BBS Door History / John Pritchett 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 creators of all time for several new interviews here at GameBanshee. One of the most noteworthy and highly regarded games in the history of BBS doors is TradeWars, and while he wasn't the initial creator, developer John Pritchett has been involved with the development of the sci-fi strategy title for two full decades. Read on for our chat with John regarding his contributions to the game and its continued popularity over the many years since its inception:

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: I remember my step-mom was an early adopter of the IBM PC, and she spent about $4,000 for one of the original, basic IBM PC systems. That was back in 1982, I believe. It had dual floppy drives, but no hard drive. I remember playing Zork and other Infocom games on that machine. But my first machine was actually a Vic 20, followed soon after by a Commodore 64. I taught myself to program on those machines. Sprite and ASCII games. Peeks and pokes. I worked for awhile on a 4 inch monitor! I still have the first game I wrote, saved to a cassette drive. I doubt there's anything still on that tape, unfortunately.

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?

John: After my early years on the Commodore and Vic 20, I graduated to my first PC compatible early in college. I've been a PC guy since then. I've always built my own and I'm into the whole overclocking scene.

GB: 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? What ultimately led to your decision to begin work on TradeWars?

John: I wasn't an early adopter of BBSs. In fact, aside from a few brief visits to BBSs using work or school modems, I didn't have much experience with them until after I met Gary Martin, the original developer of TradeWars 2001 and 2002, and learned about his game. Interestingly, I had watched a friend, Ed, playing the game at a local college, UMKC, where he was an editor of the college newspaper that was publishing a comic strip I drew at the time. I found it mildly intriguing, but then went back to playing Lemmings with my friend.

A few years later, after I'd lost touch with Ed, I ran into him at an interview for a company called MultiService, which some serious BBSers will recognize as the parent company of Metropolis and later GamePort, but whose primary business was to process fuel credit cards for automobile and aviation fleets. It turns out Ed had left the university, where he was pre-med, and approached the owner of MultiService, where he had taken a job in the mail room, to pitch the idea of buying out Gary Martin's Metropolis BBS and turning it into a major, multi-state BBS network. The owner liked the idea, and he brought Gary and his wife, MaryAnn, to work for him running the massive BBS, which kept the name Metropolis, and was eventually active in all of the then Big 8 college towns (Metropolis and TradeWars were born in Lawrence, Kansas, home of the University of Kansas, and that's where Gary continues to live).

Long story short, I was working at MultiService for about 3 months before I met Gary Martin (I rear-ended his minivan on the way to work!). From that day on, I split my time between writing a paperless billing system and helping Gary and MaryAnn run Metropolis. Eventually Gary gave me the opportunity to take over support for TradeWars and I took him up on it. It didn't take long for me to realize that, of the two paths, I was much more interested in game development than developing financial software. So I left my job, moved back in with my mom, and went to work with Martech to write a sequel to TradeWars. What I eventually completed was TradeWars v3.

So that's my full experience with BBSs, having worked at Metropolis back in the early 90s (93-94).

GB: Were there any specific doors or PC games that you played prior to starting work on TradeWars that you used as a point of reference or inspiration?

John: No. In my efforts to document the history of TradeWars and door games in general, I did learn about many BBS door games later, including the original Tradewars by Chris Sherrick that came before Martin's version, as well as many TW variants that came after. My favorite non-TW door would be Legends of the Red Dragon by Seth Able Robinson. I actually approached Robinson to take LORD off his hands, but MultiService beat me to it by a month!