Starforce Battles: The non-programmer's route to creating a play by mail game - Printable Version

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Starforce Battles: The non-programmer's route to creating a play by mail game - GrimFinger - 02-06-2011

When I first created the play-by-mail game, Starforce Battles, all those many years ago, I created it using a program called PFS: First Choice.

[Image: PFSFirstChoiceBox.jpg]

Output for the game was in pure text form printed onto dot matrix printer paper, the kind where the sheets folded, but it was otherwise one long, continuous form, of sorts.

I created the game using an Emerson 386/16Mhz with one megabyte of RAM, and printed the turn results output via a Panasonic KX-P1124i dot matrix printer.

[Image: PanasonicKXP1124i.jpg]

When I tried resurrecting the game a few years back to play via e-mail, I encountered a problem with the turn results output. Things were set up, originally, to print various reports by page length of the dot matrix paper. In electronic format, a text file is simply one continuous "sheet," so to speak.

Also, when I originally ran the game, PFS: First Choice allowed me to print very small text for certain portions of the reports, which worked out very well, I thought. The switch to playing the game by e-mail would not allow me to do the same thing. The font size was the same on all output, since I wanted ASCII text format for turn results output. Turn results had to be reformatted, in order to accommodate this.

The output layout of part of the results in the original running of the game was inspired by an old Play-By_Mail game called Galaxy: Alpha. The games were very different, but I thought that that output format worked well, and so I used a variation of it.

My primary "assistants" in those days were Scott Estrin, Bob Dickinson, and John Byrne. Scott got me started trying to figure out a way for he and I to play a game via the mail. he wanted to play a game called Starfleet Battles, which I had never played, but which I was slightly familiar with. Bob helped with playtesting and a few ideas. Poor old John Byrne was nice enough to send me a very thick stack of SSD sheets (for those of you who know what they are). Of course, in keeping with the absolute finest of design traditions, I ended up not using any of those SSD sheets. Thanks just the same, John! You see, the design "evolved" past that point, when a "better" way was found by myself to do things. Or, so it seemed at the time, anyway.

Scott, in the tradition of the Romulans, insisted upon having a cloaking device for his ships. Alas, alak, oh woe is me, for all of the hours that I spent trying to figure that one out. When I finally figured out a way to do it, it only required one additional keystroke and a changed way of looking at what I was trying to do.

Ultimately, I decided to not incorporate characters into the game. Why? Because it would have been very time consuming, if each player had a lot of characters, or if there were a lot of players. It was never that characters could not be implemented. Turn orders were input manually, and it was never a fully automated process.

Originally, the desire was for me to create a game so that Scott and I could play against one another, a very small 2-man affair. But, I eventually felt that it would be better if I could find a way to include Bob, to make it a 3-man affair. Surely, it would be better with 3 players than with just 2.

That, of course, led to me looking for ways to expand it, so that more than just three players could play.

Eventually, I smoothed out the kinks, and even got the processing of turn results down pat, to where turn around time was very reliable. There was no charge to play the game, of course (since that was at odds with what I was aiming for with the game - it was to be something that we could have fun with). Eventually, though, I did start requiring players to pay for the cost of postage for their turn results that I mailed to them. The ink ribbons to print the turns with, the computer paper, and the large envelopes were courtesy of me.

Scott Estrin drew the girl that I used on the front cover of the rulebook for the game.

[Image: StarforceBattlesCover400.jpg]

The font used on the rule book cover was included with an old graphics type program called Dr. Halo. I really don't know why I even remember that program, but I do, for some odd reason. This was back in the day of 5 1/4 floppy drives.

There were two events that, taken together, revolutionized my thinking in those early days, as far as what was both possible and feasible. One of these events was the discovery of PFS: First Choice's macro capability. This great gem of a discovery was the equivalent of the poor man's programming.

Not being a programmer, there was never any hope of automating the game in those days. That simply was never an option. Macros proved to be the equivalent of the Holy Grail. Macros greatly expedited the process of both inputting turn orders and outputting turn results. Oh, what a joyous day that it was, when I discovered macros, and what an even better day that it was when I figured out how to actually use them. The Holy Grail existed after all!

The other great event was the discovery of PFS: First Choice's built in report generator. Oh, what a thing of beauty that option was. I had it at my fingertips, all that time, and didn't even know what it was for, nor that I wanted and needed to use it. BAM!! Instant progress on a scale of magnitudes of capability that this report generator offered to me.

The greatest challenge facing me, as far as making this old software (PFS: First Choice) usable to an acceptable degree to me, when I decided to try a transition to running the game online via e-mail, was how to compile all of the individual reports that collectively comprised a player's turn into a single document. Purchasing a copy of Word 95, with its own macro capability, effectively enabled me to then "automate" the process of gathering specific individual turn reports, putting them in the right order, and then saving them as one, single file. I could easily have just sent each player multiple different individual files, but I wanted a better way.

To this day, I have no clue what happened to my copy of Word 95. It disappeared into the Nether Void of Time, never to be seen again.

A couple of years or so, ago, I purchased a copy of Alpha 5, which is relational database software. Being one that hates to read manuals and such, I have never figured out how to use it to the extent necessary to enable me to use it to run Starforce Battles with. It is vastly more capable than what I need, but I should have bought it back in the old days, when it was Alpha 4 - and when I would have likely been willing to invest the time to learn it more fully.

NOTE: This posting is a merging of two separate forum postings that I posted on another site in October of 2008.

RE: Starforce Battles: The non-programmer's route to creating a play by mail game - JonO - 03-26-2011

(02-06-2011, 06:00 PM)GrimFinger Wrote: Scott Estrin drew the girl that I used on the front cover of the rulebook for the game.

Here's a somewhat different take on your lady. As you can see, she definitely thinks bigger is better Wink