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At 12 Years and Counting, Is This the Longest Play-by-Email Game Session Ever?


A programmer from Russia tells the story of a server running the same multiplayer strategy game session for more than a decade.

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 Atlantis, 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 time.

"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 Play-by-Email (PBEM) was most popular in the 1990s when Internet access was slow and costly. Some relatively fresh titles like Civilization IV or Civilization V from Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc. (NASDAQ:TTWO) either support PBEM natively or through third-party services like Giant Multiplayer Robot.

The popularity of PBEM games has long been on the decline, however, as they've been superseded by fancier real-time multiplayer games like World of Warcraft from Activision Blizzard, Inc. (NASDAQ:ATVI). 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 recent, very nostalgic post (in Russian).

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 Atlantis. 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 game himself.

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," Labutin said.

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 galaxies."
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