The Making of BiTRIS Discover one of the first social multiuser games ever written! Far away in 1987 the two crazy guys from Aachen hacked on their machines a nice addictive game that anticipated the concept of social gaming

The Making of BiTRIS

BiTRIS<no_tm> - The social game

Jan and Leo have always been fascinated by the idea that people, regardless of being together at the same place or separated, might interact while using computers. Certainly it was this fascination to inspire them getting involved with the world of telecommunication and tinkering on software that would bring people together in some way.

At that times, computer games already were quite common, but playing computer games still was a solitary affair: one computer, one player.

Large multiuser systems, as found in colleges and enterprises, were the perfect playground for more complex games, usually ASCII based adventures, but also those usually were single user games. It was indeed possible to start multiple instances of a game, but every user still played in his own isolated game world.

One of the first games that offered a minimum level of interaction among players, was NetHack, released in 1985 Strictly speaking, also Nethack was a single user game, but it implemented a first approach to a multiuser experience. When the player finished his session, he left a trace in the game world: the next player could encounter his virtual corpse and the objects he collected perviously.

BiTRIS Gameplay - Normal Game
BiTRIS Gameplay - Normal Game

Since both Jan, and Leo were passionate Tetris™ players, and enjoyed playing a match each one at his computer (you must think of it as a real sporting contest: the referee gave the starting signal, and both started to play simultaneously), they started thinking about developing some sort of multi-user-Tetris.

The first ideas still assumed that every player should sit on his computer, and the computer would be "somehow" linked together. But the big question was how to link them.

Of course at that time there was some fine network hardware available: ArcNet (2.5 MBIT), Token Ring, DecNet and lots of proprietary solutions could be found in enterprises and colleges. Because such hardware was so incredibly expensive at that time, and because there were neither standard protocols nor standard programming interfaces, it was out of the question to use "real" networking.

But since at that time every PC had a serial interface (V.24), it was obvious to connect two computers via a crossover V.24 cable (also called null modem cable).

The goal was to get for both players a realtime gaming experience on their screens, but the chosen approach soon manifested some serious problems caused by several factors that influenced one another:

  • Slow data rates: without any tinkering (e.g. the replacement of the usual 8250 or 16450 UART chips with the improved 16550 chips which offered a 16 byte buffer), it was not possible to achieve transmission speeds higher than 19200 bits per second.

  • Poor transmission quality: depending on the quality of the cable, the data transfer was more or less reliable. The implementation of a transport layer would have solved the problem but would also had increased considerably the latency and the programming effort. Also nowadays every hardcore gamer knows: latency is evil!

  • Poor OS environment: The operating system was still DOS, that was neither able to to any multitasking nor was reentrant at all. Moreover DOS did not offer nearby any useful API for most system functions: anything, starting from the whole background communication logic, up to digging any single byte to and from the UART, had to be developed from scratch.

Finally it was Jan's idea that people could also play the game by sitting together on ONE computer. As usual such plans were often discussed in the local pub, a well known meeting place for nerds of any kind. Since people liked the idea a gave a lot of encouragement, everything happened quite fast.

Nowadays it's not possible to say definitively, how long it took to develop BiTRIS: there were a lot if interesting challenges like performing music in the background (there was no native multitasking available), creating an absolutely reproducible gaming difficulty (one ugly thing was the "Turbo Switch": at that time you could switch between different processor clocks - making it possible to cheat games by slowing down your computer), a well calibrated rating system that permits to start the game at different skill levels, the possibility to share and merge high score lists. During development, Jan and Leo's flat share was crowded by people beta testing and contributing game metrics in order to calibrate the rating system.

BiTRIS<no_tm> was officially released around October 19, 1989 as Shareware (voluntary donation of 10 DM) or Cardware (send a postcard with a "Thank You!" to the authors) in case the money transfer would be too complicated or expensive or in case the player feels himself to poor to pay 10 DM.

The numerous postcards showed that the game was quickly growing in popularity not only in german speaking regions by being widely spread over the mailbox scene.

The specific appeal of the game can be found in the formerly groundbreaking multiple social components of the gameplay:

  • BiTRIS<no_tm> brings two people together to play as a team with one computer while trying to achieve the best result in perfect harmony and coordination.

  • BiTRIS<no_tm> brings teams together to meet at places with one or more computers in order to hold a competition. Additionally they may try variants like switching the team members, etc.

  • BiTRIS<no_tm> brings the majority of the player community together by giving them a possibility to keep a central unique highscore list by using telecommunication technologies.

It has been reported that some BiTRIS<no_tm> tournaments were held in Germany. According to the original documentation (BITRIS.DOC that was NOT a Microsoft Word document but a simple text file. In the good old times, a .DOC extension really stood for DOCument), the first BiTRIS tournament was held in Aachen on October 27, 1989 and both Jan and Leo participated.

Unfortunately the official high score list, maintained at YFTN, has been lost.

BiTRIS<no_tm> was entirely written in Turbo-Pascal. The source code of the latest version was found in one of Leo Moll's backups made in 1992 and can be downloaded from this site. Also the binary version is available for download.

This page was last updated on May 18, 2014, 17:56:08