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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Remember When Multiplayer Gaming Needed Envelopes and Stamps?

The term multiplayer gaming likely brings to mind the image of hopping online or sitting down with friends. A third method—mail—is unlikely to come up. Once a sprawling industry, play-by-mail (PBM) games have been rendered an afterthought in gaming history by the internet. And yet they’re still clinging to life.

Chess and Go were played by mail for centuries, and in the 1960s devotees of Diplomacy, a lengthy multiplayer board game that requires a neutral moderator, began using mail. According to a 1985 Computer Gamer article, competition sometimes got so intense that players offered bribes and forged letters.


But games built from scratch for PBM have a clear origin story in Rick Loomis. Born in 1947, Loomis was a fan of war games like Gettysburg, a creation of the long-running gaming company Avalon Hill, which sees two players restage the 1863 battle over six hours of in-depth combat. While stationed at Hawaii’s Fort Shafter in 1970, Loomis created a 10- to 30-player game called Nuclear Destruction and advertised it in The General, Avalon Hill’s magazine.

While Loomis initially ran his game by hand, he was overwhelmed by mail from 200 players and got to thinking about how some newfangled machine called a “computer” could moderate games. He recruited his friend Steve MacGregor to write a program, and together they soon had a company called Flying Buffalo and the basis of a new industry. While they initially rented computer time, in 1972 they left the army and made a down payment on a $14,000 company machine with a blistering four kilobytes of memory.

To play a PBM game you contact the company who runs the one you’re interested in, and they’ll add you to the next open game while providing the rulebook and any essential components, like maps. Then you mail the moderator your opening move and a processing fee, and a few weeks later you get the results of the turn back and spend the following week or two planning your next play. What made Nuclear Destruction—and many of the games that followed it—unique was its scope and its wrinkles. Countless Diplomacy games have fallen apart when struggling players dropped out, but Loomis’ rules allowed for interactions with inactive players. And because the game featured hidden information, you wouldn’t always know what your opponents were up to.

That complexity was appealing in the days before personal computers were common, and Loomis soon found himself with hundreds of competitors running games of wildly varying quality, many of which were designed for hundreds of simultaneous players. Flying Buffalo’s Chuck Gaydos tells WIRED via email that at their peak in the mid-’80s they had about 1,200 regular customers, a couple hundred concurrent games, and franchisees managing their games in Europe and Japan.

You can imagine how the advent of online gaming would devastate the industry. But while Loomis died in 2019, Flying Buffalo is one of a handful of PBM companies still serving a hardcore fanbase. You can even still play Nuclear Destruction, although it will now cost you a $5 setup fee and $2.50 a turn, up from the dime per turn that Loomis first charged. Think of it like an MMO subscription; staying active in one or two PBM games will cost you about as much as it does to play World of Warcraft.

In an email interview with WIRED, game designer Jim Landes identified four main types of PBM games. The simplest offer quick resolutions and performance ratings for players to try improving on next time, with simulated gladiatorial combat being a popular genre. Games like Hyborian War, which drops players into the world of Conan the Barbarian, focus on roleplaying amid interesting backdrops. Long-term games pit teams against each other, like a strategic struggle for control of Middle Earth. Finally, open-ended games of adventuring and empire management, like the sprawling sci-fi epics Starmaster and SuperNova, have no definitive ending, making them paper-based precursors to modern MMOs and 4Xs. Genres ran the gamut; sci-fi and fantasy were big, but there were also historical games and sports sims.

Landes began making computer games in 1980, but when missed release dates killed the company he launched his own PBM brand in 1984. Based in Oregon, his creations included Swords of Pelarn, which Landes initially moderated by hand, an “arduous” process that could take 20 to 30 minutes for each player’s turn. Even with the aid of computers, data entry and mailing remained labor intensive.

“We had a bank of dot matrix printers running all night to print out the results and the next day we would package up the turns, do the accounting and then mail them out,” Landes said. “At our peak in 1991 we were spending over $25,000 per month in postage. The local post office joked that we should have our own zip code.” Today, that would be over $49,000 a month.

Landes sold his company in 1992, and today he teaches game design while working on his own projects, including the popular Mount & Blade mod Prophesy of Pendor and the upcoming StariumXCV. Swords of Pelarn can still be played online through PBM company Harlequin Games, and that its current guidebook is 117 pages speaks to how complicated these games can get. But what keeps players coming back after all these years?

Unparalleled Complexity, If You Can Wait a Few Years

To Raven Zachary, the appeal of PBM is in “the level of depth, the complexity, the sense of a long-term commitment, and the epic nature of the games.” Zachary is a member of PlayByMail.net, a community where fans swap stories of hounding their mailmen for updates, and he helps run their Facebook group, maintain an index of active games, and write for their blog, among other efforts. As a child, Zachary saw PBM ads in Dragon magazine, and played from the early ‘80s until 1993. He returned in 2018, because while his hectic work schedule had made it difficult to have lengthy board game sessions with friends, PBM could be played in spare moments while still engaging his love of long-term planning and diplomacy. He’s now active in seven different games.

While PBM can’t offer the intimate roleplaying of D&D with friends, Zachary explains that they “excel at large-scale, strategic, diplomatic endeavors that are not achievable in board or computer games.” The long waits between turns can be spent strategizing and coordinating with allies, which in turn gets players more invested in outcomes. Calling it an “experience that you just can’t get in any other format,” Zachary says, “I find myself thinking about my plans for the upcoming turns throughout my day. When the time comes to commit, I’ve really come to terms with what I am going to do.”

That fits Landes’ design philosophy. “The strength of a game is not in playing it,” he explains. “It’s in how much the player thinks about it when they are not playing. It’s all about that ‘What if” scenario that occurs like a light bulb going off, and causes them to want to return to the game to see the results of their insight.” Conversely, he argued that a bad PBM game produces predictable results; if a player can sense how the game will end, why should they pay to keep playing? To keep players engaged, Landes “avoided closing avenues of success until the ending stages of the game,” and tried to prevent “the perception of loss” by emphasizing games where players compete to accumulate resources, rather than try to whittle each other down to nothing.

It’s worth reemphasizing the timespan these emotions unfold over. Zachary recounted a Middle-Earth PBM that saw him suffer early defeats at the hands of his Nazgul opponents before he slowly rebuilt and helped his team turn the tide over the course of a victory that took two years. Charles, the mononymous co-moderator of PlayByMail.net, noted that while the emotional ups and downs are one of PBM’s best aspects, winning itself is often secondary. It’s the individual moments, like a carefully weighed decision paying off and reversing an enemy’s fortunes, that live on in his mind.

Charles learned about PBM around 1987 by delivering magazines and comic books that advertised them. He eventually gave them a shot, and he’s been hooked ever since. While he enjoys games of all varieties, he said that “looking in my mailbox and seeing turn results in there is as good of a feeling today as it first was for me more than thirty years ago. People who are sick and tired of the internet might just find that they would enjoy receiving turn results in their mailboxes also.”

Surviving With, and Despite, the Internet

That PBM games still offer this unique thrill explains how they managed to adapt and survive the advent of the internet, although the internet has also blurred the definition of PBM. PlayByMail.net counts 70 PBM games that remain active today, down from the hundreds that were once available. Some are recreations of old games now run by fans, most insist on email, and some suggest basic software add-ons to help manage their complexities. Only five companies still offer physical mail, and Rolling Thunder Games is one of them. Russ Norris, who cofounded Rolling Thunder in 1986 with Pete Dorman, tells WIRED that about 60 percent of their players engage via email, and while their heyday had about three times the fanbase, email and other modern efficiencies keeps them profitable.

The industry’s greatest downturn, according to Norris, came when early MMORPGs like Ultima Online and other new options for multiplayer gaming exploded in popularity. But while PBMs are a niche product, they’ve remained stable over the last 20 years. Games of Rolling Thunder’s Victory! The Battle for Europe have been played since 1991, and some of Norris’ customers have had multiple games on the go since its inception. A typical game can take three years, and simply surviving until the end will earn you a place in their hall of fame.

Meanwhile, a game of their sci-fi epic SuperNova that began in 2015 is just starting to get into the “meat of empire vs. empire competition.” The complete rules package of the self-described “whopper of a science fiction strategy game” is eight PDFs totaling 177 pages. A biweekly turn costs $6.25, meaning that players who began in 2015 will have spent over $800, although the instructions are quick to point out what a steal that is given the hours of planning that every turn requires.

While checks used to dominate PBM, most modern players maintain an account that’s topped up via PayPal or tied to their credit card. That way, the 300 players in the SuperNova galaxy can pursue their open-ended goals without interruption, although Norris estimates that only around half are active at any given time. The glacial pace allows busy or belt-tightening players to return without falling too far behind, and in theory the game could one day accommodate up to 2,000 players without the newer entrants immediately getting crushed by well-established rivals.

The archive of old PBM rulebooks and fan magazines has been scattershot, further obscuring an already obscure hobby. But of those that survive, editorials and fan letters often feel like they could have been written today. Players complained about games not living up to the marketing hype, being run by sketchy fly-by-night amateurs, or allowing players to pay extra for special powers. The gangster-themed It’s a Crime!, for example, let players execute four moves in a turn for $1.50, or 10 moves for $3.00, with a guide to PBM games noting that the latter was mandatory for “competitive” players. Yes, gamers have hated pay-to-win mechanics since the 1970s, when serious players of Tribes of Crane dropped hundreds of dollars on turns. And in a 1983 article for Flying Buffalo’s quarterly magazine, Rick Loomis told stories of PBM games leading to marriage (and divorce), then warned prospective PBM developers of the job’s many pitfalls, including bitter rule disputes and vanishing debtors.

Norris believes there’s still enough interest for him and Dorman, both 61, to continue running Rolling Thunder for as long as they’re healthy and willing, and for their games to survive them. Norris suspects that their fans skew older than other gaming demographics; the average gamer is 33, far younger than PBM itself, while video gamers in the 55 to 64 bracket prefer casual phone games. Still, word of mouth helps new players continue to trickle in, and Norris suspects that gamers frustrated by the time commitment MMOs require could find a home in PBM. “For some players, PBM has provided them with good entertainment for most of their adult lives, and I’m happy to have been a part of it,” Norris says.

Chuck Gaydos said that Flying Buffalo retains about 120 regular players, and that their largest source of new customers is prison inmates who lack internet access. In a blog post, Raven Zachary identified at least 42 PBM gamers in a Tucson penitentiary. He’s since given them copies of their print magazine, and created a flyer to advertise to inmates in other institutions. That’s the level of dedication players have for a hobby that’s not easy to win people over to. Charles cited oft-brutal learning curves as an obstacle—those lengthy rulebooks can get opaque, although Zachary helps ease people in with summations—but those who persevere often get hooked.

“In this day and age, some people may think that it's stupid to pay to play a game by the mail. Paying turn fees strikes them as archaic,” Charles says. “Yet I tend to get a better value, entertainment-wise, spending a few bucks here and there to play Hyborian War than I usually get spending a few bucks to go see a movie.”

“People have been talking about PBM gaming dying or being dead for about as long as I can remember,” Charles says. And yet PBM seems able to hang around at the fringes of modern gaming, fueled by camaraderie as much as gameplay. Landes, reflecting on his moderating days, explains that players who needed to talk strategy would introduce themselves with index cards sent to their in-game neighbors through him. Players would then strategize on the phone, and they’d often call Landes to talk too.

“It was during one of these calls that one of my biggest revelations as a game designer occurred,” Landes said. “I received a slew of calls that ended with some reference to a player named Vance and how they have to talk to him. This surprised me, as I would not consider Vance to be a top player. Yet, call after call, player after player would reference Vance. Later, Vance called and I just had to ask him: ‘Why does everyone need to talk to you?’ There was a pause, and Vance told me ‘I don’t play the game for the game. I play the game to play the people.’ This revelation completely changed how I understood multiplayer games.”

PBM will never return to its glory days. But, as more and more games force players to go online or encourage nonstop play to keep up with seasonal rewards, their low-tech approach to gaming offers a valuable alternative: a chance to breathe, and think.

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