Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Interplay and the Scepter of Goth

After discovering the BBS scene, another place I found quickly (through friends at school) was a multi-line BBS called InterPlay. This BBS had 8 phone lines (3 of which dedicated to Dungeon Masters and Sysops). This was amazing at the time because most BBS systems only had 1 (maybe 2) and each user had to wait turns to call in and log-on. InterPlay had at least 4 levels of users. First was the "Free" user, who paid nothing for the service. Second was the paying user (money for minutes -- I don't recall the conversion rate). The third class was the DM/Moderator (Staff) and the Fourth class of user was Sysop. The Sysop of my Interplay BBS used the alias of Sutter.

The cool thing about Interplay was that it had games that you could play with other people while they were on-line at the same time. This was a novel concept, being that most BBS's were one user at a time. The primary game was The Scepter of Goth. This was a text-based role playing game (similar to the Infocom games of the past) were you went around looking treasure and things to kill. The other draw was an on-line chatroom where users could chat with others that were on-line at the time. I spent hours playing Scepter and chatting in the chatroom. It was this time spent on-line that prompted my parents to get my my own phone line. Evidently my dad tried to call home once and got a busy signal--for several hours.

As a free user, things were very limited. You could go to the chatroom and listen to other people - but the only people who could "hear" you were Sysops and DMs. Sometimes they would "flip a switch" and allow everybody to hear the free users -- but this was frowned upon if it happened too much because that was one of the incentives to pay for use. If a free user tried to play Scepter, they were put into small multi-room world that was separate from the rest of the game. It would give you a taste, but you couldn't interact with anybody else and there wasn't a lot to do.

I knew one of the DM's personally, and he eventually talked Sutter in to letting me have a shot at being a DM on the system (I guess it might have helped that my friend was dating one Sutter's two daughters Badram & Robyn). I remember creating my first "dungeon" area -- it was a real blast -- and I thought it was quite ingenious. It wasn't. When I opened it up, the players had it solved quite quickly. Oh well, it was my first Dungeon. I never did complete my second Dungeon... ...as I recall, the internal politics of the board started heating up (DM's deciding they were going to play Scepter with invincible characters, etc.) The capricious Gods of Interplay (read DM's) kicked people off (had the BBS hang-up on them) for trivial things...and things soon got out of control.

I don't recall what happened to Interplay specifically, but it went down...probably wasn't financially profitable (paying for 8 phone lines could get expensive). It was soon after that that I got hooked to the Motel West.

Interplay was definitely a precursor to todays Instant-Messaging (IM) rooms and the Massively Multiplayer On-Line Role Playing Games (MMORPG).

Friday, July 6, 2007

Technology at 300 baud

I remember spending $200 to buy a modem for my nearly state of the art IBM PCjr. Getting home, I realized that the software that came with it was very lacking and soon found another program (written in Basic, I believe). The modem was specially designed for the PCjr, and instead of using the Hayes compatible "AT" command set, rather used Control-N as the command identifier. (Let me tell you, uploading anything was a nightmare)

Well, this rockstar of a modem cruised along at the blazing fast speed of 300 Baud. Whats a Baud? Simply it is "bits per second". A character (such as the letter "A" or a Control-N) is 8 bits long. And for communication sanity, they used a start bit and a stop bit. So, every character is 10 bits long. (Get it? Ok, it gets less technical from here on out.) In a nutshell, this monster transmitted characters at an amazing 30 characters per second. Now in the pre-Windows(tm) world, most screens were 80 characters across by 25 characters down. Therefore it took almost 3 seconds to transmit a complete 80 character line of text. (Go ahead and count 3 Mississippi's, I'll wait...) And for you math wizards out there, it would take over a minute to fill one screen. A 4MB MP3 file would take 37 hours 56 minutes with no interruptions - though most of what we transfered back and forth was in the 50-200kb range (that would be 0.05-0.20 MB). Of course, this is also back in the days when you could fit your ENTIRE operating system and the program that you were using on one 360kb 5 1/4" Double Density floppy disk.

So, with a list of phone numbers that I got from some people in High School I started dialing into the BBS world. After a few months, I came across one called the Motel West. The sysop (System Operator, or BBS Owner) was named Sir Duke, and befriended me and asked, "Hey, do you want to go meet some of the other users that I know?" I said sure, and he took me to meet Frank Zelba, White Lioness, and GW Hayduke. I told some of my friends about the place - Prof. Faust and Herb Doom...and together we all took over and in many ways, became "The Motel West".

So, here's to all of you who went to coffee at Denny's - It's 2am, do you know where your restaurant is?