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.


  1. This is to funny.. not 10 minutes ago I was talking to an old friend about BBS games :)

  2. Pretty funny; I've been building a turn based space wargame for a couple of years, on and off. Turns out a number of people I know of are also doing it... we all miss the old spcae romp days :)

    There are numerous commercial and indie games out there right now as well, which may satisfy.. but for me, the game is in building the engine.

    (The hardest part for this particular game thats in my mind and maybe yours.. is .. is it node.js/javascript-client, or a traditional client/serevr game with a native client and some serrver, using JSON or XML-RPC etc? Or ... etc.) Turn based games almost _beg_ to be pure browser based nowadays, but that necessarily limits a lot of things, since browsers are 'not 'there' yet'.

    I'm having babies soon so my project is mostly on hold right now, but I did get a good ways in, several times .. I built a 3d client for a cli/server model, and a basic web client for a pure browser based one, and my curren tincarnation is a hybrid of both .. local client, that does some web display from the server, to make transition to prue browser based down the road feasible. Database, SQL, all that is in place... but maybe I'll rewrite it all again in nodes.js ... hmm :P

    MAtt.. hit me up over lunch one of these days so we can geek out ;) Course, loonch is hard right now.. hmm. Email me then ;)


  3. I'm going with making the game engine some sort of RPC API (currently looking at python+twisted), and then stick a front end on it. The front end could be some web scriptery that generates some HTML5 (99% this is where I'll start the UI) or could expand to native clients for various computers or mobile clients.

    And yeah, we should do lunch soon.

  4. yeah, I might go back to pure js/css client; it seems the best way to have a wide audience, though I still find hacking a game client in js is terrible .. I wrote a bunch of fancy opengl stuff that was classy on desktopm but just doesn't work too well on webgl since browsers support is very hit or miss. Going back to straight 2d maps, well, using images is okay, even on canvas.. but if you want to use SVG for scalable artwork, I found support for that very hit or miss (especially on mobiles.) Using Canvas at all is rather risky, but I think nowadays it might be okay.. but even a year ago, Canvas was still wildly unsupported.


    But I might go back and work on a simple tabbed UI with basic primtivie map in js, just to keep things wide .. but in general I fgind js pretty unpleasant. I mean, using one of the toolkits makes some things easier but I found it also makes a lot of things more annoying.

    So for me, I might just go straight hand rolled js, with no toolkits :P

    Should compare notes on game design, see how compatible our designs are, if at all.


  5. I was an Esterian Conquest addict from 1992 until about ten years later, when the last few BBSs hosting the game finally expired. I've dreamed too of resurrecting EstCon, but I have zilch programming/coding skills.

    I have toyed with a board game analogue that emulates hidden fleet movement, resolving battles with a dice-based probability system. I've always believed hidden fleet movement was the key to EstCon's allure, as it was with early 1980s "space risk" games like 'Galactic Empires' and 'Galactic Conquest'.

    Another good thing about EstCon compared to other empire-strategy games: There was a minimum of domestic policy stuff. All you needed do was set a universal tax rate, and decide what ships or how many ground-batteries and armies to build with the revenue. Everything else was strategic operations. No stupid distractions like tourism dollars or decisions about consumer goods.

    Every now and then I Google-search the web for "Esterian Conquest". Good to see a lot of folks are still reminiscing. Maybe somebody will at last conjure up a worthy successor?