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PBM Post-Mortem: Autopsy of the Postal Gaming Genre - Printable Version

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PBM Post-Mortem: Autopsy of the Postal Gaming Genre - GrimFinger - 07-23-2013

Rather than wait until the postal genre of gaming is completely dead and lying cold upon the ash heap of history, I thought that it might be best if we started this one a little early.

For those of you who have gathered for PBM's funeral, suffice it to say that the authors of play by mail's obituary were a wee bit premature in writing of its demise. I hate to disappoint, but the Frankenstein of gaming genres lives, even still!

The subject of an autopsy on PBM gaming is nothing new. Not counting any others who may have chimed in on this fascinating subject, I, myself, have spoken on the matter on multiple prior occasions. See here, here, and here, for further illumination on the subject.

If play-by-mail gaming is, indeed, Hell-bent on dying the proverbial thousand deaths, then it is only appropriate, I feel, that we interested parties - those of us who find the subject of PBM gaming to be something of more than an object of mere passing interest - should perhaps become more vigorous in bringing this favorite patient of ours under the knife of inquiry.

Why postal gaming is properly fair game for the title of Frankenstein of gaming genres is, perhaps, a subject best left for elaboration another day. This red-headed step-child of gamers everywhere remains an enigma, a mystery wrapped within a mystery. It is shunned, ignored, and denied. If we can dispense with the formalities, let's just call a spade a spade, and formally declare PBM gaming to be the bastard child that it has always been.

But, for all of the PBM games that dealt with fate and fortune and luck and destiny down through the years, being the bastard of all gaming genres was a role that someone had to play. The Guardians of a Better Way, entire legions of PBM gamers have fought countless wars across time, and across space, and across dimensions of every sort, all under the Banner of Play By Mail. PBM gaming may, indeed, be a bastardly existence, but it is what we know, it is what we are familiar with, it is our way of life.

In other words, it's OUR bastard!

But, before I wander farther afield from the topic at hand, let me refocus my attention on the corpse before us - the living corpse that is play by mail.

In my attempt to span the generations of technology that separate the Golden Era of PBM gaming from the Internet that usurped the throne from it, I try to figure out what worked then, and what will work now. The landscape of gaming has changed forever. But, that simple reality does not have to translate into a de facto death sentence for play by mail gaming. Let the PBM wise take heed!

In bygone days, magazines dedicated to the postal genre of gaming took root. They took on a life of their own, and they forged their own sense of purpose. They crafted and they modified their own DNA. They exerted an influence. They made an impact. They caused the demigods of play by mail to turn their heads, and to pay homage unto talking heads which indulged themselves in all things PBM.

The commercial PBM companies and their much-heralded moderators, each of which touted their own horn and touted their respective companies' play by mail games, provided the fertile soil for PBM magazines to spring to life from. Which came first? The PBM chicken or the PBM egg?

Apparently, the correct answer is neither. Seemingly, Rick Loomis manifested first, and 'twas from his loins that the entire universe that is play by mail sprang. Well, maybe not from his loins, but you get the picture.

Of the two, play by mail games seem to have fared better over the long run than PBM magazines. These magazines dedicated to the postal genre acted as an accelerant to the hobby. They played the role of catalyst. As they degenerated into dust, the PBM hobby lost a vital ingredient. Just how vital? Absolutely critical, in my considered opinion.

It's not that PBM games cannot exist in their absence. For the fortunate few, it seems that they have not only been able to continue to exist - but to thrive. Of course, it may all depend upon just exactly what one's definition of "thrive" is.

Over the course of the last few days, I have watched the PlayByMail.Net forums go from virtually no visitors, to twenty, thus far, today. Granted, twenty site visitors can hardly be heralded as the Second Coming of Play By Mail. Yet, it does underscore, I think, just how vital of an ingredient that activity, itself, is.

In order for interactivity to spawn, activity of some sort must first be born. In the old days, advertisements for PBM games made their way into the pages of magazines that could hardly be said to be dedicated vessels of PBM gaming. Rather, the dedicated PBM magazines arose on the laurels of the advertising that preceded them.

Don't get me wrong. The purpose of this article is not to solicit advertisements. Rather, the purpose is to highlight and to explore. The knife of inquiry is useful for slicing and for dicing. But, can it make Julian fries?

Ronco produced many products in their day. The same can be said for PBM gaming. The postal genre spawned many products in its day. Unfortunately, it appears that the flint of ingenuity is covered in the carbon of lost interest. When was the last time that this spark was a flame?

At times, I sit and wonder whether it would be worth the investment of time and energy and words, to bring a new dedicated PBM magazine into existence. Perhaps the lines between different gaming genres has become so blurred, that it makes little sense. But, for that matter, did PBM gaming, itself, ever make sense?

The old bucks of the PBM genre, they wander other fields, other pastures, these days. At least, for the most part, they do. In one sense, that is neither here nor there. In another sense, it probably matters quite a great deal.

The Great PBM Feast is held elsewhere. Here, at PlayByMail.Net, all that we are treated to are crumbs. The experiences, the memories, the lasting recollections, those are rarely ever placed on the menu here.

I try to figure out what the right balance is, in order to regenerate interest in play by mail gaming. Maybe there is no "right balance." Perhaps what I pursue can never be achieved. Mayhaps it is only a myth, one that can never materialize into reality.

David Webber, God rest his PBM soul, always knew where he was heading. If he were alive and with us here, today, he might take issue with that statement. Indeed, he shared many a lamentation about the PBM industry in the time that he chose to share with us through his vessel that he plied the PBM waters with - Paper Mayhem.

Me? I have no real idea where we are headed, where the site, itself, is headed.

What I do know is this: When I send e-mails to the registered user base here, site activity picks up noticeably.

So, how does one decide where to draw the line, between what e-mails to send and which ones to refrain from sending?

What may be relevant to some is likely not relevant to all. That much is easy to discern.

At a bare minimum, one lesson that I think can be distilled from this inquiry into what made PBM gaming tick, as a genre, back in the old days of time now past, is that, whether you get it right or get it wrong, what's important is that you generate something. Even error, it would seem, is preferably to doing nothing. The postal genre disassembles itself in a vacuum. A vacuum of nothingness is the worst of all possible worlds for play by mail.

Yet, even still, all these many years later, we persist. We have become experts at doing nothing. Individually, I think that the end result, standing alone, is inconsequential. The cumulative effective, however, of untold instances of do-nothingness has proven to be near fatal for the hobby industry that is play by mail.

The Old Guard of PBM were the Prometheans of their day. Rather than shackle themselves to a dying genre, like slaves that lacked the will to free themselves out of misplaced loyalty, they chose to trek elsewhere. They ply different waters. They graze in different fields.

In their aftermath, a New Order must arise - lest the fields of play by mail imagination lie fallow. We, their offspring, must rise to the occasion. We must chart a new course. We must build our own cities where the PBM weary may find sanctuary from the Wilderness that Never Ends.

Some of us have been content to await the arrival of a savior that will never come. At some point, the gravity of our situation will dawn upon us. It is imperative that we swallow the medicine that shall cure us of this self-induced delusion that PBM gaming cannot be saved.

Rather than crush the vestiges of play by mail under our sandaled feet, to beget more and more dust from the dust that surrounds us, we must begin the process of creation, anew.

Unlike the dedicated PBM Magazines in their glory days, the PlayByMail.Net website is not a Colosseum for one to trek to, to witness a never-ending duel between gladiators of the PBM realm. Rather, at best, we are a mere waypoint on the much bigger Map of All Things PBM. An imperfect oasis, to be sure, but an oasis, nonetheless.

A place to survive in the PBM Desert. A mere speck in a barren landscape that, at times, appears to be utterly bereft of life. Yet, to properly behold the postal genre of gaming, one should look behond the mere mirage of death. The pallor of death hangs in the hair around PBM"s head. It weighs upon the hobby like an anchor around the genre's neck. Yet, even still, there remains a glimmer of defiance in postal gaming's eye. This old friend of ours, this Frankenstein, if you will, this Bastard Son of the Sons of Gaming, refuses to yield. In a nutshell, Play By Mail doesn't want to die.

Apparently, as near as I can tell, those who authored its obituary long ago never bothered to ask it for its opinion on the subject that they sought to speak with such authority on.

PBM Gaming has stared into the Abyss that is the Internet - and it lives, even still!

The Mayan Calendar has counted down. We have survived what some feared would be the end of the world. The count has begun, anew. The question is, can we teach this Frankenstein of ours to count?

It's past time for a new way to measure gaming. We're on Frankenstein Time, now. The hobby of PBM gaming needs you. Will you answer the clarion call that issues forth on its behalf? Can we, together, make a difference - THE difference that is needed? Or shall Prometheans walk the Earth no more?

Prometheans By Mail - It's what Frankenstein would have wanted.


RE: PBM Post-Mortem: Autopsy of the Postal Gaming Genre - shimeril - 07-26-2013

My dear Grimfinger,

I too have lost count of how many times the hobby has been pronounced dead, but still flickers of life continue to register, even here in the Antipodes. I happened across a mention of Peter Rzechorzek having started a new game of that old chestnut TribeNet from a couple of years back and dropped him an email to see how it was going. I played in the Mangalian game of TN for 7 years, and enjoyed myself immensely, and was frankly surprised to hear the game was still alive. Not just alive but a new game had very recently started, so in I dived again, having missed only the first 2 turns. But I was used to having my 7 year old mega tribe and it's a big step down to start again. I'll stick at it despite my stupidity in skill allocation forgetting to give myself the ability to break off a sub tribe immediately. I now have Adm 2 so can get moving at last. Argh, wandered from my point again. The point of course is that TN is still going. With minimal publicity, no GUI at all to entrap the masses who "need graphics" for a game to be playable and mostly the same rules the game has had forever, it still manages to persist. And now that I can carve off an element I will certainly go back into my old daze of wandering home after work thinking about whether I'll find Iron in those distant mountains and will it be too far for a mounted element to transport it back to my village in one turn. So I'll need to allocate defenders to it, with horses and weapons and why wasn't it closer dammit.

I had been playing Olympia G3 run by Tom Droeshout (aka Bockor) with many luminaries of the hobby in there as well but that seems to have died a server host related death though it may return. Maybe. I know there is other action out there to be found but gaming time isn't as unlimited as it used to be.

Perhaps the "death" of PBM is more related to the ages of people playing. As those of us who were heavily involved have got older and got other responsibilities including family and work commitments we cannot play in so many games as before. The cohort of people that could be attracted to the hobby gets smaller as video games, sport and other entertainment compete for our time. Most of the people I play with (or against) are in my 40+ age bracket (ok, 47+ to be specific) and I haven't found a lot of young'uns replacing us. I loved playing 10 games at a time at my peak, it made sitting on a train to work for an hour an exercise in logistics at juggling turnsheets, maps, rulebooks and writing threatening and non-threatening letters, all to the amazement of the poor soul sitting next to me. Is casual gaming on smartphones and ipads offering another nail into our coffin, or is that the way to develop the next gen of PBM games? I'm no developer but perhaps there is a future for the hobby there in specialist apps to play these games rather than just web interfaces or using WordPad to submit my orders. I remember with amazement Peter Catling's old DinoWars program for players via email and BBS which gave you all the stats and reports you could possibly need on separate screens prior to submitting your orders. Loved that game.

Anyway, I have prattled enough. I'll tie this message to the pigeon's leg and hope Bockor doesn't eat it before it gets to you. You just cannot trust an Orc.


RE: PBM Post-Mortem: Autopsy of the Postal Gaming Genre - GrimFinger - 03-04-2014

So, Shimeril, are you playing in Olympia G4?