BBS Door History / Amit Patel Interview

GB: In your opinion, what do you think made SRE and BRE stand out from the countless other door games available at the time? What made them unique and secure their place in BBS door history?

Amit: It's hard to be sure. The gameplay based on complex systems was probably a factor. Complex systems are tricky and need a lot of tuning, and I did that by iterating for years, using player feedback and observing player behavior. In return, they can produce fascinating gameplay and interesting decision making and tradeoffs. It was always a goal to have multiple viable winning strategies, not only one.

Yet, as much as I'd like to say gameplay was the main reason, I think another factor that's underappreciated is the attention to detail. I used color and default values in every prompt and menu. I implemented custom input code to handle shortcuts like "13k" for "13,000". I printed numbers with commas for thousands and millions. I took care of singular and plurals, so that you'd see "1 soldier" instead of "1 soldiers". I implemented special cases for plurals like "1 spy" vs "2 spies". I printed numbers in bold colors to make it easy to pull the most important information out of every report. The details made the game more visually appealing and easier to use.

If I had to make up reasons for the success of our games, it would be that visual appeal brought people in, usability kept people playing, and the complex gameplay got people hooked. But I don't really know for sure.



GB: Considering that your games were released as shareware with the option to buy a registration code, was your plan always to make your BBS development a for-profit venture? Can you give us some idea of how many registrations were sold during the most popular BBS years and what sort of impact the revenue had on your life?

Amit: When I first wrote SRE, I had no plans to make money from it. It was just another side project that I was using to learn things. My brother convinced me to make it shareware. He was the businessman, and has gone on to run several successful businesses. Making it into a commercial product instead of just a small side project was a great learning experience. I learned a great deal about customer support, long term code maintenance (something you don't learn with semester-long class projects), cheating, encryption, piracy, marketing, distribution, etc. Paying customers motivated me to improve the game much more than any of my previous free projects.

Unfortunately I don't remember how many SRE registrations we got, but I'm guessing between 1000 and 2000 over 4 years. It's tiny compared to today's games, but keep in mind that the sysop had to register once to allow tens or hundreds of people to play the game forever, and the players never had to pay. There was no recurring payment or in-app purchases. The money from registrations helped me to pay for college tuition.



GB: Why did you eventually cease development of BRE and SRE? Was it due to the rising popularity of the Internet, the pursuit of some other interest, or another catalyst entirely?

Amit: Yes, yes, and yes. I worked on SRE the entire time I was in college. After graduating, I was ready for something different. I had already been on the Internet for those four years, and had little interest in BBSes. Running a business taught me that I don't want to run a business. I'm interested in the technical aspects but not the business aspects. I was also moving to another state to go to graduate school. So it was time to move on.

BRE was mostly my brother's game, and he continued developing games for over a decade after I stopped. He switched to web games and ran a successful web gaming company, Swirve.



GB: You joined Google not long after the company was founded and have made quite a few contributions to it over the years, securing yourself a place in technological history. Given your previous experience, why did you choose a technology path vs. a game development path, and can you give us a quick summary of the projects you worked on at Google?

Amit: I have a wide range of interests and never saw game development as my career, only as a nice hobby. Game development became less interesting to me in the mid-1990s, with an increased interest in consoles, big teams, and big budgets. I became interested in programming language design, and studied that in graduate school. My jobs, including Google, were always related to programming in some way, but also let me explore some of my many other interests. I've written software for scientific equipment, data analysis, visualization, geological exploration, simulation of complex systems, economic modeling, molecular simulation, real estate mapping, trend analysis, and web services. I never did figure out what I wanted to do with my life. In the past few years, indie, social, mobile, tablet, and web games have changed the game development world, and I've become interested in game development again.


GB: To conclude, is there anything you would like people to know about the work you've done outside of BBS door development, or any projects you are actively working on at the moment?

Amit: While working on BBS door games I discovered that I like helping other people make games. Soon after I stopped working on SRE, I built one of the first game development web sites, and I've been updating it for 19 years now. I'm now writing new visual interactive tutorials at redblobgames.com. I also meet with indie game developers, especially to brainstorm about pathfinding, procedural generation, economies, and game design topics. It's been great seeing so much creativity and energy going into games.


GB: Thanks for your time, Amit! Don't forget to check out the GameBanshee BBS!