Remember When Multiplayer Gaming Needed Envelopes and Stamps?

The archive of old PBM rulebooks and fan magazines has been scattershot, further obscuring an already obscure hobby. But of those that survive, editorials and fan letters often feel like they could have been written today. Players complained about games not living up to the marketing hype, being run by sketchy fly-by-night amateurs, or allowing players to pay extra for special powers. The gangster-themed It’s a Crime!, for example, let players execute four moves in a turn for $1.50, or 10 moves for $3.00, with a guide to PBM games noting that the latter was mandatory for “competitive” players. Yes, gamers have hated pay-to-win mechanics since the 1970s, when serious players of Tribes of Crane dropped hundreds of dollars on turns. And in a 1983 article for Flying Buffalo’s quarterly magazine, Rick Loomis told stories of PBM games leading to marriage (and divorce), then warned prospective PBM developers of the job’s many pitfalls, including bitter rule disputes and vanishing debtors.

Norris believes there’s still enough interest for him and Dorman, both 61, to continue running Rolling Thunder for as long as they’re healthy and willing, and for their games to survive them. Norris suspects that their fans skew older than other gaming demographics; the average gamer is 33, far younger than PBM itself, while video gamers in the 55 to 64 bracket prefer casual phone games. Still, word of mouth helps new players continue to trickle in, and Norris suspects that gamers frustrated by the time commitment MMOs require could find a home in PBM. “For some players, PBM has provided them with good entertainment for most of their adult lives, and I’m happy to have been a part of it,” Norris says.

Chuck Gaydos said that Flying Buffalo retains about 120 regular players, and that their largest source of new customers is prison inmates who lack internet access. In a blog post, Raven Zachary identified at least 42 PBM gamers in a Tucson penitentiary. He’s since given them copies of their print magazine, and created a flyer to advertise to inmates in other institutions. That’s the level of dedication players have for a hobby that’s not easy to win people over to. Charles cited oft-brutal learning curves as an obstacle—those lengthy rulebooks can get opaque, although Zachary helps ease people in with summations—but those who persevere often get hooked.

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“In this day and age, some people may think that it’s stupid to pay to play a game by the mail. Paying turn fees strikes them as archaic,” Charles says. “Yet I tend to get a better value, entertainment-wise, spending a few bucks here and there to play Hyborian War than I usually get spending a few bucks to go see a movie.”

“People have been talking about PBM gaming dying or being dead for about as long as I can remember,” Charles says. And yet PBM seems able to hang around at the fringes of modern gaming, fueled by camaraderie as much as gameplay. Landes, reflecting on his moderating days, explains that players who needed to talk strategy would introduce themselves with index cards sent to their in-game neighbors through him. Players would then strategize on the phone, and they’d often call Landes to talk too.

“It was during one of these calls that one of my biggest revelations as a game designer occurred,” Landes said. “I received a slew of calls that ended with some reference to a player named Vance and how they have to talk to him. This surprised me, as I would not consider Vance to be a top player. Yet, call after call, player after player would reference Vance. Later, Vance called and I just had to ask him: ‘Why does everyone need to talk to you?’ There was a pause, and Vance told me ‘I don’t play the game for the game. I play the game to play the people.’ This revelation completely changed how I understood multiplayer games.”

PBM will never return to its glory days. But, as more and more games force players to go online or encourage nonstop play to keep up with seasonal rewards, their low-tech approach to gaming offers a valuable alternative: a chance to breathe, and think.


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