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Let's do Business: the Big Mike Blog #1

Today I’d like to reach out to you regarding an exciting new opportunity.

I’d like to talk to you about Business.

While a lot of you might know me as a fledgling SF author, or just someone who tweets utter bollocks about animals on twitter, you may not be aware that I am also a game developer.

Of a sort, anyway. This year, the people at Failbetter Games (Sunless Sea, Fallen London) started a funding initiative for narrative games. I somehow made a successful application, and ended up in their first flight of funded projects, alongside exciting stuff like Voyageur, Hearts Blazing, Astronaut: The Best and Marshlight.

My game, Big Mike Lunchtime’s Business Training ‘95, will take the form of an app for mobile/tablet use, and will offer players a satirical, text-based journey into the beating heart of business.

The game isn’t technologically groundbreaking: it’s almost entirely text, with a few images, and I’m writing most of it in Twine. It probably won’t even have sound. But I’m happy with that - as a one-man team who has never so much as coded a web page before, this was never going to be about graphical shock and awe.

What it is - hopefully - is a really fun, unusual way to explore a topic. That topic, in a nutshell, is how ordinary people take on utterly bizarre behaviours when engaging in commercial activity. It’s about the cargo cult mentality of corporate culture: the belief that certain modes of dress, speech and action must naturally beget success.

A basic example: anybody who begins to work in an office will, unless they make a conscious effort to stop themselves, begin to say “going forward” when they mean “from now on”: it’s not a better way of saying it, it’s just what business people say. See also the substitution of “individuals” for “people” or “myself” for “me”. Going forward, please direct any individuals arriving at reception to myself or one of my colleagues.

A narrative game was the perfect vehicle for exploring this, as it’s a type of story that can only be driven by player choice. I want to drop my players into a world that makes no sense, and confront them with a recurring dilemma: maintain a rational mindset and face endless conflict, or embrace the madness and thrive.

Having worked as a business journalist, a job I began with absolutely no experience of the corporate world, it’s a dilemma that I’m intimately familiar with. And it’s something I want to share - I want you to understand just how little separates you from being someone who can talk about actioning deliverables with a straight face.

So: that’s Big Mike Lunchtime’s Business Training ‘95. With a bit of luck, it will be out int he first quarter of next year. In future updates I’m going to be telling you a little bit more about the game’s story, and offering some tips on what not to do when writing a choice-based narrative (I’m becoming a real expert in completely cocking up on that front). For now, I’ll leave with you with the game’s Readme.txt. Enjoy.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please do leave me a comment - making these things on your own is a lonely business, so feedback is always invaluable)

Welcome to Big Mike Lunchtime's Business Training '95.

I don't know much about this game, beyond the fact it was a training programme aimed at the UK business market, and that it was produced by a developer called Dogsoft, which went out of business in 1996.

Dogsoft was an obscure software house. Its only other release, ostensibly for the consumer market, seems to have been a management simulator called Worm Salesman '94. This has vanished entirely, however; the only hints of its existence come from a scattering of frustrated posts from players in long-defunct usenet groups.

A few newsgroup posts about a worm selling game: that’s all anyone knew about Dogsoft.

It would've been all anyone ever knew, if it wasn't for Rona Norris.

Rona is a YouTube parkour enthusiast with a modest following. Last year she was filming in a condemned office block in Swindon, when she came across BMLBT95.

The game - a single, heavily-scratched CD-ROM - was found in a desk draw alongside a dessicated scotch egg, a crumpled tie, and a pile of mouldering reports. Its case featured a shakily-drawn image of a man with a pinstripe suit and bulging eyes; an odd style for a piece of B2B training software, to say the least.

Rona contacted me immediately. Having refurbished several vintage educational CD-ROMs in app form (see Aztec Question Frenzy, Medieval Prison Riot and Fish Knower 3, I had made a name for myself as something of a digital archaeologist, and was fascinated to see what I could make of her discovery.

Even so, I'd never worked on a project quite like BMLBT95. For a start, the CD was horribly damaged - it appears to have been used as coaster at least once, and bears what appear to be human teeth marks across much of its surface.

Things got weirder when I looked at the code.

Once I managed to lift the readable information from the CD, I found most of it to be unintelligible.

That’s not to say Big Mike is unplayable - in actual fact, the code I could make sense of was fairly straightforward to package into a modern app shell. It’s just that the rest of the data on the CD... well, it made no sense at all. Despite this, it contained massive libraries of information that, for reasons I still can’t fathom, the “core” game couldn’t work without.

Since I couldn’t find any way to contact the former staff of Dogsoft for information, I was left with no choice but to lift the full content of the CD, junk code and all, into this app.

There are places where I’ve had to fill in for missing or damaged sections of the game, and aspects of the original UI I’ve had to rework to account for a mobile platform. There's also plenty of references in the game to a manual, but unfortunately I've not been able to track down any trace of one to include alongside. Nevertheless, aside from those concessions, this is exactly the game Dogsoft put out in 1995.

I will warn you - there’s not much to it. The game is pretty much just a series of eight fairly basic roleplay exercises, intended to train sales and negotiation skills against a series of increasingly stubborn business adversaries. The simulated AI is pretty cute, and there’s some fairly entertaining dialogue generation in there. But even with plenty of time built in to laugh at the cheesy business jargon, you’re unlikely to get more than a half hour of fun out of BMLBT95.

Then again, I’m guessing that’s not why you downloaded this app. If you’re anything like me, you’re just fascinated to see a forgotten piece of software, a strange little piece of history, brought back to life for the digital age.

Enjoy Big Mike, and remember - it’s all about Closing Those Deals!

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