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Three Spirits of Phoenix

Three Spirits of Phoenix


In the theme of the Charles Dickens' Scrooge, I find at this time of the year looking at what was, what is, and possibly what may be. For this Yuletide article I will share my thoughts as I primarily consider Phoenix but also give a little thought to the hobby/industry as a whole.

Phoenix Past
I came to Beyond the Stellar Empire a few years after its launch and when the industry was at the end of its summer with a few signs that autumn was fast approaching. At this time personal computers were expensive and by modern standards slow and the concept of plug and play was unheard of at least in KJC Towers.

The version of Beyond the Stellar Empire required the manual inputting of all orders. When showing Trev how the old system worked a couple of months back (while digging out the name of the old GTT PD from the data – Leonidas Agiadai) I gave him a quick demonstration of how to input a turn. Despite not having run a turn in over a decade, I was still able to manually navigate a ship to Dogleg. Each order was presented on various screens with a number to swap between screens for example swapping jump engines for thrust engines required:
23 return
23 return
4 return
2 return
return
return


Back then processing a hundred turns even without any special actions took all day. Another aspect was that turns were generated as they orders were processed, essentially sending the data to the printer so that it automatically generated a printout once a full page had been generated. There was no option to edit the output and emailing the results was simply impossible.

Beyond the Stellar Empire was considered the 'other KJC Game'. It was considered low priority on account of its high running cost, low turnover and small player-base. I had to argue vociferously for programming time to write turn outputs to files so that they could be emailed. In all honesty had this not occurred Beyond the Stellar Empire would have ceased to exist a very long time ago.

From this point the game endured for another couple of years, tweaking of the qbasic code to produce small improvements until the cracks especially in the ground combat code started to become intolerable.

In the wider world game developments started to become big business with the likes of games that once only existed in arcades now hitting PC's. With this we witnessed a steadily decreasing sign-ups. The launch of console games and the near death of board and role playing games coincided with our player-base in all but Beyond the Stellar Empire dropping quickly. Correspondence with other companies revealed a hobby-wide decline with many small companies closing.

At the time and until quite recently I ascribed the demise of the board games and role playing market to the launch of Magic the Gathering though having now listened to the 'Big Boys' of the gaming industry I have since learnt that the industry was in a death spiral and was only pulled out of it by the emergence the trading card game genre, saving more than one large game producer from bankruptcy.

By this point, just after the turn of the century Beyond the Stellar Empire had been replaced by Phoenix which was geared towards a more dynamic playing style of the modern gamer. While the play-by-mail industry continued in its death throes and the gaming industry at large was still awaiting the light at the end of the tunnel Phoenix endured if not exactly took flight.

I have mixed feelings about the rise of online games and its effect on our player-base. On the one-hand it is a fact that we lost players to them, though quite possibly they would always have preferred online games and would never have come to us in the first place if they had always existed. The flip side of the coin however is that their presence have made communal gaming through the internet mainstream.

We saw the shape of the modern gaming environment half a decade ago and moved to ensure that Phoenix would have a niche within the larger online gaming community – Nexus was born.

As with upgrading the game from postal to email, I am convinced that had we delayed this by even a few years Phoenix would no longer exist. For my money this was the right decision. Along with presenting the game as the professional product it is, it has functionality that people cannot now do without. It reminds me of a retort to the nostalgic ramble about the days before mobile phones, 'I'll tell you what we did before mobile phones – we struggled!'

The other big decision which seemingly wasn't linked to Phoenix was to start a research masters degree in astrophysics. While the stretching of the mind is always good exercise, the reason for undertaking a research as opposed to taught degree was the necessary programming element. Over the years I was very conscious of the ever increasing demands placed on Darak for writing code necessary though peripheral to Phoenix and though he had written an internal compiler for Phoenix my initial experimentations with it were both trivial and prone to needing more error checking than it would have taken Darak to write them in the first place; in other words worse than useless.

So, a couple of years into the course and with skills in the use of Matlab starting to develop, I started to create parallel code for generating data in Phoenix. These started with trivial things such as creating gas giants. Then it was a case of really simple moons and over a few months, planets with temperature gradients and finally seeding population including data for technology accessible by the population.

This final step allowed for the generation of star systems, in which a planets could be created, examined and if found wanting re-generated or if suitable, accepted. Prior to this the creation of a system would take days or even weeks, as work on it was fitted around the day-to-day running of the game and even then systems rarely had more than half a dozen worlds to explore. Suddenly the prospect of creating a vast new region of space was viable. Whereas Halo took months to build, Corewards, containing four times as many systems and probably more than ten times as many worlds took weeks.

The creation of Corewards was however a gamble, one which has more than paid off. It was a gamble because there was the risk that it could be seen as diluting space. Thankfully this has not been the case for two good reasons. First and foremost it was combined with the launch of the Intergalactic News (IGN's). These have worked splendidly in pulling in ex-players and new ones which can be seen by comparing the average quantity of sign-ups converting into long-term players pre and post IGN. The second reason is that prior to Corewards many sign-ups quickly became disenchanted by the lack of opportunities on account of the vast majority of space within the Phoenix universe falling into either claimed or secret space. As a lot of new players want to explore and have some control of their own destiny, the universe as presented appeared sewn up. Further hampering this was the stability created by the 'Peace Treaty.' This seemingly all encompassing document effectively meant that those that had spent so many years establishing the status-quo were loath to see it crumble even if meant that there was little for them to actually do in the game for fear of undermining it.

That so many 'big red buttons' had gone ignored or more often buried leads me to believe that even the collapse of the Peace Treaty by itself would not have been enough to open the game to new players. Simply put, there was insufficient unclaimed public space for new and small players to cut their teeth on.

The Peace Treaty was also a metaphorical leash around the necks of the alien factions. The perception that any attempt to cause 'interesting times' would be met by a united opposition by all human factions is a huge disincentive.

Thankfully those times are now largely behind us as can be seen by the regular newsworthy articles appearing in Subspace Static.


The Present
So, I feel that having navigated reasonably well compared to other play-by-mail games through the shoals of a changing world of gaming. Phoenix is a solid product that offers both short-term excitement in many forms from an unexpected mineral deposit or unique resource to skirmishes with pirates or an affiliation wide call to respond to snooty aliens. The game has a lot of history to draw on or laugh about (much like Next Generation Trek had when dealing with the original episodes) and the current players are for the better part pushing their affiliations with enthusiasm. Kang, star of Subspace Static and the plethora of blogs more than testify to this.

With my newly acquired knowledge of coding I have again returned to working on custom-code with Phoenix with quite a few projects being undertaken and even though they still need a bit of pixie dust from Darak to work, the code to checking ratio is now vastly improved.

The green shoots of recovery in terms of the world-wide recession is a good thing as even we lost a few players and others that would have played couldn't justify the weekly expense (as one bloke put it, 'I would love to play but my wife keeps blowing all our money on bills'). We have seen some coming back or at least finding jobs that do not involve working and commuting for long hours. While far from being smug or even for that matter laid-back with the current situation I am not worried at this point about the future of the game.


The Future
This is the the one that counts. So, why am I not worried, what with the ever increasing variety of games available?

Fundamentally it is the rising tide that is the board-games and roleplaying games industry that gives me confidence. Their lack of pretty graphics, where the action is subscribed by the imagination draws strong parallels with play-by-mail genre games. Despite Phoenix having moved into the online format for playing the game, it is not an MMORG and never will be. I do however see that we have become largely estranged from the industry that spawned play-by-mail and see that this is something that needs addressing.


There also appears to be the first hints of the re-emerging play-by-mail as specific genre covering all methods of playing (post/email/online) in the form of a magazine. Why now after so many years? I suspect that it is linked with the rising interest in non-graphics based gaming. Maybe, just maybe it will be able to reinvigorate the hobby or at least remind people that Phoenix not only lives but flourishes? I will be doing what I can to aid its success as it is another avenue by which people can find Phoenix.

All in all, despite or more likely because of the tragedies of the past couple of years the game has largely reshaped itself and gone for the most part are the bloated power-bases that were being run partly out of nostalgia. While this has undoubtedly hit us in terms of income, I would rather be in this more dynamic position with the prospect of growth than watching the game atrophy through disinterest and inertia.

If this last year has witnessed the stabilisation and modest growth of the player-base through the launch of IGN and Nexus coming into its own, this coming year is about growing Phoenix and the hobby/industry through increasing awareness. I do not see this as being either simple or quick though by working with other companies such as Mad House, Flying Buffalo and Harlequin to mention a few, I think we have a fair chance. This is no time to rest on our laurels. It will certainly be interesting to re-read this article in a year's time and see what had changed.




 
News
***** Inter Galactic News *****

*** Breaking News: Caliph Samuel Assassinated ***

The nominal head of the Caliphate, Samuel has been murdered in broad daylight at the starbase CAL Sidon in the Fortress system. The allegedly mad zealot was on his way to meet representatives of various civilian factions when a shadowy figure *cough*CIA agent*cough* shot him dead.

The CIA issued the following statement to the SSS with a customary nudge and a wink: "In these difficult times, as we come to terms with the loss of Samuel, we are taking things one day at a time.

"Samuel was not only our Caliph, but our leader during the Second Civil War which laid the foundations for the Confederacy after he left the Human Empire and settled in the Darkfold. It is truly a sad day and one that will be marked in history as one of many great leaders who were cut down in their prime.

"We will strive now to look to the future, whilst remembering our past”

Speculation is rife that this is the first step towards a unification of the two-halves of the Stellar Empire. Others are more hopeful this is a return to the Confederacy or the mark of greater separation with the Imperial bloc. Time will tell what nebulous motives the shadowy puppet-master Laton turned out to have had and which alien faction will be blamed for the Caliph’s murder.

Inside this issue of the SSS: * HEX / FET Invade Sargasso * Magnus v Nevets Fight! * Dewiek Black Hole Disaster * FLZ Correction * &etc

 
***** Inter Galactic News *****

*** STOP PRESS: Felini Victory ***

In an unexpected development, the FEL have scored a decisive victory against the FLZ. Destroying or maiming some 20 Flagritz Baseships in the Onwards system.

What is more remarkable than the victory was there was no subsequent comment by Crazy Uncle Flagritz. We might need to have a lie down now.

Inside this issue of the SSS: * DEN and FEL * Valhalla Fighting Pits * RIP smacked * &etc


 
***** Christmas Special Edition *****

*** Ho Ho Ho ***

Welcome to the SSS Christmas Special Edition! We the Editors have put together a nostalgic pudding treat intended to delight and tickle even the scroogiest megacorp executive. So gather your cubs, squidlets and larvae for some silliness and song. Time to catch up with some classics from years gone by, raise your glasses and drink your gluttony and shame away!

Wishing you all a merry Christmas free from Krampus Jones's invading armies!

The Editors


 
***** Inter Galactic News *****

*** Claws Out in Valhalla ***

In a bold rebuke of Crazy Uncle Flagritz’s attacks in the Avalon system, the cunning Felini Nevets ordered a hit on a FLZ outpost in the Valhalla system. Claiming miscommunication with his warships, the mischevious Avatar cocked a snook at the washed-out Dewiek warrior in charge of the system whilst claiming an important victory in the often one-sided conflict against the FLZ.

This isn’t the first time the foxy Feline has masked daring-do in the shroud of incompetence. It remains to be seen whether this turns out as disastrously as the time when the FEL had to pay the costs of a war started by Prince-turned-meklan LiQuan.

Meower-in-chief Chamiah apologised for the incident in a public address laced with snickering subtext and unconcealed laughter when she got to the bit about the unfortunate loss of “5 FLZ Warships in Onwards.”

A second incident in Valhalla was reported the next day with mardy Magnus complaining he wasn’t getting his claws in on the action. Could this be the pithy ploy that puts the cat on the mat?

Inside this issue of the SSS: * Merc-y Wimbles * Valhalla Fighting Pits Get Weird * Profile of Lyceum Amaguk * &etc


 
***** Inter Galactic News *****

*** Nun on the Run ***

Alleged cosplayer Carmilla D’Morenta got the vicars in the Brotherhood all hot and bothered when she made a run for it. Possibly tired of being tied up by the reverends and denied the love that dare not howl its name. With a sizeable, almost unbelievable, bounty on her head, the barking sister took refuge with the Dewiek Elder Nation.

In possibly the shortest chase in history, the BHD managed to strike a blow for oppressed collars everywhere when they squared off with the naughty doggy-wannabe at the Valhalla stargate. The cheeky chaplains blew their hyperdrive at close range and both the BHD and DEN flagged ships were reported to be lost in space.

Inside this issue of the SSS: * DEN Ban BHD * Ulian * FLZ in Avalon * Valhalla Fighting Pits * Interview with Carmilla * And more


 
***** Inter Galactic News *****


*** Message From The New Editors ***

Dear Reader,

It has been a long time since we had the exquisite joy of Sub Space Static beaming mind-altering information into our retinas. Like you, we craved word from the offices of the IGN when the next edition would hit our Nexus terminals. We waited and waited. Then we got curious.

We fundraised a simple surveyor and sent it to the last sighting of the IGN. It was not where we expected it to be, in the Yank system. We asked the Junta but they were their usual helpful selves. Weeks, turned into months and still no sign.

Then we found it. The singularity. With a sign. The scrawl of a demented child that read "Kang woz 'ere." What could we do but enter. Our ship went in. Where, we cannot say. The air around us popped. Our faces folded and our bodies fused together. Our minds interconnected. Vast knowledge at our disposal. Yet, we became as stupid as the least of us. As greedy as the worst of us. As forgetful as the dumbest of us. As horribly biased as a partisan hack in a post-truth universe.

We became, in short, your Editors.

Welcome to the new SSS. It won't be as funny as before. It won't be clever by half. It won't be any better in any way. But it will be regular. As a mohache on refined laxatives. It will be informative. Oh it will be full of facts! Even if we have to make them up.

Send us your delicious exploration reports. Tell us about your pointless battles. Spread your vile anonymous rumours. Tell us how your mother didn't love you and that's why <insert Affiliation here> must be destroyed! Feed us, your Editors. Nurture us. Our Singularity opens to receive your offering.

Now here is the news.

 
****** Caliphate Syndicated News Network (CSNN) ******

user image

Welcome to another edition of news and views from the CSNN's favourite reporter and news anchor, Ainsley Moore, the peripheries' most favourite unbiased publication in the known universe, after an extended tour of the Inner Empire and all the delights within,

And so with the news, and there has been a lot of it!


Old News - FLZ/ GTT Break Ceasefire Agreement
 
****** Caliphate Syndicated News Network (CSNN) ******

user image

Welcome to another edition of news and views from the CSNN's favourite reporter and news anchor, Ainsley Moore, the peripheries' most favourite unbiased publication in the known universe,

And so with the news,

Alien Wars - Ulian Peace Agreements
 
****** Caliphate Syndicated News Network (CSNN) ******

user image

Welcome to another edition of news and views from the CSNN's favourite reporter and news anchor, Ainsley Moore, the peripheries' most favourite unbiased publication in the known universe, after a period of "secured safety training" for the CSNN team who was taken in by Caliphate security forces,

And so with the news,

Alien Wars - Empire Takes Ulian System, Empire Fleet Deployed
 
****** Caliphate Syndicated News Network (CSNN) ******

user image

Welcome to another edition of news and views from the CSNN's favourite reporter and news anchor, Ainsley Moore, the peripheries' most favourite unbiased publication in the known universe, continuing with a shortened "No News makes Good news?" special!

And so with the news,
 

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