Friday, September 9, 2011

The One Where I Talk About A BBS Game

20 years ago I was, along with many of my friends, spending quite a lot of time on computer Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs). Most of us had already been doing this for many years, and there were people out there who'd been doing it even longer. The BBS scene at the time was pretty sophisticated we thought.. it was becoming possible to do some really great things!

One of the things that I thought was really great was playing computer games against other people in different places. This idea was still pretty novel, as computer networking, the way we think of it today, simply wasn't possible with most home computers – what few even existed. Most BBSes only had a single phone line for people to connect, and so out of necessity virtually every BBS game was turn-based, usually allowing a single turn per day. So, every day, I had time set aside to dial in, see what had transpired since the previous day, and take my turns.

One of my favourite games, and one of the few that I remember in any detail, was Esterian Conquest. It was a multi-player take on some of the early empire-building 4X games, set in a small two-dimensional galaxy, where each player had to build a fleet of ships, and go forth and conquer by force or diplomacy. Don't let the simple idea fool you though.. EC was a beast of a game, with simple rules that allowed for a plethora of complex results. Early on, my nightly turn would take but a few minutes to think about and execute, but later in the game I could literally spend hours pouring over reports from my fleets, hand-drawing maps on graph paper based on the information they contained, and then planning out and tediously punching in new orders for all of my fleets and planets.

About four years ago, while cleaning out boxes that had been in storage for ages, I came across a folder containing papers from the last game of EC I ever played. There were printouts of reports covered in pencil notes about possible actions to take, maps with quick calculations of how long it would take my fleets to reach some hot-spot in the game galaxy, and sheet after sheet of new orders.
Fleet 66 join fleet 47
Fleet 32 reduce speed to 5
Fleet 73 move to star at (12,41)
Everything about the game came back, and I started to wonder if it could somehow be resurrected. I had heard years before that the source code to EC had been lost in an all-too-unfortunate hard drive crash, but digging around in more boxes I did manage to find a floppy disk with the copy I had for the BBS I'd briefly run myself. Sadly, it proved to be more work than I had time for to get a computer running that could both run modern networking and connect that to an old DOS game. So I decided that instead, I'd just write my own.

I spent the next few months mapping out the game I'd like to create.. what I thought at the time was probably the first ever Turn-based Strategy MMO. I started writing documentation: how would I like the game to work? After chatting about the idea with a friend of mine, he gave me a photo-copy of an old table-top game he'd played called Stonova for ideas (it was based on Chris Wilkes' "Nova"). I worked out plans; I taught myself the math I'd need for three dimensional navigation (I wanted my game to take place in a realistic three-dimensional galaxy). But, when I really got down to it the game I had in mind would have required programming skills, particularly in the area of graphics, that I just didn't have the time to acquire. The idea was grand, but it was beyond me at the time. So I put the idea away for a while.

A couple of days ago, for no particular reason I can recall, I started thinking about this again. My original idea had been too grand for my meagre programming skills. But what if I scaled it down? In the last few years it's been proven that web-based games can work, and do attract players. So what if I ditched the desktop game idea, and went with the much easier to program web-based game? Games like Travian certainly seem to attract players, and as the basic concepts go it isn't all that different from what I had in mind.

My game will be simpler than EC in places, and more involved in others.

In EC it was possible to send your ships to any point in the galaxy, and along the way they would send back reports if they came within sensor range of any other passing ship. You could interrupt their orders mid-trip and have them pursue whom they spotted, or run away, or slow down and quietly follow at the edge of sensor range. I think I will simplify that a lot, and very likely only allow travel to other stars, not the spaces between them. Fleets will report on other fleets they find in their current star system, but I think I will drop the requirement to calculate intersecting flight paths, and handle changes in destination mid-flight.

EC had a small number of fixed ship types that you could build, and assemble into fleets. I think I'd like to have a bit more range in this area, so I'm going to design a technology research system that will allow players to concentrate on improving certain aspects of their ships. Are you a fan of big weapons? What happens when you go up against your opponent who has put all their research into heavily armoured ships? Or, maybe you just want to build really fast ships that can run away easily when threatened.

EC had no system of trade that I can recall. My game will allow players to trade resources, and might even have some sort of in-game cash economy. Perhaps you won't build warships at all, but will instead build big, fast transport ships and survive by supplying everyone with what they need... and paying tribute for "protection" where necessary.

So, I've started working on the idea again. I have no idea what will come of it, or whether I'll even finish. I haven't even got a name for it yet.. but I'm curious to see what I can come up with.