I can pinpoint the exact moment when my passion for computer gaming was kindled - it was 1973 and I was at a cub scout meeting with my friend Erik Oredson. Erik's father was a programmer at Univac and he had brought in his dad's suitcase teletype (affectionately known as "ticky tack") for us to check out. It's hard to describe (let alone 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 (where I grew up) was basically Silicon Valley I, what with all the major computer and tech companies that had headquarters and/or huge facilities there (Control Data, Univac, Honeywell, IBM, Cray, et al). Couple that tech heavy environment 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 public schools. And when the success of TIES became evident, the entire effort was expanded statewide in 1974 with the formation of the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (aka "MECC", which we generally pronounced "meck"). 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 virtually every kid in Minnesota.
TIES operated a couple of HP 2000 series computers that the kids in my junior high were allowed to play around on in the library before and after school. With noisy old TTY 33's as the primary means of access, these systems provided such early educational gaming staples as Oregon Trail, Lunar Lander, Civil War and the like (aka "OREGON", "LUNAR" and "CIVIL" in the abbreviated and all-caps world of mainframe computing). Suffice it to say, 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 spare moment parked in front of that teletype in the library.
Being educational systems, all of the programs on TIES were written in Basic and source code was freely available. Consequently, it wasn't long before my curiousity got the best of me and I started sneaking peeks behind the curtain to see what made these things tick. 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 surgeon and world class graphic artist to do anything with it. But back in those days you could take somebody else's game, figure out how it worked, make some changes to it and call it your own. And naturally all of 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. And of course there was no right answer, so the "game" always ended with the program spiraling off into an unbreakable infinite loop printing out "WRONG! HAHAHAHAH!!!" over and over. And as side-splittingly hilarious as that turned out to be, my "Celcius to Centrigrade" converter was an even bigger hoot
The following year (1976-ish) I was introduced to a mind blowingly amazing new computer system called MERITSS (the Minnesota Educational Research and Instruction Time Sharing System). The MERITSS system (a CDC 6400 administered by MECC for the University of Minnesota and some of the outstate colleges) offered a much more diverse array of programming languages (Fortran, LISP, Snobol, Cobol, Pascal, Algol, COMPASS, etc). And more importantly, it allowed its users to actually interact with one another. This was accomplished through messaging programs (the first email and discussion group software), a communications program called X,TALK (the first chat room), and multiuser games. This all served to create a real community which was, of course, completely overrun by illegal users (myself included). MERITSS was supposedly reserved for 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 usernumbers and passwords, we dumpster dived for them, we rummaged through punch card bins, whatever it took. And once we had them, we traded them around like so many baseball cards (to the endless consternation of the system administrators I'm sure).
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 a first generation copy of Jim Logajan's classic "COMBAT" game. COMBAT was a tactical space battle simulation wherein up to nine players would attempt to hunt down and destroy each other's ships in a two-dimensional universe. The program was surprisingly short and elegantly simple, although it did employ some pretty sophisticated (at least to me) vector math for navigating the ships around.
Now, I can't state this with complete authority, but it seems pretty likely to me that the inspiration for COMBAT was a single user game called STARTRK that resided in the MERITSS game library. Originally written in Basic in the early 70's by Colonel W.F. Lubbert of West Point, STARTRK simulated a tactical space battle between the Enterprise and a couple of Klingon warships. And since COMBAT wound up sharing many similarities with STARTRK (vis'a'vis its terminology and basic look and feel), I think it's safe to say that Jim's "lightbulb over the head" moment came when he envisioned a STARTRK-style game where you actually played against other people instead of the program itself (a rather revolutionary concept at the time, to say the least).
Being the first game of its type (multiuser and interactive), COMBAT wound up being insanely popular on MERITSS. It also wound up being a bit of an annoyance as far as the system administrators were concerned, since the early versions of the game employed a ridiculously inefficient file-based data sharing scheme that would actually bring the system to its knees when all nine game ports were full.
One of my early attempts at a fantasy game involved trying to convert COMBAT from a tactical space battle game into a combination strategic and tactical fantasy war 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 "launch" their spells at their target. I never did get the game 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
At this point it should be noted just what a challenge computer programming used to be for us kids back in the mainframe days. Excluding the progeny of Univac programmers, none of us had access to our own private terminals and modems (waaaayyyy too expensive). So, if you wanted to get on a computer you had to head out the door and find a public terminal. And although the grade schools had them, their hours of availability were limited and you had to fight your way through a gauntlet of computer nerds just to get at one. Public libraries had them as well, but demand was such that you had to make a reservation days in advance (and generally speaking you only got 30 minutes of online time for any given reservation). The U of M had the most (and best) terminals, but getting down there meant a long Saturday bus ride. And of course once you did actually manage to find yourself a spot, there was the ever present danger of some overly zealous lab attendant coming along and kicking you off for failing to provide a student ID. The upshot of all that is that during any given week I'd be lucky to get four, maybe five hours of online time - and a good chunk of that time got burned up either typing in code or printing out hardcopy listings and paper tape backups of said code (and leave us not forget the de rigueur time spent playing games and chatting it up on X,TALK). Consequently, most of my actual "programming" wound up being done at home using pencil and paper
Anyway, after giving up on the FANTASY project I next turned my attention to a copy of the old Mayfield/Leedom public domain Super Star Trek game. SST was written in Basic and was actually a pretty cool game for its time. As pictured below, one of the game's signature features was its nifty character-based tactical display. Gameplay was pretty basic - move your ship around from quadrant to quadrant and blow up the bad guys. The game did, however, supply us with one of the all time great conundrums: How can damage control report that damage control is damaged??
I wound up taking things in a different direction by creating a file-based / empire-building version of the game (which I dubbed "STARWAR"). The basic goal in this "reimagining" of SST was to amass resources (by harvesting stars) and then use them to build ships and space stations and whatnot that other people would then have to deal with. For what it was, the game didn't turn out too bad and it did actually attract a bit of attention on MERITSS. However, at the end of the day it was still mostly somebody else's code.
My first original creation (at least from a coding standpoint) and first serious attempt at a 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 original (circa 1978) version was written in Fortran, although I eventually upped my game and rewrote it in Pascal (circa 1984). And props to MUG'er Paul (uh... can't remember his last name) for not only hosting the game on his MUG account, but for also contributing a super slick universe creation utility written in COMPASS assembly language (COMPASS programmers on MERITSS were generally regarded as rock stars, so getting "Paul" interested in my game was quite the endorsement). The basic rules and structure of the game were a total knock-off of Starweb (the classic play-by-mail game from Flying Buffalo), albeit tweaked to the extent that it could be played interactively and in real time on a computer. And 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 some years later.
And so went my teenage years - happily writing games and dodging the U of M computer cops (going by the supremely nerdy X,TALK 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. Consequently, I'd occasionally join forces with some of the other high school students who found illegally invading the university's computer facilities distasteful and thirsted for the stamp of legitimacy on their activities. Imbued with steely-eyed determination, we'd make the great trek to the high temple of educational computerdom in Lauderdale and supplicate for legitimized access - and amazingly enough, sometimes we'd even get it (IE, the grand mucky mucks at MECC would cut loose with a few low tier MERITSS accounts for us to divvy up amongst ourselves). 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), GAP (Group of Amateur Programmers) and PROGRES (I don't even remember what that one stood for). 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.
In the meantime, MECC had (circa 1977) started moving the grade 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 for the kids to use (called the "MECC Timesharing System", "MTS", or simply "MECC"). MTS was similar in most respects to MERITSS (both being CDC Kronos-based systems), however it never held much appeal for me. MERITSS was clearly the more sophisticated computing community, and so there I stayed.
MTS did have a nice run serving the grade schools, but in 1983 the good people over at Apple Computer sold MECC on the notion that the era of timeshare mainframes was over and convinced them to shut down MTS and go with (surprise, surprise) Apple II personal computers instead. Unfortunately, said switchover eliminated the communal aspect of the MECC system and created a huge vacuum in the high school 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" (run by Bob Alberti Jr, Bob Alberti Sr, Alan Klietz, and Gerry Leone). Cleverly capitalizing on the opportunity created by the demise of the MECC mainframe, GamBit was one of the first PC-based multiuser entertainment systems in the country (if not the first). Its primary attraction was a multiuser / interactive D&D-style adventure game called "The Scepter of Goth" (aka "Empire", "Milieu", or simply "Scepter"). Scepter actually had its origins on MECC (written by the aforementioned Alan Klietz circa 1979) and reportedly it was a sensation right from the start (although not being a MECC guy, I never actually played it there myself). Legend has it that Klietz was a fan of "ADVENT" (the old Colossal Cave mainframe adventure game of the mid-70s) and came up with the Scepter concept after being exposed to his first multiuser chat program. IE, ADVENT+X,TALK=FUN^2! And as amazing as the multiuser aspects of the game turned out to be, what really set Scepter apart from traditional adventure games like ADVENT was its open-endedness (basically being designed to go on and on forever ala an RPG). Suffice it to say, Scepter was hugely addictive, wholly innovative, and certainly one of the major progenitors of the entire "MUD" genre of computer gaming.
I don't recall how it was that I stumbled across 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 and reluctantly forced to quit). Details are somewhat sketchy as far as what happened after I left, but evidently one of GamBit's employees (Doug Bailey) wound up stealing their software and using it to set up a competing BBS (the name of which nobody seems to remember anymore). Unfortunately for GamBit, this new competition offered subscription rates far below what GamBit was charging and they wound up losing most of their customer base as a result. Apparently lacking any sort of legal recourse, the owners of GamBit decided to shut down their Twin Cities system and focus instead on the more lucrative venture of selling GamBit-style franchises nationally (in partnership with an ill-fated Virginia outfit called "Interplay", but that's another story). Ironically enough, Bailey's racket turned out to be a short-lived one (going belly up within the year), but as far as GamBit was concerned the damage had already been done.
Not long after the demise of Bailey's system, a similar BBS called "In Search Of" appeared in town (operated by one Jim Williams, aka "King"). The origins of the Scepter game offered up by ISO are unclear, but since it featured the Boldhome world created by GamBit's Bob Alberti, it's not a huge leap to connect the dots and suppose that ISO's software came from Bailey (either directly or indirectly). Of course, Williams' version of the story is that ISO was in fact a sanctioned GamBit franchise (the first), so it's anybody's guess what the actual truth might be (and at this point I don't suppose it much matters either way). Circa 1987, the Albertis decided to take one last stab at running a BBS in the Twin Cities and launched a short-lived system called "Metropolis" (possibly concurrent with King's system - I seem to recall there being a rivalry there). Unfortunately, local interest in Scepter had waned considerably by that point and both systems floundered rather badly. Perhaps people had decided that they didn't want to pay for Scepter anymore, or perhaps they didn't care for the way it was being DM'd on those systems. In any case, both were gone by the end of the 80's.
Around the same time that GamBit was getting started (1984-ish), a second group of former MECCies (Francis Keys, John Ryan and Brian Lundgren) launched a multiuser BBS called Ghostwheel. And as I understand it, the main goal there was to create a replica of the old MECC system (for example, one of its very first features was a clone of MECC's old X,TALK chat program). Now, how subsequent events unfolded isn't entirely clear, but I'm told that somewhere along the line Ryan and Lundgren got ahold of Klietz's original Multi-Pascal source code for Milieu (basically the final version that had run on MECC) and proceeded to port it to QNX/C for installation on Ghostwheel (a theft that Klietz was well aware of and not particularly happy about). Somewhat to his credit, Keys did run Ghostwheel as a basically non-commercial / public service venture, which may explain why Klietz didn't raise a bigger fuss about it. Given Ghostwheel's token annual access fee ($10), Keys clearly wasn't in it for the money.
I wasn't hugely plugged into the local BBS scene post-GamBit, so I didn't stumble across Keys' system until 1990 (around the time when the name was changed from "Ghostwheel" to "Wintermute"). And although I was initially quite excited to learn that Scepter was still alive and well in the Twin Cities, I soon lost interest when I discovered that the world they had built for the game was nothing like the Boldhome world that I'd come to know and love on GamBit. Rather, it was basically a copy of the "Square City" world that had been built for the original MECC version of the game (Milieu). And although that might've held some nostalgic appeal for the people who had actually played the game on MECC, I found it rather banal and juvenile.
At some point during the early 90's, Keys decided it was time to move on from Wintermute and deeded ownership of the system to Shawn "Starrelyte" Stanley (yet another former MECCie and, by strange coincidence, a current co-worker of mine). Shawn then served as its caretaker for the remainder of its existence. Meanwhile, Williams and his sketchy copy of Scepter turned up yet again in 1994 - this time on a new BBS called Cyber City. That operation was somewhat interesting insofar as it featured a GUI client app that people would download and use to access the system (all coded by one Brad McDowell). Despite the ambitious nature of the project, Cyber City never did find much traction in the Twin Cities and ultimately went the way of all things BBS when the internet blew up in '97. And as one might expect, Wintermute and its version of Scepter vanished right around the same time (although according to Shawn it may yet reemerge as - I kid you not - a smartphone app). But anyway, enough about Scepter. Suffice it to say, it had a major impact on me both as a game player and as a game designer (as we shall see shortly).
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 U of M, 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. Not all users were created equal and computer resources were allotted accordingly.
As legend would have 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 of computer vigilantes it once was and I was summarily granted membership when my "review committee" (after many pitchers of student union 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 who remembers where all the bodies are buried 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 write a Scepter-esque adventure game of my own and make it available to the general public from my MUG account. Now, thanks to COMBAT, multiuser games were frowned upon on MERITSS (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 waste valuable computer resources on such frivolities). So, the upshot there is that I had to keep a low profile and make a single-user game (with the main hook being that your character was saved to file after you left, thus becoming an ongoing thing). I came up with the name ("The Realm of Angmar") by randomly browsing through the name index at the back of "Return of The King" and grabbing the first thing that sounded cool and was less than eight letters (IE "Angmar").
I didn't set out to write an out-and-out clone of Scepter (being more interested in trying out all of the ideas I'd had to improve upon the original). Nevertheless, command-wise it did wind up sharing the same basic look and feel (as supplied by ADVENT). 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). Codewise, I opted for Pascal. And for a game that had been written primarily for my own personal entertainment, it turned out to be surprisingly popular amongst the MERITSS crowd. In fact, I remember early on 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 key to 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.
Elfhelm - Palace/Clan House/Etc - Wormlord I - Wormlord II - West of Elfhelm - Gray Mountains - Dragon's Run - Rowin Island - Dragon/Reaches/Bard's Islands - Findle/Corsin Islands - Poseidon Temple/Tree Trunk - Plains of Glass/Castle of Iron - Skelosian Temple
Somewhere in this era, me and my partners in crime (Greg Noel and the aforementioned Jim Logajan) half-jokingly formed the "MERITSS Underground Information Network" (aka "Muinet", which we tortuously pronounced MOY-NET). Muinet was supposedly the nefarious arch-enemy of the goody-goodies over at "Coinnet" (Common Information Network - pronounced COY-NET), an exclusive club of privileged eggheads who were basically the mystery-shrouded high priests of the University's computer facilities and whom we generally despised and resented. Of course, Muinet was a mostly imaginary entity and we never did pull off anything even remotely nefarious, but it was a fun little goof nonetheless. Later on (during my Muinet BBS days), I repurposed the name to stand for "Multi-User INteractive EnTertainment" (which, you have to admit, is quite the achievement in pretzel-twisting). 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 linchpin). With a GamBit-style system as the jumping off point, we sat down and brainstormed dozens of pie-in-the-sky ideas for improving upon the original GamBit model (ideas which would've taken the entirety of Microsoft several years to implement, mind you). Thoroughly impressed by our own brilliance, we then somehow managed to scare up an investor and con him into buying an Altos (an early Unix PC) for us. With said fancy computer in hand, I then (allegedly) set out to port Angmar to Unix. Now, calling this venture 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 (a Rogue variant that had come preinstalled on the computer). Hack was also popular with the other guys, and with the end result being 0% productivity. Not surprisingly, it didn't take long for our investor to figure out that we were totally clueless, at which point he 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 (Jerry Larson, head of security at 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 (corrupting the MERITSS community with all my annoying games ) 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 Jerry Larson, 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 6502 family of computers (Apple II, Commodore 64 and Atari 400/800) 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 nigh endless series of $5 "Load'N'Go" programs for these computers, the sad fact is that a lot of it was disposable crap (allegedly "public domain" software sketchily acquired by management, quickly 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 in prodigious quantities at massive retailers like Target (et al) and the company made a ton of money (well, at $7/hour I didn't personally, but the president of the company rode 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 dumbed it down (IE, 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 and limo rides were cruelly dashed when slow sales forced the whole project to be scuttled shortly after its initial release. For my efforts, I received a 69 cent royalty check (which I still have hanging on the wall, because who cashes 69 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 RPG's like Angmar (where there is no overarching goal beyond simply becoming more powerful than everyone else) 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 actually wind up with a small-but-ardent fan base (guys who appreciated my tongue-in-cheek writing style and the game's RPG-esque design). And who knows? Perhaps if I'd spent some time adding an obvious and winnable end-game scenario to the adventure I might have had something. Unfortunately, I wasn't nearly experienced enough as a game designer to recognize any of that and so ultimately it became a missed opportunity.
(The drawing of the blonde warrior with the Fu Manchu was based on a guy who worked in our warehouse - dude was nuts)
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 a multiuser BBS on my own. At that time (1989) I was fairly heavily involved in comic book collecting. 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 various 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 scary undertaking. Oh heck no, it's more 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, no, 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 a twenty-something 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-user mainframe game into a multi-user Unix 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 put up flyers at various sci-fi/fantasy book stores and 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.
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 to use whatever the hell I wanted). 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 one-way wormholes and that's about it).
Meanwhile, came June and I decided that I was ready 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 month's rent 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!
Aye, 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 was enjoying the technical aspects of it all, I also felt like a little more income would be nice if I was going to have to 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 a rental duplex in Minneapolis (which seemed a bit tenuous, what with all the money I was investing in phone lines). So, in January of '91 my soon-to-be-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 dashes of SST, COMBAT, Starweb and Traveller). 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. And I guess at any given time I probably had around thirty regular/active users (and then an equal number of people who would drop in unpredictably, sign up for a month or two, and then vanish back into the ether from whence they came). What I do remember is that the monthly income never really amounted to much (IE, enough to pay for the phone lines, maybe a couple cases of beer, 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 to making a real living running a BBS. And looking back now, I think I can pinpoint pretty much all of the mistakes (or failures of vision) that led to my eventual demise as a "professional sysop". 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 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 duh) - size sells. At their core, entertainment BBS's were simply communities of gamers; and the bigger the community, the more likely it was to attract more people. I mean, if you were looking for fellow gamers to socialize with, were you going to go to some empty BBS and sit there and wait for other people to show up? No, you were going to look around until you found 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, doy, 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.
All that said, what ultimately killed me was the fact that I simply wasn't interested in performing the kinds of "hands on" sysop duties that would have attracted and kept subscribers. As noted above, BBS's were communities; places where the young, the lonely, the weird, and the socially awkward could get together with other like-minded individuals and socialize. And as the overlord of said community, you needed to be willing to devote a large chunk of your time to actively presiding over the festivities (holding people's hands and showing them the ropes, mediating conflicts, orchestrating special events in the games, keeping the ice cube trays filled, etc). Additionally, you were expected to organize frequent "real world" get-togethers so that your subscribers could crawl out of their basements and meet their online pals in a safe social setting (a chore I always dreaded). Basically, the sysop of this kind of system was throwing a big party, and as the host you (or a designated assistant) needed to be present and active 24-7. Unfortunately, I was (and am) a huge control-freak, so any attempts at bringing on assistants never really worked out. And as far taking on all those extracirricular duties myself? Ugh, no thanks. I was strictly a programmer and a game player and had zero interest in any of that other stuff. So, really, I was pretty much doomed from the beginning.
Having come to the conclusion that I simply wasn't cut out to make my living as a sysop, I decided to instead look into seeing if I couldn't make some money marketing my BBS software. The problem there was that although I had indeed constructed a fairly sophisticated and robust suite of multi-user BBS software, I just didn't see myself making any money trying to sell it in the Xenix world. I mean, when Joe 1994 Guy was deciding what kind of BBS package to purchase, something that ran on a complicated (and expensive) Unix operating system wasn't even going to be on his radar. So, rather than waste any more time trying to reinvent the wheel, I decided to take a closer look at what was already out there and then see if I couldn't figure out a way to leverage that instead.
At that time there were basically two really popular multiuser BBS packages 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 response - from Adept Communications out of Louisville. Adept was strictly a reseller and we basically arrived at an agreement whereby I would write a MajorBBS "door game" 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 whiplash 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 requisite 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 don't remember what all that cost, but it must've put some big time hurt on at least a couple credit cards. 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 design 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 late '94 I had a beta version that I was ready to go live with.
Prior to the launch, 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.... well, the best we could come up with was "Swords of Chaos". OK, 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.
With the whole renaming thing sorted out, I went ahead and ordered up some phone lines (I think six to start with) and then got my MajorBBS all configured and ready to go. One of the very specific relaunch memories I still have is plugging the phone lines back into the jacks 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.
With the BBS finally relaunched, I found myself in need of as many warm bodies as possible, So, I once again 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 visit 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 buck licenses right away. Hell, some even ordered multiple licenses so they could run differently configured versions of the game. I tell ya, it was all "beyond my wildest dreams" type stuff. And although I couldn't tell you the exact number on that first month's royalty check from Adept, I do remember that it paid off all my student loans - 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 requested that Adept tone it down a bit. Consequently, the ad that eventually ran had the Huntress clad in a scalemail getup that looked like something you might've found on a beach in the 1940's. Oh 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 a surprisingly liberating experience
The way money was pouring in, I had no problem adding more phone lines. I forget the exact timeline and numbers, but generally speaking I was able to run a stack of 14 modems throughout the majority of this MajorBBS era. I no longer cared about paying for the lines via subscriber monies, so I simply based pricing on how busy the system was. 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). With the genie thusly out of the bottle. things would inevitably start to get too chaotic (or the modems would be full to the point that my regulars had a hard time getting on), and so I'd once again go 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. Basically, 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 that I didn't need any of them and so could run a really tight ship. And I tell you, when caller-id came along in '95 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.
Later in '95, I noticed that a lot of the guys were trying to use my MajorBBS chat program to play games of Magic: The Gathering online (a relatively new and insanely popular CCG at that time). Suffice it to say, trying to play Magic using MajorBBS's relatively stodgy teleconference utility turned out to be a very clumsy undertaking and after much pestering they eventually talked me into writing them a custom chat app that provided an online deck builder and built-in commands for playing Magic. The program didn't really need to know much about the inner workings of the game itself, so it was all 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 went on to become a decent seller in my catalog.
SoC sales slowed down a little bit after the initial explosion, but still remained strong and steady throughout 1995. By the summer of that year I had paid off all of my (and my wife's) old credit card debts, student loans, car loans and everything else. 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 multiuser "run around and raise hell on the internet" cyberpunk hacker 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, Steve Jackson's Hacker, GURPS Cyberpunk and the Toy/Wichman version of Rogue). And if you ask me, LoC was/is quite simply the best and most original 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 enemy programs chase you around the 'net were a thing of beauty. Trouble is, it totally tanked. When I released it in the summer of 1996 it sold maybe a half dozen copies to some of the bigger systems (who pretty much bought any new software) and then sank like a stone. 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 - or so I've been told). Making matters worse, the writing was pretty much on the wall for the old school dial-up BBS 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 sweet freelancing gig that allowed me to continue working from home). After that, I managed to squeeze another year out of my software business (improving and growing Swords and Lords all the while), but by the end of '97 sales had slowed to a trickle. And slow sales aside, the eight hard charging years had left me more than a little burned out on the whole BBS thing. So, in November of '97 I decided it was time to pull the plug on the whole operation - I shut down my BBS and sold the MajorBBS rights to all of my games 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, although I can't imagine who in their right mind would be buying them).
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've added up to some serious walking around 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 killed the BBS), 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, I'm not too modest to admit, has proven to be far more financially rewarding than selling DOS-based BBS software ever could've been). 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:
Back in 2006, an organization called The MajorBBS Restoration Project was founded to preserve the history of MajorBBS/Worldgroup and maintain it as a viable software platform. They currently own the rights to all of Galacticomm's old software and are endeavoring to drag it kicking and screaming into the 21st century via their "Phoenix Project" (with the goal being, I guess, to make it available to those who are still interesting in old BBS software) - The Major BBS
For a while (up until about 2010) I was corresponding with some of my old Muinet BBS subscribers on bbsmates.com. Unfortunately, that site seems to have gone rather silent in recent years. S'matter guys? Did you all grow up and get lives or something??
Back in 2010, some kind soul (with way too much time on his hands) put together a package that makes it possible to play Angbar / Elfhelm's Bane using an Apple II emulator. And amazingly enough, it still works - Elfhelm's Bane Shrine
SoC ran for quite a while during the post-BBS era on something called "Sea Breeze Gaming Network". SBGN gave up the ghost back in 2015, but at least as of this 2020 writing seems to have returned from the dead (and with more old games than you can shake at stick at) - www.seabreezegn.com
I don't know if it's a hacked version of the old MBBS module or something cooked up using the original source code (which I've been known to hand out on occasion), but in 2015 some guy ("NExace") launched a web version of SoC here - soc4ever.com
In 2020, The MajorBBS Emulation Project released a MajorBBS/Worldgroup emulator that makes it possible to run old MBBS modules (including SoC and LoC) on modern computers. I haven't tried it myself, but if you're feeling lucky, here it is - MBBSEMU
As of 2020, some guy ("Cupcake") is running a web version of LoC on Glitch. From what I've read, it's some sort of port of the original MBBS source code (which, once again, I've been known to hand out every now and again). It's pretty buggy though, so be prepared for some frustration.
And now the really big news (insert drum roll) -
I spent some time during the summer of 2019 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 lot of time working on back-migrating SoC and LoC to Unix (as God intended it) and writing a better and more user friendly version of GC. I've also been kicking around some interesting ideas for adding actual "endgame" functionality to Swords of Angmar (IE, making it so that you can actually win the game instead of just hacking and slashing away forever with no real goal). And being a total glutton for punishment, I've also been working on restoring some of my personal non-Muinet favorites (Combat, Scepter, etc) to modern day playability . So yeah, basically it's turned into a full-on "Museum O' Ancient Games" project (with yours truly as its humble curator).
As of this writing (May, 2021) I have beta versions of LoC, SoC and GC up and running for testing. Scepter, Combat, Super Star Trek, Rogue and Advent are available as well. The system runs on the WSL (Windows Subsystem for Linux) partition of my Windows 10 computer and outside access is provided courtesy of an ssh server (one hella lot easier than setting up modems, that's for sure). Do feel free to fire up your favorite terminal app and stop on by for a stroll down memory lane -
Send email to the spooks!