BBS Door History / Seth Robinson 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. Seth Robinson is one of the most notable developers from this time, as his company Robinson Technologies is responsible for Legend of the Red Dragon and Legend of the Red Dragon II, some of the most recognizable BBS titles ever created. He also went on to create the CRPG Dink Smallwood and continues to develop video games to this day, but I'll let you read all about it in the interview below:

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?

Seth: I started with a free Commodore-16 that my parents had picked up.  I thought it was amazing.  I could type in simple basic programs (some were included in the manual) and make them run - but I couldn't save them until I was able to convince my parents to also buy a data cassette so I could store them on tape.

It wasn't until years later I was able to upgrade to a Commodore-128 bought from Toys R Us.  I think I got that and a disk drive for $500.

Soon after, I scored a 1200 baud modem for subscribing to Quantum-link (precursor to AOL).   I think my friend Sam got me into that.   Later we realized you could also connect to local bulletin board systems for free.

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?

Seth: In today's lingo, you could sort of describe bulletin board systems as shelling into someone else's system and poking around.  Playing multi-user text games, using forums and such.

The differences were stark though:  Only one person per phone line could use the system, and generally the systems and everyone on  them were local to you. (A kid can't afford to call too much long distance after all!)

This meant you'd often meet the people you were talking with.  We had many a late night run to meet random people: walking to a strangers house to trade software, being picked up and meeting at Denny's at 2 AM, or attending BBS get togethers.

I don't think this kind of thing would fly at all these days.  :)

I was addicted to BBSing.  I HAD to be a sysop too, so I started my own lowly BBS.  But to attract callers, you needed games...

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?

Seth: My BBS was quite sad.  At that time I was running it on the Amiga and had zero games.  I knew I needed an interesting BBS game to attract more callers.  I had written a lot of little single player RPGs in basic by that time, but what I really wanted was more callers.

Trade Wars was a huge inspiration, my friends and I played for hours daily.

GB: At what point did you start actively developing applications for bulletin board systems, and how did this evolve into creating Legend of the Red Dragon?  What influenced you to pursue the role-playing genre versus another type of game entirely?

Seth: LORD begun as a "chat wall" and slowly began to morph into an amalgam of Ninja (a simple fighting game with hitpoints and limited turns per day) and Trade Wars (which had things like a built in chat wall and daily news log with random sayings) .  I probably would have tried a Trade Wars clone if I had any confidence I could understand how the sector warping worked.

I was mostly home schooled and a few months of very basic Turbo Pascal classes was the extent of my computer education.  Without the resources the internet offers today it was pretty slow going, I really didn't have any other programmers to talk to growing up like I do now.  So a simple text BBS door was a perfect fit for my anemic digital skill-set.

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?

Seth: I think at least partially it is because it wasn't created to make money.  I was created by a single kid with an unrepentant clear vision of what it should be.  These days we say "don't read the comments", in those days, there really weren't many comments to read as getting them to me would require a long-distance call or a stamp, so I just put in whatever and was pleasantly surprised by the following the game earned.

The technical side surely didn't win any awards so I assume it was the stories and interesting choices inside the game that people liked.

GB: All of your BBS titles featured relatively heavy use of ANSI and/or RIP graphics, which is of particular interest to me since I spent so much time attempting to make discernable 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?

Seth: I'm a poor artist, all of the artwork for my BBS games was commissioned or donated.  I feel really bad for accepting a lot of donated art for "New World" and never finishing the game, wasting the artist's time.

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?

Seth: LORD was a "Darkside" (my bbs name) original for quite a while.  I was proud to have a game nobody else had.  At some point, some people asked if they could purchase the game for their own BBS and I packaged it up.  I sold seven copies or so the first year before deciding to write it again for the PC, as that's where all the action was.  (Until that happened, it only ran on only one rather unpopular Amiga BBS software)

The money did roll in and I sold maybe around 30k registrations of my various DOS doors, and then moved on to special versions created for Major BBS with extra real-time multi-player features that kept the income flowing.  During the DOS door days at the peak I made $500 a day, all from receiving letters in the mail.  Later with MajorBBS, I remember a few $1200 days.   (LORD for that version sold for $300 a pop, so it didn't take many sales to add up)

It was a fun time.  Bought a house with a giant barn to work in.  Furnished it with arcade and pinball machines and 8 phone lines: partly for the BBS I ran, and partly for my friends and I to have all night Ultima Online sessions!

GB: Why did you eventually cease development of Legend of the Red Dragon and Legend of the Red Dragon II?  Was it due to the rising popularity of the Internet, the pursuit of some other interest, or another catalyst entirely?

Seth: BBS sales, and indeed, usage, had slowed to a crawl - there wasn't any point to continue working on the BBS games.  I considered them done.

To help pay a rather large tax bill, I sold them to Metropolis/Gameport (who called and made an offer out of the blue) on the condition that they would continue to support those who had purchased the game.   By then, Dink Smallwood was nearing completion and I decided to put all my energy into that. I knew the BBS days were over for good.

However, that said, I recently tried to buy-back my BBS games but was unable to get a reply.  LORD 3 for mobile, anyone?

GB: In addition to your work on LORD, LORD2, and Planets: The Exploration of Space, you also developed and released a humorous action RPG entitled Dink Smallwood in 1997.  Can you share some history on the development of the game, and the eventual release of Dink Smallwood HD for a number of platforms?  Why did you decide to go with a single player title after working on multiplayer BBS titles for so many years?

Seth: My dream had always been to creative an RPG, and I'd finally found the right artist (Justin Martin) to make it with me.  The BBS games funded the development of Dink, but Dink didn't really make enough to fund much else.  I ended up doing contract work to the pay the bills and eventually was forced to work on the iPhone, and later, Android, as part of of the hired fun work I was doing.

This turned out to be a great thing as it gave me the knowledge and cross-platform skills I would need to port several of my older games to mobile - including Dungeon Scroll and Dink, which still sells today, despite the desktop version being made freeware.

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?

Seth: The heart of LORD was always the social interaction (flirting, messages, etc), not just the fighting.  My latest project (created with collaborator Mike Hommel) is Growtopia.

It has taken those concepts a step farther - instead of many smaller games running like with LORD, we run a single giant server with two million players and up to 16,000 online at once.  Sort of Mario Bros meets Ultima Online, with the sandbox building of Minecraft.

It's a bizarre mixture but from the first minute of gameplay it will surprise, excite, and horrify you, because it lets people be people, for better or worse.

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