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Tiny Little Branches: IKNFL98e

My own tiny little contribution to the DNA of your own Tree of Life...

"It ain't easy being Rodney Dangerfeild."

Marc Michalik, Blogger

May 20, 2016

10 Min Read

I "retired" from being an aspiring game designer about 8 years ago after having spent my entire life until then pursuing it.  Apparently, in your industry I just don't size up well against a 20-something graduate of the Devry School of Game Design.  Lack of experience, and knowledge, and all that.  What could I possibly have learned as a member of the Joint Chiefs of the SFB Staff, right?  Star Fleet Uni... what?  "It ain't easy being Rodney Dangerfield".  Since then I have just been playing games without thinking about game design.  But recently I decided to join one of those "SFB Staff-like" efforts that many of you use to design games these days (lack of experience... right), just for fun because I like the game a lot, which inspired me to come here and write those "Big Three" articles.  I am enjoying doing this, so I thought I would stay and keep writing a new article every week.  I've already covered the two other "thick branches" of your "Tree of Life", and there isn't much reason to cover the one you already know and that I have never played (D&D).  So it is enough to say that D&D was the biggest of The Big Three.  It's big.  Really, really big.  A lot bigger than you know, but mostly story.

I thought I would instead continue by highlighting, every week for the next month, one of the "Tiny Little Branches" you've probably never heard of before that are a significant part of your own history.  Some of the games that your fathers and grandfathers played, many of which contain elements that you think you "invented" within the last 30 years but are actually as much as 70 years old.  Each week, I'll show you one of the popular games of the old hobbyist game industry that you've probably never heard of before.  Reveal some of the "tiny little branches" that had grown out of The Big Three before you wiped the slate clean and started all over again shortly after their tree had sown the intitial seeds that had shown you the way.  If nobody who was there ever tells you, how will you know?  We made our games differently than you do, the best of them are far more refined than your era is capable of producing.  It's just a matter of time.  We had a whole lot more of it than you wether it was to refine through evolution, or create a single massive game system over a period of decades as in the case of The Big Three.  You just don't have the time that we had, nowhere close.

These "Tiny Little Branches" are interesting and often important things from your history to remember as well, but all of these "Tiny Little Branches" are actually leading somewhere.  Each of the games I will highlight, in addition to being important games for one reason or another, also contain an element of something very special.  A contribution to a computer game that my knowledge of hobbyist games allowed me to piece together over 25 years ago.  There is a game from the "golden age" of hobbyist games that is special, when combined with certain elements from other successful games, and could become something even more special when "translated to the computer" in the right way.  The only game concept I've managed to come up with in a lifetime of consideration that truly lives up to the title... "Civilization Killer"!




But that will have to wait for later, first I need to lay the foundation of "tiny little branches" that grow into this very special game to make this magic happen.

But before getting to the hobbyist games and the CivKiller, I want to start out with my own "tiny little branch" in your industry's DNA.  This is not just a story about me, or I wouldn't be writing it.  It is also the story of the very first days of commercial online gaming on the internet, and what was almost certainly both the first ever online game community, and the first mod, for a commercial game.  The Immagination Network, or "INN" as it was called, was an early online game service that was mostly targeted at seniors and children.  They had classic games for seniors, childrens games, and two out-of-place games because these are the very first days of commercial online gaming and they had nowhere else to be.  Seirra's Front Page Sports: Football and Red Baron.  My brother Mike (Indra) and I were there almost the day FPS:FB went online.  It was one of the very first commercial games to ever be available for online play, and the only one that interested us.

My brother and I had been playing Pat Cook's masterpiece franchise/coach mode FPS:FB almost since the day the first version had come out.  Although it was possible to play it with a gamepad, that was really an afterthought and nobody played FPS:FB that way.  It was, and remains, the greatest franchise/coach mode sports game ever made.  Back then player ratings were not something any sports game had ever worried about.  They were all wildly perplexing random numbers that had nothing to do with the player, or even the position, that they were supposed to represent at all.  The early sports games often attributed the ratings to a company named "Stats, inc", which gave me the impression that whoever they were had a good thing going getting paid to produce a series of random numbers based on apparently nothing at all.  

Indra and I had already spent 2 years making our own league file with realistically rated players that we used in the earlier offline 94 & 95 versions.  Then once we had that, we had begun to try to make the statistics work out correctly while maintaining realistically rated players through the player ratings, playbooks, and profiles (the "AI").  Then FPS: FB96 went online on INN.  We were there almost on day 1, and the small online audience immediately adopted our league file as the league file that everyone used.  If you wanted to play with the league that came with the game, you probably wouldn't be able to find anyone to play with.  The choice other than IKNFL were the obviously meaningless random numbers that all sports games before IKNFL had always had.

Our league file had become "INNFL95" for The Immagination Network, and then ultimately the  "IKNFL97 (and later 98) Unofficial Stat Patch".  The IK stood for "Indra & Kavik Kang".  The name change came when the new FPS:FB97 came with Seirra's own new networking service called "WoN".  FPS:FB had this strange thing about using the wrong year in its title, hence the missing "96" as INN used the real year for what was an online version of FPS:FB96.  FPS:FB98 would, according to rest of the world, actually be called FPS:FB97.  Almost all of the leagues used either IKNFL, or later what became known as "the IKNFL standard" which spawned a dozen other league files that were basically people spending a few hours messing things up in ways that they thought were improving it.  We had been doing this for 5 years, 3 of them with a dozen playtest leagues... that's just what "the IKNFL standard" was.

IKNFL was primarily playtested by what was very likely the first ever organized online game community for a commercial game, "Longshot's Ultimate Football League (UFL)" (which had been formed almost immediately during the early INN days) and it's later imitators on WoN.  UFL was comprised mostly of the top elite players in what had been the very first organized league by us guys who were there almost from day one.  Longshot, Avarice, Cort, C-Dub, Rabbit, Indra and Kavik Kang (my brother and I), and a bunch of others that formed our 18-team (and later 32-team) league.  Eventually IKNFL went through about 3 years of testing by about a dozen different online leagues, but particularly Longshot's UFL league.  It got to a point of being very highly refined and shockingly accurate, wether looking at individual player or predictive team stats/standings produced by the simulation.  It even predicted the unimagined cinderella story of the St Louis Rams.  We did everything we could to weaken them that season in the stat patch, that we would make *before* the season began and release during the real-life pre-season.  We pulled out every trick we could and we just couldn't hold them back, they were immensely powerful.  It was the biggest issue we had with that version of the stat patch.  We had to settle for them doing much better than we thought they should even with an intentionally bad playbook.  Like everyone else in the world, we were wrong.  IKNFL was right.  They were the surprise new powerhouse of the league.  If only we had listened too our own simulation and gone to Vegas...

It all sounds so obvious too you now, but it sure wasn't back then.  They had been making sports games for almost a decade by 1995 and nobody had ever even tried to do it before.  It only seems so obvious too you now because all sports games you have ever seen are based on the same source material... IKNFL.  Madden basically imported it into their game, everyone else copies Madden and, boom, my own little slice of Rodney Dangerfield.  It might seem obvious that a TE is stronger and slower than a WR.  It might seem obvious that no player should have ratings in the 20's on anything relevant to his position, or any rating go over 95 unless it is a very special case (like Jerry Rice's hands or John Elway's arm strength...).  All those kinds of things might seem obvious too you now, but they weren't obvious to anyone until we spent 5 years doing it.  And it wasn't easy, it took 2 designers (one an expert in game design and the other an expert in both college and pro football) and at least 40-50 people who were involved enough to call playtesters about 5 years in total to do it.  We recieved letters of praise from, I am not exaggerating, over a dozen players and coaches throughout the NFL several of whom mentioned that Indra appeared have knowledge of the players equal too any NFL scout and they couldn't understand how that could possibly be true.

To this day, Pat Cook's genius Front Page Sports: Football '98 running our IKNFL98e Unofficial Stat Patch is by far the most realistic, most accurate player ratings, player produced statistics, team standing prediction, and has by far the most challenging AI of any football game ever made.  Expect to lose... seriously.  And often.  The playbooks (except for the Rams, hahaha... give them the Patriot's offensive playbook) are comprised entirely of the plays that were proven reliable over the course of 3 years of online league play by about a dozen different leagues.  They are also weighted to call those plays in an appropriate way for the talent present on the team.  Expect to lose to the AI, newbie, a lot.  It is the serious thinking man's football game that many serious fans of football dream of and think has never existed.  It once did.  Pat Cook designed it, and Indra and Kavik Kang provided the content and tuned it with the help of Longshot's UFL and the other WoN FPS:FB leagues (...in other words, it was done Stephen V. Cole's way).  IKNFL98e is on the disk for the game, and was almost certainly both the first mod of a commercial game and the first mod included with a commercial game as an "alternate configuration" for the game.  IKNFL is just one of many "tiny little branches" of your own DNA that you don't remember.  The true origin of what makes your sports games of today both look and function in a reasonably realistic way.

Oh, btw...  Madden...  20 years later and you are *STILL* eating our dust!!!  [Indra waves hello...]  Keep working at it, we're sure you will eventually make it there.  Maybe give it a couple more decades.  Maybe three...  Are you sure you guys are in the right line of work?  I guess most of you are... it sure does look pretty...



  Oh... What Indra and I could do with Madden...  It would be glorious!!!

P.S. If anyone knows where I could find a version of Seirra's Front Page Sports: Football '98 that runs in Windows 7, I sure would like to see IKNFL98e again.  I'd love to stomp on the Patriot's with the Bronco's a few times (we called them "The Triangle of Death"... John Elway, Terrell Davis, and Shannon Sharpe).  Send me an E-Mail!

Do you like Axis & Allies?  Next week I'll introduce you too it's brothers and sisters.  You probably didn't know it had a family.


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