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Expanding the frontier of Play-By-Mail gaming!
Instead of back to the future, it's time, once again, to go forward to the past. Our destination? An ancient relic of an article by none other than the PBM Notoriati, itself, Bob McLain, titled, "Play By Mail: The Infancy of Cyberspace."

Our landing zone from that article? Right where old Bob says, "No one, it seems, has the time or the money to expand the frontier."

So, if we fast forward from there in the past back to here in the present, once more, let's dust off Bob's words that refuse to decay, and analyze them under the sun of a new era. Do you dare to help me to solve The McLain Riddle?

Was it just me, or did Bob McLain seem perhaps a bit too eager to bury play by mail gaming in the dustbin of history?

All of that money just poured into the coffers of PBM gurus from thousands upon thousands of game-starved enthusiasts went somewhere. Was Bob McLain the D.B. Cooper of the PBM industry? Was that article of his an attempt to parachute out of PBM gaming with the bulk of turn fees amassed by the industry during its years of golden heyday?

You don't have to take my word for it. Read Bob's article for yourself. It's his words, not mine. The McLain Riddle clearly posits it right in front of our nose. Why wasn't the PBM frontier expanded? Who was the real culprit in bringing down this house of PBM cards? Time or money?

Which is the key to resurrecting and expanding play by mail? Money or time?

The thing about conducting an autopsy on an almost dead, perennially dying patient, such as the hobby of play by mail gaming, is that the damned patient keeps moving, every time that I poke it.

Whatever else might be said about it by the Amalgamated Society of the Purveyors of Doom, PBM gaming has proven to be resilient, if nothing else. Starved of both time and money, the cottage industry just keeps on defying the odds. Come to think of it, wasn't there an old PBM game called Against All Odds?

For some strange, bizarre, and utterly inexplicable reason, both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did not sink their respective billions into expanding the frontier of Play-By-Mail gaming. Go figure!

Even at the apex of its absolute height in the annals of gaming achievement, if the truth be known, there was probably more time invested by more people in the PBM hobby than there ever was money invested into it.

So, all things considered, which of the two do you think is more integral to expanding the frontier of PBM gaming? Time or money? Money or time? Some say that time is money, and if they're right, then how do we write that equation out, much less solve it?

If T=Time, and if M=Money, then the solution to expanding play by mail is what? An excess of one or the other? Or perhaps a little or a lot of both?

For that matter, even if you have both, aren't you still left with an equation that doesn't quite add up?

What about inspiration, imagination, and passion? Don't these all somehow factor into the equation, as well?

These days, Bob McLain is as likely as not to be found in some small corner of the Net, one where his lustier, craftier, mightier self meets with other lustier, craftier, mightier selves for epic adventures. I say that, because isn't that what he also predicted?

Wax nostalgic!
Some context...

I wrote that article in 1993 for Steve Jackson's brand-new Pyramid magazine. For that issue, Steve had asked "some of the industry's leading players" to forecast the future of their particular gaming niche. For reasons known only to himself, Steve chose me for play-by-mail.

(Interesting aside: one of the other "leading players" was Loyd Blankenship, once a top-tier member of the hacker group "Legion of Doom". Loyd was arrested for his hacking activities - remember, this was back in the 1980s, when many people weren't even aware of personal computer let alone hacking - and Steve decided to help in Loyd's "rehabilitation" by hiring him to write GURPS: Cyberpunk. One smart guy, that Steve Jackson.)

So I wrote the article. Its title gives away my thesis: "Play-by-Mail: The Infancy of Cyberspace".

In 1993, play-by-mail was still a healthy little cottage industry, with many thousands of active players worldwide. Predictions of its demise were common. Way back in 1984, when Steve Jackson was a paid columnist for my old magazine, Gaming Universal, he wrote: ""Play-by-mail is about as big right now as it ever will be; what's more, it will be nearly extinct in five years . . . and none of us will even care." His premise was correct, though his timeline a bit off.

I updated Steve's forecast in my Pyramid article: "If I may make a prediction: play-by-mail, through the U.S. postal service, will be nearly extinct in another five years . . . and, more than likely, none of us will even care - because the people who like PBMs will have something more."

The "something more", of course, is the Internet, and in particular, on-line games. In 1993, on-line gaming was indeed in its "infancy", and relatively few people had access to the web or email (and of those who did, it was typically through an expensive dial-up service like CompuServe or AOL).

I got quite a bit of negative feedback about that article from many of the small to mid-size play-by-mail moderators. They're all out of business now.

I closed with this:

"As a society, we're learning to do without the postal system, either through its real-world circumvention (FedEx, for example) or moving towards a digital medium. As Scientific American said recently, junk mail is the only thing keeping the post office in business. The move towards a paperless world will not happen overnight or completely, but in coming years we will deal with our fellow humans more and more from between computer screens . . . or more accurately, in a small corner of the Net where our lustier, craftier, mightier selves will meet for epic adventures - and no one will ever need to lick a stamp again."

I haven't licked a stamp in... years.

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