BBS Door History / Michael Preslar Interview

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Bulletin Board Systems ruled the connected computer world. And helping to drive that supremacy were games, or doors, that allowed connected users thousands of miles away from one another to compete, band together, and socialize. To ensure that this moment in history is not forgotten and to celebrate the classic doors that made it so memorable, we've just launched the GameBanshee BBS where many of the most popular titles can be enjoyed and preserved.

But launching a BBS in 2014 isn't enough, so we've also tracked down some of the greatest door contributors of all time for several new interviews here at GameBanshee. Michael Preslar has played a key role in the BBS scene, as he not only went on to continue developing Legend of the Red Dragon and Legend of the Red Dragon II after Seth Robinson sold them to Metropolis Gameport, but he has also maintained a web-based version for years. On to the Q&A:

GB: When were you first introduced to computers, and how long had you been tinkering with them prior to being introduced to the BBS scene?

Michael: That kind of happened at the same time. My younger brother Joe had a Tandy that he used to get onto the local boards. I remember sitting on the floor in his bedroom, watching him play Lord, BRE, and others. He also had a BBS (though I don't remember what software he ran, Maximus I think). He'd let me sit at the keyboard from time to time, which let me meet some really cool people. In particular, a fellow named Jym Fox.

I got my first computer for Christmas of 1990 when I was 11. Jym helped me get my first BBS up and running, a Remote Access system named "Distributor BBS".

At the time, I couldn't register Lord. My parents weren't comfortable sending a check to some guy they didn't know, and I didn't have a checking account (I was 11, heh). So another friend said, "Hey Mike, you're creative. Here's a copy of Turbo Pascal. Why not make your own version?". 3 days later, I had my first program written. A log file analyzer for FrontDoor. When Jym heard of it, he gave me $50 for a custom copy.

GB: Those of us who spent a considerable amount of time with PCs during the 1980s and 1990s always had a PC model of choice, whether it was an Apple, a Tandy, a Commodore, or a straight-up IBM PC. What model would you consider to be your favorite during these two decades, and why?

Michael: I never really had a favorite flavor of hardware. My first computer was a Compaq 386 with a 40 meg hard drive (which was massive at the time). Looking back, I was lucky. Most boards in the area (Memphis, at the time) were IBM based. So as a programmer, I was learning to write software for the systems that most everyone else used. Made it easy to find people to test and then run the games and apps I made.

GB: For those people who didn't have the opportunity to experience the early days of the BBS, how would you describe its history from your hands-on, dial-in perspective? Are there any notable bulletin board systems that you used to connect to in the "early days" or any interesting BBS stories from your own experience that you can share with us? Did you ever actively run a BBS yourself?

Michael: Might sound odd, but I think BBS'ing back in the day could be compared to the social network websites that we have now. After dialing into a board, you'd have access to games, public messages in the different message boards, private messages between users, and be able to download files. Compare that to, say, Facebook. The graphics are obviously different and the connection speeds are a lot better, but for the end user, its rather similar I think.

One of the larger boards back in the day was Shadowscape, a MajorBBS system with 20-something dial-in lines. I'd log in and head straight to Tournament Lord. After my daily forest fights were used up, I'd head over to the chatroom. Was tremendously cool being able to meet people from all across the area. People didn't judge you by age, grade level or any of that other mess. Instead, people were only concerned about what you could accomplish.

There were a number of "regular" BBS's I'd visit. There was one, "Chessboard" that had an interesting Lord game. He had 30-something IGMs installed but only 10 were acessible at time. The sysop wrote a batch script that would change out Lord's 3rdparty.dat once per day, randomly picking 10 of the IGMs.

There were several other boards that I liked because they had different echonets setup. In particular, I'd read through all of the "Pascal" echos and "BBS Door" echos on Fidonet. On the Pascal echo, there was this one guy from New Zealand. I don't remember his name, but him and I would swap code snippets, and it was his code that taught me time slicing and file sharing. On the "BBS Doors" echos, I got to talk with some really cool people. John Dailey, Joel Gathercole, Rick Parrish, Bryan Turner and many many others. Bryan and I still talk on a regular basis.

GB: Prior to joining Metropolis Gameport, were you involved in the development of any other BBS door games, applications, or standalone PC games? If so, can you describe how this prepared you to take over LORD and LORD2 development months or years later?

Michael: Before Lord, I wrote a lot of stuff. The most popular was probably ElyEdit, which was an ANSI editor like TheDraw, but it could save using other color code sets (like Wildcat's WC Codes, the "pipe" codes, and so on). When Delphi 6 came out, I made a GUI version of ElyEdit and added the ability to draw using your mouse. Crazy thing: I never was any good at ANSI art.

I also wrote a game called Savage Kingdoms. It was kind of a mix of Lord (the text based menus) and Lord2 (the top-down ANSI based menus), written in Turbo Pascal using the DDPlus doorkit. For this game, I had to learn (via the echos) time slicing and file sharing (eventually used in Lord for the "100% CPU" bug). I had to create a map editor (like Lord2's editor). I even wrote a scripting language named "Qu", which I eventually renamed to "Lady" and added to Lord.

I was also involved with a coding group named "Elysium Software". We had maybe a dozen different guys, all releasing stuff under that name. The idea was simple: By releasing under the same name, the group's reputation would grow, which would then give our individual projects more exposure and a better chance of being popular. Some of the guys from the group: Jay Hodges (Backalley Software), Rick Parrish (Manning), Brian Zhou (zoob), Sean Dennis (HausMaus), and Mike Hodgson (Coolio).

I also was pretty heavily involved with BBS related IRC stuff, like SysopsNet and BBSNet. "IRC" being "internet relay chat". At one time, I was teaching Pascal programming via a chatroom. You can still google "BBS Coder's Guide to Pascal Programming" and find the material I wrote.

GB: At what point did Metropolis Gameport actually take over development of Legend of the Red Dragon and its sequel from Robinson Technologies? What has your overall involvement been with the game and its "The New World" sequel since then?

Michael: The way I remember it, Gameport bought all of Seth's stuff in 1997 or so, but then just kind of sat on it for a long time. I remember writing an email to them, June 1999, saying "Please don't let the game die. It still has a lot of potential. At least put out a new version with corrected registration docs.". I knew of several people that had sent the same kind of email without getting a response, but still, Gameport called me the next day.

After the NDAs and other paperwork was signed, Gameport only required that I keep them in the loop about new versions. That eventually changed to me making sure I had the "go ahead" nod from them before releasing a new version. Creatively, Gameport didn't limit or encourage any particular change in the game so I kind of had free reign.

For Lord, the tough part was always finding balance between any new stuff I wanted to do and the way the games had been and the expectations of the game's fans. The first month after signing the paperwork, I got maybe 100 emails - 50 of them saying, "You're not Seth! Leave the games alone!", the other 50 were "Can't wait to see what you can do".

For Lord2, there wasn't much I could do that people would notice. Fix the "100% CPU" bug, sure. But this was about the time that Joel Gathercole was working on his "Lord2: Whole New World". That is: Lord2 with any/every Lord2 addon, map, etc all rolled into one. His work on that kept the game fresh for those that liked it.

For Planets: TEOS, I truely couldn't do much of anything for it. Before selling to Gameport, Seth had a hard drive crash at some point and lost some of the Teos source. The crash left him with the compiled TPUs, but not the pascal files. For me, this meant there were large chunks of code that I couldn't modify, and overall, prevented me from working on the game.

GB: In your opinion, what do you think made Legend of the Red Dragon stand out from the countless other door games available at the time? What made it unique and secure its place in BBS door history?

Michael: There were 2 things, I think.

The first was ease of playability. It was easy for most anyone and everyone to jump in, create a character, and smack around a monster in the forest. Games like Exitilus, Barren Realms Elite and Trade Wars were awesome games (The Arcadian Legends was one of my favs), but they had a learning curve. Lord didn't.

Lord was also easy to customize. Lord had a ton of IGMs, menu sets, monster sets and so on, that allowed for each game to be different and unique. IGMs like LordNet and Interlord added interbbs play, allowing for the different BBS's to compete against each other. Some IGMs were really simple and added to the existing stories and characters (like Violet's Cottage). Other IGMs were so complex, they eventually became door games of their own (like Realm of Kisom).

GB: As the Metropolis Gameport website hasn't been updated in years and they have ceased all communication, can you give us a better idea of what the current state of development is for Legend of the Red Dragon and Legend of the Red Dragon II?

Michael: The current state? The copyrights to Lord, Lord2 and Teos are owned by Gameport, and I can't release a new version without their "go ahead" nod. At one point, I compiled 32bit versions of Lord (one for Win32, and an elf compile for Linux systems). I can't officially release those without Gameport giving me permission. I also created a web version that I can't do anything with. Gameport also handles registrations, and since they're MIA, its unlikely that people would be able to register their copies of the games.

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? Have you ever considered making a new game of your own inspired by Legend of the Red Dragon?

Michael: There were times in the past when I considered making a new game but I never did. Always felt like a conflict of interests. ("Should this new idea go into Lord or into my game? hrmm") But that was when I had the time to start a new project. These days, I spend my free time with my kids. However, my son asked me something the other day.. "Hey dad, Skyrim and Lord have a lot in common.. Dragons, and collecting gold to upgrade your gear, and even bards in the inns. Think you can make a Skyrim mod?"

I don't know, Aidan. I'm sure the Red Dragon lives on somewhere, just waiting...

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