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Developer Profile - Red Troll

I had the pleasure this week of meeting up with one half of the former Sharenet Trolls, Red Troll. During the course of our conversation he agreed to a Developer Profile for the site. Red Troll is the author of the famous Auto Troll software that so many of us VGAP webmasters use. In addition to that, the Trolls brought us ‘The Q’ computer player & Troll Mapper a random map generator for VGAP 3.0. This interview was conducted on September 23 rd, 2005.

Tell us a little about yourself, and what you have been up to since taking Sharenet.com offline.

Now I live in a small town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. For hobbies, I do woodworking (building chairs, tables, etc..,), and still do programming on the side for fun too. For a job, I work as an Enterprise Architect with J2EE and Java for large businesses.

Jason and I went to Oktoberfest in Germany with some of the proceeds from selling Sharenet.com

What are your favorite computer / board games and how have they affected the development of your projects?

Favorite board game is probably Risk. I used to love that game when it was on BBS's. I never was much into computer games, but computer software I look at anything I can get my hands on. I think it’s natural to take bits and pieces of things from pieces of software and incorporate them somewhere down the road. The cool thing about software and technology is its always changing and people are always coming up with new ideas and ways to do the same old things.

Which race do you prefer to play in VGAP & why?

Generally I like the cloaking races because they can surprise you. By the time you know I’m there, it’s too late and I have too many ships. But it depends on the HConfigs. With the default configs, I like the Lizards. With ES Bonus ON, there are more options…..maybe feds because I think they’ve got the best ships with Engine Shield bonus on at 50%.

Do you have a favorite add-on when playing a game? Something that’s caught your attention and made you think, “I wish I had thought of that!”

That’s an easy one – sphere. Conrad wrote it and it changed the game for the better more then any other add-on in my opinion. No more do you fight just in two directions. The circle master was too predictable to find the HWs. With Sphere, all sides were fair game and you could move out in every direction.

What's your favorite Planets game memory?

Game memory? I don’t know about any particular game that sticks out….. they all kind of blend together.

I guess I remember taking great joy in some of ShareNet’s 5 man team games. We played some real great players and never lost a game. I used to love kicking Conrad Lesnewski, Dave Killingsworth, Richard from Warp Speed BBS and their clan’s ass. After awhile they wouldn’t play us anymore. Two big names in VGAP that played on our team was Mike Arrowood (BANE) and Alex Ivlev. We even played a game with Tim once. I think it’s the playing of the game, and the friends that developed that I remember more then any one particular game, battle or strategy.

What specifically inspired you? What were the biggest influences?

Drinking beer. I was in college and I liked hosting games, but it took a lot of time. I was motivated to write AutoTroll to handle all the time consuming tasks of hosting so I could go drink beer and play pool.

Most of the software I’ve ever written has been to solve specific problems. For example, hosting games I saw players dropping out as a problem and the cplayer wasn’t any good – that inspired The Q.

What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome due to VGAP's mechanics/limitations while working on your projects?

Understanding Alex and his Russian accent. :-> No, I guess the bandwidth of FidoNet and BBS’s to get enough of a player pool to get 11 GOOD players in a game. The good players would pay the long distance bill and connect. But when we moved to hosting on the internet and BBS in ’96 we got plenty of players. Then I guess it was building a reputation of a site where good players played. You need good players to keep good players.

Were there things that you wished you had added to any of your products? AutoTroll, The Q, or Troll Mapper …etc…?

At the time no, but looking back I suppose things like SMTP authentication in AutoTroll would be nice, but back then there wasn’t such a thing. I’m done doing Delphi and VB programming and am doing just Java nowadays. As an exercise, I might port some of them to Java and add features……

What do you think are your most important accomplishments to VGAP and why?

Probably writing AutoTroll. Hosting is a key piece to playing. A good reliable host makes players enjoy the game more and keeps people involved. The more reliable a host, the more players that play there. The more players, the more competition and challenge, which feeds into the players playing. I think you need to run several games and you can’t do that manually. I also spent a fair amount of time way back in the newsgroups helping people learn VGAP and explaining some strategies – keeping the game fresh with new blood. But AT has lived on long after I left VGAP and hopefully helped keep the game alive for some hosts and indirectly for a lot of players.

In this time of graphically intense PC games, what do you think it is about VGAP that has people still playing a PBEM game that came out in 1991?

Like I said, I was never much into computer games. VGAP relies on strategy, enabling the person with the best strategy to win. Many games I see now aren’t strategy really; they’re learning which room to destroy a monster in, when to duck and fire and things like that. It doesn’t take strategy; it just takes playing the game enough to figure out the formula. But with VGAP you can play for years and still not be any good (like Dave Killingsworth <G>) – because there is no ‘formula’.

In your opinion, what are the key ingredients that a game of this type should have?

Absolutely - game balance. A good player can win with any of the 11 races. It’s the game balance that allows strategy to dominate the game. It’s because of game balance I was never a big fan of some add-ons or alternate host programs because they all skewed the game balance too much. Tim created a great game, but the genius (or luck?) was in the balance.

How has the internet affected the expansion of your programs internationally?

We had people calling long distance on their modems from 6 or 7 countries to play against good players or exchange messages in the BBS days. All that and I think we ran maybe 10 games at once. When we moved to the internet we ran over 100 games and people could connect for free from around the world.

Can you tell us, in layman's terms, what you did to improve the AI for The Q as compared to the original Computer player?

The primary goal of a cplayer, IMO, is to replace a human player with a challenging AI player. If you replace a human player with a simpleton AI player, then you still have the problem of when players drop out they become easy kill for their neighbors and a drop out can ruin the game balance. A cplayer HAS to be challenging or it defeats the purpose and can ruin a game when even one player drops out.

We had to make a choice. We thought of generating TRNs, but we had problems with Fuel and gathering information about enemies. Eventually we decided having a competitive cplayer that runs on the host side was the only way to make it competitive. So we limited the cheats to the fuel and its ability to “see” planets and ships. This omniscience is what led to the name “The Q” from Star Trek.

The Q uses freighters to build SBs on the best planets, has an algorithm to decide to build ships vs freighters depending on resources and proximity and “threat level” of neighbors, protecting shipping lanes, not using waypoints – all the things a good player does. It even builds ships based on who its neighbors are (e.g., Loki if a cloaking neighbor). The original cplayer would create minerals out of thin air and didn’t protect key resources and didn’t build good ships. It wasn’t a challenge except for the most basic of players. The Q was meant to be a very smart player, protecting its economy and attacking anything around it that was weaker (in aggressive mode), or building a strong defense (in defensive mode) to prevent foreign attacks.

I’ve seen TRN based cplayers and they’re not challenging and are easy kill when players drop out. The Q is a hard player to beat, and you’re better off in most cases fighting in the other direction against a human. But even then, as Q’s economy expands it will increase its “territory” and that’ll eventually be in your space, and Q will see what was your planet its planet and what was your ships protecting your planets, enemy ships attacking its planets. Depending on its other neighbors, it will send everything it has at you to get you out of its space. Again, just like a real player.

What would your ideal computer game be like if you could have anything you wanted given the limitations of today's technology?

I like the PBEM style so you can play things at your own pace. Something multi-player, something with strategy over graphics and with skill over tricks and complexity. In a lot of ways, a game like VGAP.

What’s the status of your product development and do you intend to continue to develop them or new utilities for Planets v4.0 in the future?

I’ve been out of VGAP for years now and I’m not sure what needs there are. Like I said, I’m not a real creative guy, I write software to solve problems I see. Being out of VGAP it’s hard for me to have a sense of what would be useful on a scale that matches the effort. I’m not interested in hosting anymore and I’m not interested in writing stuff people have no use for. If I hear of something useful, I’d be happy to do more in VGAP.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Probably like I started – drinking beer and playing pool. And if required, writing some software to free up more time to allow me to drink beer and play pool.

Any last words to the Planets fan base?

Don’t always play the same race – live a little - play the crystals, privateers and birdmen every once in awhile. Also introduce VGAP to some friends.


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