The price of CompuServe

December 9th, 2019 1:45 PM
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I was researching the history of MUDs and MMORPGs when a comment on Jimmy Maher's blog led me to the Wikipedia page for Island of Kesmai, a CompuServe MUD. As an alumnus of that online service, I was aware of this game but had never played it myself. What I found most striking about its history was the section "Price to play":

The game was available on CompuServe for no additional charge. However, CompuServe cost $6 per hour for 300 baud or $12 per hour for 1200 baud access rates. The game processed one command every 10 seconds, which equates to 1​⅔ cents per command.

Oh, gosh. Did that take me back — back to an age where I lived wildly outside my means.

As early as 1986, my dad showed me how to use the Apple Personal Modem on our Apple IIe to connect to what he called "the New York computer" (CompuServe was in Columbus, Ohio). At first we used it only for business and educational purposes: looking up stock prices and online encyclopedia entries. I was one of only three kids in my grade school class who had a home computer, and I was envied for how much easier the computer made my homework.
CompuServe logo
But my main use for the Apple II was computer games. When my family got a Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988, I fell wholly in love with its fantasy worlds. Perhaps since the NES had no academic value, or because everyone else in my class had a NES and it was therefore commonplace, my enthusiasm for it had the opposite effect of my Apple II: it made me dramatically unpopular.

I had to look beyond the playground to find friends who enjoyed and understood video games. That led me back to CompuServe and its gaming fora.

I spent hours upon hours in the Apple II Users, Gamers, Video Gamers, and Video Game Publishers fora. I would read every message, download every new game or FAQ, attend every scheduled chat, and occasionally play MUDs like British Legends. Being nominated as Member of the Month (MOTM) in 1992, first in the Apple II Users forum and then in one of the gaming forums, reaffirmed that I'd found my tribe.

This community came with a cost — one that my parents paid. Today, since we are rarely in control of our mobile devices' connection speed, we're charged by the byte; but forty years ago, we were instead charged by the hour. Those hourly fees piled up quickly: chats occurred slowly, and file transfers took forever (a 400K game would take 40 minutes, or $8, to download). CompuServe offered "offline reader" programs like TAPCIS, which would connect to CompuServe, download all the new messages, then disconnect, allowing the user to read the text and compose responses to be sent upon the next connection, all without hogging the phone line and running up expensive connection fees. Alas, I recall no such program for the Apple II.

Also, CompuServe was founded on timesharing: an insurance company wanted its expensive computers to earn their keep in their downtime. That meant, to deter users from competing with the insurance applications, it was more expensive to use CompuServe during the day. My father had told me the wrong switchover time from daytime rates to evening — so every night, I was incurring one hour of expensive connections before nighttime took effect.

Even for those services that didn't charge their own fees, there were still phone bills to be paid. Dialing CompuServe was free; we had a local Tymnet node. But eventually my online addiction spilled over to BBSs, many of which were long-distance calls (usually to Worcester, Massachusetts). Now my father was getting dinged on both his credit card and his phone bills.

The worst month was when my dad got a $500 bill — one that he made me pay. As he drove me to the bank, he told me that he didn't want to do this, but he saw no other choice. That may have been shortsighted, as he did eventually explore alternatives. He threatened to move me from CompuServe to Prodigy, which had a flat-rate plan. This would've been like changing neighborhoods or schools, losing all my friends and having to make new ones, so my dad relented. Instead he gave me a budget of $50/month, and if I came under, I could keep the difference. I was excited by the possibility of using those funds to buy a new Nintendo game every month… yet my online communities still got the better of me, and there was never any money left over. (More likely, I was frequently over-budget.)

One tactic my parents never tried was figuring out why I spent so much time online. They might've learned that the community I had there was one I didn't have anywhere else. Disconnecting CompuServe would've saved them money, but it wouldn't've magically expanded my offline social circle.

Fortunately, my father's threats were empty: he never forced me to leave CompuServe. It helped that I eventually became a sysop, which allowed me to visit my favorite forum for as long as I wanted for free. But I resigned from that position when I moved to college: it was a more diverse environment than my previous schools, and I finally found other gamers offline. But I still wanted to be a part of the Apple II community, so I followed as it migrated to text-friendlier pastures: from CompuServe to GEnie to Delphi to Syndicomm Online. By the time that last one shuttered in 2006, I was a college graduate who was tired of moving and was ready to settle down. Tired of playing in other people's sandboxes, I set up my own site on WordPress. Twelve years later, I got a job at Automattic, the developers of WordPress.com.

I had an expensive childhood — one I'm very fortunate my parents could afford, even if they did so begrudgingly. In hindsight, my dad would call it an investment in my future career, and he'd be right. But more important, CompuServe filled a void and made this kid feel a lot less alone.

Bizarro caller ID

September 30th, 2019 10:33 AM
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When I ran my BBS, I kept a corkboard on the wall above my computer — probably because it's what my dad did above his computer in his home office, of which my BBS occupied a corner. Little that I put on my board was practical or relevant, consisting primarily of mementos or jokes from completely unrelated affairs, like parking stubs from a summer trip to the beach.

But while recently cleaning out my house, I discovered that I'd kept the contents of that board from two decades past. And one such item actually did pertain to my BBS.

Sherlock Holmes speaks into phone: "Did you just dial my number by mistake and hang up before I answered, Watson?" Caption: "Sherlock Holmes gets Caller ID"

This comic strip from Dan Piraro's Bizarro highlights a groundbreaking technology of the 1990s: Caller ID. The strip is from 1995, which was my sophomore year of high school. I distinctly remember how excited I was for this feature to become available: how it arrived first at my grandmother's house one city over, then in my hometown a day later. Phones didn't have inbuilt digital displays back then, so I had to buy a separate caller ID box to sit between the wall jack and my BBS modem.

Finally, I could see who was calling my BBS before they even logged in! And it became an effective deterrent against pranksters and trolls. If I saw multiple accounts log in from the same number, I could call out these sockpuppets (though they always had what they thought was a good excuse, such as "Oh, that's my brother"). If someone used *67 to block their caller ID, I would sometimes use that as grounds to disconnect the call entirely. (In the early days of my BBS, I would verify each new user by calling their landline and asking to speak with them. Needless to say, that got onerous for both parties pretty quickly.)

This comic is a fun reminder not only of my BBS, but of how something we now take for granted — knowing who's calling before we answer " was once revolutionary. Some things don't change, though: I still read Bizarro every day. Its online archives extend only to 2005, so please enjoy this glimpse further back into its history.

BBS harassment

September 9th, 2019 11:12 AM
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My grade school was small, with only nineteen students in my junior high's graduating class. Not counting me, there were nine boys and nine girls, which was too small to foster diversity. There was no space for a nerd who didn't love sports.

So I sought community elsewhere, on CompuServe and dial-up bulletin board systems. At the end of eighth grade, desperate for others with whom to share my love for computer and video games, I launched my own BBS: The Playground!, exclamation mark and all.

The Playground! (or TPG for short) had message boards and file libraries focused on primarily on games for consoles and the Apple II. Since those were the machines available to me at the time, I wasn't interested in hosting discussions or files that I as the sysop couldn't verify (or enjoy). But TPG also hosted plenty of online games everyone could play, regardless of platform: door games like Triviamaster and Space Ship of Death.

Unfortunately, well before there was Twitter, there were online bullies. Users of my BBS were mostly young geeks and runts like me, using handles like Mr. Magoo and Scratchmouster. Whether they didn't like my BBS management style or they were just looking to exert control they didn't have elsewhere, some of these anonymous rapscallions were intent on causing me grief.

The most creative and damaging vandalism they undertook involved identity theft, though it took me awhile to figure that out. At first, all I knew was that users could not stay connected to my BBS. They would dial in and browse the forums like usual — then suddenly get booted. Since we had two Apple IIGS computers with two modems and two phone lines, I was able to call my BBS myself and verify my users' experience. I went through my Hayes modem settings, my BBS config, my phone connections, everything I could think of that would cause such errant behavior, but I found no culprit.

Finally, wanting to ensure other basic phone functions were operating, I tried calling my BBS while someone else was already connected. I expected a busy signal — but instead, the other user got booted.

My dedicated BBS line had been granted call waiting.

Maybe identity theft wasn't as rampant 25 years ago, and utility companies didn't require that customers prove they were who they said they were. But it was clear to me that one of my more mischievous members had called the phone company and asked that call waiting be added to my phone line. I called the phone company, had call waiting removed from our service, and my BBS's reliability was restored.

I still don't know who did this or why. And in the modern, larger context of online harassment, this ordeal was trivial: my BBS was not monetized, and neither my livelihood nor my safety were ever threatened. I chalk it up as an adolescent prank, but one that was at the time very stressful to a fellow adolescent who just wanted friends to play games with.

Bringing Warp Six into the 21st century

May 27th, 2013 11:59 PM
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Twenty years ago this past Presidents' Day, I launched a dial-up bulletin board system. The Playground was powered by an Apple IIGS running the Warp Six BBS software by Jim Ferr. As was often the case among the many brands of computers back then, pledging allegiance to a particular piece of hardware or software placed you into its community, connecting you with like-minded individuals. I became a frequent caller of another Warp Six BBS, the Apple Hide-A-Away (AHAW), run in Iowa by Scott Johnson. We traded many tips and tricks on how to make the most of the software. Whereas I stopped tinkering with Warp Six 16 years ago, Scott has been working on-and-off for years to update the software to v3.0, with an updater package currently in beta.

In tandem, Lon Seidman, star of last week's Apple II Bits post, is making Warp Six more accessible than ever. Using a Raspberry Pi — the same computer that was featured on the cover of Juiced.GS — Lon has made it possible to connect to his Warp Six BBS via telnet. Check out his video demonstration, which was featured on episode #1400 of The Giz Wiz:

I'm hopeful that, once Scott and Lon get Warp Six v3.0 stable, they'll be able to connect it with the BBS door game I wrote for an earlier version. Space Ship of Death (SSOD) stands as the most complex piece of programming I ever produced, at a whopping 624 lines of Applesoft BASIC and zero documentation. To see it running again would boost my already massive ego to intolerable heights.

Interested in trying Warp Six yourself? Point your Telnet client to matrixreturns.dyndns.org, port 6401. Just like the original Warp Six software, Lon's BBS accepts only one caller at a time, so for the first time in decades, be prepared to get a busy signal!

The BBS you can't telnet home to

October 22nd, 2012 1:22 PM
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Earlier this month, I received an email that BBSmates was resuming operation as of October 4. I had to read the full email to figure out what this meant, as apparently BBSmates had been out of commission long enough for me to have forgotten signing up for this email list in the first place! It is a telnet-based bulletin board system in the style of old-school dial-up BBSs that offers one of the most attractive features of that pre-Internet networking landscape: door games.

Legend of the Red DragonThese multiplayer online games were often played asynchronously, much like today's mobile apps such as Draw Something and Words With Friends. Since many dial-up BBSs had only one phone line, gameplay was limited to one player at a time. Gamers would log in, use up their allotted daily turns (in any number of text-based environments from a medieval forest to a futuristic space station), then log off and wait 24 hours to see what happens next. BBSmates offers plenty of classics — Legend Of The Red Dragon (LORD), Food Fight, Trade Wars, Usurper — playable by telnetting to the service or using a Web-based Flash interface.

I was excited to learn about BBSmates, as I was heavily into running and using BBSs from 1992 to 1997. Door games could make or break a caller's experience, and my favorite was Space Ship of Death, available for Commodore 64 and PC BBSs (and, once upon a time, playable on the Web at MurderMotel.com). I enjoyed it so much, I ported it to the Apple II for the Warp Six BBS software. Despite being only 624 lines of Applesoft BASIC code, it stands as the most complicated program I've written to date.

Despite these fond memories, I started wondering: can one truly go back again? I'd already tried once before — three years ago, when Zork was reimagined as a graphical Web-based game that ran from April 1, 2009, to May 31, 2011. I played it for the first two months, and the daily allotment of turns both reminded of the experience of early BBS games and encouraged me to play regularly. But ultimately, I fell off the wagon because I realized I wasn't connecting with the game. There were two factors missing.

One was a sense of community, which wasn't surprising, given the new Zork's its global audience. By contrast, access to a dial-up BBS was restricted by finances — only if you could afford long-distance charges was the world your oyster — so though I didn't know the people I was playing Trade Wars against, I knew they were nearby. Even that unexpressed commonality was enough to bring us together. I was fighting with and against potential neighbors, classmates, and citizens; on the Internet, I'm fighting the unknown world.

The second absent quality was a sense of investment. As prohibitive as those telephone charges were, it also gave the dial-up connection an intrinsic value. Time spent online was quantifiable at an hourly rate, which subconsciously trickled down to the actions and interactions one experienced on the service. Whether I played Zork or not, I wasn't at risk of losing anything; I had no stake in the experience.

I don't mean to disparage telnet BBSs in general or BBSmates specifically — door games still have the potential to be fun and need to be preserved and made accessible, both for those who enjoy them and for those curious for a hands-on experience with telecommunications history. In the latter category, BBSmates offers other valuable features, such as a BBS index, similar to Jason Scott's TEXTFILES.COM list but more searchable. (Yup, I'm in there!). And if it's just the games you want, BBSmates is not alone in offering a retro experience via telnet; The BBS Corner indexes over 350 such services still in operation — still a shadow of the peak in 1994 of 45,000 dial-up services.

Wherever you telnet to, if you want to go home again, the software is there to let you. It just may not be the home you remember.