BBS Door History / Amit Patel 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. Amit Patel and his brother Mehul Patel were key contributors to the BBS scene, as they created some of the most popular titles - namely Solar Realms Elite and Barren Realms Elite - that quickly became staples to every BBS that featured doors.  Both have continued to stay involved in video game development in some capacity, though it's clear from the below Q&A with Amit that their ambitions are wide and quite extensive:

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?

Amit: I got to use play with TRS-80 for a few weeks in 1981. The TRS-80 had "character block" graphics. You can get a sense of what these looked like by looking at the Unicode range U+2596 through U+259F (??????????). I used these block characters to make animations of pac-man and ghosts; that was my first taste of programming, and the first sense that I might be able to make my own games.

A few years later, our family got a Commodore 64, and that was when I really started to learn how to program. I learned quite a bit by typing in programs from books and magazines, and then modifying them. The process of typing it in forced me to study the program structure and details in a way that merely loading it off disk would never have. One book in particular I loved was David Ahl's "BASIC Computer Games"; in that book were the seeds of games like SRE.

By the time I saw a BBS in 1990, I had learned BASIC, Logo, COBOL, FORTRAN, Pascal, C, C++, Prolog, and a few other languages, on several different computer systems.

This may come as a surprise but I never really got into the BBS scene. I think I saw BBSes for the first time in early 1990, and by late 1990, I discovered the Internet. So by then BBSes weren't that exciting to me.

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?

Amit: The PC wars in the early 80s led to lots innovation. I especially admired the Amiga. By the late 80s though, the innovation I cared about was with software, not hardware. I was glad I had an IBM PC, which offered a wide variety of languages and tools for writing your own software. Borland in particular made affordable language compilers, like Turbo Pascal for DOS.

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?

Amit: I wasn't active on BBSes except our my brother's BBS, where we supported the games we wrote. SRE was just another fun project to learn things. So I don't have many BBS stories to tell. It had only been a few months of being on BBSes before I got on the Internet, and after that, BBSes seemed so small and limited. I occasionally called a few local BBSes but most of my activity was on the Internet. Usenet in particular was great, a place where I got to participate in discussions with programmers from around the world. Those discussions in the early 1990s eventually led to what I do now.

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?

Amit: I had been developing standalone PC games long before the BBS door games. I saw my brother play Space Empire Elite, and that reminded me of some of the standalone PC games I had worked on (inspired by the games from David Ahl's book). I had some free time that summer so I thought I'd try it. I didn't realize that it'd last more than a summer.

GB: At what point did you start actively developing applications for bulletin board systems, and how did this evolve into creating Solar Realms Elite and Barren Realms Elite? What influenced you to pursue the strategy genre versus another type of game entirely?

Amit: Solar Realms Elite was the first BBS door game I wrote, in the summer of 1990. I loved the strategy, economic simulation, and abstract combat games from David Ahl's book (Hammurabi, King, Fur Trader, Civil War, Combat, and others). In writing games, I learned about math, economics, complex systems, chaos theory, feedback systems, and lots of other things. Things like "predator-prey equations" are absolutely fascinating to me. When I saw Space Empire Elite for the Atari BBSes, I wanted to write something similar for the PC, but with my own gameplay based on the various mathematical simulation systems I had been playing with.

The feedback systems for the planets were based on mean/variance tradeoffs (statistics), supply/demand (economics), and derivatives/integrals (calculus). The pricing systems were based on superlinear (exponential) and sublinear (logarithmic) growth (an option the sysop could pick when creating a game), as well as supply/demand. Combat was based on non-linear response curves, and I implemented several different attack types to provide tradeoffs those curves. I've written up some notes on these systems here.

In part I was learning these systems in order to write games, but in part I was writing games to learn these systems. BBS door games gave me the opportunity to learn these kinds of systems in an asynchronous multiplayer setting.

As for why I picked the strategy genre, I didn't limit myself to strategy games, but the other games I wrote didn't become popular, so you didn't hear about them. :-)