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Suspense & Decision magazine
From the Article Archives of Issue # 13
[PlayByMail.Net PBM Series]

Down at KJC Games: In search of the Holy Grail
Mica Goldstone

So, what have we been up to in the past year or so, since our last article? How have things changed, if at all, and what plans do we have for the future?
For Phoenix, our flagship product, I can say that things seem to be bobbing along on an even keel. We are getting regular sign-ups, thanks to our presence of the Browser Based Games voting forums, even if we are not rapidly expanding.

I suspect that Phoenix (being text and table heavy and shiny-bauble graphics light) is somewhat seemingly impenetrable for many modern gamers, but we are finding a few old boys rediscovering us and get the occasional player who is disillusioned with rinse and repeat king of the forum table style that seem to be common amongst browser based games.

We do track sign-up and have discovered some useful points in the sign-up to paying customer process. We have identified a few places where we lose customers and possible places to modify.

Knowing where to change and sacking off everything else in order to sort it is not always sensible, simply because it has to be weighed against improving and expanding the game for the current veteran players, as well as the inevitable emergencies (The latest? - A power-cut during off-line to online syncing, causing some not-immediately-apparent data corruption). As such, we are pushing things that will, in theory, give something for veteran and potential new customers, alike.

So, what are we actually doing?

Currently, development time is being split into two areas. The first is expansion of colonisation mechanics (custom code), and the second is game engine upgrade (missions & characters). This is possible, because Phoenix has its own compiler language, which allows the GM to develop custom code that is interpreted on the fly.

For example, ReadPosition[‘thisShip’] is a function that, when called, loads into the array variable ‘thisShip’ all the relevant data appertaining to a position, dependent on the type of position loaded and WriteBasicPosition[‘thisShip’] checks that data before saving it back to the various databases. This means that the person writing this code does not need to worry about all the checks on position data, and does not need to worry about messing up the entire data structure by writing back the wrong sort of data. Basically, it is a nice functionalised library that allows for development and testing in a relatively safe environment, without the need to compile the entire game each time there is a minor change to custom code. This enables the development of order code outside the framework of the engine. The custom code is essentially a standalone plug-in to the Phoenix engine. As such, it allows the engine to be worked on, independently.

I would love to say that this does not have its issues, but unfortunately, it does. Occasionally, I will find that I need either a new function or change in how a function is handled. Recently, it was the case of Addition. 1+2=3 whereas ‘A’+’B’=’BA’ due to how variables are added to the compiler stack and removed from it. To fix the issue, the Addition functionality had to first quantise the variable into a string or number, before determining how to add and remove from a stack. While the issue has workarounds, such as setting the variable to STRING before dealing with the function, our development projections meant it was better to deal with now, and save a lot of lines of code workarounds. The best thing about this is that each time a function is either added or improved, it is there to be drawn on and used ever after. If we ever develop a new game, we have years invested in this engine and function library that is, for the most part, completely independent of the Phoenix game.

As players of Phoenix know, over the years, we have developed its online presence. This has been to my mind the thing that has ensured the future of the game. There is always more that can be added, but we feel we have reached the stage of bells and whistles, except for a few GM tools to do with mission editing. Conversely, from what I can see, those games that eschewed away from having integrated online features have died, or at least have disappeared to some murky underground that I haven’t discovered. Similarly, news groups, once the breeding ground for discussion and latest in-game news, have also dried up. Yahoo chatlists are only visited by spambots selling unnameables, as far as I can see.

With respect to mission editing, we are effectively looking to kill two birds with one stone. By pushing the mission editor, making it significantly easier for the GM to moderate and play-test missions, we will be able to expand on the number in the game, thereby appealing to both new and veteran players. The holy-grail of the mission editor is to be able to go off-mission through special actions - something that is currently not possible, due to the sheer amount of variable testing in every step of the mission.

So, over the next few months we hope to tidy away the main aspects of planetary development, covering everything from initial colonisation and establishment of governments through to terraforming both the atmosphere and planetary sectors. This, though, will be an ongoing thing, as players seek to capitalise on the greater detail given to worlds. I have always been interested in clandestine activities, such as smuggling and terrorism. To get these into the game, we will be looking at missions and characters as the main instigators of the nefarious activities.

So, all in all, we have our work cut out for us, as we continue onwards and upwards.

PhoenixBSE website: http://www.phoenixbse.com/
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Benrd begins his journey into the realm of TribeNet...
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Suspense & Decision magazine
From the Article Archives of Issue # 13
[PlayByMail.Net PBM Series]

Unlocking the Door to PBM: Lineal Descendants and the Art of Obstacles
Author: Charles Mosteller

Play by mail gaming, or PBM as it is affectionately known to those of us who have partook of its flavor of entertainment, has been around for many decades.

Lineal descendants of PBM, those PBM games that have sought to deliver a PBM type of gaming experience, but through electronic and digital mediums, have invested a lot of time, energy, and effort over the years to perpetuate - and to grow - the core gaming experience that traces its origin to play by mail gaming.

As I sit and survey the PBM landscape, including those PBM games
of the post-postal variety, and as I explore various websites pertaining to the same, I am struck by what I perceive to be a litany of obstacles that game companies and game moderators continue to impose upon prospective players.

Accordingly, I want to take this opportunity to try and highlight some of what I consider to be the most glaring examples of obstacles that I think continue to keep many potential modern day gamers from the PBM scene.

(1) Advertising - Advertising, by its very nature, forms part of the presence of a game company - one that should properly be a very visible component of the game company's overall strategy.
Yet, much of what relatively little advertising for PBM games and their lineal descendants that I run into tends to be dated in appearance.

(2) Ease of Entry - How quick and easy is it for a potential new player to find and access all of the relevant info necessary for them to go from not being a player to getting right into the thick of things - and here's the clincher - without anyone else having to help them?

(3) Pricing Structure - Gaming is a form of entertainment - and the budget of a given household tends to get divided many different ways. The entertainment budget within the overall budget tends to get divided numerous different ways, also. PBM games have a history of being notorious for a multitude of different fees. Set-up fees. Turn fees. Special action fees. Each fee-point presents a separate obstacle to attracting new players.

(4) Community - Communities of players tend to grow up around games. Many game companies use forum software to provide their respective communities with a place to gather and discuss their games. Can prospective new players to your games read your forums, without having to register? Registration is a potential obstacle to growing your game's player base.
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Suspense & Decision magazine
From the Article Archives of Issue # 13
[PlayByMail.Net PBM Series]

Whatever happened to Portinium?: How a game of epic proportions met its demise
Author: John James

It has been such a long time since I spent 7 years of my life on creating Portinium, and getting the team of 6 other people together, that most people have forgotten about it. My dad funded the project, back then. He was an highly successful Architect, owning his own business for 37 years, before he died in 97. But he didn't know games, and he was not into them. He was a great man, highly successful and everyone loved him, including me. I told him I loved him, every day.

Then we had one of the programmers change the copyrights to his copyright, but he didn't know about the first version of the game. So, when that was revealed, he returned the copyrights in the program back to me. Also, at the start, we were going to buy another PBM game from someone else. But before that deal was going to go through, anonymously, I was sent game documents from another game, that showed that this guy that was selling a PBM game had plagiarized another game out there. So, I made Portinium from scratch. Came up with the concept, and then hired a team to come up with the game.

At the end, that original guy tried to bad mouth us, and went to the programmer that actually then got caught changing the copyrights. I found out by accident picking up the phone in the office and overhearing the conversation. So, it was a slap in the face from a guy that plagiarized other games, and then tried to sell them to unsuspecting people.

Honestly, it was a nightmare, and that original guy then tried to get our awards taken away from AndCon in 92 & 93. Had to get a lawyer and got the copyrights back, but I had to let the programmer walk away and not ever name him, since it came to my attention that my dad authorized him to do so. Don't ask me why. I still have a problem with that. But my dad gave the opportunity to try and do it, so I was very fortunate enough to get the opportunity.

Then came Computer Gaming Reviews' Jan 2003 Issue with a 4-page color insert and review of the game which they described as professional and there is nothing half-baked, and was excellent. Which, honestly, the game was really good. But dad, after reading the article, turned right around and pulled the funding. I had the same accountant back then as my dad, and after my dad died, she told me it was a tax write off for him. Another stunner. At the time, I gave all our employees a month paid to two months paid time. All employees were an hourly wage. Then I reimbursed everyone that had played the game or had bought a packet. It was the right thing to do.

So, I've seen the comments on the Net about it. Most are just not even close to being correct, or even the same ballpark, They just did not know what happened, and I know some of the people that wrote those comments. There was really no way to tell them. I had never experienced anything, before or after, like what actually happened. Most of my time spent out of the office was trying to save the game. I knew it was good, but there were many heated arguments at the end with my dad. Most of my employees took his side, because he was so successful, and had no idea that he was trying to end it. So, it was a F-ing nightmare. There were good people there, too, that worked their asses off, and it was not fair to them. But there were some bad apples, as well, and no one on the outside knew, nor on the inside. But I tried to compensate everyone, when we closed. Nor could I say anything about it.

Plus, I made mistakes, as well. No one had ever tried that design concept, before, at that time. So, I made some stupid errors, as well. But eventually, it all comes down to me, and I am a stand up guy, and I take responsibility for why we closed. I didn't see those things coming. It blindsided me, when I was told to shut down. Thus, the blame lies on me. it was crushing! Dad wouldn't even give me a recommendation, to get another job, so even though I sent resumes out to other companies, there was no work after that. It basically crushed the dream of Game Design, and took the want to even try again out of the equation.

It has been 28 years, since I started it, and I had a love for it - and some talent, as well, even though it was never recognized. We made a solid game, and the game booklet was amazing for back then. With all of the above, I am still proud of what we did, though it never really got a chance to have a following. Soon as we released, the funding was cut. I think that it was less than a month after the Computer Gaming Review article came out. It really was a great game, and a great concept. Playing on four levels of time at the same time. Looking back, now, it never had a chance. The funding was cut, as soon as it released. The lack of morality of some people didn't help, either. So, when it closed, I took the blame for it, the full blame for it - which was my responsibility, as the lead designer. Rightfully so, and in my opinion, when something like that happens (and I had never experienced anything like that, before), you've got to say, Hey, man, the blame is on me." So, I did that. My dad gave me the opportunity to even try it, and for that, I am thankful. It is not his fault. He apologized two years later, after it closed, and said that he felt some of my employees were not loyal, so he started messing around in it, and some of the employees bit. Even though I didn't know, and it was a major shock, it is my fault. I didn't see it.

But with that said, it crushed my dream, and I have no want to, to ever try something else in the field. I still play online games. I enjoy them, and if I see a math error or a design fault, I let that company know. Some listen, some don't, but I still try to help others, so they don't have to go through with what we experienced with Portinium. It is professional courtesy. Some take it and some don't, but I always tried - and even to this day, try to do the right thing. I did the best I could at the time, to put out the best product possible. It was fun to play. It was solid, and it truly was a good game that very few ever got to see.

Which is absolutely crushing.
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Suspense & Decision magazine
From the Article Archives of Issue # 13
[PlayByMail.Net PBM Series]

Why I Choose Play-by-Mail: Reason after reason after reason
Author: Ned Leffingwell

[Note: For this article I will be using the term play-by-mail, even though turn-based game, correspondence game, and other terms are in use today.]

We live in a golden age of gaming, as there are many options when it comes to games and entertainment today. Video and computer gaming are billion dollar industries, and app games have brought gaming to a wider audience. Eurogames and strategy board games are now mainstream and are sold in stores such as Target. Role playing games are over 40 years old and are attracting new and old gamers through the internet and Kickstarter. There is easy access to various types of quality gaming. Out of these choices, why pick play-by-mail gaming?

One reason for choosing play-by-mail gaming is that it allows me to play against many opponents at once. If we exclude party games, most strategy board games have a practical limit to the number of players that can be involved. My favorite board game, Diplomacy, maxes out at 7 players. Play-by-mail games allow for games with many opponents. Games with players in the double digits are the norm. Because the company adjudicates the game turns, usually with computer help, games with many players are easy and feasible. These games give me the feeling that I am a player in a grand struggle of global (or galactic!) scope.

Play-by-mail also gives me access to opponents. Finding opponents for games can be a challenge. We have to coordinate schedules, block off a 2-3 hour (or longer) time slot for the game, and find a place to play. Play-by-mail takes care of those logistics. Opponents are already located and are dedicated to the game. The venue is my own home, office, or wherever I find the time and space to work on my turn. Finding a block of time is not as big of an obstacle. A player does need to invest time into planning and crafting their turn, however they do not need to do it in one sitting. I can work on my turn at my leisure as long as I have it ready by the turn deadline.

Because play-by-mail games are moderated, I can focus on just playing the game. When I gamemaster a session of Dungeons & Dragons, I have to be knowledgeable of all of the game rules, the stats of the player characters, and the plot of the story. When I play a strategy board game, I also have to know all of the rules of the game and make sure that my opponent and I follow them faithfully. When I play a play-by-mail game I can focus on how the game plays and let the moderator do the heavy lifting. While I still need to know the rules and strategy, I focus more on my participation and my enjoyment.

The time factor is another reason I choose play-by-mail games. I used to brew my own beer and wine. Homebrewing involves a lot of work up front and then a lot of patience as you sit and wait for your product to mature. Part of the process is staring at a bottle of wine on the shelf, wondering how the flavors are developing. Time will pass, and as you go about your everyday existence your batch of beer or wine is slowly developing its way to greatness. A play-by-mail turn is the same way. I can ponder correspondences, research plans and rules, and craft strategies. Once I write down the turn, all I have to do is wait for my plans to ferment. Opening an envelope of game results is like opening a bottle of aged wine, and I can savor the sweetness of victory or the bitterness of defeat.

I find that play-by-mail offers a sophisticated gaming experience. My social and cognitive skills are pushed to their limits. I can engage in a complex simulation game that is hard to duplicate in other formats. The time between turns helps to mitigate the industrious task of planning turns. I will probably never be the head of a nation-state or galactic empire, having to juggle alliances while crafting plans of diplomacy and battle. Play-by-mail is the closest that I can come to that experience.
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Suspense & Decision magazine
From the Article Archives of Issue # 13
[PlayByMail.Net PBM Series]

TribeNet PBeM: A Rose Amongst Weeds
Author: Chris Stanifer

In a world inundated with games offering immediate gratification, profoundly predictable gameplay, and near-mindless questing and raids, there are few games left which appeal to those players who favor strategy over flashy graphics, inter-player interaction over PvP, and an immersive, dynamic world over scripted storylines and endless cut-scenes.

TribeNet is one of those games.

Born of the PBM genre in the mid-1980's, TribeNet developed a large following of die-hard strategy and empire building gamers who didn't mind spending 2 weeks pouring over detailed turn reports and maps, contacting allies, arranging trades, or hatching battle plans before jotting down the next turn's orders and sending them off by post. And then waiting. It's what we did, and we loved it. The excitement and suspense we felt when we knew our turn reports were going to arrive was palpable.

TribeNet went through a short list of GM's during those early years, and was eventually turned into a PBeM game with the arrival of the Internet Age. Since 1997, TribeNet has run almost continuously, and has been, for the past 20 years or so, helmed by Peter Rzechorzek ("Peter the Unpronounceable " to many of his long-term gamers).

A complete "re-boot" of the game happened a few years ago, and the world started anew. Many of the Old Guard returned to play in the new version, and a host of new players have joined, as well. We currently boast in excess of 50 players internationally, with more joining every turn.

The beauty of TribeNet for old-school PBM-ers lies in it's nostalgic look and feel....reports are delivered in text format, and mapping is performed by the players themselves (with most of us using Hexographer, which makes map sharing easier.)

The allure for old and new players alike lies in the game's expansive geography, open-ended "story", and near-limitless avenues for expansion and growth (either by the sweat of the brow, or on the backs of your conquered opponents.)

The milieu of TribeNet is very similar to Bronze Age or Iron Age Western Europe, though there are aspects which bring to mind Eastern cultures and the slow advance of knowledge and technology. Steel swords can be used right alongside primitive bone Spears, and warriors wearing plate armor are often pelted with Mongol-inspired Horsebows. Any "fantasy" element is only alluded to in a vague description of the Alchemy skill, and even that is only a rumor.

The primary social/political unit in TribeNet is the "Clan", which can be split into smaller tribes to conduct various activities, build villages, and more. Tribes can be further split into smaller units which are useful for a wide variety of tasks including exploration, Mining, transporting goods, or exploring the vast and mysterious oceans.

There are no pre-designed "classes" in TribeNet...no Clan is pre-destined to be a "Merchant" clan, or a "Warrior" clan, or a "Slave Trader" clan. The player controlling the Clan makes the call on how he/she wishes to run the Clan based on the Skill Attempts chosen each turn during game play. And, the list of skills available is pretty expansive, offering many, many opportunities for deciding which direction you wish to take. It is entirely up to the player.

The first few turns of TribeNet are offered for free, as a sort of "trial period" to see if it is the kind of game for you. After the initial 13 turns or so, turn fees are not extravagant, and, for the entertainment value you can receive, are actually quite reasonable. A player such as myself can easily spend a few hours per day planning, communicating with other players, exchanging maps, and generally enjoying the various aspects of the game. That time requirement is not typical, and most orders can be completed in under an hour for a fairly well established clan. But, you can put as much or as little effort into the game as you wish. That is what sets TribeNet apart from so many of the modern time-sink games which require you to spend a certain amount of time online each day. TribeNet is a hobby, and can be played as such. It is, however, an immensely enjoyable hobby, and I urge any player, from any type of game, to contact Peter and request a start-up.

It won't cost you anything, and you might just stick around to see if you have what it takes to conquer the world!

Chris Stanifer
0421 The Blackrune Free Company

Website: http://tribenet.com.au/
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PBM's Collections
Story
Tagline
The World Headquarters of Play By Mail Gaming
Introduction
Established with an eye to the future, this site's unique purpose is to grow interest through greater Google-ization.

Interest in what? In PBM and turn-based gaming.

Because Google plays such a big role in the Internet of today, Google-ization makes sense for play by mail gaming, and by extension, for the PBM gaming community, at large.

Whether you're new to PBM gaming, or whether you've been itching to give it a try, we hope that you will join us here, from time to time, so that PBM gaming might long endure.