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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
GTT step forward to control protection and peace in the Stellar Empire.

With the retirement of Jack Johns and various lower-level IMP officers from public life, the Imperial Services were left on the verge of being unable to fill their role as protectors of the Stellar Empire. Due to the serious nature the Imperial Services found itself in, the Emperor recently travelled to GTT HQ to attend a board meeting with the directors of the GTT.

With Galactic Trade and Transport being one of the few remaining loyal Imperial Chartered affiliations, who also supply well over half of the war material to the Imperial Services, the Emperor sought the position of the GTT with regard to the Imperial Services becoming overburdened with bureaucracy and lacking effective leadership. Effectively the Imperial Services were at the point of collapse. A position highlighted when an opportunistic supposed ally subverted four Imperial Outposts in the Inner Empire, thinking their asset grabbing would go unnoticed.
 
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  Star Date: 221.30.5

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RAGNAROK COMES

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A Forlorn Hope

The seat of Dewiek Government has fallen. What began as a small group of Architect ships picking up retreating DEN forces, amalgamated into a much larger force. The bombardment fleet comprised dozens of Adult ARC ships plus several Planet Killers. The force made short work of the impressive fortifications of the planetary orbit of Newstart. Multiple heavily armoured and maximised deflector shield platforms crumbled. They did so only after releasing their volleys of antimatter and nova weapon batteries. Any DEN warships that remained from earlier encounters also stood the line. But within the week, the last defence was gone.

Bombardment of Wolf Lair starbase proceeded without further resistance from the Dewiek. ARC Plasmas ripped through starbase shields. They demolished tens of thousands of factories and research facilities. The ARC demolished the huge military recruitment and training facilities on the planet. Over half a million trained troops evacuated from deep bunkers, leaving a token ground defence.

The ARC were not satisfied to burn the facilities and murder the workers. They deployed repeated salvos of their Virus Bombs on the wider population. Reports began to arrive of civilians of the world regressing. Leaving settlements and returning to nature. Much as the Dewiek found themselves some decades ago when they started to recover from the First Great ARC-DEN War. This time there was no High Lord Magnus willing to obliterate the world to save a remnant of the people. Newstart was already lost.

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Newstart is lost

 
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  Star Date: 221.27.2

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RAGNAROK APPROACHES

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End Game Lost

A short-lived period of peace followed the Dewiek Elder Nation’s historic and Saga-worthy defence against the Architect Planet Killers. A handful of the more typically encountered ARC ships were spotted picking off DEN support ships in Forlorn Hope before more than forty of them appeared back in End Game.

While the ARC “Adult” class ships, as the DEN had previously classified them, were eight times smaller than the “Planet Killers”, they were still as big as the largest ships any other species has managed to produce. Including the otherwise technologically advanced Dewiek.

Forty-four of these Plasma armed organic vessels smashed through the DEN forces left circling the orbit of Beacon, End Game. The mass of ARC weapons bombarded the DEN Shipyards at Ragnorak with their superheated ionized gas, razing the entire outpost to the ground.

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ARC Plasma weapons devastate End Game

 
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  Star Date: 221.22.5

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RAGNAROK BECKONS

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Assault on End Game

The ancient Architects have declared war on the Dewiek Elder Nation. The first sign of the conflict was subspace transmissions in a remote system in the Pocket Periphery. This followed reports that the ancient Ragnarok shipyards on Beacon were malfunctioning. In response, the Wolf Mother sent urgent orders to several Dewiek scout ships to patrol the End Game system.

The Konungr Smidamadr was the first to encounter the gigantic, “Planet Killer” class ARC ships. Measuring in at thirty-two hundred heavy hulls and armed with a hundred ARC plasma weapons, the ship was more like a mobile armed platform. It is certainly the largest vessel ever recorded. The scout ship was vaporised instantly.

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ARC Planet Killer dwarves largest DEN warships

 
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  Star Date: 221.11.4

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Caste Apart

The Flagritz Republic is (very nearly) no more. In its place, a single Hexamon and Flagritz power has arisen. The new Collective has absorbed much of the Flagritz holdings with only a handful of Clique-caste Flagritz systems choosing instead to align with the other Elder species, the Dewiek.

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Flagritz and Hexamon Hybrids - A hope for the Future?

 
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  Star Date: 221.3.3

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Meklanmania

Meklan scout ships continue to be seen around the Orion Spur periphery. These cyborg creatures in service of hidden ancient masters appear to be terrorising the Wimble Nation in particular. Despite public lamentations against the hardship of defending themselves, the Wimble leadership have not yet responded to our request for comment.

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Artist's impression of a Meklanised Wimble

However, Xavier Fox, CEO of Galactic Transport and Trade, did give us the following statement:

“We have engaged several Meklan ships, although currently the source has not been identified. GTT Directors have been running patrols and have engaged and destroyed numerous ships that have attacked outlying outposts belonging to different affiliations. The pattern of ships encountered leads us to believe there is a central source, but until that is found we would suggest any affiliation with assets in the area provide adequate defences.”

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Doomsday On Pause

At the site of the Thete anomaly, the Dewiek Nation has sent media sensation Sharon Aleman to the scene. Aleman, whose cybernetic enhancements allow her to directly interface with her ship’s sensor array, led her hardened crew into a dive of the outermost “edge” of the anomaly. After spending several days collecting and analysing data (mere minutes to the rest of us outside the anomaly), Aleman reported her shocking discoveries.

 
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  Star Date: 220.50.5

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Veil Lifted on Flagritz Home Space

As the Hellcadium ISR field continues to fluctuate, one of the newly exposed systems is Junista inside the previously hidden and inaccessible home periphery of the Flagritz Republic.

Over the past few weeks Flagritz Republic patrols and platforms have dealt with a number of scout ships from the Human Empire as the IMP wasted no time in exploiting this opportunity to poke around in their old enemy’s backyard. It is understood that at least one of these unarmed scouts was destroyed with no one willing to estimate how many more might be buzzing around.

Coincidentally, suspected IMP lackey, SSL TOAD, has also been overheard showing an obsessive interest in the Flagritz periphery. However, we have received no reports of this being anything other than his usual drug-fueled, barely decipherable mutterings at this stage.

Either way, this sudden, uninvited interest in the Flagritz Periphery has left the FLZ leadership muttering darkly about appropriate measures being taken. Defensive fleets and supporting structures are being deployed in the Junista system and beyond in expectation of further uninvited guests.

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When You stare into the Flagritz Periphery...

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Thete's Timey-Wimey Tease

Investigation into the Thete anomaly continued in the Dewiek Pocket Periphery. The anomaly was scanned from all angles by a number of the Dewiek Nation’s best sensor ships and officers. The data, collected over several weeks, was sent to one of the DEN’s most advanced scientific laboratories for analysis.

What they found will shock you!

 
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  Star Date: 220.45.1

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Perfidion Reached

Long speculated by theoretical Stellar Cartographers, Perfidion Reach finally opened in the last few weeks. Immediately, the Detinus Republic boldly staked a claim on the first accessible system, Hellcadium. Only time will tell the true value of this strategic move but their much-taunted bureaucracy may have finally proved its worth.

Early reports from scans of the system reveal a wildly fluctuating ISR field. Rumours suggest that at least one ship was destroyed as it was forced into an asteroid belt chasing a stable jump field attempting to exit the system. Casual travellers are warned away from the system at this time for their own safety. Leave it to skilled explorers and navigation officers.

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Mathematical model of Hellcadium ISR Field.

We spoke to Captain Zakiyah Ummahi via subspace link. Zakiyah led the first DEN expedition into the Perfidion Reach. "Spirits remain high but this is largely down to the extended R&R we were all forced to take immediately prior to jumping into this hole. Initial scouting reports show at least one planet with plenty of forests and grasslands which might help if we're going to be stuck here for Folkvar knows how long waiting for this damned ISR field to stabilise."

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Valhalla Stargate Reopens

Dewiek engineers and scientists have finally managed to re-enable Stargate Valgrind this week and the protective Exclusion Zone is to be lifted. If DEN investigators discovered who caused the gate to malfunction, or why, they were not willing to share it with us. Military sources, however, have announced a project to provide a significant boost to the already formidable defence platform in the stargate’s orbit.

 
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*** Inter Galactic News ***

Empire - DEN action grinds to a halt

After months of tension relations between the Empire and the Dewiek Nation, which rose to several large scale fleet actions ending in the DEN losing over 60 Direwolf warships in Solo, things appear to have moved from antagonistic to unfriendly. With the Solo system being a particular issue an agreement has been reached between the Wolf Mother of the DEN and Xavier Fox of the GTT. Since this things have become very quiet, not just because the shooting has stopped, but also because my reporters have been on their summer holidays.
 
News For Discerning Naplians!
---- Special Galactic Edition ----



(The Host sits at his desk as the studio lights dim, and a single spotlight bathes him in light. He looks straight into the camera and begins to speak: )

Host: Naambta!
Good Greetings, and welcome to the show.

This is News for Discerning Naplians, and i’m sure you are all showing much impatience to see this week’s Panel Discussion. We will be discussing religion with the Lady Ghadir of the Temple of Ya Zoon, renowned neo-naplian spiritualist Chairman TonTon, and a very special guest from our imperial neighbours, Bishop Samantha Porteus of the Brotherhood. But before we get to that...

(Looks demonstratively at his digital wrist watch. )

... it is time for a word from our sponsor.
 

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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