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PBM is dead! Long live PBM!
PBM is both dead and vibrantly alive, depending on how you look at it.

I played a number of classic PBM games back in the 80s -- Battle Plan, Its A Crime, Monster Island, Silverdawn, Out-Time Days, and a few others. And the grand-daddy of all close-ended computer-moderated space empire games -- Empyrean Challenge. I spent hundreds of dollars, obsessed over drafting orders, waited with extreme anticipation for the mail to come, collaborated and conspired often, and even ran a newsletter for my team on EC. At intervals I wanted to run my own PBM game.

The reason I dropped off had nothing to do with the internet. It had a fair amount to do with the *expense* of it all. And there was the perennial problem of having other players drop out -- usually well over 50%, even for games that held a deposit. And finally, some games were starting to become available to scratched that itch while playing them at home -- board games and computer games.

But if you are reading this, you are fan enough to know that there is nothing like a well-done PBM experience. The contact with other players, the laying of long-term plans, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, etc. Board games can't quite match it, because they're over in one night and you don't really have a chance to connive with fellow gamers much. Computer games can't come close unless they are multi-player, but ultimately fall short for the same reason - they are completed quickly and the pace allows for nothing other than action and grind.

So I miss PBM, big time. But even if the PBM community were as alive and vibrant as its heyday in the 80s, I still probably would not re-enter the fray. For the same reasons. It's too expensive, too many players drop out, and there are many other types of games out there.

I pine for it, as I sit with my Friday night buddies, playing Settlers of Catan and whatever else. I even showed them some of my old turn results, rulebooks, and newsletters (drawing blank stares).

BUT, PBM is still ALIVE, I say! Not just alive - it is booming! Just not in its present form. You need look no further than Facebook. That new genre of "casual games" has taken the web by storm. Games like Farmville, Mafia Wars, etc, have enormous player bases and draw revenue streams that would dwarf what Flying Buffalo took in at its peak, I daresay. Yet they bear many of the same hallmarks as PBM games -- periodic cycles of play, social interaction, excitement and addiction over each new round of play.

And now, lo and behold, one of the great computer games of all time -- Civilization -- is preparing a Facebook version called Civ World. THAT will be a PBM game in all ways except delivery.

So basically, "classic" PBM fans need to move our focus just a little bit and see the opportunities that the dreaded internet - slayer of postal gaming - has made available to us all.

Vern Holford (who ran Empyrean Challenge) is working up a re-release of EC. It is in Beta-testing now. But this time, you send in your turns via FTP, get your new turns emailed to you, and use an Access-based client to interact with the game -- inspecting your ships and space colonies, issuing orders, viewing star charts -- all far more easily than in the old days of paper and pencil. I don't know Vern's ultimate plans, but I suggested that he consider building a web-based version and serving it up for "free" (with revenue from banner ads and fees for "premium content").

I am so into this idea that I am back to considering my own PBM game. PBweb, to be more precise. Free to join, fun to play, casual internet play, persistent environment, with a base revenue from advertising to pay for hosting.

I had thought that the classic PBM genre was quite dead, and was very pleased to learn that many companies are still offering games along the same lines as in the 80s. I wish them all good luck! But I am not going to sink hundreds of dollars into their games. I urge them to move up to a new funding model, and unleash their epic talents on a ripe new audience of modern gamers.
Being on a slow dial-up Internet connection, and connecting to the Internet at anywhere from 24K to 26.4K, the downloads for even trying games such as Empyrean Cluster Wars (the descendant of Empyrean Challenge) are an obstacle, in and of themselves. That's why I haven't tried that game, yet.

That aside, I have yet to find an interface for a newer generation PBM or PBM-type game that I would rate as intuitive, per se. Some are clearly better than others, but all that I have tried, to date, have their respective drawbacks. Fighting the interface helps to kill player interest, and also helps to keep newer games from reaching their full potential as a medium of entertainment.
I will admit that the Access-based interface for Empyrean Cluster Wars is prickly and non-intuitive. Vern and his team are working out the kinks during this beta period. I myself have a strong preference for web-based interfaces which do not require me to run client software locally on my machine. (I made an exception for Vern.) I also think it's clunky to require users to send their turns in via FTP.

A web interface should be well designed and perhaps even customizable by the player. It should handle everything server-side. And as such, it would not present much of a problem for even a dial-up connection unless you're doing heavy animations or Flash-based stuff. Since PBM is print-based, it can readily be delivered via HTML, without needing to resort to animated/dynamic images. We're not talking World of Warcraft, here.

Your point is well-taken, especially considering that most applications and web sites don't have good user-interface design.

For simple PBM-like games (like Mafia Wars), the interface is very tight and simple (perhaps frustratingly so). It would be a challenge to deliver a richer PBM-like experience through point-and-click forms, but certainly doable. I intend to try, anyway.
I haven't seen the interface for Empyrean Cluster Wars, yet, but being Access-based, as in Microsoft Access database type, can be both a plus and a negative for the game. Many certainly are already familiar with Access, but I doubt that such would appeal to the uninitiated. But, again, it really would just depend on how it felt to the end user.

A plus side to sending turns in via FTP is that FTP uploads and downloads tend to be faster than web based ones, but they are likely aiming for a broadband based audience, to which any upload or download times would be negligible, I am inclined to think.

As far as most web sites not having a good user interface, I agree. Heck, I would even apply that characterization to the website in use here on the PlayByMail.Net site, although it is always desirable to continually improve on that aspect of things. So, I can certainly relate. Designing a user-friendly and intuitive interface for a game would likely be a challenge that exceeds designing a user-friendly and intuitive interface for a website, by far.
Well, if the game involves delivering text and receiving text inputs, then is it really different from a web site? The old Empyrean Challenge, which held me in such thrall and sucked so much from my wallet back in the old days, was essentially just that. I received my turn as a computer printout consisting entirely of text, and I sent back a carefully coded set of orders. Preparing those orders was quite a task, in fact, because an error in a simple "move" order could cascade and break a series of follow-up orders.

A web interface can perform basic validation of orders quite easily, ensuring people get things done in the right order, without any obvious mistakes. And it can certainly display text and tables of numerical data with no trouble. Making it all print-friendly would be a bit more work...

So diving into my Facebook concept a bit deeper -- I played Mafia Wars fairly obsessively for a few weeks. Dirt-simple game (and interface), yet somehow it appealed to me as a little persistent universe I could tweak on my lunch break as needed, and watch my little empire grow. It was too small for a real gamer like me, though, which led me to drop it along with Farmville. But that's where I think the great genius minds of the classic era of PBM could reign supreme. They understand fitting a user experience through a text pipeline better than anybody!

While I'm on the subject, I think World of Warcraft could count as a PBM-like. It's very visual, of course, but it involves developing your position over extensive periods of time, in cooperation with your teammates and in conflict with the enemy. The users think they are playing a computer game (which they are), but they are also playing a PBM game. Or no? What are your thoughts?
(01-07-2011, 06:47 PM)ixnay Wrote: While I'm on the subject, I think World of Warcraft could count as a PBM-like. It's very visual, of course, but it involves developing your position over extensive periods of time, in cooperation with your teammates and in conflict with the enemy. The users think they are playing a computer game (which they are), but they are also playing a PBM game. Or no? What are your thoughts?

I've never played World of Warcraft. Some things simply would not be practical on a slow dial-up Internet connection.

That said, I did play a lot of Warcraft II, back in the day, and Starcraft, as well. Lots of repetitious destruction, but fun, nonetheless.

I don't believe that text can really die, as a medium for gaming entertainment, simply because reading isl never likely to become obsolete. Where old school play by mail games are concerned, the player's imagination was a de facto substitute for graphics. While turn orders and turn results manifested themselves on paper, the games, themselves, were played out in players' minds. Computer graphics are ever at a disadvantage to an imagination that is engaged. At least, that's how I perceive things to be.

Where Hyborian War is concerned, if I may use that as an example, I have far more means at my disposal, these days, to communicate quickly and efficiently. However, communication in the current day and age utterly pales in comparison to communication in the pre-Internet days, in terms of how inter-player communication imbues Hyborian War with a greater veneer of quality. The conniving bastards of today simply pale in comparison to the conniving bastards of yesteryear.
World of Warcraft is different from Warcraft 2. It's basically a first-person shooter game, in a fantasy setting, where you wander around exploring a persistent universe. I haven't played it myself, but have watched it being played. You go on quests (often monotonous -- "go kill 12 wolves and bring me their pelts!"), and join with others to form guilds, which is the only way to conduct player-v-player war or to delve into the most difficult areas of the virtual world.

The thing that most makes me tag WoW as PBM in disguise is the obsession of its players. Reminds me of when I was explaining EC to a new girlfriend back in the day, with my gaming-partner-brother standing next to us. Apparently we got so animated just talking about it that she started laughing in delight -- "you're just so INTO it!"

Another modern analogy might be fantasy sports leagues -- same level of enthusiasm from the players. A friend of mine was the "commissioner" of his league for years until it got to be too much for him and he "retired".

PBM in the old sense is rather long in the tooth, but still we have so many people playing so many games with such similar experiences! It kind of reminds me of the foreboding gloom that has descended upon the newspaper business -- this in an era where people are reading more news than ever before. It's just *different* now. But it's still here.
I don't think it is dead, just tat the old guard have ...dies out so to speak. Younger people nowadays prefer some thing more tangable and quick to see results. Not their fault its th way the world/media/gaming has progressed.

A quick look at players ages will show not many if any under 30, in serious PBM that is.
Hm, this is a thread similar to one I posted last Fall; the title is the exact same... where did that original post go? If I remember, it had some interesting discussion.

Anyways, I generally agree with ixnay on several points.

Thec core of PBM games can be characterized (IMHO) by these features:
  • Turn based play (also: long turns)
  • Asynchronous
  • Multiplayer
  • Massive scale (aka, epic or "space" opera-y)
  • Great Depth (in terms of # of possible actions)
  • Lack of instant feedback to create suspense/anxiousness
  • Imagination based (as opposed to graphic visuals)

The (e)mail medium was directly suited to these features, however today it is a dated medium. The way most people use and view the Internet is directly contradictory to important core principles of "turn based" and "no instant feedback". After all, the Internet enabled real time mechanics that were previously impossible (not to mention the advances in computers that allow for 3d graphics) I don't think this fact excludes the turn-based, patient, and imaginative playstyle.

True, the majority of modern gamers (of my generation and younger) might not have the patience or interest in playing a game that takes days or more to receive feedback from and lacks flashy graphics, but they are out there, but PBM was never a mainstream genre. Moreover, given the smaller playerbase, the Internet is a godsend, because it will link us together and pay no regard to geography.

The main problem is, as GrimFinger and ixnay pointed out, is that there has yet to emerge a game that has all these qualities and makes use of modern technology.
As a precursor to announcing Far Horizons I have editorialized my opinions from this thread (and other discussion on the forum) and posted it on my blog. It is located here, if anyone is interested.

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