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Play By Mail Game Design for the 21st Century: An Excavation of Seminal PBM Thought
At times, I don't know whether I feel more like a grave robber or an archaeologist, as I try to sift through the remains of a once-thriving PBM industry. The core issue to me is not whether play by mail was a cottage industry or not, but whether the industry, however else it may be described, was thriving or not. The evidence that I have compiled, to date, is in favor of the proposition that PBM was, indeed, once a thriving industry.

So, what happened? I'm glad that you asked. In a nutshell, if I had to sum it up in just one word, then that word would be "change." Things changed. The world changed. Gamers' taste in gaming entertainment changed.

Ironically, though, the very things that made PBM games great never changed. If you were to sit down to design a brand new PBM game from scratch, today, you could certainly do a lot worse than to read an article originally authored by Rick McDowell, of Alamaze and Fall of Rome fame, a couple of decades or so ago. The article in question is titled: PBM Design in the 90's

This article is an example of what I consider to be seminal thinking, when it comes to comprehending what is needed, in order for the PBM industry - postal gaming, especially and in particular - to become a thriving industry, once more.

That day, of course, may never arrive. It may simply never happen, and the world will continue to turn, regardless of whether postal gaming makes a successful comeback or not. The future of the world does not hinge upon play by mail. However, I dare say that the world would be none the worse for wear, if a new PBM industry arose from the ash heap of the old.

For many gaming enthusiasts, PBM used to be the brightest star in the sky, a beacon that shone in the heavens, the gemstar in the constellation of gaming. The last couple of decades have seen PBM gaming fall into disfavor, shunned and cast aside, it's golden glow slowly tarnishing. The bright star of PBM has, in recent years, been flooded out by an influx of massively multiplayer games of all shapes, sizes, and genres, with the gaming public fixated upon a visual smorgasbord of graphics and frenetic mouse clicks.

As infatuation with the surface appearance begins to fade, gamers are re-learning lessons that they were already all too familiar with. With many of these Digital Age games, their beauty has turned out to only be skin deep. In comparison, many PBM games enjoyed rather lengthy lifespans, compared to many of their modern-day non-PBM counterparts. When the eulogy for PBM was given in other gaming circles all those many years ago, and even within PBM circles, for that matter, PBM Gaming's days were numbered.

Except that, all these many years later, those of us gathered here still find ourselves counting. While it is indisputable that, along the way, many individual PBM games and many PBM companies fell by the wayside, giving up the ghost willingly or went down fighting, PBM, itself, still hasn't died. Apparently, the long foretold and long prophesied death was greeted with such anticipation and a somber mood that, in all the rush and excitement to usher in a new era of technology (and by consequence and extension, a new era in gaming), the whole affair turned out to be a funeral without a body. Everyone was in such a tizzy to read the obituary, that no one bothered with conducting an autopsy. Because no one could bear to see their beloved PBM gaming die, PBM's funeral was a closed casket ceremony.

In case you didn't comprehend that, I will rephrase. PBM isn't dead. It's still here. It's still alive. And, yes, it's still changing. The face of the PBM industry changed before (many times, in fact), and it is changing, once more. Even now, we are in the midst of one of these phases of perpetual change.

The good thing about the PBM industry reaching the bottom of the proverbial barrel is that, when you're at the bottom, there's nowhere to go but up.

The postal service, itself, may well, indeed, be a dinosaur. Yet, it is still with us, even today, all of its critics and all of the criticism heaped upon it, notwithstanding. For all of the talk of transitioning towards a paperless society, the reality of life is such that I probably interact with more paper, today, than at any point over the course of my entire life.

The worst thing about Rick's article in question is that it is as short as it is. PBM is all the poorer for it, too, but likewise, PBM is all the richer for articles like this one by Rick McDowell.

Excavation is often times tedious and time consuming work. Unearthing and displaying valuable pieces of PBM history like this article by Rick McDowell help to make all of the time and effort worthwhile. In the PBM sense, it's a lot like robbing King Tut's tomb.

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