by Hazed

Note: this article was first written back in the Compunet days. I have edited it slightly for clarity, spelling and so on, and added some more notes at the end.

Bella and Pegasus were downing pints of Diesel's Old Peculiar one evening, talking about Fed. It had been up and running for several months, and was very successful. But, they mused, it had one great lack.

There were no instructions.

New players had to rely on help from more experienced Fedders to combat the trauma of getting to grips with the game.

There was an obvious need for some sort of online manual, so Bella bought Pegasus another drink and asked him if he would oblige - and Pegs had drunk enough to agree to anything.

He started to write some hints and tips, similar to those that had been uploaded for MUD, but what he produced was dreadfully boring. So he roped me in to liven it up a little.

Had we realised just how much work was involved, and how many problems we would encounter, we would have screamed and ran.

We discussed at length the form this manual should take, both by mail and long distance phone calls (very long long distance phone calls!). We were agreed that we wanted to make it interesting and entertaining as well as informative (besides, I have trouble writing ANYTHING seriously.)

Our first problem was what to call this epic. The original title was "The Good Fed Guide" (after the MUD version) but we thought this was boring. We toyed with "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Fed", and Bella suggested "Fed and the Art of Spaceship Maintenance". While we dithered, we used the working title of "The Idiot's Guide to Fed" - and the title stuck.

It was quite easy to make a list of the various topics the Guide would have to cover, and we split them between us to work on separately. Then we got together one weekend to finish it off.

We wrote the text files on an Atari ST using 1st Word Plus, and while Peg was demonstrating how idiot proof the ST was, our first disaster struck. He clicked on the wrong box - twice - and deleted all the files.

We had no undelete utility, of course!

Our first instinct was to ring Bella and ask if he had something to rescue our trashed files. He said that he didn't, and the reason he knew he didn't was that he had also just deleted something by mistake.

After a session of good healthy panicking, we settled down to re-write. With the assistance of copious bottles of wine and a mega-blow-out Chinese meal, we managed to recreate our deathless prose - and probably ended up with a better version than the original. (This session was the origin of the name we adopted for our endeavors, Hazed-by-Alcohol.)

2nd problem: we had to convert the 1st Word Plus files into the frame-based format used by Compunet. On a Commodore 64 this is a piece of cake, using Eddy Carroll's excellent frame formatter program. But the utility for the ST is much more primitive - you can't specify the colors. The frames end up red on white, and we wanted gray on black.

So... for 80 separate frames, we had to press F5 fifteen times to get a black background (and it doesn't change instantly like it does on the C64) then re-color every single character. This took almost as long as writing the damn thing!

Next problem came when we uploaded it. This was done in Cnet HQ using the direct link (neither of us particularly relished the thought of 80 frames at a modem speed of 1200/75.)

We had to use the ID belonging to one of the Compunet staff in order to upload in the area we wanted. We gaily put 90 days life on each frame. And we blew his account! Well nobody told us he didn't have unlimited storage...

And we took so long about it that he nearly missed his ferry to France, until he finally threw us out of the office with the job only half done. So there was another few days delay until we could get back to the Cnet offices to complete the job.

Once it was uploaded, you could see its effect immediately. Pleas for help from bewildered GroundHogs were greeted by the chorus "Go and read the Idiot's Guide!" If <BUY ROUND> is the most used command in Fed, this is certainly the most heard COM message.

A few months later we realized an update was needed. Fighting had at last been introduced, which meant a new section, and many minor changes had had knock on effects on all aspects of the game.

There were relatively few problems in writing and uploading the updates. We didn't manage to delete anything this time (thankfully!) but we had a lot of trouble making sense of the complexities of fighting and trading and weren't really happy with these sections.

We toyed with the idea of producing a printed version of the Guide, but kept putting it off - until Cnet jumped the gun by printing it themselves.

We were very unhappy at this - not only had they not asked our permission, but there were a lot of errors in it, because the page layout had been done by someone who didn't know anything about Fed.

But seeing it on paper spurred us into action to do it ourselves - properly.

It was obvious that the structure would have to change radically; what was sensible for an online version was lots of small sections so that Idiots could find the specific help they needed easily. But this was very confusing in book form, so we thought hard about how to combine the various sections into sensible chapters.

We intended to have the Guide ready, on sale, for the November Commodore show. We had about a month to get it together. Plenty of time, we thought.

But the desk top publishing package we used was riddled with bugs. It was designed to be used on a MegaST, and then must have been bodged quite severely to make it run on a 520 with one drive. It was possible - but it was torture.

We had terrible memory problems; we couldn't have more than four or five pages in a document; we had to swap disks frantically every time we wanted to do something; we couldn't have more than 2 pictures in each section; we couldn't mix too many paragraph styles or fonts; the text wouldn't wrap properly around the pictures, and certain characters corrupted whole files... and it kept crashing for no apparent reason.

It was obvious that the writers of the program had built in a telepathic feature... the moment we thought "now let's save this chapter we have just spent three hours perfecting" it bombed out. Most frustrating! Several times the computer nearly got thrown off my twelfth floor balcony.

We soon realized we would never have it finished in time for the Show. So we hurriedly revised our plans and decided to produce just one version, as a sample for the show, printed on my 9 pin dot matrix.

We wouldn't even have been able to get this far if I hadn't lost my job two weeks before the Show. My enforced idleness gave me the time to finish it off, print it out, and get it bound.

Those who were privileged to see it at the Show were very impressed. But they all had comments about how this bit could be improved, and that bit wasn't quite right... and looking at it ourselves, we could see many things that needed changing (including numerous problems caused by Timeworks messing up the page formats.) And we STILL weren't happy with the section on trading.

So... more rewrites. More reprints. More bin-bags full of waste paper.

By this time, we had taken a few orders for the Guide - yes, we had actually received money for it! And we were feeling increasingly guilty about the length of time it was taking to actually get some copies produced and dispatched to the paying punters.

Until, finally we thought we had it right. (Even the trading section!)

We sent it off to be printed, and got it back a few days before Christmas.

And groaned as we saw what a mess it looked. Our friendly neighborhood printer had configured his Timeworks disks for a different set up to the one we had used, so the fonts were all different sizes and the layout was crap.

More re-designing... and weeding out a few typos... and this time, instead of sending it away to be printed, we borrowed a printer so we could catch any problems as they came off the press.

Timeworks decided to be particularly annoying at this point. It refused to print any of the graphics. We spoke nicely to it, we swore at it, we kicked the printer, but it still wouldn't print the pictures out. Just the text, with nice blank spaces where graphics were supposed to appear. And since every single page had a Fed logo at its head and the Fed logo was a picture...

Well, to save messing about (and our blood pressure!) in the end we let it print just the text, then cut the pictures out of the previous version (thank God we had kept it!) and glued them onto the new version. Not very satisfactory, but it worked.

And so we had our originals, ready to be printed and bound.

More delays... but finally, three months late, we had copies to sell.

Now if I ever embark on a project like this again, I want a Mega4... with decent software... and my own laser printer... (well I can dream, can't I?)

Addendum - Ten Years On

After this article was written, we continued to sell this version of the Guide - most players bought one. In those days everyone wanted to RTFM. It continued to be produced on a shoe-string, a few copies being photocopied and bound at a time as they were required.

When Fed moved across the Atlantic and opened up on GEnie, Pegasus and I revamped the Guide and produced the Second Edition of the Idiot's Guide. I typeset it, this time on a 286 PC with a 20 meg hard disk and a black and white monitor, using a DOS DTP package called Ventura (which I had just started to use at work) and printed the artwork on, yes, a laser printer. This made a big difference. It looked a lot better than the original version and the software didn't give me nearly so many problems.

GEnie published the Guide and sold it for us online, keeping half the proceeds - a deal I was very happy with because it meant I didn't have to worry about production and shipping myself. The first run was, I think, 100 copies but that ran out fairly rapidly so they produced 250 the next time.

This version of the Guide did not have anything about planets in it - player-planets were still just a twinkling in Bella's eye. It didn't even have a section about factories and companies; it went up to Trader and then stopped.

A few years later came the Third Edition - this one I worked on without Pegasus. The addition of original artwork by our resident Fed artist, Robin (who drew the Selena of the Spaceways pic and much more) really made this edition look classy, and the inclusion of new sections on companies and planetary construction increased the size a lot. This edition sold even better than the previous one.

So far, the Third Edition is the last version of the printed Idiot's Guide to Federation. With the move to AOL we looked into finding a publisher for the Guide, with no luck, and looked at ways to publish it ourselves, but that would have proved too expensive at that time.

But in the future... maybe, just maybe, I'll fire up the old DTP software again and produce a Fourth Edition...

Read more of the Compunet archive:

Introduction to Line Noise

1988 Line Noise

1989 Line Noise

Fed's First Year

Back to the Federation Archives