The Story Behind Swords of Chaos
The Strange Saga of The Realm of Angmar, Elfhelm's Bane, Swords of Chaos, Lords of Cyberspace, Galactic Conquest & The Muinet Entertainment BBS
by Mark Peterson
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 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. Our school district owned 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. TIES (as the system was called) provided such early gaming staples as BAGELS, CIVIL, TREK, and the like (if you were in school in the 70s there's no way you didn't run into these ubiquities). After a few months 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. I kind of feel sorry for kids today because 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 (and given the money involved, I doubt it is), 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. Soon I was writing my own games. 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 cyber 6400 mainframe at the University of Minnesota. What differentiated MERITSS from TIES was that you could actually interact with the other users. This was mainly accomplished through message programs (the first email and discussion groups), a communications program called xtalk (the first chat room), and multi-user 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 had 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 got 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). I eventually bought myself a Fortran manual and dived in headfirst. I remember spending a lot of time playing around with an old copy Jim Logajan's classic "COMBAT" game. In COMBAT, you piloted a space ship around a two-dimensional universe trying to blow up other players' ships with missiles and lasers. The game itself was elegantly simple, but it did employ some pretty sophisticated math to handle rotating your ship around, firing the engines to accelerate and decelerate, and to calculate firing azimuths and bearings. 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). It was beyond lame. You had these wizards that you had to rotate around to face their enemies before they would "fire" their spells at a target. I never did get it to work, or even really finish it. 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, an (ahem) "reimagining" of the classic game of "TREK" (or was it STRTRK? I forget) TREK was a pretty cool game for its time, complete with a nifty character-based tactical display. Your starship was "<*>", the Klingons were "+++" 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, my version was a file-based multiuser empire-building version of the game where you went around amassing resources and then building your own ships and space stations and what not that other people would then have to deal with. It was marginally amusing, but again, mostly plagiarized. 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 game was a total knock-off of Starweb, the classic play-by-mail game from Flying Buffalo. Starwar was actually quite popular for a number of years, and later on it would serve as the backbone for a Muinet version, "Galactic Conquest".
And so I spent my teens and early 20s, happily writing games and dodging the U of M computer cops (going by the supremely nerdy handle of "Elfstone"). Occasionally I'd involve myself with one of those groups formed by high school students who found hacking the university computers distasteful and thirsted for the stamp of legitimacy on their activities. They'd go, hats in hand, to the high temples of educational computerdom and supplicate for access, and occasionally they'd even get it. 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). Some time in the late 1970s, Minnesota high schools did finally upgrade (for a brief time) from the old HP computers to a multi-user Univac system (an 1100, I believe) that no one really used, and finally to their own CDC cyber time-share system (called MECC), but it never held much appeal for me. MERITSS was clearly the more sophisticated computing community, and there I stayed. MECC went away some time in the early 80s, and to this day I'm not entirely sure why. I don't know if it was a funding thing, or if they upgraded to new technology, or if they just got tired of all the hell-raising. Whatever the reason, it created a huge vacuum in the local computer nerd community, a vacuum that was about to filled by the emergence of the BBS.
By 1984 I was still playing around with Starwar on MERITSS and also subscribed to a local pay-for-access BBS system called "GamBit", run by Alan Kleitz, Bob Alberti Jr, Bob Alberti Sr (now deceased), and one other who's name escapes me. It was one of the first PC-based multi-user systems in the country and cleverly capitalized on the opportunity created by the demise of MECC. The primary attraction of GamBit was a multi-player, interactive, text-based D&D style game called "The Scepter of Goth" (or simply "Scepter"), which actually had its origins on MECC (written by the aforementioned Kleitz). Scepter, along with I suppose everything we call a "MUD" nowaways, ultimately had its origins in "ADVENT" (aka "Adventure"), the old Colossal Cave mainframe game of the early 70s, but I digress. I never actually played Scepter (aka Milieu) on MECC, and can'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 as I recall GamBit went national for a brief period of time via franchises. The local franchise, now called "In Search Of", was run by one Jim Williams (aka "King") who quickly ran it into the ground. Circa 1987 the Albertis regained control of a local franchise and briefly tried to bring it back to life (possibly concurrent with King's system, I seem to recall there being a rivalry there, but who can trust memory after all these years) , but by then nobody really cared. 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 multi-user 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 that time I was still one of those annoying computer lab vultures hanging around at the University of Minnesota, this time with semi-legitimate access to MERITSS. By semi-ligit, I mean that I had somehow managed to gain membership in the once elite UCC (University Computer Center) group known as "MUG" (MERITSS Users Group). MUG provided special free computer access to students (or even non-students) who demonstrated some special computing aptitude (however nebulous). I know, it sounds insane, but that's the way it used to be 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 computer 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 again I digress. Sadly, by the time I got involved, MUG wasn't the elitist clique it once was and I was summarily granted membership when my "review committee" 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.
Anyway, I couldn't afford to play Scepter anymore, so I decided to 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. Multi-user games were frowned upon on MERITSS, so mine had to be single user. 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, so I had to keep a low profile. I cobbled together a gaming system based on whatever RPGs my friends and I were into at the time and wrote the thing in Pascal. It turned out to be quite popular. 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. Somewhere in this era, myself and a couple of my cronies 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 myself and a couple of friends decided to take a whack at launching our own for-profit BBS, using Angmar as its lynch pin. We brainstormed dozens of pie-in-the-sky ideas and somehow conned an investor into acutally buying an Altos computer for us (an early Unix PC). We kept the computer in my apartment and I allegedly set out to port Angmar to Unix. 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. As I recall, the whole thing crashed and burned after just a couple of months when our investor finally figured out that we were totally clueless and took our toys away (which, admittedly, cut into our Hack playing and not much else). 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) and started work for a local software company 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 were looking for any kind of easy-to-use software to justify the money they'd blown on their seemingly useless hardware. We cranked out a line of cheap software for sale at massive retailers like Target and made a ton of money (well, I didn't, but the president of the company drove around in a limo, so somebody must have). For one of my projects, I ported Angmar over to the Apple II in 6502 assembly language (renamed "Angbar" to stave off the ravening hordes of Tolkien Enterprises and appease the ten cent lawyer we kept on staff). I forget how many different releases there were, but I do recall that one of them was called "Elfhelm's Bane". I think at one point I received a 15 cent royalty check for my efforts (which I still have someplace).
By 1989, PC technology had finally arrived at the point where I thought I could tackle creating my own multi-user BBS. At that time 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 I sold the comic book collection and somehow scraped enough money together to buy a Tandy computer, some multi-port serial hardware, a stack of modems, some dumb terminals, several miles of RS-232 cable, and a copy of the Xenix operating system. I set about learning Unix and started work on writing a multi-user version of Angmar in C.
I would of course be remiss if I didn't mention at this point that it was Greg Noel, world-reknowned dude, who basically spoon-fed me all things Unix. I probably could have done it without him, but it would have taken several hundred years longer.
So, get this, I kept a journal of my experiences during the creation of what would eventually become the Muinet BBS. And here they are (wiseguy comments as I type this in are embedded in brackets ):
11/18/89 - I decide to get out of the MCBA due to growing dissatisfaction with other members of the group. Also, I am restless to get on with other interests. Comics have begun to get tiresome and dealing with comic retailers is getting to be unbelievably tiresome. I elect to pursue my dream of a multi-user BBS featuring Angmar.
11/19/89 - I decide to purchase an Olivetti PC through the employee purchase program at ISC. Discussions with Greg yield the fact that the M300 PC would fill my needs nicely and is relatively inexpensive. Greg informs me that Xenix is the way to go. I must check out how one orders Xenix for these Olivetti systems since it is not listed as an option in the memo from finance.
11/20/89 - In calling around I am informed that Xenix costs $700. I decide that I can buy the computer through work and get Xenix, modems, and a terminal on my own. This will probably require me to sell some comics.
11/22/89 - I turn in all of my MCBA materials, much to the chagrin of Paul [MCBA president]. I don't think he believed I was actually quitting.
12/03/89 - I speak to Andrew Paddock in Shelton [the headquarters for ISC-Bunker Ramo, where I worked at the time]. He informs me that Xenix is not available through the employee purchase program as they do not have customers who use it. I get the number for SCO, the firm that puts out Xenix. They give me the number of the local Xenix vendor (Wahl & Wahl). They confirm what I have already found out, namely, Xenix is $695. He says he will send out some information.
12/04/89 - I decide to sell some of my comics, but how? Mail order is too slow and unpredictable [god, where was eBay when you needed it?]. I decide to try to consign some of my stuff through Comic College [local comic book store]. I put together a list of my most valuable comics and bring it down to the College. They are interested.
12/05/89 - I bring down a box of my most valuable comics including a list of what I think they're worth (retail). Chris selects about 60 of them but is not happy with my grading. I tell him to grade and price them any way he wants. I will take 75%. He says they will be on display by the weekend.
12/11/89 - I place my order for the M300, a monitor and a keyboard ($2783 to be deducted from my paychecks over two years, no interest) [My god, it's hard to believe how expensive computers were back then]
12/12/89 - I receive the literature on Xenix. Much to my dismay it sounds like the development system is not part of the standard Xenix operating system package. Andre at Wahl & Wahl confirms this. The development system is an extra $795! He faxes me some info on the development system. In the mean time, I call AT&T and discover that although the prices for a Unix operating and development system are roughly the same as Xenix, if you buy both you get them for $995. Andre says both the Xenix operating and development systems together will cost me $1295. This is distressing indeed!
12/13/89 - I have sold $250 worth of comics, but am not happy with a lot of their prices. I pull those books that I deem too underpriced.
12/15/89 - Discussing this latest setback with Greg, he mentions that one can pick up used Unix systems (such as an Altos) usually for under $1000 for the entire system (with a Unix development system already installed!) Although I'm usually skeptical about Greg and his shadowy sources (the infamous Joe Mann, to name one) this sounds too good to ignore. I have yet to feel comfortable with the notion of having $60 taken out of each and every check for two years to pay for a $3000 computer system and still have to sell a bunch of comics to pay for still more hardware and software [Wow, $60 a month?? Hard to remember when that was a lot of money]
12/89/89 - Eureka! The Sunday Tribune yields an ad for a "386-16 Network, 40 MB HD, mono monitor, 4 MB RAM, 287 co-processor, Arnet 6 serial port board, SCO Xenix 2.2, 2 Wyse Terminals, and a 300 CPS printer, $2650." This is too incredible, it's exactly what I'm looking for. I call the number in the ad and get an answering machine. I cannot reach Greg to tell him. I decide that I need to sell my entire comic collection - fast! I call Metropolis Comics [New York] and like what he has to say. I pull my remaining comics from the College.
12/19/89 - I call Asset Recovery to inquire about the system. It is still available (thank goodness!). I ask a few questions and tell him that I will be over later in the day to look at it (and probably put some money down). I tell Vernone [my manager at ISC] to cancel my PC order. I am nervous about this. I hope it's not too late. Greg and I look at the system. Once again the old devsys bugaboo strikes. The system is perfect in every respect, but no development system!! I call Wahl & Wahl. They say I can get the devsys for $695. To upgrade the Xenix to the latest version is $275. I call Radio Shack, this hardware and software new would cost $7800! I send $6000 worth of comics (essentially my whole collection, value-wise) UPS Next Day Air to Metropolis Comics. I am extremely nervous about this as I have no idea how much money this guy will offer. I hope for $4000, but have nightmares about a $2000 offer. I have put $100 down on the system to hold it for me.
12/20/89 - After continuous trying, I reach Metropolis. He received my books safely. He says it will take a few days to grade them. I am told to expect a response Saturday at the latest (it is Wednesday). I am on pins and needles.
12/23/89 - Metropolis calls when I am out - he is not done grading them and can leave no further info. He is going out of town (aargh!)
12/24/89 - I am sick with the flu over Christmas. What fun! I think very little about the system.
12/26/89 - I reach Metropolis in the morning. His offer is wonderful! $3775! I ask for him to mail me a cashier's check next day air. He says he will do so, but tomorrow (aargh!)
12/27/89 - I call Asset Recovery and tell them to box up the system, I will be in tomorrow to pick it up.
12/28/89 - The check does not arrive in the mail. I call Metropolis after waiting impatiently all day. He apologizes, "I just mailed it this morning." Later that night he calls me and tells me that it's possible the money will not arrive until Saturday as Minneapolis is not guaranteed for next day mail (aargh!) I make arrangements to have Kathy [my GF at the time, now my wife] write a check if the Metropolis check does not arrive tomorrow. I trade in some useless Share Data hardware (monitor, disk drive, driver controller card) for a US Robotics modem at Computer Rennsaissance.
12/29/89 - Andre calls and asks if I've gotten the system yet, as he needs the serial number off one of the Xenix disks to order the development system. Aargh! I thought he only needed that for the upgrade. This is becoming incredibly frustrating. When this is all over and I've got the system in hand there should be a great weight lifted from my shoulders!
[well, apparently everything worked out as we skip forward a couple of months]
02/14/90 - Have been working on Angmar for about 6 weeks now. It is coming along very nicely, but there is still so much to do. It is an incredible undertaking. Just tested having people call in and it worked perfectly. I was very excited. Greg is teaching me tons about Xenix and C, and my knowledge of the two should be very marketable eventually [and so it was, I get paid six figures to program in QNX/C these days - thanks Greg, wherever you are!]. I hope to have a working beta version of Angmar up within about three weeks. Kathy and I will be moving April 1st, so hopefully I will be able to put up Angmar for public testing with multiple phone lines shortly after we get settled in. I wrote off the expense of the computer and software on my 1989 taxes (thank heaven I got the computer on the last Friday of the year!) and saved myself lots of money. Instead of having to pay about $800 in taxes, I will be getting a $755 refund! Amazing... I have written a letter to Tolkien Enterprises asking for permission to use their material as the basis for the world in Angmar. It has been almost three weeks since I sent the letter and I am beginning to doubt if they will ever get back to me. At first I was very excited about the idea of using Middle Earth and was convinced that it would make my game a huge hit. Now I am somewhat less enthusiastic. I have more or less resigned myself to the fact that I will have to create my own world. It doesn't seem like such a bad situation [god, how naive can you get? Like the Tolkien monolith would get involved with an insignificant flyspeck like me - but, such was my optomism].
03/01/90 - Work on Angmar continues apace. I've been experiencing signs of burnout recently as I've started putting over 40 hours a week in on Angmar since my last entry [and working full time?? ah to be 28 again!] I am starting to slow down a bit, but I am very close to being finished. All that remains to be done is half a page of small items. The real time-consumer will be typing in all of the data. Yuck! I hope I wake up some Saturday morning in the mood to type. Actually, I have been in that mood a few times, but have resisted the urge as the data structures were bound to change (they did, and they will probably do so again before I finish). Kathy and I put money down on a wonderful duplex near 50th and France [Minneapolis]. It has a finished basement which will undoubtedly become the home of my computer. I heard from Jim Burkhardt yesterday, my royalties so far on Rotisserie Football and Baseball [some freelance Apple II programming I'd done for Jim, an old Share Data cronie] amount to nearly $450. I was very pleased to hear that. I should be able to comfortably afford three, and maybe four metered phone lines at the rate of only $12.50/line/month. The initial installation will probably cost around $100, but money is not a problem for me right now, even with the increased rent (current=$487, new=$600+utils). In Search Of has vanished with no notification as to why. I got King's telephone number and address from Tom yesterday, and soon I will attempt to contact this character to find out what's the deal. If Scepter has met its demise I feel like it's both good and bad. Good because of less competition and bad because I won't have access to his customers. Oh well, I've got a lot of great marketing ideas, so I suppose it's no big deal. Turns out that there is yet another system around whose rates are nearly dead-on with my proposed rates. "Tropus", as it is called, features a fairly competent (though to me, uninteresting) looking space game, as well as some other features. I plan on making contact with the guy who runs it and pick his brain. That's about it for now, I hope to have Angmar ready for testing within two to three weeks.
03/13/90 - Well, development has definitely slowed down on Angmar. I have a short list of things to complete but it seems that every time I knock something off, two more things get added. If I could put in one of those 50 hour weeks like I was putting in in January and February I'd be done, but frankly I just can't raise the energy. I was sick with flu-like symptoms last week and I'm pretty sure the reason I got sick was from stress and fatigue. Actually, I got quite a lot done yesterday and in recent days, but nowhere near the pace I was making before. I'm really itching to get into testing. The couple of times I've spent a lot of time in the game, and not buried in the code, I really started to get excited again. It's under three weeks before the big move, and I still hope to be done by then. I had a rather intriguing thought last week. Angmar could conceivably be my gateway to vast wealth [uh, Earth to Mark...]. If I can come up with a way to market it, I could sell Angmar as a high-end software package with a list price of say $500-$1000 [hello? Mark?? snap out of it!]. If I sell a couple thousand of the guys I'm a millionaire [you'd have been better off investing in Microsoft stock, pal]. It seems a trifle far-fetched [no! get out!], but I have too much faith in my abilities to cast aside the ambition [you go, guy]. Stay tuned on this one [no need, I know how the story ends, you don't get rich selling Angmar]. I got a letter back from Jim Williams (In Search Of). He has taken down his system for the foreseeable future to work on a new, super-scepter game. He has some rather outlandish ideas which amount to practically turning scepter into a Nintendo game! If he ever finishes it (and I have my doubts) it certainly won't be before the end of the year. Looks like I'll have the niche pretty much to myself. I also communicated with the Tropus guy (Dave Petersen) for a while. He seems nice enough, although he did seem a tad scatterbrained [god, I hope none of these people Google up this website and get mad at me for posting this stuff]. For some reason I expect someone who runs a multiuser computer system to exhibit some intelligence. This guy rambled on barely coherently and I have my doubts about him to be sure [well, he was running MajorBBS, so what do you expect?] I am more and more convinced that if I can get this thing off the ground I should be able to make some money [BUZZ! sorry dude, among your many mistakes, you didn't see the internet coming] I don't anticipate making a lot of money through the timesharing end of things, but hopefully enough to pay for the phone lines, with a little left over for "mad" money [oddly enough, that's ultimately what I achieved. Amazing how one's expectations morph over time]
03/15/90 - Got a lot done over the last couple of days. My list is down to a very few items, none of which should prevent me from getting testing rolling with [my lifelong pals] Tom [Juntunen] and Dean [Kopesky]. The three of us plan to get together tomorrow night for serious testing. I think that by the time we move I should have a very solid game ready, assuming of course that I get all of the rooms/monsters/items typed in and straightened out. It will be extremely nice to have this thing up and running so I can mellow out and do coding at my own leisure, rather than feeling compelled to spend every free second banging out code. I am looking forward to writing Starwar [did] as well as versions of Warrior Knights [didn't] and Supremacy [didn't]. Should be a gas! One unfortunate thing about this house we're moving to; we only have a year lease. And since the house is going up for sale, we might have to move again next year. I certainly hope not! Who knows, we might just buy the thing ourselves if we really like it [we didn't]. The time is soon coming where Kathy and I will be get married [we did] (although I'm still not ready for children) [that all changed soon enough], and we will want to buy a house and stop dumping money into rent. I just hope I can get all of my bloody finances in order so that I can finally start putting some money in the bank. I am very tired of living from one check to the next and owing thousands of dollars all over the place [hang in there dude, it gets better].
03/19/90 - Wow, what a difference a weekend makes! Tom, Dean and myself spent Friday night testing, and on Sunday Dean and I spent about 8 more hours testing. There were lots of bugs and crashes Friday night, but by the end of Sunday things were looking very solid indeed. I am amazed (but not too terribly surprised) at the lack of major bugs. My method of writing and testing programs one small piece at a time seems to be paying dividends. Codewise, the program is essentially finished except for some tweaking and polishing. A couple of weeks of testing should yield a very solid end-product. The only really large task left is to finish typing in the rest of the rooms and monsters (I got all of the items in on Saturday) and adjust their distribution so that things are neither too easy or too difficult. I should be able to accomplish all of this by the time we move (two weeks hence). So, what next? I need to write the help file and type it in for on-line reference. Then I need to get all my maps and data lists in order and put together a booklet on the Mac - using the same sort of high-tech approach that I championed for the MCBA con program booklet. It's going to be incredibly slick and I hope to charge at least $10 (and likely closer to $20) for it [uh, no, this never happened]. Then I need to get myself two (or possibly three) more modems. I don't want to have to spend more than about $150-$200 on them. Then I need to have the three (or four) phone lines installed. This will probably cost another $100-$200. So, I suppose worst case would be $400 to get this up and running for multiple user access. How long will it take me to raise the dough? Difficult to say. Probably not too long if I blow my budget all out of whack, or if (since the baseball strike was just settled) I get another check from Jim for royalties. In any event, if all goes well I should be rolling along full bore by May 1st. It's just simply amazing to sit here and watch one of my biggest fantasies (multi-user BBS with Angmar) coming to fruition before my very eyes - and no wishing, just work. Now, wouldn't it be sweet if I actually make some money off it? Whew!
04/02/90 - Well, we just moved into the new house this past weekend and we absolutely love it! It's like the place was made for us. I have taken over the finished half of the basement with my computer stuff. Haven't accomplished much with Angmar over the past week, being too occupied with moving. I did manage to find a great deal on modems. I picked up a 2400 baud external and two 1200 baud internal modems for $235 total. I now need to save up another $230 or so to pay for having the four phone lines installed. I'll just have to start saving my money and get them in as soon as I have enough to pay for them. Work resumes tonight on getting the monsters distributed more logically (as well as the items they carry). This work should keep me plenty busy while I'm getting the phone money together. I also need to test the internal modems to make sure they are going to work as expected. If they do, it will be great because I can leave my two terminals hooked up and still have the four incoming phone lines. It will be feasible to have 9 ports logged on to Angmar at the same time! Two terminals, three ports on the console and the four incoming lines. It should also give me a good idea of how things run with that many people on so if I ever decide to up to 8 phone lines I'll know what the performance is going to be like. I've decided to punt The Temple of the Wormlord finally [an area designed by my friend Tom]. I'll leave it at maybe 10 or so rooms (which is about how many rooms are actually in there if you eliminate all the repetition). The program itself looks very solid right now. I doubt that it's totally bug-free, but it looks real close. I can't really say when I'm going to be up since I can't gauge how long it's going to take me to save the phone expense money. However, if I stick with it, the data should be in order within 2-3 weeks (yes, the old infamous 2-3 weeks, hahaha). Jim Newkirk [another old friend] got on the program briefly last weekend (Dean was at his house to help him), he played for a little while. I couldn't tell if he liked it or not. It should be fun when Tom, Dean, Jim and maybe Loren [another old friend] can all call in and play together. My favorite part of the downstairs is the speakers I hooked up so I can listen to the stereo without disturbing Kathy upstairs. The atmosphere is much more conducive to fun work than it was when I was crammed into that little bedroom at our old apartment. This should be a blast!
04/05/90 - Had a hell of a time getting my modems situated. I discovered that I can't have two internal modems as I couldn't figure out a way to run the second one on COM4. I returned one of the internals for another internal that I could set to COM4 (the first one is on COM2, and I moved the Arnet card to COM3). I never did figure out a way to run a modem off of COM4 as I didn't know how to set the interrupts. It may not even be possible. Anyway, I returned the new internal for an external 1200 baud modem. The thing was a joke, couldn't dial out or answer calls on the thing so I returned it for another 2400 baud modem. Alltogether, the 2400 wound up costing me an additional $32 - not too bad, considering. Greg came over on Tuesday and saw the new house. He seemed to like it. We wound up doing testing on Angmar until 1:30 AM. Found some nice bugs too! I really need to get going on getting the data straightened out. Especially now since I've committed to having the phone lines installed on Saturday, April 21st. I want to be able to put the thing up immediately. The sooner I get people hooked, the sooner I can start gouging them for bucks! [yeesh, what a bloodthirsty capitalist I was] Talked to Jim today, apparently he's sold some more football disks. He asked me if I wanted to rewrite the IBM version of Football/Baseball [written by one of his other less competant contractors I guess]. I remained noncommittal as I don't really want to get back into that. He did have one good idea, though. He suggested I set up Baseball and Football on my BBS. That's actually not too bad an idea - I may consider it for the future [it didn't happen]. Anyway, the program is looking good, the modems are all set, and the phone lines are coming - I just need to sit down and put some serious work into getting all the data typed in and cleaned up, and away we go!
04/09/90 - Another productive weekend of beta-testing. On Friday night Tom, Dean and myself played for several hours. I also managed to get all the monsters/items/room descriptions for the Elfhelm area to a nicely consistant level. I may need to add a couple of rooms with level 4-7 type monsters to give middle level people something to do without leaving town. Found a really nice bug too - if all ports are full and everyone receives a message from the server the thing crashes. I just had to add an element to the qid array, no problem, but it sure had me worried. It was (seemingly) wholly intermittant and unpredictable. I was fortunate to pinpoint a method whereby I could reliably crash the server on demand. Once I reached that stage it was just a matter of hunting down the bug and killing it. I also managed to get all of the monsters (nearly 400 of 'em) typed in. All that's left to do (data wise) is to type in the rooms. That, however, will be a large task. Since the monster numbers in the old Apple data no longer correspond to the current monster numbers, I'll have to make decisions about what goes into each room as I type each one in. It will be a long and tedious process! Once that's done, then it's just a matter of making sure that each room is geared for a certain type of character (IE, all the monsters in any given room are of approximately the same level of difficulty) and make sure that things are not too easy (a difficult task for me, since I always think the game is too easy, I must be sure to resist the temptation to Alberti-ise things) [this is a reference to the way the Albertis ran Scepter - whenever they saw somebody having fun and doing well, they'd interfere by suddenly making things harder for them - one of the reasons why their BBS eventually died]. With any luck, I will get all of this taken care of well before the lines go in (in 12 days) so I can whip up an admin program to administrate the users once they start streaming in (or trickling in, as the case may be). I think I can count on having Dean, Tom, Jim and possibly Loren or Mack using the thing right away. This should make the game seem active to strangers logging on. I just hope and pray that all of the crashes have been taken care of. It will be very embarassing (and in fact dangerous) to have people crashing back to the shell. I don't think I'll open it up to the general public until I've tried testing it with all the ports filled with actual play-testers and we totally put it through its paces. By the way, I stopped by the MCBA micro-con on Saturday. It looked like it was a success. It was fun to see everyone again, but I found it rather painful to look at all those comics and not be able to buy any! Minicon is this weekend, so I don't stand to get much work done - ah well, all work and no play, eh?
04/11/90 - Sorry, I couldn't complete yesterday's entry. Disaster has struck! I powered up my computer yesterday and *whammo*, no hard drive! God was I bummed out! I thought it might be the drive cable as it was worn and had wires exposed [the damned thing rubbed against the top of the computer case and every time I opened it up...], so I got a new one from Radio Shack. I prayed all the way home that this would solve the problem. It didn't. I brought my computer into the Radio Shack service center hoping that they would find a simple (and inexpensive) solution that would preserve my data (I took the day off from work, being too distraught to concentrate). Well, no such luck - the hard drive is shot, data is gone, and it will cost nearly $300 to fix it (or more, I suppose, with labor). What does this mean to the system and my plans to go on-line on the 21st? HA! It's all over. I've lost all the data I've typed in since we moved in (mainly the monsters), all the bug fixes (a lot of them are documented in my notebook, but many of them are not), the nifty new admin program I wrote on Monday night. And of course, this all assumes that my backups are intact. If they don't work then I am truly hosed. I'll have to start from scratch!! YAHHH!! I don't know if I can face that possibility. Needless to say, I've scrapped my plans to have the phones in on April 21st as I'll be scrambling to raise the money just to pay for this new bloody hard drive. It could be well into May before I get this thing up and running (if I'm lucky, that is). So anyway, I have to sweat out the next few days (I probably won't see my computer until next week) until I can see if my backups are OK. Yesterday I was completely destroyed, and today I don't feel much better. I am really getting discouraged about all of this, it seems like there have been so many things lately that I've had to shell out tons of money for. I can't seem to get ahead. I wish Jim would pony up some of the dough he owes me, but I don't see that happening any time soon. Oh well, I'll just have to muddle through somehow...
04/11/90 (later) - Just got off the phone with Jim. He says he owes me around $450 in royalties and might be able to get me a check by the 25th. I certainly hope so!
04/19/90 - Well, things went from bad to worse to better in the past week. As it turns out, my backups were flawed. My source directory was backed up on two floppies, and the first one had bad blocks in it. Naturally, the first disk had angcmd on it, and naturally the bad blocks (all four of them, as I later discovered) were in the middle of angcmd [angcmd being, I guess, a very important module of code]. Using the ADB utility on Thursday night I was at least able to recover the two source files from the damaged disk (angmag and angcmd, less the 4000 bytes from the bad blocks). However, the technique I used (reading the device and displaying the memory as characters) didn't seem very conducive to recovering the binary data files (rooms, monsters, etc). This was a setback, but at least I wouldn't have to rewrite all of the source code (a possibility too horrible to contemplate).
I cancelled my room at Minicon (couldn't justify the expense having just shelled out $403 to fix my hard drive), but still went on Saturday. I wound up having a pretty good time, though I still can't find enough there to hold my interest. I'd rather just sit around and drink and people-watch (or game) than check out any of the activities. So anyway, I was hung over all day Sunday, blew it all off on Monday (I was in a very odd mood, depressed, tired, etc. Obviously this all got to me quite a lot). On Tuesday I was ready to tackle it.
Greg came over and he was able to construct a program that would read the disk, skip the bad blocks, and write everything out to a massive file. The secret being not blocking on the read so as to get by the bad blocks (ADB is smart enough to do this, TAR is not). Then I had a great idea. We determined that the way TAR works is to write a short header, then the file, followed by the next header, and so on. Real simple. So I surmised that if we read the disk, wrote the data to a file (substituting blanks for the lost blocks), copy the file to a disk, we should be able to use TAR to extract everything normally, only losing the 4000 bytes (already lost anyway), and not have to reconstruct any of the files otherwise. He thought it was a good idea and went me one better. You can actually TAR directly from a file, so there would be no need to shlep everything over to a floppy. Well, much to our mutual delight, it worked like a charm and my directory was restored to almost the level it was as of April 1st. So, the net loss of all this is: $403, nine days worth of debugging (some of which is not documented anywhere), 400 monsters, my admin program, and 4000 bytes out of angcmd.c (which I think I pretty adequately reconstructed last night), and all of the "system" type stuff set up but not backed up. This has set me back probably 3-4 weeks. Needless to say, I am doing nightly (and sometimes more than nightly) backups. I will also be keeping multiple backups. I will also be very careful about scraping wires inside my computer. As I alluded to, this really did a number on me - I was depressed, despondent, etc for days, and I hope to never have to go through anything like this ever again. Obviously I've invested a lot of myself into this computer system, and when it suffers a blow, I suffer the same blow [wow, it's just like Sauron and The One Ring!]. Anyway, 'nuff said. Things are looking good again. I've almost got the code back to pre-crash levels, and I've got Elfhelm back to pre-crash levels. To get totally back to where I was I need to type in the monsters again (yeech!), whip the system stuff back into shape, and rewrite the admin program. Today and Saturday (tomorrow likely being a major hangover day, as I feel like celebrating for the first time in what feels like forever!) promise to be major progress days. By the way, interestingly enough, Greg appears to be quite taken with playing the game. He no longer comes over to code, he comes over to play. He really gets into it too.
04/25/90 - Things are going quite well with the system. I've restored the code to pre-crash levels (as near as I can tell) and then some. I've got half the 400 monsters typed in (other half goes in tonight), and around half of the help typed in. I've got the system restored for multiple users calling in, and generally things are looking good. I can't really say when I'll be ready to go on-line, though. I'll need to type in the Bane/Quest rooms and that promises to be a monstrous (and dull!) task. Let's call it 2-3 weeks (haha!). Anyway, I'm not going to rush into getting Angmar open to the public. Why bother, what's the hurry?
04/26/90 - Hard drive was acting up last night! I was getting intermittant read failures and when I tried to scan the disk to update the bad track table it found more bad tracks than I allowed room for in the table. I decided to just go ahead and reinstall the system (making sure all my stuff was safely backed up). It turns out to probably have been a good time to do it anyway - there were a number of things I wasn't happy with - the bad track table, swap space, Arnet setup, and so on. Also, since I have hard copy backup of all the technical stuff (gettydefs, etc) it should be no problem to put everything back together. I'm going to write down a reinstall procedure so that when I do this in the future it will be a breeze. Greg comes over tonight for more testing, and I'll continue to work on getting the monsters and help in.
05/01/90 - More good testing over the weekend. Found several crashes along with a number of things needing tweaking. Finished typing in the help as well. Also, discovered that one can trap virtually all crashes and route them through my hang-up routine. I can now put the program up at any time, safe in the knowledge that even if the program crashes, people will not be dumped back to the shell level. I will be spending time this week doing the initial paperwork necessary to get on with typing in the remaining rooms. I grow weary of estimating when this all is going to be done (I am not in a particularly good mode today, so there!)
05/02/90 - Well, I can't put this off any longer. I have all the paperwork for the rooms in order. I'll be able to type in the rooms without having to make any decisions or look anything up - straight typing! Also, I've pruned the bloody Temple of the Wormlord to a more manageable (and less tedious) number of rooms. I think I wound up eliminating 30-40 of the 90 or so rooms (and believe me, you won't miss a thing!) So, I'll be getting on with the typing today and tomorrow (or at least as much as I can stand). If I really go bonkers there is a good chance that I will have all the rooms in by early next week. I may get sidetracked here sometime in the near future as I have agreed to write the new IBM version of Fantasy Football for Jim (in 'C'). I really could use the extra $500, so what the hell? The money should nicely coincide with having my phone lines installed. Once the rooms are in, all I need to do is get the admin stuff in order and the thing will be pretty much ready for public comsumption. I really can't say when I'll be ready to go ahead with the phones, though - maybe not until June, we'll see. I'm just kind of losing my enthusiasm about this whole thing (although I'm sure that'll change once I get it up). I guess the underlying reason is that I'm nervous about putting it up when it's not ready (the story of my life, really). It seems that despite the weeks of testing, each time I test it there are still lots of problems. Oh well, I really don't know what the big hurry is. I just wish I hadn't opened my big mouth on Fire Opal! [apparently I blabbed about my vaporware on some local BBS, oops!] God, if there's one thing I should have learned by now, it's shut up until you've got a product. Still, it's only one place so it's not that big of a deal. I also have to start forcing myself to go out and do some other things. God, I've become a closet case over the past few months - too much bloody work! I drove to BN Metro yesterday (on the north side) and came to the realization that I hadn't really been anyplace for weeks. I mean, all my socialization seems to revolve around Angmar. I've got to do some other stuff or I will surely lose my mind!
05/09/90 - Well, I'm certainly in a better mood today! Yeesh. All the data is in and has been massaged to remove most of the inconsistancies. Also, after the debugging session last weekend I guess I can say with some confidence that I am ready to unleash Angmar upon an unsuspecting public. All that is left is the admin stuff, so I have given the phone company the go-ahead to come out Friday and put in the phone lines! (Yes, I finally figured out my modems yesterday). So, this weekend is THE BIG WEEKEND - I'm going to get Angmar up and running with the phone lines and go out and tell people about it (shudder!) This is going to be pretty cool. Dean tells me that Scott Kallen (the ol' Klingon himself) wants to play Angmar. I am so excited about this whole deal I can't believe it. Hopefully, with a lot of people doing testing I will be able to accelerate the bug-finding/fixing process. The first couple of months will be interesting. How many people will use it? Will it become really popular? If it doesn't, I can't really ever charge people for it until it does. However, if it does become popular, when do I start charging for it? Certainaly not until after it has been thoroughly put through its paces and becomes a finished product. I think July or August would be a good window of opportunity for commencing charging. Also, it would be nice to have Starwar, Talk and Mail running when I start charging. If I go that route, it could take longer. None of the three come close to the scope of Angmar, but still, they will take time. Too bad Greg whimped out on his talk program, that'd be one down. Oh well.
05/16/90 - So! The phone lines went in as scheduled (costing $179, about what I had budgeted for). It became immediately obvious that there were a number of problems that needed addressing. First of all, using the C-shell and .login was inadequate as the login procedure works like shit when you're in raw mode. However, if you log in in sane mode you can break out to the shell level when you hit .login. Greg solved this for me by making a small pre-shell that sets tty type and executes Angmar. Works really slick. Later on, as people started calling in in greater numbers, odd problems with three of the four modems started arising. Without going into all of the gory details, it turns out that I need software upgrades from both SCO and Arnet to solve these problems. I am optomistic that all my hardware problems will be solved by these upgrades. Since the game itself is looking very solid, the board could be ready for a big publicity push next week. So far I've just been putting out a few feelers to other BBS's. I need a few people for testing, but don't want dozens and dozens showing up and getting discouraged by volatile hardware and software. Well, it looks good at the moment. I've got about 10 or so people using the game fairly regularly (Scott Kallen is on almost constantly). I feel real good about solving the modem problems (or at least ferreting out the problems and ordering what I hope are the solutions). My feelings about the system have really changed since the beginning. In the beginning when I was planning and had just started coding it was very enjoyable to fantasize about how I thought the board would turn out. Later on, as the code neared completion I began to become fearful of installation - almost to the point of putting it off for a long time. I was really afraid that the whole thing was beyond my capabilities and that people wouldn't like it, or it would fail technically, or whatever. Now that it's up I feel really good about it. Despite all the problems I've run into, I feel like I can handle them, and I feel like I put enough time into testing and perfecting the game that that end of things isn't going to cause many problems. So now I'm excited about going out and putting my reputation on the line by trying to attract lots of people and eventually charging money for this. I must say that I am looking forward to the day when other players help out the novices. I get very uncomfortable leading people around by the hand. So far, novices seem to come in two varieties: the quick and the dead (heh heh). The quick are great - point them in the right direction, give 'em a shove and off they go. The dead, however... *sigh*. Sometimes I'm just not in the mood to hold somebody's hand - particularly someone who seems really young and immature (IE ruggies). [dude, if you can't deal with ruggies, you picked the wrong business!!]
05/18/90 - Well, things are looking extremely solid. I reworked the "give" code yesterday as I've never been comfortable with the kludgey way it worked. Plus, it seemed to be the culprit in some crashes that were happening. I've backed down on the difficulty as well, to accommodate so many novices. People seem to be advancing through the levels quite rapidly now. I may need to boost the experience points on high level monsters. Yesterday was a red letter day - the first time all four ports were full. I've got something like 15 people signed up in just a week! When this thing comes totally together and I really start putting the word out, I bet it'll start getting hard to get on! Imagine! I'm beginning to believe that Williams was a bonehead and that there actually might be some money to be made in all of this. We'll see [uh huh, well, let's see what happens when you actually start charging, eh?]. Tom was all discouraged yesterday because he died and says he can't seem to get the hang of the game.
05/21/90 - Found another (and hopelessly one of the last) [I don't know if I was being funny when I wrote that, or if it was just a Freudian slip] that caused the system to lock up. If you did something like "get morning star", my code would convert "star" to a number. Coming up with a zero, it proceeded to try and find that item. I assumed, apparently, that the lowest it could ever be is one. What a bonehead! I also installed the Arnet upgrade and now the 2400 baud modems work perfectly. I haven't had any problems with the 1200 since I disabled echo and result codes, so I'm not going to bother with the Xenix upgrade until such time as it fritzes out again. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? This weekend was incredible! Hardly a minute went by when there wasn't at least one person on, and most of the time all the ports were full! I think that these first couple of weeks have been successful beyond even my wildest expectations. My only concern (get this!) is that I'm kind of bored with it now that it's almost done. Although, I must admit, when I'm in the mood I get a kick out of playing god (I knew I would, why else would I put all the stuff in that lets me become god??) [this probably reveals more about my ultimate motivations behind this whole thing than I really want to think about] So, it would appear that my interest is really going to derive from diving right back into coding (IE Starwar). I still have a few things left to do on Angmar before I move on, though. I have to do the accounting stuff (which I'll probably start again tonight), macros, and one or two fiddly bits. Once that is completed, I move on to Starwar. Starwar should really be a breeze as it should be a pretty straight conversion from the old Pascal version to a C version. I still haven't heard from Jim about a design document for Football, and knowing him it'll take forever to get it. I'll deal with it when I see it. I may need to start charging people sooner than I thought, the way they're coming in! Of course, there's still lots of work to be done, so I guess I won't worry about it for a while. I've backed off on my proposed rates - $5/month for unlimited access or 25 cents an hour. I think my previous rates (though much less than the old GamBit rates) were a bit unrealistic. I just can't see these kids shelling out $15-$30 per month. I bet I get a lot of resistance at $5/month. I'll just have to wait and see.
05/23/90 - Well, the four lines are pretty much constantly full from 4 PM until after midnight, and partially full virtually all other hours of the day. I have set a timetable for going to a pay-to-play system. Starting June 15th, any new people wanting a private account will have to pay $5/month, $10 for three months or 25 cents an hour. Anyone who had a private account before June 15th can use it for free until the last day of June. I put this information up in the "opener" yesterday with little response. One guy said he only plays "'cuz it's free" and would probably leave if he had to pay because he "could find the same stuff elsewhere". Another guy seemed to realize that multi-line boards generally cost money. He mentioned that paying monthly was a pain, and wanted to know if I would offer discounts for subscribing for an extended period of time [I should have paid more attention to that guy]. Interestingly enough, someone named "Albatross" signed on yesterday. I wonder if it was an Alberti? [it was] I didn't get much work done Monday. Between dinking around with people playing and waiting forever for compilations (had like 8 ports signed on the computer at the time), I was pretty hard pressed to accomplish much. If I am to do any serious work on Angmar I'll probably need to keep people off of Angmar while I'm doing it. I'm going to get to work on the admin editor tonight though, now that I have a deadline staring me in the face.
05/24/90 - I was finally able to get a lot of programming done last night! I took Angmar down and left a "come back later" message in its place. It worked really well, people were calling in constantly for almost four hour trying to get in [um, worked well? If you say so...] I got a huge millstone off my back, I finally got Macros in! They were a big hit with the players. Y'know what this means? Angmar is finished!! Well, OK, so maybe I'll still put the NPC stuff in there, I dunno yet. Got a little support for my pay-to-play announcement finally. Crusher said he thought my prices were really cheap. I suspect that the lack of constroversy and comment is perhaps due to a tacit approval and acceptance of my proposed rates...? We shall see come July 1st when we separate the men from the weasels! Anyway, I'm taking today off and will see if I can kick my butt into gear on the admin program tomorrow. It's like ten times harder to get motivated to write it since I already wrote it once before!!
05/30/90 - Things continue to roll along smoothly. I got a good start on the admin program last Saturday when Greg and I did a marathon playing/programming session. Dean, Sue, Newk and Mac were all using the game that night. It was pretty fun. Tom appears to have given up the ghost. I erased his account and he hasn't even noticed. Oh well. I'm putting together an information package so that he can design an area. People continue to be positive about paying for Angmar (a lot of people are dying to give me their money now!) It looks like the transition to pay-to-play should be fairly smooth. Greg is moving along with the latest version of his talk program [sadly, he never did finish it - basically how we differ, I guess], though he did cause a minor catastrophe last Sunday. In order to free up space for message queues he deleted one of mine, causing all hell to break loose on Angmar. I put in code to be able to edit permanant monsters in and out of the game - that's probably the final power needed by "console". I can pretty much do whatever I want now. So, it's back to work on admin tonight so that I can get it done before the 15th rolls around. I've polled people to find out how they feel about the various options of paying. Most people seem to think that flat rate is the way to go, with a few holding out for by-the-hour. So, it looks like I'll be going with those two methods. I will definitely be adding two more lines/modems, but probably not until after vacation. I'll need money for that!
06/04/90 - Another successful weekend of testing, fixing, writing and playing. I've instigated a two-hour limit on calls into Angmar as the lines are now pretty much continuously busy from about 10 AM until Midnight. I continue to find and fix a wide variety of minor bugs. The occasional major screw-up will rear its ugly head every day or so. Haven't had much luck duplicating them, though. Thankfully, none of them involve the system blowing up (though some of them are disturbing). Had a business lunch with Tom today where we discussed him designing an area. I passed along some docs on how to make an area, including a copy for Dean if he should so desire. It'll be nice to get some new places in there that weren't designed by me. I have such an easily recognizeable style (utilizing over and over a lot of tired cliches!!). Work is progressing slowly on the admin program. The major hurdle (getting started!) is over, so I can kind of fiddle around with it at my leisure now. Not a whole lot of work left on it. Once that's in, I'm going to start soliciting people for money (since most people seem anxious to get it to me anyway), as I haven't had much luck saving up for my first phone bill (which could be damn near $300!). The extra $$ should help my cash flow situation immensely. Particularly if a lot of people pay for three months. By the way, I am having a tremendous amount of difficulty resisting the urge to "Alberti-ise"! A number of people are approaching 10th level and I can't help feeling like they should be dying! AAARRRGGGHHH!!! That, and seeing people finding a lot of success in a particular room, I can barely contain the urge to go in and make the room a lot harder! As a matter of fact, I've done a little bit of this already. I have got to keep it to a minimum, though. I mean, there is a justification for tweaking things if they are, in fact, too easy. However, I don't want to go over the line and do the very things that ticked me off so much about the Albertis! I've got to be very, very careful. Customer loyalty is a tricky thing. If the board starts to get a negative rep it will be hard to get people to change their minds. Right now I think I have a real good rep, and I intend to keep it that way!
06/28/90 - Pretty amazing how much has happened since I last wrote here. I've taken in $160 in subscriber monies and anticipate at least another $100 more. I've added numerous features and fixed numerous bugs. I'm still having problems that aren't allowing me to trust the thing to run unsupervised for any length of time. The system froze last night for unknown reasons, and one of my modems is continuously going out of auto-answer mode. Outside of that, though, things have progressed rather smoothly [apart from the unpleasantness, how did you like the play Mrs. Lincoln??] . I finally had to change the thief class so that thieves rob monsters and not other players. People were freaking out about being robbed way too much, and I got sick of mediating all the stupid little disputes. Things seem to have settled down now. My only goals, as far as Angmar is concerned, is to finish the documentation for the help manual (I started last night and I hate writing documentation!) and get the game and board to the point where it will run for days on end without me having to babysit it. I'd like to accomplish the latter by the time we go on vacation (in two weeks! I can't wait!!!)
07/12/90- Well, tomorrow is vacation! YEEEEEHHHAAAAAAHHHHHH! Boy do I need a vacation, haven't had one (to speak of) in three years. Lots of new stuff to report in recent days. I got promoted and a $5000 raise at work - which means I will definitely be going to six lines as soon as possible after I return from vacation. I seem to have gotten Angmar to a crash-free state of existance. There are one or two minor bugs floating around, but nothing that's going to cause a lock-up. Also, the modems seem to behave themselves if I reenter the options each time I power them up (and avoid powering them down). Angmar should (cross my fingers) be able to run unsupervised the whole time I'm gone, so long as the power doesn't go out. I'll still have Tom keep an eye on it to make sure it's OK [y'know, Tom's taken some flak in this journal, but what a total mesnch he was and is]. I recently doubled the rates for Muinet ($10/month, $20/three months) and got my first subscriber at the new rates. Just mailed design docs off to the Paynes today (or should I say, the Pains!) I hope this keeps them off my back for a while. I haven't done an ounce of work on the docs since I last wrote - yuck! It's a bigger millstone than even typing all the rooms was. Trouble is, I keep changing the game around and it seems like a waste to document stuff that's not going to be true in two weeks (or so I rationalize to myself, hahaha). I think that I am going to make some drastic alterations to the invisibility spell - people are using it to attack very powerful monsters, and I don't think that that's the way things should be. I may make it so that it takes 1 magic point to run it for 1 second, and when your magic points run out, you become visible again. This would limit it to high level adventurers and wizards, which is fine by me.
07/27/90 - Well, vacation was a good time. The board behaved itself in my absence with only one crash (probably due to a power outage). I've more or less brought Angmar to the cut-off point. I think I've got everything balanced pretty well. Anyway, I hope so because I start serious work on Starwar tonight, which means I'm only going to attend to dire bugs in Angmar and nothing else until Starwar is finished. Starwar looks like it's going to be pretty much of a breeze to write. The only thing I foresee becoming a large problem is system response time (during compiling). Starwar won't be nearly so monolithic as Angmar is, but still, I think that compilations might take a looooong time. This could get to be a major hassle, as in the early stages I like to write small bits of code, compile, and then test them. This may not be feasible... but, we'll see [god, computers sucked back then] I have no set timetable for the new phone lines. Finances are sort of iffy at the moment, as rumor has it that our office might be closing. I'd just as soon not commit my money to more phone lines if I'm going to have to hit the streets and look for work again. I expect to hear what our status is soon. If everything stays cool, then I can probably pick up a couple of modems with my next paycheck, and schedule the installation shortly afterwards. I haven't had any new subscribers of late, but Guest activity seems to be picking up again (I have no idea why, word of mouth I imagine). I wish I could scare up a few people who actually have money instead of all these broke students! [oh dude, you picked the wrong business!]
08/01/90 - Got a new $20 subscriber yesterday. Couldn't have come at a better time as I really needed the money after vacation. I changed my mind about stopping work on Angmar. I had a couple of brainstorms, and was given a couple of pretty good ideas, so it's back to work. Anyway, I wrote to Flying Buffalo on the off chance that they still exist [hell, they're still around now] If they do, it'd be awfully cool if I can get my hands on some Starweb docs. The mysterious pain in the ass Guest resurfaced last night. I don't know who it is, but I'd like to wring their scrawny little neck! I've totally closed off the Guest account until I can write some code making the general populace immune to their shenanigans.
08/06/90 - The trials and tribulations of being a sysop continue... aargh! I booted the Paynes off the system over the weekend (just mailed them a refund and a letter today). That Oren Payne is really a psycho, I'm glad to be rid of him and his kid. They took up way more than their fair share of Angmar access anyway, so good riddence! I'm working on what I hope will amount to the final version of Angmar. I'm totally changing guilds around. Also, I punted everything to do with the "slaver" skill. I finally did something with "scholar" skill. I put in an option to edit system options so that I can fiddle with ease/difficulty of the game without having to recompile all the time, and lastly, I'm going to change the way Armor Class works. I think that will be enough! Got another $20 subscriber today (helps, as I sent $20 to the Paynes). System use is way down, due primarly to the number of people going on vacation, going away entirely, or backing off on playing time. I should be doing some advertising at this point, but I won't until I get the lines in. I might be able to do it after the next paycheck, but I have a feeling not. If that's the case, then it'll be another month before anything gets done. That will coincide with the comic con, where I plan to distribute flyers promoting the board. It's odd examining the evolution of my feelings towards the board. I don't feel burnt out anymore, but I do feel a bit testy about the whole thing. Sue said I wasn't my usual "jolly self" anymore, and I think she's probably right. All this squabbling with users and their problems is really getting to me. Once this version of Angmar is done, it'll be nice to kind of back off from the thing and do some other stuff for a while.
[Here's one of the flyers I put together and distributed around town. Notice the blatantly pilfered and uncredited artwork!]
08/14/90 - Finished most of the new stuff, except for Armor Class. So, I'm still not quite finished with Angmar (heh, will I ever be??) [um, answer? no] I did get the new phone lines and modems in yesterday, so now it's time to drum up some new business. I think I'll mosey on over to Tropus and Twin Link and see what I can stir up. Plus, I'm going to be working on a flyer that I can distribute around town (surrepticiously, don't want to attract the attention of the phone company). [oh yeah, back then I had all these phone lines into my house for "non- business" use and that's how I got the cheap rates. If I declared them business lines it would have cost me several times more] I don't know how many people will be renewing at the end of September. I think a lot of these guys are going to be too burned out to shell out another $20. I'd really like to get the subscriber base up to about 40. That would be about $200/month income, which would be very nice indeed. I wrote a letter to Flying Buffalo today to see if I can get legitimate permission to write a BBS version of Starweb. If they refuse [they did], then I'll have to write something quite radically different. The "Guest" kid is really starting to get very annoying. I have totally stripped the Guest account, and yet he still persists in playing all the time. Wish he would just pony up some bread! We're still up in the air at ISC as to whether or not we're going to have jobs. The company will be laying off 15% of the workforce this month (over 200 people!). I'm not too terribly worried though, I assume that if they close our office we will have plenty of time to find new jobs before the money is cut off (that's what I hope anyway).
Well, as it turns out they did close our office and I lost my job. And since I kept this journal on my computer at ISC, it ends at this point. For some reason I didn't bother starting a new one until a few years later, so I'll have to rely on fragile memory for the rest of this story. In January of '91 Kathy 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. I 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 new 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 was an amalgam of my old Starwar game, Flying Buffalo's Starweb, and various other tactical and strategic space games I'd come across over the years (I am and always have been, if nothing else, an equal opportunity thief). Sadly, it turned out to be popular with maybe 3 people (Yo Spamgod!).
As I recall I'd pretty much maxed out at 8 phone lines (or was it 10? 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 an equal number of people who would pop in on a less frequent basis. What I do remember is that the money I took in pretty much paid for the phone lines and that was about it. I also remember that being a sysop was a never-ending pain-in-the-ass struggle between myself and all those crazy teenagers (sadly, the bread-and-butter of BBS userdom). I have no doubt that this was total Karmic payback for every sin I'd ever committed during my own wild computer-hacking youth.
The bottom line was that 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 look to for inspiration (not recent 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 have 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 literally 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).
Most importantly, I simply wasn't interested in doing the kinds of things as a sysop that would have attracted and kept subscribers. In the final analysis, a BBS is simply a community; a place for lonely young people and other outcasts (a club I certainly belonged to, mind you) 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) such a control-freak, any attempts at bringing on assistants never really worked out. And you needed to have social get-togethers (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 a programmer and a game player. None of that other stuff held any interest for me (quite the opposite, actually). So, really. I was doomed from the beginning.
And finally, simply put, size sells. If a BBS is a community, then the bigger the community, the more likely it is to attract more people. 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. There were 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 system 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 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.
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. Although I had constructed a fairly sophisticated and bullit-proof suite of BBS software, I just didn't see myself making any money at all 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 to pop into his head. At that time there were basically two really popular multiuser BBS systems in the DOS/Windows world - MajorBBS (later called Worldgroup) and Wildcat. 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 the software and they would sell it (for a percentage) and provide support. Again, I don't have exact dates here, but sometime 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 system on which to do my development - 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. Now all I had to do was figure it all out and morph 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 issue 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). We (and everyone we could get our hands on) had a name contest and the best we could come up with was "Swords of Chaos". Well, not bad I guess. It certainly had some cache and reflected the general goings-on of the game. And 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 on-line. 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 and BOOM, became my first MajorBBS subscriber. I didn't kid myself into thinking that hordes 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 I threw the doors open wide - totally free access. Many of my old and faithful subscribers reemerged in fairly short order, along with a host of newbies (again, I went with the tried and true method of posting ads on a zillion local BBS's) 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. The marketing strategy (fairly typical for Major add-ons) was to offer a downloadable "demo" version (that would disable itself after a couple of weeks) on MajorBBS's home system (frequented by MajorBBS sysops the world over). 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 it got even better after that. The first real marketing bonanza was an ad in MajorBBS's quarterly magazine. This thing was mailed to every MajorBBS sysop worldwide. And quite naturally, these people were always on the lookout for anything that would attract more people to their systems (lord knows, been there and done that), so when something new showed up in the MajorBBS mag, people pounced on it. The orders we received after that first ad were even bigger than the first batch. And the guys at Adept put together some totally bitching art that really went all the way with the whole "Huntress" concept (and then some). Unfortunately, some PC wanker at Galacticomm (AKA, the people who put out MajorBBS) deemed it too "whatever" 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 used a lot 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 features to add to their own BBS's, so I was able to acquire many new applications by simply trading mine for theirs. Consequently, I was able to add all sorts of fun new games and features to my board without spending a dime. And the way money was pouring in, I had no problem adding more lines. I forget the timeline and the numbers, but I believe I generally was 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 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 subscribers had a hard time getting on), I went back to charging minimal rates for subscription (I forget now, but something like $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 software. If somebody had a problem (or was a problem) I simply punted them. 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 finally 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 using my chat program to try to play Magic online. After much pestering, they talked me into writing a custom chat program with a lot of built-in commands to support the playing of Magic online. It was pretty simple stuff and I was able to throw something together in a week or two. It (The Mage Connection) turned out to be pretty 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 fairly 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 lives. I even managed to start a savings accounts, for crying out loud. So, I decided to take the big plunge and quit my "day job" (which was one of those really sucky Dilbert-type jobs at a really crappy Dilbert-like company). 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 done, LoC was mainly cobbled together from several different games I'd come across over the years (Steve Jackson's Hacker, GURPS Cyberpunk, et al) along with my own ideas.
Now, if you ask me, LoC is quite simply the best piece of 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 a dozen copies to some of the bigger systems (which 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 (my Magic Chat) 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. And by this time the writing was really on the wall for BBS's. 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 fall of '96 I had to get an outside job again (although, fortunately, I found 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. And 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 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 plans to release their own adventure game for Worldgroup and were just trying to buy out the competition - 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 rights to my games to some company named Metropolis Gameport, where they are still available to this day (MajorBBS's are still out there, apparently).
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 have made a great deal more money 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 the Unix world, 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 real money for me. On the other hand, the days of the BBS were numbered from the beginning and I would have been forced out in the mid-90's when the internet took over, regardless of how much success I might have had in the interim. And if I hadn't started out in Unix, I probably wouldn't have wound in my current career as a Unix programmer, which ultimately has proven to be more profitable 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:
A gentleman by the name of Rick Hadsall is currently orchestrating the "MajorBBS Restoration Project", whereby he is attempting to preserve the history of the MajorBBS and resurrect some of the old, classic modules. I've contributed my old MajorBBS source code for Swords of Chaos, Lords of Cyberspace and The Mage connection to the effort and they are all currently available for play (for free!):