So-called "IBM" Freeware Games from the Early '80s

(...and the Cryptic Code Conundrum)

This is a question I've already raised in the usual suspect places, but without much success, so here it is again on the off chance that anybody knows anything.

Going through compilations of very early BBS-fodder for the IBM PC (shareware, freeware, public domain), I frequently see this bunch of games and programs that seem to have a few things in common:

  • They're all in BASIC
  • In their title screens, they all rip off the layout of IBM's PC-DOS demonstration programs (DONKEY, etc.)
  • From that design they retain the 'IBM' on top, but there's no IBM copyright notice
  • There's no publisher info anywhere within the program, although some do list the author
  • Some (not all) of them have a further "mystery code" on the title screen, with the format "XXX-5-5-Y"


A few of these games (e.g. ATTACK) are frequently misattributed to IBM itself.  While it's amusing to think of Big Blue sticking it to the Cupertino cabal with that game, the 'evidence' as such is hardly convincing - especially considering the amateur quality of the game (and the others in this group), and the lack of copyright messagse.  The snippet on the left (from PC Magazine, p55, April 17, 1984) seems to agree.

My best guess would be that some BBS, users group, or disk club simply slapped a few standardized title screens on their user-submitted software.  "IBM", at best, simply served to signify the platform, in the same way that software was referred to as being for "the Apple" or "the Commodore".  Since those early shareware selections were incredibly promiscuous with their offerings, it's incredibly hard to figure out where these titles came from originally.

So, does anybody have a clue?  And what could those cryptic XXX-5-5-Y "mystery codes" be?

3 comments:

Klimax says:

Hello,

MOD-5-5-M and similar appears to be "codename" of author. Using MAV-5-5-K I found "Daniel's Legacy Software Catalog" which lists it as "Alien Adventure 2B". Through names of BAS files I found SDorm BBS. (ATTACK seems to be named APPLE, but SERPENT does exist there, for example.)

It appears they might originate from it:
http://sdorm.org/files/index_a.html

That's as far as I can get. (Being bit too young... ;) ) Maybe ops of that BBS might know more.

Hope this helps.

VileR says:

Nice sleuthing, although I've already tried similar searches :) SDorm BBS says it was founded in '85 - most of these games are older than that, so they were already making the rounds by that time. Worth a look though.

I suspect that those 'mystery codes' will turn out to be something disappointingly boring, like a software categorization scheme or so...

Glenn Snow says:

An old friend pointed out this message thread to me. I was the owner/operator of the sdorm.org BBS back in the day. (SDorm.org was the domain name, but it refers to a BBS I ran starting in 1989 called "The Snow's Dorm"). I ran the BBS well before (1985) it became connected to the Internet. I started The Snow's Dorm using the RBBS "BBS-in-a-box" setup, which came on a CD-ROM, and included hundreds of free or shareware files which could be offered for download to the BBS's users. A few years later, I switched to a BBS system called "Wildcat", which was much more user-friendly to the callers, and offered multiple messaging forums or specialty groups. For example, my callers could play an online game called "Tradewars 2002", and I had a message forum for them to exchange information or banter about playing that game.

The files available on my BBS mostly came from that RBBS CD-ROM disk. They were listed as "IBM" programs, for the boring reason that when BBS's started, IBM was pretty much the only company making PC's which ran the MS-DOS operating system. And all of those programs ran under MS-DOS. A few years later, different clones were produced, and so MS-DOS was no longer associated only with IBM computers.

As for the games you are talking about, they were just included on the original RBBS CD-ROM, and my BBS was only one of several hundred which made those files available for download from that CD-ROM. I have no idea where the "mystery codes" you're talking about came from or what they signify. Quite likely they were just a categorization scheme for keeping track of who wrote what. It was a common practice for members of PC user groups to include their user-group identification as a way of getting in touch with the author. (These groups were flourishing well before generalized email became a reality, so you couldn't just put a "john-doe@system.com" style email address as a contact point.)

I can say with complete confidence that the people who wrote those games (and other programs) did not even IMAGINE that anyone would think they actually worked for IBM. When they wrote "IBM Program" (or some such identifier) on their opening splash screens, they were just identifying the platform the programs worked on. Back in the day, I knew 40 or 50 people (from various user groups I was a member of) who wrote programs and gave them away as freeware or shareware. I myself wrote several utilities, both in assembly language and later in Turbo-Pascal, which I "published" (made available for free download) on my BBS.

Hope this helps clarify at least some of your curious questions.

--Glenn Snow
gsnow@ecarmel.org

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