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Developer Profile - William Barath

William is the author of the VP Movie Maker host add-on utility. William also created EditPln, GodMode and a computer player. This interview was conducted on March 14th, 2006.

Tell us a little about yourself, and what you have been up to since you stopped actively updating your VGA Planets utilities.

I donated a lot of code to the SourceWare Archival Group, then spent some time away from programming. Some might say I “got a life.” Shortly, I lost it again, re-developed a few of my old programming tools and donated a lot of code out again, then started contributing to the x-mame project, specifically adding patches to improve display rates under X by sleep()ing, adding an extension to support proper display aspect ratios given an array of available video modes, and to stabilize sound on my broken on-board VIA soundblaster clone. Then I wrote my own Apple ][+ emulator with savestate support, and quit programming again for about 10 years.

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

Hmm..., hard question. I liked Ultima I, David's Midnight Magic, Robotron 2084, 1942, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and I Robot. None of these were significant influences over my dream of creating a game of galactic conquest on the Apple ][. I created a program that built galactic star maps using fractals, and created a program that mapped regions that were 'touched' to floppy, started writing code to set the rules for interaction between objects across sector boundaries when I realized that no number of floppies was going to make this game possible. So I bought and Amiga. Which turned out to be a nightmare to program for because the OS was very much in the way, and the whole thing would crash and take huge amounts of time to restart if one merely wrote a couple bytes past the end of allocated memory. I decided that programming just wasn't for me on modern systems. Then Weird Al Walker and his CrazyTrain][ BBS sucked me into VGA Planets...

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

I would most likely play the Kling.. er Birdmen, because I am a warmongering tyrant. =)

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!”

I had a favorite add-on, it was my homebrew cplayer. I wrote it on a 386 in TP7.0 under Windows 3.11. That was a lovely development environment because when I would crash the stack the OS would simply kill the DOS session and put me back to the desktop, where I'd simply click the TP7 icon and be back editing source in 2-3 seconds. The Cplayer was supposed to play the game for me, but it never got that sophisticated. It worked on a very simple principle: each planet knew the location of the next closest 5 planets, and would be given a rank within it's grouping. By translation each planet knew its pecking order out of (up to) 36 planets, and a simple selection algorithm would choose one to be a starbase and forward all minerals there. The starbase would own 6-12 freighters (or freighter-scouts) and keep circulating the resources automatically. The starbase would build freighters until it had a compliment that could carry all the minerals to it at the same rate they were being produced. It would arm itself to the teeth when it didn't have to build freighters. The cplayer also “knew” when someone was playing, and if it was run before a player made changes it would assume that it was playing by itself. In that case it had a simple defense strategy: if target data existed within 200 ly, move ships to the nearest owned planets, beam up all supplies, convert rest to mc, beam up all mc, set circular towing between ships at warp9, set friendly code “mdq”. I never could figure out the encryption for the result files. Cplayer used the client to sign my turn by running the client and stuffing the keyboard to make it exit immediately, with the benefit of adding my registered player status to the turn.

What's your favorite Planets game memory?

I played once on a BBS and managed to colonize over half the game map before anybody challenged me. Everyone was terrified and fell in line like Poland to the Blitzkrieg. Eventually the Xtals and Cylons stood up to me, and everyone who had been under my wing as it were turned on me... I lost the game, but that was the most euphoric moment: owning 272 planets without a fight in a game with 8 players.

What specifically inspired you? What were the biggest influences?

Well I just like to do things nobody else has done, I wrote programs for the BBS owner who hosted the games where I played... because I could. I started with a program to make it possible to play different game maps than Tim supplied. We were the first to host games on non-standard maps. Period. I posted the utility after we had been using it for a week: fixmaps.

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

The encryption for the result file signature, which I gave up on. The signatures in the player files that are written when the game is modifying them was relatively easy to break. Just a simple xor and shift.

Were there things that you wished you had added to any of your products? VGA Planets Movie Recorder , EditPln, or GodMode …etc…?

What I was working on when I lost all the sources (backup on floppy, hard disk got tick of death, inserted floppy, it had a grain of something which stuck against the head and scratched the surface all to heck... sigh...) I was in the process of migrating it to DJGPP with the GPC extension, and adding dynamically scaled images of the ships to the VPMovie Player.

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

None of them are socially important, more just cool for me personally to have done. If people enjoyed using the programs that was nice. If people sent me a couple bucks to register the programs and offset the cost of the development system and compiler, that was nice too, but it was never a for-profit venture. I think VPMovie is significant only to the sentimental, nostalgic types, of which I am one. =)

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?

ROFL. Well people may hate me for this, but plainly: I think the sheer volume of tweaking available is addictive to people with BPD, OCD, and control freaks in general. It's a great outlet, and prevents us from otherwise bossing the universe around, which is good because the universe doesn't much listen.

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

Very little in the way of automated controls. You can't spend 8 hours a day tweaking the most out of your turn if the computer does it for you. hehehe... That said, the vast majority of the population won't play it. Just the group referred to in Q10. Incessantly.

Can you tell us, in layman's terms, how you came up with the idea of the VGAP Movie Maker and then how you implemented it?

When I started writing “God Mode” for Weird Al, the CrazyTrain][ Sysop, he decided to “log” the ownership of the planets by making a modification to the source, actually, he threw out everything except the library that defined the record types within host.dat and hostxy.dat file. He made a simple flat file of the turn number, and planet ownership, and updated it each turn. After about 16 turns he took the source of my ShowMap program and made it to display the turns one second apart, so we could watch how empires expanded. I told him maybe I could write something a little more sophisticated, and built vpmc.exe, the movie compiler. The compiler keeps a static copy of the game universe and each turn it compares and stores the differences in a highly compressed format, then updates the static copy. Then I started writing the player. I didn't tell him that the compiler recorded pretty much everything that went on in the game, I just kept updating the player to show more and more of it... it was a lot of fun watching his eyes bug out, particularly when the files generated by the compiler were so tiny. Eventually we decided to use it on the BBS as a special feature only for our players, and after a month or so we gave it away and I started asking for registrations to help me develop it.

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

I got a registration from Australia, another from the UK, I liked getting global renown, even if so little.

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

My original fantasy of galactic conquest on the Apple][. I really want to make that happen some day. It will be massively multi player, operate in real time, and be virtually limitless in scope. I joked with my roommate in 1988 that I would even make the color of underwear of a ship's captain selectable. It will have economies of trade and politics that simply can't exist in VGAP.

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

Development is utterly halted. If/when I get good, documented code describing (at the very least) all of the things I had to reverse-engineer in VGAP3.0 in order to create my tools, I simply won't do it because I am no longer a bored, unemployed 18-year-old.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Allen and I have started a hosting company, currently I am coding for one of his clients, I rather expect that we will still be coding in 10 years, hopefully for much better-paying clients, as well as taking some revenue from our hosting venture, high5systems.com. Because I am such a nostalgic, I would be pleased as punch to offer free hosting for an automated VGAP game-hosting site, anyone who has created such a beast can contact me at: wil at high5systems dot com.

Any last words to the Planets fan base?

Caw Caw! Deth from Above!!! :-)


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