In 2001, when Dmitry Labutin of Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, was
setting up a server for himself and his friends to play the fantasy
turn-based strategy game
, he could not have imagined that the game he was launching would
last for 12 years. And the game is still ongoing: At least two
players continue to play, sending emails to his server from time to
"Those players are definitely humans," Labutin tells Minyanville.
However the more recent players joined long after the original game
started. "About two or three people join each month. Some play for
a week, some play for a couples of months (...) I am certain that
there were players who played more than four years."
The game format known as
was most popular in the 1990s when Internet access was slow and
costly. Some relatively fresh titles like
Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc.
) either support PBEM natively or through third-party services like
The popularity of PBEM games has long been on the decline, however,
as they've been superseded by fancier real-time multiplayer games
World of Warcraft
Activision Blizzard, Inc.
). PBEM's text-only or crude graphics gameplay appear to be no
longer appealing to young players.
The picture was very different 12 years ago, says Labutin in his
very nostalgic post
Since January 18, 2001, several hundred players (their number
peaked at around 500 in 2003-2004) have taken some 1,685 turns in
this game, in the world of
. All their email messages containing directives for specific
actions were processed, turn-by-turn, by the Atlantis Dsnlab server
Labutin established. Russian-speaking players joined the game from
locations all around the globe. Labutin said there were a number of
similar servers for English speakers at the time, too.
Screenshot of Atlantis Little Helper, Graphic Interface client for
the game (
Labutin set up the server on his computer in the Nizhny Novgorod
State University where, at the time, he was getting his master's in
Mathematics. It was a hard thing to do then, he says.
"Internet access was slow and expensive in my university at the
time (…). By hosting a multiplayer game on the university computer
I was breaking all the possible rules," Labutin wrote in his post.
He was able to "legitimize" the server only in 2007, when Internet
access prices went down significantly.
Now a programmer and a part-time university instructor, Labutin
says that being the Game Master took a lot of his time then. He had
to find and fix bugs in the source code of the server so it
wouldn't crash under a heavy load. In a while he become so
experienced that he was able to add a number of features to the
That PBEM universe was quite a community builder long before social
networks, he recalls. "We had massive alliances. Some sites and
forums were created. We had a newspaper devoted to the game with a
designated editor. He paid game money to the players who came up
with the best stories," Labutin said.
However, he admits he never got any real money for the work he did
and has never heard about successful commercialization of any PBEM
games: "Everywhere I've played it was free and it was run on pure
enthusiasm of game masters," he told us. But on the other hand, he
notes that initiatives like his don't have to be profitable; the
experience and satisfaction also counts for something.
Labutin says that he has never heard of any contemporary
PBEM-focused games. But he definitely misses the experience.
"PBEM's main feature is that you can take time and think through
your every turn. You play against real people. The game is not just
about strategy -- it's also about diplomacy, blackmail and deceit,"
He's certain that modern games suffer from a lack of depth in the
gameplay itself because so much attention is focused on creating a
realistic experience. "I fondly recall games on the ZX Spectrum. It
had a weak processor and graphics. But the gameplay was so
fascinating that I used my imagination to visualize whole worlds or