Gary Martin, creator of “TradeWars 2002”

Gary Martin created TradeWars 2002, “the granddaddy of all BBS games” which has been played by tens of thousands of enthusiasts around the world.

Gary Martin

In this interview, Martin discusses rocking the University of Kansas campus as a DJ, founding Martech Software, and running one of the biggest bulletin board systems. He also describes two tantalizing projects that never came to fruition: “TradeWars 2112” and “Draconis”.

Anyone who called a BBS is likely to have tried TradeWars 2002. Did you play? Share your memories in the comments. Want to play TradeWars 2002 right now? I’ve included links to play at the end of the interview.

This interview was conducted by email from April 18, 2018 through July 9, 2019. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I have divided it into sections if you’d like to skip ahead:

The beginning

How were you introduced to computers?

High school for me was in the late 1970s. I graduated in 1981. This was in Atchison, Kansas, not really very progressive, so our public school system didn’t have anything until my senior year and that was an Apple.

Most of my early computer exposure came through a friend. His father was a teacher at Benedictine College in Atchison and through him I got time on their midrange systems. The first was a PDP 11 which was later replaced with a Prime 300. I started using those systems in Jr. High and got exposed to things like Adventure! and Star Trek. Adventure! was the typical Zork-like command interface. Star Trek was a simple “graphics” display (characters only, monochrome) that showed your ship in a quadrant and you had to fire at enemies based on a 360 degree layout.

Those two games got me hooked on the concept of computer games between 1975 and 1976. I even wrote a crude version of my own “graphics” game called Battlestar Galactica at the time.

Did you have a computer in your home growing up?

I never had a computer at home as a kid. My very first machine was one purchased from profits of a DJ company I ran at the end of my high school years and into college at the University of Kansas. In 1981, I was able to afford a Sinclair ZX80 (with the extra memory add-on for a whopping total of 4K RAM!) Back then at the University of Kansas, all computer work was being done on a Honeywell mainframe that had just switched from card readers to terminal screens for input.

Tell me more about running the DJ company!

The DJ company was a group of four friends. We called it “Cloud Nine” and had a pretty fancy lighting and sound setup. I built the amps from kits and most of the lighting as well. While we were all rockers, prefering Rush and Pink Floyd, the money was in dance music and that nasty disco stuff so we tended to do just that, what the customer wanted. Almost every cent we earned from it went back into new or more gear or albums, so it wasn’t a big money maker by any means.

We did a college dorm party at Ellsworth Hall on the KU campus that was one to be remembered. It started with the whole dance floor flooded with UV light and dry ice fog rolling over the floor. We played Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” before kicking into the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up.” Back then, they allowed beer in the dorms and that party ended with some live chickens being set loose on the dance floor (not our doing) and the fire alarms for the dorm being set off (also not our doing). One hell of a show.

Did you begin BBSing with that ZX80?

BBSing didn’t come along for me until about 1983 or so. I was working part-time at a computer store and the owner let me have enough junk parts to cobble a Frankenstein machine together. It was a CP/M machine with parts off Kaypros, Zorbas and, I think, even some Osborne junk. It didn’t do a lot but it had a serial port and a telcom program so it could hit BBSes. Monochrome screen, of course.

I hit up the two BBSes in Lawrence, Kansas, wasted money on CompuServe (so I could get into Kesmai), and also ran up the long-distance bill calling Kansas City boards.

It wasn’t much longer after that, that I’d put up my own board on some crappy old Genesis system. Being in a college town, the discussion boards were pretty lively as a social gathering place.

What made Genesis so crappy? How long did you stick with Genesis before trying something new?

Wayne Bell, creator of WWIV BBS. This monochrome image was created in 1988 by Eric C. Golden and saved in MacPaint format.

Genesis, ugh. I didn’t mess with it very long before jumping ship to WWIV. Genesis was clunky, crashed a lot and, if I recall correctly, didn’t support door games.

By the time I got into WWIV around 1986, it was in Turbo Pascal which was a favorite language of mine. KU taught Pascal as one of their main development languages so it was natural to use the language I was doing school work in too. WWIV was much more flexible with regards to modification and expansion. Also, Wayne Bell, the author is a great guy, very open to suggestions and helping people make add-ons for the game. He gave me the inspiration for writing programs that the end users could later expand if there was a decent data interface, so all of those TW2002 add-ons can be indirectly credited to Wayne’s approach.

Was this first BBS Castle RavenLoft?

The first BBS I put up was indeed called Castle RavenLoft. I was heavily into AD&D [Advanced Dungeons & Dragons] in college and that was my favorite module to run. Mostly because it was very hard for players.

The “First Book of Computer Games” by People’s Computer Company contained a type-in BASIC program called “Star Trader,” which is said to have influenced Chris Sherrick’s “Trade Wars.” Were you familiar with this book?

While I have a copy of “First Book of Computer Games”, it was something I picked up for nostalgia’s sake 20 years after I started programming. The thing that got me interested was what I previously mentioned: Adventure and Star Trek on those PDP systems. They had full source code with them and in that respect I guess I’m self taught for game programming as I just deciphered the source, figured out how to recompile my new stuff and went on from there.

TradeWars 2001

So around 1984, Sherrick’s “Trade Wars” is floating around. Where did you come across it?

I never messed with Sherrick’s version. I played it on a BBS somewhere, but I never had that door’s code or anything.

The first door I came across was a Pascal conversion [of Trade Wars] for WWIV done by someone called “Lord Darkseid” It was a hot mess of a chain, crashed all the time.

I used the database structures that were in it, and replaced almost all of the core source so that it was stable. Once I’d re-written it to a stable point, it became TradeWars 2001.

Can you talk a little bit more about chains? As I understand it, it was a way to run an external Turbo Pascal program without having to modify or recompile WWIV. But it required a chain’s author to distribute the source code, right?

Sure. The origin of Turbo Pascal chains was back when Turbo Pascal only compiled to the 64K chunk limit. That’s when Turbo Pascal made .COM files. To get past that 64K limit, you’d essentially leave a big allocated chunk of memory in your load image and swap in and out “chain” files that had the routines needed. This way you could greatly exceed the 64K size limit and just add some disk activity to the program to run different sections of the code. The only thing that had to be outside of the chain was the definition of the subroutines that were inside all of the chains involved.

For BBSes, it meant that your core communications code was all that was needed in the main chunk. If the user wanted to go to the message boards, load a different chain. If they wanted to do file transfers, different chain. This lent itself well to the concept of door games. You could just load a different chain for a different game (or piece of a game). To coordinate the loading of these chain files, you’d have to compile the chain yourself so that you had all the headers built into your primary executable (.COM). This required that source was distributed to do it.

I want to make sure I have the dates right: You started rewriting the WWIV Trade Wars in 1984, and released TradeWars 2001 in 1986?

The dates sound about right. It’s kinda hazy, being that long ago.

The title screen from TradeWars 2001, Gary Martin’s first foray into TW games. TW2002 was built from a port of TradeWars for WWIV BBSes.

Tell me about the development of “TradeWars 2001“. What sorts of things were you rewriting and optimizing? Were people playing it on Castle RavenLoft as you worked on it?

A few local friends were helping playtest 2001. That project was all about making it work right, not about adding features. To the end user it didn’t look like much of a change, it just ran without crashing.

I have a copy of TW2001 from 1988. When I read through the different message files and documentation, it’s clear that this earlier game has many elements that later TW2002 players might recognize: the Genesis device, Federation space, Captain Zyrain, etc. But other elements are VERY different: In TW2001, players fight the Romulans not the Ferrengi; they get punished by Clark Kent (!) for placing fighters in Sector 1. Tell me about the evolution of the Trade Wars “universe.” Which flourishes did you transform or add?

The version I started with had very little in the way of window dressing. I don’t even remember the original name of the enemies. It might have been Romulans. Pretty much anything that added something from some other domain was added by me.

The Federation, FedSpace, Zyrain, were all attempts to keep players from “camping” the player spawn area of Sector 1. Kicking them out of Sector 1 was the first move to prevent that type of toxic play, camping the spawn. Then it became apparent that they’d just setup a blockade around Sector 1, so FedSpace came to be, the immediate area around Sector 1. All of that was an effort to give a new or just-restarted player a chance to survive long enough to build up. Originally the StarDock was going to be in Sector 1 but that created too much of a choke point so it was randomly generated out a ways, with the path to and from it also flagged as FedSpace (but that was in TW2002).

Everything else was something I created to give the game more “flavor”. What I started with was a bland universe. Every sector was exactly like every other sector. The only differentiation was ore, organics, and equipment. There really wasn’t anything in the way of other names, nouns or descriptive info. Around 1988-90 we were watching a lot of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and I liked how they fleshed out everything they came across, giving it a bit of backstory, more details, to create a feeling of realistic fantasy. I had done a ton of AD&D [Advanced Dungeons & Dragons] game DMing at that point, building a lot of my own dungeons. I tended to always strive for more interesting descriptions to breathe more life into settings.

One key feature you added while working on TradeWars 2001 was the idea of “teams,” based on work Sherrick did for his RBBS Trade Wars. How did teams change the way people played the game?

Teams or corporations were huge in the game. There’s so much depth created both for alliances and betrayal through the corporations. It’s almost a guarantee that if you add too many people, one of them will turn on you and steal everything they can. That level of paranoia keeps corporations in check so they don’t grow too big. Of course the logs let you know who cleaned out all of your assets. So now you’ve tossed a new rivalry into the game, as everyone leftover in that corporation is almost guaranteed to go after their betrayer. The ability of one corporation member to swipe lots of stuff was intentional design.

Everything I did was always about move and counter-move, strategy and counter for it.

The whole point of the TW200x design was the underlying concept that “No one wins in a war”. When it comes down to fighting, both sides lose. It becomes a matter of who loses the most.The whole corporate design was there to stir the pot and cause more conflict amongst players, not to create safety in numbers.

Can you tell me about meeting MaryAnn? How did she get involved with your TradeWars project?

I met MaryAnn in 1988 when we both worked at Packer Plastics. She managed scheduling and I worked in the IT department, coding.

Once we got together, MaryAnn handled almost all of the business processing of [TradeWars] registrations from then on as well as helping me map out designs and new ideas. She helped a great deal working out designs but I still did all of the coding, and continuted to until I added John Pritchett later for maintenance work and bug squashing.

What reaction were you getting to TW2001?

TW2001 received quite a bit of interest on the WWIV forums. Most of the WWIV sysops were aware of Lord Darkseid’s version and that it wasn’t stable. There was a definite need for a Trade Wars for WWIV and many of them grabbed it. Tons of downloads.

Did you sell registrations for it?

I rather naively put TW2001 out there as shareware. I asked for a suggested donation of $15, but it was the full game, no restrictions.

Can you guesstimate how many you sold?

Over the entire period of TW2001, we received a total of 14 registrations from sysops. At that time it was running on hundreds of WWIV systems. Needless to say, that was quite an eye opener and almost ended the entire project.

It’s not that sysops are greedy, it’s just that most are busy (or lazy) and keep intending to send in a donation but just never get around to it.

TW2001 took a lot of my time, but nowhere near the black hole that TW2002 was going to be. I decided that I’d have to go to a limited unregistered version to keep future development alive.

TradeWars 2002

Tell me about the beginning of your journey rewriting and expanding TradeWars 2001 into TradeWars 2002.

One of three title screens for TradeWars 2002.

TW2001 was me trying to make a stable version of the unstable predecessors that came before it. I had been trying to use the existing games on my BBS but they just weren’t viable. They would crash the entire system, leaving it offline.

TW2002 was tons of new features later, and complete rewrites of most of the core routines. For example, the original path finder was a brute force “dead man’s walk” and it took a loooong time to plot routes from sector A to sector B. I would throw things like that out wholesale and write new, efficient routines. Heck, the final pathfinder was damn fast, that’s how it was possible to put that big path dump into the add-on program interface.

TW2002 was when I decided to make the Trade Wars game that I wanted to play, not just a clone of what previous ones had been. I wanted more levels of detail, I wanted more available strategies and counter-strategies for players to use. It’s where I started creating all of those new ideas that had been percolating in my brain during the TW2001 project. It was also where I added the registration system to try and keep the more honest sysops honest. Hackers were still going to find ways around it, but I wanted at least a little recognition for the amount of time and effort that went into it.

Do you recall when you began on this new project? Was it 1990? Earlier?

It was right around March of 1989, when I got married to MaryAnn.

In 1988, Wayne Bell rewrote WWIV, changing from Turbo Pascal to C. What sort of changes did that cause for you as you developed TW2002? How did you work around the loss of the old Turbo Pascal “chain” function?

With the older WWIV, the chain function made it easy on door writers as you would simply use normal input and output statements and the core .EXE of the BBS handled all of the I/O. At the same time though, there was a very tight size limit on how big a chain could be and still fit inside the BBS.

When WWIV converted over to C, door developers suddenly had to handle all of their own serial I/O, user authentication and create a stand-alone executable instead. This newer style of BBS package just created a “door file” which contained info such as who was executing the external program, what serial port the modem was attached to, and the relevant I/O settings for that port. It was a lot more complicated coding to handle all of the I/O correctly and still take care of things like typeahead, disconnects, etc.

This change did unleash the size that the core .EXE could grow to. Instead of the game being one small chain program inside a BBS .EXE, the game became the bigger .EXE with multiple chain files inside it for submodules to expand its size. Without this change, TW2002 never would have been possible due to the memory size limitations of the old chain setup.

In addition to expanding the TradeWars’ potential size, do you think that WWIV’s change to C widened your customer base? I imagine that independence from WWIV allowed you to make TW2002 work with many types of BBS software.

Yes indeed, though that brought a whole new set of challenges. Each different BBS system used different types of drop files to pass user info down. Support for each different one required setting up that type of BBS, testing their interchange, etc. While some tried to stick with a standard, as with most standards, they were not exact.

Obviously the change to a standalone program with its own I/O and support for multiple door file formats expanded the size of the customer base.

What were some of the big new things you decided to add to the game in 1989?

Getting away from the chain system meant more memory [was available] to keep stretching the universe size. That was really one of the key elements, making the playing space big enough that people could find dead-end tunnels to hide in and establish bases off the beaten path.

Can you tell me about how some features began, versus where they ended up by v1.0?

Quite honestly I can’t. Besides the fact that was 30 years ago, I just added strategies and counter-strategies as they came to me. It evolved naturally as I played it and thought of interesting new additions.

It was never road-mapped from start to finish, it just evolved as new ideas hit.

Maybe we could talk about some of the things that made TradeWars 2002 distinctive. For example, in the v1.0 release you included “Computer Interrogation Mode” which your release notes said would help programmers “developing mapping tools”. This did indeed lead to lots of TradeWars helper/utility programs over the years. Where did the idea for CIM come from?

Someone had contacted me about releasing the specs of the data files so they could write a third-party mapping tool. I didn’t want to do that because that would require me to release update notes everytime I changed the data layout of those files. I was adding new fields and changing field sizes rather often and it was already enough work to make the conversion programs that would migrate the data on upgrades.

So I decided to make a uniform “data dump” format that they could trigger that would give them info the same way, each version without having to publish notes for every last data descriptor change. The original idea was that I would put more functions into it, but after I thought about it, a lot of info in the game shouldn’t be released or could give a tactical advantage to someone. Thus, only the small set of result data was in there.

I knew people would write “helper” programs anyway, so I preferred they got the right data from me instead of hacking into the database files.

Landing at the StarDock, as seen in the interface of the helper program TWTerm v3.0

Over the years, did you ever try any of the helper programs yourself? Did you work with the authors of any of the TW helper programs?

I never tried any of them and never worked with any of the authors. I always preferred a “clean” approach to the game. Play it as it sits, go out and discover some nice dead end tunnels, don’t rely on a mapping tool to find it for you. Also, having such a mapping tool around means that other people are going to easily find where the dead-end tunnels are. If they’re smart, they’d be scouting those out looking for bases to raid. So I supported them with that interface, but I was never a fan of those programs.

How do pricing algorithms at the ports work? Did they change much from TradeWars 2001?

They’re not all that complicated. The basic concept is that if a certain item wasn’t traded much, its value would rise. Traded a ton, its value plummets. Basic supply-and-demand stuff.

That’s why it was always best to find out-of-the-way, never-used ports that would pay well for what they wanted.

You had a fun mix of NPCs, from the Feds to the Ferrengi to the various aliens and traders. You also developed many types of ships. I’m sure all that variety required a lot of fine-tuning to keep the game so balanced. How did you achieve that?

Naw, that was the easy part. The NPCs were generated as needed and off the top of my head. The main ship types were also knocked out on a weekend with a couple others added to plug niches as I saw them.

This screenshot shows the the introductory ANSI for the Tavern on the StarDock in TradeWars 2002.

Other authors of BBS games have told me they labored to balance all the different features within their games so that one aspect wouldn’t overwhelm another, or to keep players from dominating a game too quickly. You also said similar things in the past! For example, when you released TW2002 v1.01 you wrote “The Ferrengi! Argh, what a lot of work. I have been working to balance the little beggars so that they remain a threat throughout the life of a game but so that they do not overpower users.”

Most of that type of development is more a concern of making a new strategy and then making a equally powered counter-strategy to go with it. Or sometimes the counter comes first.

For example, the interdictor engine. How long should you be able to hold another player in place, before running out of material to fuel the process? Give someone an ion cannon for their planet, make sure it doesn’t one shot everyone coming up against it.

Initially it’s a lot of testing on my part and then, once released, some minor adjustment based on user feedback. The end users don’t always agree with things I created, but that’s my vision for the game.

As a counter-example, other TradeWars-style games had “logon lotteries” where you could earn a bunch of free credits if you were lucky. I always disliked the idea that someone could go buy 100,000 fighters because they got lucky on a lottery, so I never added that to the game or allowed third-party programs to do it. My design was that you had to actually earn your profit so you’d be more careful about how you threw it away in combat. The game was designed with the concept in mind that no one in a war is ever really a winner, just that one side loses less than the other.

I’m curious what some of your “favorites” were. Did you have a favorite ship to use when you played? Did you prefer good or evil alignment?

The ISS [Imperial StarShip] was my ship of choice, and I always played “good” for some reason.

A look at the statistics of the Imperial Starship in TradeWars 2002.

Why did you prefer the ISS?

Size, capacity. Enough holds to get things done at a decent space, but also enough fighters, etc. to deal with whatever came up.

What was your favorite strategy?

My favorite strategy was what I called “Last Man Standing.” Find a deep, dead-end tunnel somewhere with no one-ways that jump into it. Build up strength in there, all the while trying to pit everyone else against each other. Find player B’s base, tell others where it is.

You told me earlier that you only sold 14 registrations for TW2001. It seems things improved quickly as you developed TW2002. In your readme files, you reported having 84 registered BBSes on Oct. 7, 1990; a few weeks later, you were up to 132. When you finally released v1.0 in June 1991, you said “Registrations have just kept us buried!” How did you cope with the surging popularity of the game in those first few years?

MaryAnn and another family friend did all of the registration processing. Some days would bring as many as 20-30 letters at once.

This letter was sent in 1993 by Martech Software to a sysop who had paid to register TradeWars 2002. The letter contained a registration code. The private details have been redacted. (Courtesy of Benj Edwards)


This letter was sent in 1996 by Martech Software to a sysop who had paid to upgrade TradeWars 2002 to v2.0. The letter contained a registration code. The private details have been redacted. (Courtesy of Benj Edwards)


Was it a burden?

Nope, they just dealt with it while I kept programming.

But you weren’t experiencing it in the form of more emails, WWIVnet traffic, or bug reports, feature requests or anything like that?

That’s a given though, and not difficult to deal with. For the most part, people don’t send in bug reports. The majority of players keep those secret especially if it gives them some kind of edge. Very few actually sent in reports about them, but those that did, helped get them fixed.

When TradeWars 2002 v1.0 was released, it had some of the coolest ANSI art ever created for a BBS door game. The splash screens, the stardock, the tavern, the various ships. How did your collaboration with Drew Markham come about?

Drew was a fan of the game. He contacted me out of the blue and just wanted to help add to the project.

He got into making ANSI art for it after the initial release. I created the majority of the screens that came out with 2002, Drew added all of the ANSI animations in the Stardock movie theatre, the ship and planet screens and a couple others. The main splash screen was also his creation.

He had a lot of ideas for developing a full graphics version of the game, but we never completed that. He also came up with a lot of the ideas that went into the different planet descriptions.

You’ve seen some of his other artwork later on if you ever played “Return to Castle Wolfenstein”. That was his stuff too.

Screenshot

This screenshot shows the menu for the “Cineplex Videon” onboard the Federation StarDock in TradeWars 2002. The “movies” are short ANSI animations created by Drew Markham, who used the handle “Videon.”

I learned today that Drew Markham passed away in May 2018. I was so sorry to read his obituary. Had you heard about that?

Wow, that was a shock. I had no idea Drew had passed. Thank you for bringing that to my attention.

Mary Ann was part of Martech, and John Pritchett joined later. Was Drew part of Martech as well, or did he remain just a fan? Did he get any royalties or anything for his contributions?

Drew was just a fan. Never an actual member of Martech. I did name some stuff after him here and there.

Is there anyone else who made contributions to the early development of TW2002?

Nope. Just us three.

In a WWIVnet message from August 1990, you warned people of an effort to discredit you. Apparently a virus-infected file was being distributed using one of your old handles. Do you remember that? How did that impact your BBS and TW2002 development work?

I don’t remember that, but crap like that was always going on. Authors or, more often, fans of other programs would try to do BS like that to make their favorite program look better.

TradeWars 2002 v1.0 was released in the summer of 1991. But you weren’t alone … there were competing TradeWars variants at that time, like Yankee Trader, Ultimate Universe, and others. Did you ever try any of the competition?

Nope. I did not play the other variants or even look at them. That was intentional.

In that climate, some users like game A, some like game B. All too often, player arguments would devolve into “Well A had it first and B copied it!”

So I stayed away from them, to hopefully prevent ideas coming from seeing what they were doing.

From what I’ve heard, many of those others took ideas from TW2001 and TW2002, but that’s fine with me as I know where my own ideas came from in the first place. Obviously there’s a lot of common ground since we all were basing a game on the old Sherrick version.

I basically wanted my concept of a space trading game to be as unique as possible.

Speaking of player arguments, I found the following message among a cache of old Fidonet messages which I scraped in 2015. The message was written in 1996, I think.

Ok guys I think I have finally found proof of the fact that Gary Martin,
"creator" of TW 2002, is a AMATUER programmer and a fraud!
Let me explain:
I have the source code for a game called Trade Wars 2001. I found it
on Exec-PC awhile back. Looking at this PASCAL source code, I am seeing
a game which is VERY similar to TW 2002 v0.93. VERY similar. Ever wondered
who the rogur mercenaries are? Take a look at this source code and you
will find out. I believe Gary probably stumbled upon this code, rewrote
parts of it and made it TW2002, and then marketed it. Guys, if you want
to take a look at this code, tell me your email address and I'll send the
code to you!

Yeah, there were always idiots trying to establish their “e-identity” online back then by discovering something important, whether real or not.

Sure, yeah, I plagiarized TW2001!

I had one idiot swearing that TW2002 was written in BASIC and that I was stealing “yet unreleased versions” from Chris Sherrick and calling them mine.

I wonder if that guy ended up working for some tabloid somewhere?

TradeWars 2112, Draconis, and Metropolis

Sysops and users alike embraced TradeWars 2002. I’m sure many wondered where the game was headed next. In April 1992, you posted a “statement of direction” on WWIVnet in which you discussed plans for a “Trade Wars 2112” project. You said it would support realtime multinode play, and it would include a custom terminal program with 256-color VGA graphics, sound effects, mapping and analysis features. What happened to this project?

Now you’ve hit a sore spot.

You have to remember, this was back in a period where one developer could put out a complete game by himself. It didn’t take an art department, musicians, or celebrity voice actors to create a title.

So in a world where all of these text BBS games are thriving, suddenly here comes a title like Wing Commander. Celebrity voice actors, a HUGE art department, coding department, music department, etc.

The bar to create a competitive game was suddenly far too high to reach as an individual or even a small development company. Since I didn’t want to create an inferior game in that world, I chose to stop working on it entirely.

Drew Markham had mocked up some VGA graphics of cockpits, views of star systems, and such; all since lost to time. I could easily have created the infrastructure to make it work. I just couldn’t create the 3-D graphics, art and textures to make it look like a movie. Digging into sound effects and music took all of my time for months and it became obvious there was just no way to compete against that level.

Prior to Wing Commander, graphical computer games were mostly simple, sprite-based affairs, set viewpoints, etc. Think of the early Ultima games. After Wing Commander, it was a massive undertaking to compete. I think the credits for Wing Commander listed something like almost 300 people involved in its production.

Obviously a more cinematic game with graphics and sound never happened, but you did keep working toward realtime multinode play. That must have been a difficult technical challenge. Can you talk about that work? Is that what led you to partner with High Velocity Software on the Major BBS port?

No, actually I dropped the multinode, realtime multiuser play completely at that point. The realtime multiplayer on the BBS version came about much later with v3.

I got into the Major BBS as an operator. I had a fairly large system, Metropolis, and that’s where I met up with High Velocity Software, after buying an MBBS add-on module they made. Their coding, support and performance was just heads and tails above most of the rest of the third-party MBBS stuff out there. We started talking and then Jeff Moriarity brought up doing a Major BBS conversion [of TradeWars 2002]. Modules for the MBBS were state driven, written in C with the Galacticomm core I/O system.

[The TW2002 MBBS port] was a complete rewrite of the Turbo Pascal stuff in C, removing all of my I/O functions and integrating it with MBBS operations. On top of that, they added the multiplayer functions after getting my direction on how it should work. So technically, it was the multinode design I’d had in mind, they just did the coding for it.

Major BBS modules were a very niche product. There were so few Major BBSes compared to the number of single-line BBSes that modules for it tended to be quite expensive to cover development costs. Average games for it cost a few hundred bucks. The MBBS TW2002 sold for $400 a system, but it could handle up to 128 [phone] lines.

It was a great collaboration, though. Jeff’s a great guy and I’m still in touch with him via social media.

The Ferrengi Scorpion ship was one of several features unique to High Velocity Software’s MBBS port of TradeWars. Later, Martech backported the Scorpion into TradeWars v3 as part of the Gold expansion.

TradeWars 2002 v2 was released as a series of private betas and wide betas in 1993 and 1994. But something big was happening right at that time: the Great Flood of 1993, which inundated parts of Kansas and Missouri. I read that your garage flooded three different times. Can you tell me about that experience?

The flooding was no biggie. Our house was built in a development area that originally had a creek going through it. The brilliant land developers put a 3-foot diameter pipe in the ground to handle rain runoff, covered everything with dirt and built a ton of houses. So sure, when flooding rains happened, we’d have a foot or more of water traveling through the backyard. The detached garage was lower than the house and flooded from that, but the house was fine. Made a huge mess everytime, though, and not just in the garage. Tons of cleanup in the yard as well.

Tell me more about you and MaryAnn’s time running Metropolis. I have read that it eventually it became one of the largest BBSes in the U.S.

I had always been interested in multi-line BBSing just for bringing head-to-head gaming to life. Virtually all of the BBS systems out there that could do simple multi-line setups were not really multi-user; they were just running multiple instances of the same core, accessing the same files with some very weak multi-user chat abilities where everyone wrote to and read from a common shared file.

Not what I was looking for.

Then I found the Galacticomm Core and the MajorBBS alongside it. This system was a true time-slicing, multi-user setup running on a single code instance supporting up to hundreds of people on the same system in realtime. Not only was the coding extremely complex, but it was quite easy to write something that would take down the whole system if it exceeded its time slice. It was a very crude multi-user system, but a real multi-user system.

We built Metropolis originally just in Lawrence, Kansas. The concept of multi-user games, online chat for our town only, and a shared multi-user experience really caught on. Even charging 25 cents an hour for use, it paid for more phone lines, more modems and more serial multiplexers from Galacticomm to add in additional lines (16 at a time).

We started up a social community that spilled out into get-togethers at local bars on a weekly basis. It was quite common to find a couple dozen people in chat, cracking jokes and having a great time. It caught on much better than AOL or those multi-national systems where everyone was a complete stranger. Since it was a small community, people got to know each other. Even to this day, we remain our own community (we have a Facebook page).

It reached a point though where a lot of people in Kansas City were calling long distance to Lawrence just to be a part of it. I figured out a way to multiplex 16 serial lines through a single ISDN connection and dropped another plex in a friend’s basement over in Kansas City. Before you knew it, we had added 16 lines in Kansas City and they were packed full prime time each night.

It was about this point, while expanding the Major BBS and adding new games, that I ran into High Velocity Software and Jeff Moriarty. Talks, meetings at BBS conventions, etc, eventually led to a partnership where they recoded TW2002 into a state-driven, C++ product for the Major BBS.

Not long after that we attracted the attention of Multi Service Corp. in Kansas City. They eventually bought Metropolis from us and hired MaryAnn and I as consultants to help them grow it. Within a year we had added remote points of presence (modem pools on multiplexers) in every city of both the Big 12 and Big Ten college conferences. Metropolis grew to a massive thing at that point, close to 700 lines.

It was a wild time, but we ran the place like the bar in “Cheers”: real sysops in there to keep the crowd under control, bounce the trouble makers, etc. The owners of Multi Service wanted to automate the whole thing and thought it would be the same without all of the personnel costs. Differences of opinion like that eventually made us want to leave and we did.

While multi-player games pretty much ran themselves, the main draw of Metropolis was chatrooms: the chatroom games that players could play with each other (trivia contests, card games, etc) and the interaction with the staff. We had a lot of people involved to keep it a fun and interesting time. That vision, the thing that drew people to Metropolis, just wasn’t what Multi Service wanted to do.

Still, it was a very fun and rewarding period in our life and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Did Castle RavenLoft and Metropolis overlap? If so, was Castle RavenLoft where you tested your updates to TradeWars 2002 v2 and v3?

Castle RavenLoft was always the support board and home of the door game. RavenLoft remained online until I sold the TradeWars intellectual property to John Pritchett.

This seems like a good place to ask about how you and John met. I understand it involved a fender-bender.

Yep. We were commuting to Kansas City to work at Multi Service after we sold Metropolis to them. Coming off the highway, we stopped at the cloverleaf waiting for traffic to clear to get onto the road to work. John came off the highway a bit too fast, couldn’t stop in time and rear-ended us. It was a minor bump to be sure, but we had a brand new vehicle, so I was going to get all of his contact info.

We quickly realized we worked at the same place and started talking about geeky stuff after that.

John turned out to be a big TradeWars fan and wanted to help out with doing maintenance work on the code, bug fixes and such. That evolved into eventually him taking over the project and us getting out of it years later.

So John was helping with bug fixes on v2. In the release notes for the final v2 wide beta, which came out in Sept. 1995, you announced that you were working on a new door game, using “3-D rendering tools to produce graphical scenes and animations.” Is this what led you all to leave Multi Service?

No, that had nothing to do with Multi Service or leaving there. That would have been TW2112, but after a lot of consideration, I decided there was just no way a one-, two- or even three-man shop could pull off such a thing. The “Wing Commander” syndrome I spoke of earlier.

In a 1997 interview, you mentioned two projects underway: a “Fantasy Role Playing game of a scope that no one has ever seen” and a “Space Opera of such a scale to make TW2002 seem like a ‘training simulation'”. I assume the latter was the TW2112 project. What was the fantasy idea? How far along did you get with these projects?

The FRPG was tentatively titled “Draconis”. It was a world ownership/domination game. The concept was much like a game of RISK: take over territory and gain profits/resources from them. What really set it apart was that it was not going to be based on a single BBS/server.

The design was to spread the database and processing around to every BBS that was running it (or on entirely separate machines that sysops would run). Different sections of the world would reside on different servers, thus making a huge freaking procedurally generated world to explore and conquer.

Obviously there were security issues we hadn’t ironed out, but Draconis had much more development time done on it than TW2112 ever did.

One of three title screens for TradeWars 2002.

At the same time you were planning those big new games, John Pritchett was developing TradeWars 2002 v3, adding multiplayer support?

John didn’t develop anything with regards to the game code or design. He did maintenance work, bug fixing and the TWGS module that connects the serial comms system to TCP/IP Ethernet connections.

All of the v3 features and design work was mine.

According to various documents, v3 didn’t offer any new game features or new gameplay options. So, yes, the features and design were yours, but picked up from your previous work on v1 and v2, right? The point of v3 was the realtime gameplay and the optimizations, and those were primarily John’s work. Do I have that right?

Yes, that’s correct. The design of the game was me, John did bug fixes, optimizations and the Ethernet interface, etc. Under-the-hood stuff.

What was the division of labor at Martech in 1997? Were you primarily working on the new games (Draconis and TW2112), while John was primarily working on the optimizations for TW2002 v3?

At that point in time I wasn’t working on anything much. Rather burnt out on TradeWars as it was taking extreme amounts of time to do. John was doing maintenance and working on the TWGS ethernet stuff.

Concept work in my head was going on for Draconis, but no actual coding.

The end

At that time, the internet was killing off BBSes left and right. John developed TWGS for Martech, and then in April 2000 you sold the TradeWars rights to John. You told me earlier that you were feeling burnt out. Was the sale a relief?

At that point I was definitely burnt out on it. Doing a project of that size as one coder took an extraordinary amount of time. It was basically every waking hour when I wasn’t at my day job.

Even after adding John for maintenance and bug work, it was still an overwhelming task to keep going with it. So yes, it was a relief to be done with it, to spend more time with the kids and grandson at that point.

I’m sure you can imagine how the average player is always wanting more stuff, more features, more things added. While there were certainly a lot of folks who expressed how much they enjoyed the game, there were a ton more that were always demanding new stuff, demanding updates for when a new release would come out. We always tried to keep the registration cheap for the game. We knew that the shareware concept didn’t work but even with the registration system, there were somewhere between 10-15 systems running the game for every one that actually registered.

So yeah, it was sad to stop working on it but it was a huge relief at the same time.

We had been moving that direction for a while, so it wasn’t a major cold-turkey switch. It was just time to call our part done and let John run with it.

How many registrations did you sell for TW2002 before you sold it to John?

I don’t have a hard count but it’s over 35,000.

All these years later, what do you think about the business model of BBS games? People today might be surprised to learn that your income came from charging sysops rather than end users. If you had to do it over, would you have changed anything?

Heh, if anyone asked me that question, my first reply would be, “Don’t quit yer day job!”

Sure, yes, there was some money inflow from that, but it was many years worth of work to merit it.

Sales of the MajorBBS version were grossly superior. Much smaller market there though, but I think there were hardly any MBBS sysops that tried to run stolen modules. Since most MajorBBSes charged users to access them, there was a lot more visibility on what they were doing. They had to “keep it clean” with regards to running modules they didn’t pay for.

BBSes are not quite extinct — TradeWars is still played today! In fact, I introduced my daughter to the game a couple years ago, and she loved it. What do you think is the legacy of TradeWars? Do you still hear from fans today?

Every now and then I run into fans somewhere. Usually on a Facebook page or amongst other gamers.

The magazine PC Gamer actually rated it as one of the 10 most influential games in the first generation of PC gaming.

Mostly it’s a fond memory at this point. I’ve forgotten the long hours involved with it, people showing up at my front door looking for registration codes, etc.

People actually showed up at your front door?

More than once, believe it or not. Two instances stick out in my mind.

The first, we get a knock on the front door about 5 p.m. Fellow had driven down from 2 or 3 states away with his wife who was eight months pregnant just so he could get a registration code! He was so excited about adding TW2002 to his BBS that he just couldn’t wait on the mail for his code. They were very appreciative but then loaded back up in their car to go eat at a Furrs cafeteria in town! They drove all the way back home that evening.

The second was more bizarre. There was this young kid who was constantly sending me email about the game. He wrote some simple add-on for it that had gained some popularity. I answered his questions nicely, but never led him on about him being a professional programmer. The kid lived in Washington state and had just turned 18 and graduated high school. So there I was, getting the backyard ready for a Fourth of July party and a cab lets someone out at the end of the driveway. It was that kid! He’d packed most of his stuff in a backpack and taken buses to get clear to Lawrence, Kansas from Washington state. He just showed up on our driveway expecting a job writing Trade Wars addons?! It blew my mind, but we had a nice, fairly calm discussion where I explained that I did TradeWars in my spare time, that we weren’t hiring anyone, and that I couldn’t give him a job. He apparently knew some folks in the area as he ended up heading over to their place and I never heard from him again.

MaryAnn and Gary Martin

Mary Ann and Gary Martin, pictured here in 2013, run an animated Christmas light display at their home in Lawrence, Kansas. They’ve been producing “Parkside Christmas” since 2008. (Photo by Richard Gwin, Lawrence Journal-World. Photo republished with permission of the Journal-World)

I’d like to close our interview by asking you about Parkside Christmas, the computer-controlled Christmas light display that you and MaryAnn have been producing for many years. How did you get into that?

That actually all started with Halloween. I’ve always loved the holiday and used to help design, set up, and run haunted houses.

When I came across the gear being made for animated lighting in 2006 I bought some to make our house over into a very fancy setup for Halloween. That turned out to be a great hit but since the gear was really meant for Christmas displays, I started doing that in 2008. It’s grown immensely since then, won a number of awards, and makes my neighbors hate the traffic every Christmas season.

There’s a lot of work involved in both making the fixtures — most of the raw components coming directly out of China — and in creating the sequences that marry the lighting gear to the music.

Try TradeWars 2002

Want to try Gary Martin’s classic BBS door game? Many BBSes and standalone servers host the game today. You will need a telnet client like SyncTerm to connect.

9 thoughts on “Gary Martin, creator of “TradeWars 2002”

  1. orionblastar

    When Visual BASIC 1.0 for DOS/Windows came out, I worked at a datacenter that ran a BBS that licensed Tradewars.

    My supervisor and I were going to create a Tradewars game from scratch in Visual BASIC. Level 0 was “Lost in space” and had an astronaut GIF on it. Transwarps were in a menu you could click on and to attack someone you dragged and dropped a missile to their ship in the sector.

    We never finished it and the code was lost to time and bit rot. Making a better Tradewars than Tradewars 2002 proved to be very hard to do unless you had hundreds of developers and artists on your team in 3D or GUI.

    Reply
  2. Denis-Carl Robidoux

    Bug exploits always were and always will be a thing in multi-player games but the only one that I ever did exploit myself was one in Trade Wars 2002: a sequence where you could cancel a transaction in mid-course and get double refund. I gladly used that trick to get back on a few of the sysop’s friends that would gang up on newbs.
    Yes I cheated, but only to wipe the planetary systems of those who were also cheating by getting their turn counter reset regularly.
    Mouhahahahaha (evil laugh)

    Reply
  3. Sultan Bey

    Just FYI. There is still a TW2002 community out there, and several servers at which to play. Most of them can be found at Microblaster.net.

    Reply
  4. Shooter Jennings

    Wow, this is probably one of the, if not the most honest dialogues into early BBS game development. Thank you, Josh, for taking the time and getting this done and ultimate thanks to Gary for not only the games but sharing all this information of the past, the unfinished and the swelling black hole of creativity in your mind.

    Badass.

    Reply
  5. David Pascarella

    Thank you, Josh, for your inter view & bringing the past to the present.
    Thank you also Gary Martin for writing Trade Wars and getting it to the masses.
    That began my voyage into this game maybe 30 yrs ago .. maybe more ?
    I have been a sysop and player to this day.

    Vid Kid/CareTaker

    Reply
  6. Sean McCauley

    Absolutely wonderful. Thank you ever so much for taking time to correspond and edit this conversation! Cheers to you, and to Mr. Martin, too.

    Reply

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