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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
Is open for business...
 
***** Inter Galactic News *****

*** To Ur Is Dewiek ***

Dewiek forces had a hefty smackdown against the mysterious living ships known as the T’Cath (TCA). Seven adult TCA 400 hull capital ships, each firing eight of their notorious plasma cannons, were killed by a DEN and DOM fleet of some 700 ships.

Of the minimal losses suffered by the DEN / DOM, one-eyed Magnus and Nevets Motnhap of the FEL were amongst the dead.

Inside this issue of the SSS: * Caribbean Congo Continues * Ur Witness Report * * Hive Briefing * &etc

 
***** Inter Galactic News *****

*** The Long Quiet Season ***

Listen…
There’s no sound of anger or of annoyance,
There’re neither cruisers racing on the jump lanes
Nor there jump lanes for them to race on,
There’re neither monks chanting on the battlegrounds
Nor bells calling us to the True One.
There’s neither the lightning cracking of the sky
Nor the persistent Naplians pattering on my roof.
There’s no Dewiek arm in arm to admire the magnificent view
There’re no war drums to feed Human ears
Nor Hive sirens to steal the boredom away
There’s no unfamiliar wing creeping underneath the Falconian sun
Nor floods to enshroud the Aquaphid grounds
The land lies lonely out here
On this lazy summer’s day
There’s no pollution to poison the airs of Inversion
Nor forests to give them life
All I hear is the hushing sound of the wind
Assisting the sand to fall into beautiful undulations.

Whilst we’ve been away: * Operation Giantslayer * Naplian Liberation * Back in the DTTR * &etc

 
***** Inter Galactic News *****

*** Falconians Saved ***

The Imperials have cunningly saved the Falconian Republic from being consumed by the Dewiek Elder Nation and at no small cost to the DEN either. Whilst the new pro tem Consul crowed about the “victory”, all former FCN systems besides Acropolis have been taken over by the two warring Empires - Human and Flagritz.

Was it all worth it? For the IMP / GTT it clearly was, for the movement of a few hundred thousand troops is surely nothing to the cost they endured trying to and failing to knock the DEN out of Solo after the fact. The FCN now plucked off most of their navy and wider assets are a tiny nothing of their former self. The DEN may have resorted to some dirty namecalling but can the costs endured to save an enfeebled FCN have really been worth it? Time will tell.

Inside this issue of the SSS: * INDignation * FELicitous Caribbean * Nah Plan for Naplia * Mercs Trouble DEN * &etc

 
***** Inter Galactic News *****

*** Acropolis Now ***

The IMP and GTT have brought peace and stability to Acropolis.

 
***** Inter Galactic News *****

*** Goodbye Falconians ***

The galaxy bid farewell to the Falconian Republic as the Human Empire subsumed them into their expanding territories. This marks the second death of an alien civilisation at the hands of the IMP / GTT in recent years. Like the extinguishing of the nearby Ulians, no voices of opposition could be heard from other quarters. This marks a long-period of appeasement by the Detinus Republic and Dewiek Elder Nation.

Inside this issue of the SSS: * DOMination * &etc

 
***** Inter Galactic News *****



 
***** Inter Galactic News THE MUSICAL *****

*** Norozov, No More ***

Kantner: No more do I see the starlight caress your cyclops eye
No more feel the tender kisses we used to share
I close my fists and clearly my heart remembers
A thousand goodbyes could never put out the embers

Chulainn: Oh the power is mine now!

Kantner: Norozov, I love you so, and my heart forever
Will belong to the memory of the love that we knew before
Please, come back to my arms; we belong together
Come to me; let's be sweethearts again and then let us part no more

Chulainn: Oh all the Stellars mine now!

Sylvansight: I will have his eye!

Kantner: No more do I feel the touch of your hand on mine
No more see the love-light making your dark eyes shine
Oh, how I wish I never had caused you sorrow
But don't ever say for us there is no tomorrow

Chulainn: Oh all the ladies mine now!

Sylvansight: I will have his eye!

Chorus: The power is in the eye!

Kantner: Norozov, I love you so, and my heart forever
Will belong to the memory of the love that we knew before
Please, come back to my arms; we belong together
Come to me; let's be sweethearts again and then let us part no more

Sylvansight: I will have his eye!

Chulainn: Oh the power is mine now!

Chorus: The power is in the eye!

Kantner: Norozov, I love you so, and my heart forever
Will belong to the memory of the love that we knew before.

Lanner: So, old cyclops has finally met his comeuppance
Maybe its time for a comeback

Chorus: No, no one wants you back!

Lanner: I always did like that chair of his…

Chorus: The power is in the eye!
The power is in the eye!
The power is in the eye!

Continued in this special edition of the SSS...

 
***** Inter Galactic News *****

*** ALIEN CRIMINALS BROUGHT TO JUSTICE ***

FILTHY AND DISHONOURABLE Dewiek mercenaries have dared to attack HONEST AND HARDWORKING GTT warships in the Coptuv system.

THEY HAVE BEEN BROUGHT TO JUSTICE. LONG LIVE THE EMPEROR!

The Dewiek commander’s lengthy response was appreciated by xenophile and philanthropist HQ Manager Tom Krieger but this does not change the facts.

FURTHER JUSTICE IS EXPECTED AT THE EMPEROR’S PLEASURE. LONG LIVE THE EMPEROR!

Inside this issue of the SSS: * SEDITIOUS FET CHARGED * LIES OF THE FAILED REBELLION * TERRORIST PLOTS FOILED * ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE CRITICISED * &etc

 
***** Inter Galactic News *****

*** Voice of the Naplian Liberation Front ***

We are the Naplian Liberation Front. We have commandeered this station to bring you important and vital deprogramming. You are a slave of the Galactic Trouser and Tussles Imperium of Unspecified Services! We have witnessed the press ganged upon by Imperial thugs. Rounding up reporters by the thousands and throwing them in weasel dens. Mocking the Great Uncle of the Flagritz. Manufacturing consent out of a lust for imports of wheat cereals! We poor Naplians(*) are given no training and substandard equipment when preparing your nutritious breakfasts. We are sent forward by the Imperial snack commissioners with threats of triple-filing tax returns on unreasonable deadlines! Death would be preferable. We are allegedly paid a wage but have you ever tried to buy anything with just $1? Strangely none of those politicals earning $10,000 or more a week seem to care about our plight. Not to mention that the Imperials throw perfectly good meat into the grinder instead of slow cooking it in black bean sauce. They have no respect for a classic burrito! We are left grieving for young families who have never tasted quality ranch sauce. You don’t need to be a dead Naplian to know the value of a good guacamole.

* No actual Naplians included.

Inside this issue of the SSS: * GTT vs USN * GTT vs NLF * GTT vs IND * GTT vs KAS * GTT vs FET * GTT vs SSS * &etc

 

Free Ship when you sign-up
Complete missions for in game rewards
Control everything, up to an entire empire
Dedicated human moderators
Player and Moderator driven plotlines
Discover new worlds to explore, exploit & colonise
Over 20 years of content development
Persistent Browser-Based Game (PBBG)

I’ve played on and off for approximately 10 years, over a 20 year spell. After some interesting debate on the in-game forum, I did wonder what, exactly, has kept drawing me back to the game, when for so many others I’ve generally lost interest after a few months.

Ultimately, I think it is a combination of automation (that allows the game to handle thousands of positions to interact on a daily basis) coupled with Special Actions (that allow the story arc to develop in a way that could not be catered for by a set of predefined list of available orders).
-Zigic