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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. :-)
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!