally able to eschew all of the "normal" sysop duties and expectations. I supplied the system and used the users (to put it bluntly) to test my software. So, if somebody had a problem (or was a problem) I simply punted them off the system. Sure, there were users that I got along with (even a few that I got together with, just 'cuz they were cool dudes - Yo Lestat, et al!). But the bottom line was, I didn't need any of them, so I could run a really tight ship. And when caller-id came along, it was like a gift from heaven. Finally I could really block out some of the more irritating idiots that had plagued me and my system over the years.

Early in '95, when Magic: The Gathering had become hugely popular, a lot of the guys were (clumsily) trying to use my chat program to play games of Magic online. And after much pestering, they eventually talked me into writing a custom chat app that had built-in commands to support the playing of Magic. It was pretty simple stuff and I was able to hack something together in a week or two. And despite being basically a throwaway side project, it (The Mage Connection) turned out to be surprisingly popular and over the years I was actually able to sell a couple of dozen copies through Adept.

After the initial explosion of SoC sales, things slowed down a little bit, but still remained strong and steady throughout 1995. By the fall of '95 I had paid off all of my (and my wife's) old credit card debts, student loans, car loans and everything else. Apart from our mortgage, we were both totally debt-free for probably the first time in our adult lives. Why, I even managed to start a savings account for crying out loud! So, at that point I decided to take the big plunge and quit my day job (which was one of those really boring "Office Space" type programming jobs). This was a great time for me. The board was popular and pretty much running itself, and I was able to devote most of my time to my next big project - a cyberpunk game called "Lords of Cyberspace".

Like everything else I'd ever written, LoC was an amalgam of my own ideas and bits and pieces of other games I'd come across over the years (in this case, Toy/Wichman's Rogue, Steve Jackson's Hacker, and GURPS Cyberpunk). Now, if you ask me, LoC was/is quite simply the best piece of gaming software I've ever written. It incorporated everything I'd ever learned about games in general and BBS games in particular and was just one slick piece of code. I mean, the recursive routines I wrote to make programs chase you around the 'net were a thing of beauty. Trouble is, it totally tanked. When I released it in May of 1996, it sold maybe a half dozen copies to some of the bigger systems (who pretty much bought any new software), and then vanished without a trace. This was a big disappointment. By this time, SoC was starting to reach saturation point, The Mage Connection was strictly small potatoes pricewise, and I really needed a big new hit on the order of Swords to keep things rolling. Unfortunately, LoC was not able to duplicate whatever lightning-in-a-bottle I'd captured with SoC (it being perhaps just a bit ahead of its time). Making matters worse, the writing was pretty much on the wall for BBS's by this point. The internet was really starting to blow up and Galacticomm was woefully unprepared for it. Systems were vanishing left and right and weren't being replaced by new ones, and sysops were really watching their expenses closely and not spending a lot of money on new software.

By the end of '96 I had to start looking for an outside job again (although fortunately I was in a position to pick and choose and eventually landed a really good job that allowed me to continue working from home). I squeezed another year out of my software business, but by the end of '97 I was really starting to get burned out on the whole thing. I continued to improve and grow Swords and Lords, but by that time sales had dropped off to just a few new copies a month. So, in November of '97 I decided to pull the plug on the whole operation - I shut down my BBS and sold the rights to all of my MajorBBS software to Vircom (a Canadian company that was big into the whole TCP/IP for Worldgroup thing). I think they had some kind of grandiose plan to release their own adventure game for Worldgroup and were just trying to buy out the competition (IE, I don't believe they ever actually did anything with my software). Ironically, Vircom also got out of the MajorBBS/Worldgroup market shortly thereafter (late 1999) and resold the MajorBBS rights to my games to something called "Metropolis Gameport" (where they are evidently still available to this day - gameport.com).

Here's the final advertisement that I put together for Adept (actually, my friend Tom did most of the real work):

In the final analysis, I probably could've had a lot more success (financially speaking) if my timing had been a little better. Swords of Chaos was clearly the equal of (and in many ways, superior to) its competition, and if I'd gotten into the MajorBBS market right away (instead of wasting all of those years in Unixland), I'd have had the jump on all of them. You'd have seen Swords of Chaos on practically every MajorBBS in the world, which would have added up to some serious money for me. On the other hand, the days of the BBS were numbered from the beginning and I would've been forced out in '97 (when the internet took over), regardless of how much software I might have sold in the interim. And if I hadn't started out in Unix, I probably wouldn't have wound up in my current career as a Unix programmer, which ultimately has proven to be more lucrative to me than any amount of money I might have made selling BBS software. So, who knows? At the end of the day I can say that with Muinet I made my bones as a programmer, raked in some good money, was able to be self-employed for a couple of years, touched tens of thousands of lives the world over via my games, met a lot of interesting people, and in general had a lot of fun. I don't really think I'd change a thing

Addendums and Updates:

SoC ran for quite a while during the post-BBS era on something called "Sea Breeze Gaming Network", however I guess that all went away circa 2015. There used to be a written history of SBGN on bbsnexus.com, but that seems to have vanished as well.

For a while (up until about 2010) I was corresponding with some of my old BBS subscribers on BBSMATES.COM. However, that seems to have gone away too (I'm sensing a trend here).

Here's some general information on what's going on with MajorBBS these days (including software downloads and links to active installations) - Major Butt Care

These people have written some sort of MajorBBS/Worldgroup emulator that lets you run old MBBS modules (including SoC and LoC) on your own computer. I haven't tried it myself, but if you're feeling lucky, here it is - MBBSEMU

I don't know if it's a hacked version of the old MBBS module or something cooked up using the original soure code (which I've been known to hand out freely), but some guy is (as of this 2019 writing) running some sort of web version of SoC here - soc4ever.com

This past summer (also 2019) I spent some time nostalgically poking around my old SoC/LoC/GC code and (surprise, surprise) wound up getting re-bitten by the computer gaming bug. Work doesn't keep me super busy these days, so I've been able to spend quite a bit of time playing around with back-migrating SoC and LoC to Unix and making a more user friendly version of GC. There's quite a lot of work to do and I still haven't really looked into what sort of platform I might be able to run them on (and make them available to others). But stay tuned - we might actually be able to bloody our swords in Elfhelm one last time before turning into toothless old geezers and tottering off into antiquity



Send email to the spooks!


Spookshow Home