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

Crowe Coups Self

The IMP Viceroy Tiberius Crowe has finally achieved something in his unremarkable tenure by relinquishing even the semblance of wearing big boy pants and instead, appointed Jack Jones as Patrol Commissioner, salty spokesperson and policy maker for the Empire. Crowe will now join CIA Director Laton in riding the special bus to work where the two of them will enjoy long pleasant afternoons sipping cups of tea. Actually, just tepid fruit-scented water as neither of them can be fully trusted with a hot kettle. Occasionally, they might be visited by equally dynamic war “veteran” Admiral Bridge to enjoy mimes presenting the latest comics from the Howl. Meanwhile, Jones is putting pressure on the FET and will soon no doubt find a pretext to deploy his vast mercenary forces against anyone else who is seen working too closely with his most hated of enemies, the HEX.


 
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***** Inter Galactic News *****

Highlord Aadolf Loses Control As Dewiek Break Peace Treaty

Around one hundred DEN warships have launched an attack on a small GTT destroyer squadron of forty ships in the Daggern system. Two GTT ships were destroyed and another fifteen suffered noticeable damage. CEO Xavier Fox issued a restrained but angry statement demanding the DEN explain themselves. Highlord Aadolf’s buffoon-like response amounted to “Dewiek be Dewiek, let’s drink and forget about it.” Cold comfort for the dead crew onboard the GTT ships and their families. Especially, as seems likely at this time, the Empire will settle for some bloody money instead of retribution.


 
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***** Inter Galactic News *****

The Worm Turns

The FET have reduced relations with the IMP to neutral. Sneezy boss Cu Chulainn took the bold step of putting 1 and 1 together by linking recent mercenary attacks in their systems with the IMP scouts seen loitering for some time and refusing to move. Even bolder, hints that they believe “a certain Imperial citizen” is responsible for Edward Lowe’s entire underhand operation were voiced loudly enough that the handsome but hard of hearing Tiberius Crowe had to take note. He was seen grappling in trademark fashion with his skin tight jacket, pulling it down over his partially concealed middle-aged girth, as he sat to issue a terse public statement. Exactly who this citizen may be was left unnamed and no news channel subject to Imperial laws would dare unmask the villain. Luckily dear readers, we are not subject to phony Imperial laws. It’s Jack Jones everybody. Jack Jones, butcher of Naplians and fancier of silver long johns.


 
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***** Inter Galactic News *****

”Necessity hath no law”

Lord Cromwell of the DOM slapped a fleet of privateers, on charges of "knavery", "bad manners" and "poor sportsmanship." Such offences carry the death sentence in the Dominion, a nebulous territory neither part of the Empire nor apart from it. At least thirteen Armadillo class ships, typically sold by the DOM, were destroyed at a location Cromwell was unwilling to disclose publicly. Bloodthirsty Dewiek as well as "prince of peace" Yahn Wodenzoon were quick to congratulate the DOM for their merciless carnage. It seems the consensus in the galaxy’s ruling class is that not presenting valid identification is a crime worthy of the murder of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of unfortunate crewmen. This is all just another indicator that the political elite are far removed from the lives of ordinary people who are seen as little more than meat inventory. It is telling so-called “man of the people and the downtrodden” Wodenzoon so readily aligns himself with this grisly concord. Meanwhile, the archaic elocutionist Cromwell further establishes the recent trend of mild exertions of power by the cold-blooded DOM.


 
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***** Inter Galactic News *****

Return of the Fox

The galaxy is still digesting news of the return of Xavier Fox to the boardroom of the GTT. The ailing corporation's share price began a sharp rally after a six month downward spiral under Ike Krieger, credited with being the worst CEO in the megacorporation's history. The only surviving board member from Fox's initial tenure as CEO, and perhaps across the entire GTT board, is Antt Tilton the Research Director. The reclusive Tilton is the brains behind the ascension of GTT technology, particularly in the field of antimatter weapons and super-heavy dreadnought size ships, Tilton offers a small measure of continuity during this tumultuous time. Mr. Fox has therefore resorted to a broad appeal for new blood to join the ailing firm. So far, the result has been a number of two-dimensional "Yes" persons being promoted to the C-suite. Still, key stakeholders were upbeat with one commenting, "Fox is the man to turn this bloody disaster around. He knows how to put a great team together and where to bury the bodies of the non-performers."


 
******Empire Syndicated News Network (ESNN) ******

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Welcome to the latest version of ESNN, giving the news and views from the ESNN's reporter and news anchor, Ainsley Moore, making this the peripheries' most favourite unbiased publication in the known universe,

And so with the news,
 
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As part of the update outlined in the 7th February post, turn fees have been increased as from today.

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******Empire Syndicated News Network (ESNN) ******

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Welcome to the new version of ESNN (formally CSNN), giving the news and views from the former CSNN's reporter and news anchor, Ainsley Moore, making this the peripheries' most favourite unbiased publication in the known universe,

And so with the news,
 

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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