BBS Door History / John Dailey Interview

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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 creators of all time for several new interviews here at GameBanshee. John Dailey was one such developer that we wanted to speak to, as his company John Dailey Software released one of the most ambitious RPGs ever created for the BBS world: Dungeon Master. This ANSI graphics-heavy title featured real-time multiplayer and a construction set so that players around the globe could create their own modules for players to explore. John also went on to acquire several classic games from Mehul Patel (including Barren Realms Elite) and still manages them to this day, so we had quite a bit to talk to him about:

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?

John: In my Junior High School year an optional "Introduction To Computers" course was available. It was around 1985 and the classroom was stocked with Radio Shack TRS-80 Model IIIs. I knew nothing about computers at the time and ended up disliking the class because of the way it was taught. Two years later in High School I took a similar course again and ended up loving it.

This image is my first computer art school project drawn on a TRS-80 graphics paper sheet and the handwritten BASIC program to display it. After much prodding, I was finally able to convince my parents to purchase our first computer at home -- a used IBM PCjr -- and over the summer I taught myself GWBASIC from the IBM manual it came with. I eventually took higher level programming courses in school and a few years and computers later, acquired my own Tandy 1000 EX complete with a 1200 baud modem.

This image is the 1983 IBM PCjr's manual documenting Microsoft's BASIC that changed my life forever. In high school, my best friend's brother operated a well-known BBS and maintained a famous BBS list (The Orlando Complete BBS Listing). It wasn't long before I was dialing down that list.

GB: Those of us who spent a considerable amount of time with PCs during the 1980's and 1990's 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?

John: I was exposed to a variety of machines (Commodore 64, Apple II, TRS-80, Tandy 1000, IBM XT) and can't say that I really had a model of choice. Rather, it was more a question of what I had the most access to -- which wound up being the Tandy 1000 series. My High School was stocked with them and they were very similar to the IBM PCjr I had at home. In particular, I enjoyed GWBASIC and fondly remember the 16 colors of the Tandy and PCjr. This image is my still-working Tandy 1000 EX, 1200 baud modem and external floppy drive now relegated to life in my display cabinet. 

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?

John: The dial-up portion of BBS history, in my opinion, was a short-lived, amazing spectacle. It felt utterly geek and underground and by the time Information Society released their "Peace And Love INC." album with a track entitled "300 BPS N,8,1 (Terminal Mode Or Ascii Download)" we knew well what to do with it. There are many of us that will forever have modem initialization strings like "ATQ0V1X4" stuck in our heads.

Some had email routed to our BBS via the Internet before the World Wide Web became a household name. It wasn't instant and in my case arrived in a packet delivered by my network hub after having been received by satellite up-link from the local university. It was amazing to watch this stuff actually work -- particularly because it was so hands-on -- and with your modem speaker on, you could often tell if it was your network hub or a visitor calling just by the sound characteristics of the connecting modem.

When I first was exposed to bulletin boards, a 2400 baud modem was fairly new. I remember eagerly anticipating each modem speed boost and watching it (essentially) top out with 56k. It wasn't long after that the World Wide Web was well in the spotlight and the decline of the dial-up BBS began, only to be followed a few years later by a small revival thanks to the Telnet protocol.

I spent most of my time on local bulletin boards systems and my interesting BBS stories revolve around hanging out in person with those I had met through the BBS community (and probably best left out of publication :) I did run my own BBS and also at one time had a network of volunteer bulletin board systems around the United States that mirrored my software and message board and helped with testing and support.

GB: What ultimately led to your decision to develop BBS door games rather than a standalone PC game? Were there any specific doors or PC games that you played prior to developing your own that you used as a point of reference or inspiration?

John: I actually did develop standalone games and programs before writing BBS door games, but most were learning tools, experiments or unfinished explorations. I spent many hours developing an adventure game in the style of the original King's Quest I game as one of my early projects.

These images are pencil sketches of individual screens for my adventure game project. Hanging out with the local BBS community, particularly sysops who were good friends, fueled my desire to develop BBS utilities and doors. With some exceptions, most of my projects in the early days were attempts to make better versions of others' software already in use. However, you can definitely see major influences and inspiration of the original "Wizardry" PC games and Interplay's "The Bard's Tale" (and later, the Construction Set) in Dungeon Master and it's own Construction Set. You'll probably find influence of the original Sierra adventure games like Kings Quest, Space Quest and others as well.

GB: At what point did you start actively developing applications for bulletin board systems, and how did this evolve into creating Dungeon Master and the Dungeon Master Construction Kit? What influenced you to pursue the strategy and role-playing genres versus another type of game entirely?

John: Around 1994 I started experimenting with developing BBS software and testing it on friends' bulletin board systems. My first "official" door was a Graffiti Wall where visitors could leave messages for the next visitor. It was simple but packed with features and I remember really cutting my teeth on dealing with COM ports, modem speeds and the variety of BBS door dropfile formats for the first time.

This image is my first door, a graffiti wall program that let you leave messages for all visitors when they logged in. Most of my projects after that were also BBS related and included a number of games and utilities as well as a pixel-based ANSI graphics editor and an ANSI music editor created in collaboration with a friend.

I had grown up playing strategy and role-playing games and by time Seth Robinson's famous "Legend of the Red Dragon" made its way to every BBS in my neck of the woods, I was toying with the idea of making a less menu-driven role-playing BBS game. It wasn't until I stumbled upon a 3D maze door game called "The Mines of Gorr" that I was really inspired. Mines of Gorr was interesting in that it proved simple 3D in ANSI was possible, but I wanted to push the limits and create something more graphically rich, robust and not limited to just one genre or story.

GB: In your opinion, what do you think made Dungeon Master, in particular, stand out from the countless other door games available at the time? What made the game unique and secure its place in BBS door history?

John: Dungeon Master was one of the very few door games to attempt 3D environments in ANSI text. I believe it to be one of the most flexible and graphically rich doors available. While there are a handful of 3D ANSI maze-games, I am not aware of any that let you construct your own adventure games complete with stories, art, objectives, rules, custom maps and combat like Dungeon Master.

This image is a snapshot of some of my brainstorm sketches created while trying to figure out how to implement more graphical 3D views in ANSI. The numbers on the 3D perspective sketch (left) indicate the wall segments (right) that are visible to the player when traveling down a long hallway with a dead-end. 

GB: How did you wind up working with Mehul Patel and acquiring Barren Realms Elite, Falcon's Elite, Falcon's Honor and The Arcadian Legends? Are the two of you still in contact to this day?

John: My memory may be faulty, but I believe Mehul contacted me and mentioned that he was looking for someone to take over development and support of Barren Realms Elite, Falcon's Eye, Falcon's Honor and The Arcadian Legends. I had previously worked with Joel Bergen to ensure that his Global War and Global Backgammon door games would continue, which may have prompted the inquiry or had some influence. Unfortunately, the code to Solar Reams Elite had already been lost, so I wasn't able to help with that particular door. It's been around 17 years and Mehul and I haven't spoken since that time, but my impression was that he was ready to move on from the BBS world, especially with the growth of the Internet and World Wide Web.

GB: All of your BBS titles featured relatively heavy use of ANSI, which is of particular interest to me since I spent so much time attempting to make discernible imagery with TheDraw during my personal BBS years. What can you tell us about the work that was put into creating the graphics for your games, and how much of the graphical work did you do yourself?

John: I loved using color and art in my software, and strove to provide unique and less utilitarian-style interfaces. Thankfully, modem speeds rapidly increased and allowed for complex art and scenes as seen in games like Dungeon Master.

Most of the graphic work was done by myself with some contributions from various donors and friends. In my early BBS days, I was a member of one of the lesser-known ANSI Art Groups and created large numbers of original ANSI art using programs like TheDraw and R.A.G.E. (Rapid ANSI Graphics Engine -- a pixel-based ANSI editor I wrote myself). While never nearly as good as the artists in art groups like ACiD or iCE, I did get lots of practice melding those 256 ASCII characters and 16 colors into something pleasant to look at.

Most of my own ANSI work was done free-hand from scratch and involved squinting a lot. I generally rough-out my shapes with simple gray boxes first and later fill in the detail with colors and shading characters. Most of my game-specific artwork is static images and simple colors and characters. In Dungeon Master however, there are many different parts and pieces that were drawn separately and later combined or drawn over top of other ANSI as the game is running.

A friend of mine also introduced me to a technique using a clear acetate sheet to create a template of sorts. You would draw your sketch on the acetate with a marker, tape it to your monitor and "trace" the sketch. You still end up having to translate the lines to blocks obviously, but it can make it easier to get started or help with proportions. The pixel-based ANSI editors (such as my own R.A.G.E.) can make drawing a bit more natural and can convert bitmap images, but I still prefer the manual approach.

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

John: I've released a mix of shareware and freeware over the years and I can't say that I've ever had a plan of "for-profit." I simply enjoyed writing software that other people liked. The funds raised have always been used to partially pay for things like telephone lines, shareware registrations, internet connectivity, domain names, hosting and the like, all relating to the software.

Most of my original software has only seen moderate registrations. I acquired Global War/Backgammon, BRE, FE, FH and TAL long after their popularity and the numbers of active bulletin board systems had wained, and didn't significantly benefit financially from them. Nor was that ever my intent -- I merely wanted to make sure that they always had a "home" and were somewhat supported. I was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time to help ensure that.

Global War and Barren Realms Elite still remain relatively popular and generally more popular than the other games in my library. Since I began stewardship of the software almost 20 years ago, Global War/Backgammon and the SRGames have only seen a few hundred registrations total. In their lifetimes, though, Global War and Global Backgammon have had over 5,000 registrations together. It's more difficult to tabulate the numbers for the SRGames, but I expect the combined total of BRE, FE, FH and TAL to be higher.

GB: Why did you eventually cease development of Dungeon Master and your other titles? As you've continued to operate John Dailey Software, is there any chance you'll revisit or modernize any of the games in the future?

John: Development hasn't really ceased, and yes there is a good chance for future releases. I think about the products often and work on them from time-to-time and a few years ago I finally was able to move all of the source code into a version control system to help archive, backup and keep track of changes. I have had the assistance of some individuals in the community to help port the games (particularly updating them to native 32 and 64 bit), but donated time from others is rare and valuable. With my work and family these days it's tough, but there's always a trickle of development.

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?

John: Like others, my work and hobbies have migrated largely toward the Internet and Web. Just over a decade ago I developed the gaming site as a repository for community-made gaming maps for popular first-person PC games. If you've ever enjoyed PC games like Quake or Unreal Tournament, you'll probably appreciate it as well.

My biggest challenge these days is dealing with forgotten and lost registrations for the old BBS software. I'm working on a system to help automate them as it is by far the most common support email I get.

I also get many inquiries and requests for web versions of many of the games in my library. There are some things in development, but I don't want to divulge any details at this point.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

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