Where Are The Docs?

(written by ECV)

As notoriously complicated and difficult as VGA Planets is, one of the major barriers to learning is the lack of a user manual or a straightforward tutorial.  This is a common complaint both from new and seasoned players.  Many of the difficulties in the documentation have resulted from the long and colorful history of the game itself.  An understanding of the history and development of the game will help you to understand why the documentation is incomplete and of uneven quality.

This article also will help you to know where to go to find good information and give a bit of insight into our future vision of Planets Mag.

The Old Game

In the beginning, Planets was not an Internet game, since it was invented before the Internet was commercialized and access widely available.  The early versions were distributed on Bulletin Board Systems and on shareware CD-ROMs.

The “VGA” in the name stands for Video Graphics Array, which was the newest type of PC monitor at the time of the game’s original release.  VGA Planets was created by an American avocational shareware programmer by the name of Tim Wisseman.  All of the original code was written and compiled in BASIC.  No one seems to remember version 1 of VGA Planets.

Version 2 was a simpler version of the current game.  Version 2 had the same eleven races we have today, but no distinct racial abilities.  The only difference between the races was the list of ships that each race was allowed to build.  A brief look at the ship list serves as a great reminder that this was an American game from the 1990s.  Today of course the Empire shiplist still holds a Gorbie and an H-Ross (not to mention a planet called Perot’s World), but in version 2 the Feds and a few other races could build ships like the Willy Class Scout, Dole Class Destroyer, Bush Class Destroyer – all references to American politicians.

On March 26, 1993, Wisseman released VGA Planets Version 3.  This became by far the most popular version of Planets, and indeed Version 3 is essentially the game that we all know as VGA Planets today.   Version 3 came with new racial abilities, and new features like minefields.  Also, the shiplist of Version 3 is exactly the same as the canon list we know today.  Early in 1993 special ships were still in their infancy stages: cloakers and gravitronics existed, but not terraformers or chunnelers or ramscoopers.

For completeness’ sake, we should mention version 4 and version 5.  Version 4 still has a small but devoted following.  Version 4 never became as popular as version 3, mainly because it is far more complicated.  Playing a turn on Version 3 typically can take between 30 minutes and a few hours.  On version 4, a turn in the late game can take an entire day.  While the essential concepts are the same, there is a much higher number of rules and combinations.  To compare the different versions to jigsaw puzzles: version 3 is like a 500-piece puzzle, while version 4 is like a 25,000-piece puzzle.  There is a reason that millions of people will buy and enjoy a 500-piece puzzle, but a 25,000-piece puzzle would generate far less interest.

Version 5 was supposed to be a real-time online game and is now a defunct project.

Planets Nu began in 2011 as an almost-exact clone of VGA Planets version 3.  Nu has attracted a large following of Planets players.  In fact, probably the majority of the world’s Planets devotees are now active on Nu.  While there are still many other sites that faithfully host version 3 games, none compare to the size of the user base on Nu.  While on the surface, Nu may look and function like version 3, on the inside it is an entirely different creation.  Nu is written in C instead of BASIC, and it is entirely web-based instead of relying on downloaded client software.

How the Old Game Works

Version 3, released in 1993, is not just one program.  For the player, it actually consists of several different executable programs, including the client, and the utilities Unpack and Maketurn to open and complete turns.  These were released as shareware.

On the other hand, the host software is all freeware; therefore it is free for a website or a BBS operator to host a game.  The players are the ones who have to pay, and what they pay for is their unique copy of Unpack and Maketurn.  Multiple players could only use the same registered copies of Unpack and Maketurn in the same game if they ran the programs at the same time.  For instance, if a husband and wife want to play in the same game as the Fascists and the Privateers, they could share the same copy as long as they downloaded and unpacked their result files and uploaded their turn files at the same time.  Version 3 even has a feature that allows a user to password-protect a turn in case people in the same house did not trust each other not to peek.

Through Unpack and Maketurn, Planets had a fairly foolproof copy-protection scheme.  If players do not make their turn at the same time but use the same registered copy of the software (presumably using the same registered copy on different computers), the in-game police – the Tim Continuum – deals punishment swiftly and brutally.  The first transgression is met with a dire warning, such as minerals disappearing or ships being flung off the map.  After the first Tim Continuum attack, each subsequent attack would be so severe as to make the game unplayable.  According to rumor, the Tim Continuum can detect various methods of cheating as well.

Much like on Planets Nu, unpaid players can play the full game with some restrictions.  They can only raise their tech levels to 6 (unlike Nu, which allows level 7).  There are also a number of other in-game features that only work when a player is using a registered copy.

Later Developments in Planets 3

In 1996, Tim Wisseman reported that he had sold more than 50,000 copies of VGA Planets.  This was a large sector of the online gaming community at the time, and an entire culture grew out of it.  There were printed newsletters and strategy guides, T-Shirts and coffee mugs, theme songs and recipes (Tim’s Amorphous Soup, yummy!).

After the release of Planets 3 in March of 1993, there were two significant developments.  One was the release of Winplan, a client for Microsoft Windows.  Winplan largely worked the same as the DOS version, with several visual improvements.  For example, the DOS version did not show minefields, while Winplan showed minefields and also had the capability of displaying features of various add-ons.

The other significant development was the continuous release of new versions of the host.  When Planets 3 was released early in March of 1993, it still lacked a great number of features that have now become important to the game.  After releasing the final versions of the DOS and Windows client software, Wisseman continued to release updates to the host.  These updates included not only bugfixes but new features as well.  Games that were ongoing during that time would typically be upgraded to the new host as soon as the operator of the game received it.  Many old-time players will remember having new features suddenly appear by surprise in the middle of a long game and having to read the notes from the newest host release.  By the end of 1993, the host had added several significant ship abilities, such as allowing the Bohemian, Eros, and Onyx to terraform.  The B200, PL21, and Falcon gained the ability to jump 350LY.  Also, planets earned the ability to attack enemy ships.

In Planets 2 and the original version 3, friendly codes were used for only two purposes: to prevent combat between ships and to instruct starbases to carry out their orders on docking foreign ships whose codes matched.  Many players would use their initials for their friendly codes, and if you knew another player in person, you could go do business at a starbase using his or her initials.  However, many of the new features that began to be added throughout 1993 and beyond surpassed the orders that the client software was capable of.  In 1993, friendly codes continued to serve as codes to transact business or prevent combat, but also began to incorporate instructions for a ship or planet or starbase to do something not directly allowed in the client program.    By the end of 1993 there were four special friendly codes: ATT, NUK, HYP, and NTP.

A whopping two years later, on September 5, 1995, VGA Planets 3 received its single biggest update in all of its history: Host 3.2.  Suddenly the Echo Cluster was covered in ion storms.  The Cyborg, which had been arguably the weakest race, instantly had the ability to chunnel an entire fleet thousands of light years across space.  The nasty Loki became the Privateers’ worst nightmare.  The Fascists got the unusual capability of sending certain ships on a suicide mission.  And that Holy Grail of all weapons – the Super Star Destroyer – finally lived up to its name with its new ability.  In addition to these, Host 3.2 added even more features, but still maintained compatibility with the DOS and Windows client versions.  Again, a large number of features that were added in Host 3.2 required instruction from the user in the form of special friendly codes.

Here are a few examples of some quirks in the game that are the result of this history of new features being added but the client software not being updated.

Example 1 – The friendly code lfm was introduced in Host 3.2 for Robots, Rebels, and Colonies to build fighters in space.  Before Host 3.2, Robots and Colonies had to use their special ship mission to build fighters, while Rebels built fighters with onboard materials automatically.  This explains why if you are playing Robots or Colonies, you might wonder why there is a ship mission to “Build Fighters” which does the same thing as the code lfm without automatically beaming up the materials.

Example 2 – The Firecloud chunnel seems more difficult than it ought to be.  Why not just click on the target ship as you would any other waypoint?  The reason that the chunnel requires a friendly code is that it did not exist before Host 3.2.  Since there was no way to indicate it in the old client a friendly code had to be used for this order.

Example 3 – The version 3 clients did not allow the beaming of money from a ship’s vault to a foreign or unowned planet or ship.  Host 3.2 introduced the friendly codes btm, bum, and bdm for this purpose.   This is the reason that if you want to beam down money to a foreign or unowned planet, you must beam down all or none.

Many of the idiosyncrasies in Planets arise from this time in history, when the game’s host was continually being developed, but the client software was not.  Planets 3.0 for DOS and Winplan were the last two versions of VGA Planets client software released by Tim Wissemann.  Wissemann continued the development of version 3 for more than ten years.  The final update from the game’s author was Host 3.22.047, released on November 8, 2003.

The Late Nineties

Despite its American origins, VGA Planets became extraordinarily popular in Europe.  A group of European programmers loved the game and approached Tim Wisseman about helping in continuing the development of it.  In response, Wisseman shared some of the game’s source code with them.  A number of unfortunate personality conflicts arose because the Europeans were dissatisfied with many of the game’s limitations.  Some of the  Europeans also had a conflict of interest because many of them were also involved in the development of another similar game known as “Stars!”  The European developers took sides, with some of them helping Tim Wisseman’s cause by developing third-party programs such as VPA that helped avid players to maximize their use of the new game features.  Others took things a different direction; though arguably still supporting Wisseman’s customer base, a German group departed and created a new game based on Planets 3 called PHOST.

Wisseman’s host was slow and somewhat precarious, and was still written in BASIC.  The German group’s software PHOST is short for “The Portable Host Project”.  PHOST was written in C and “portable” so as not be restricted to DOS and Windows platforms.

Games using PHOST can be played using standard Planets client software, including Planets for DOS, Winplan, or any combination of third-party utilities including VPA or Echoview.  The PHOST group did not, however, intend to maintain much continuity with Wisseman’s game.  On the surface, the game may seem to play the same, but the similarities are limited.  Combat is different, the formulas are different, the host order is different, the movement rules are different, and so on.  PHOST can use the standard shiplists or custom lists.  It also has a far greater number of configuration options and a large number of reserved friendly codes to access all those features.

To this day, PHOST has an active following and development is still continuing.

The Dark Ages

The first ten years of the Planets 3 experience straddled the end of the BBS era and the beginnings of the commercial Internet.  Numerous games and communities were available on a large number of play-by-email servers, some free and some paid.  After the year 2000, the user base slowly began to decline as some users experimented with Planets 4 and a number of other online strategy games.

The “Dark Ages” began in 2003 when Tim Wisseman released the final host version and discontinued further development of Planets 3.  Nonetheless, third-party programmers were still hard at work creating very interesting add-ons and client utilities.  Online Planets communities were still active, but demise was inevitable as the user base continued to shrink.  Newer computers required DOS emulators to run much of the older software.  The game was absolutely not accessible for new users due to the highly technical requirements of installing and maintaining the client software, and the third-party utilities needed just to play a turn.

Imagine this: you receive an RST file by email in ASCII format, you copy and paste it into its own file and UUDECODE it, run UNPACK, examine it in PLANETS.EXE in a DOS emulator, open VPA or Echoview to do some actions, go out to DOS and run Randgen and Randmax to work on your planetary economy, run other third party utilities to account for enemy fleet and do calculations on your projected ground combat and predict the trajectories of ion storms, go back into VPA and, calculator in hand, put the finishing touches on your turn, exit and run MAKETURN and then UUENCODE your TRN, copy and paste it into an email to your host.  That was the simple version of playing a turn in the Dark Ages.  Those of us who lived through it were good at it, we were fast and efficient, and we automated many things to make our planets and ships to do exactly what we wanted them to do.  But it goes without saying that a process like this is not accessible and not attractive to new users.

Slowly but steadily the number of active players worldwide shrank drastically.  Many hosting sites closed or just disappeared.  By 2007 there were only a small number of hosting sites still active, some of them paid or exclusive.  By 2008 it was nearly impossible to find a good game of Planets online.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, Planets Nu has succeeded in reviving an almost-dead game.  Nu’s initial success unquestionably came from its fidelity to its roots.  Nu began as an almost-exact clone of Planets 3 with Host 3.22.047 – really the same game that it was between 1995 and 2003.  I’m willing to bet that a very significant portion of Nu players were active in the game during those golden years.  Any time you play a “standard-configuration” or so-called “vanilla” game on Nu, you are playing the very same game that you played 15 years ago.  In spite of some of the new and interesting developments that Nu has introduced (namely Stellar Cartography and the Campaign features, both of which are entirely optional in any given game), Nu is the place for the Planets purists who want to continue the tradition of Planets 3 as bequeathed to us by Tim Wisseman.

Ok That was Very Interesting, But … Where are the Docs?!?

The official documentation of Planets 3 for both the client and the host, written in the first ten years of the game’s existence, is simply disastrous.  With all due respect to Tim Wisseman and with full deference to his brilliance in creating my favorite game, writing a user manual was not something he was good at.  The most current official documentation from Wissemann is the Host 3.20 documentation, which you can find on the official VGA Planets website.  In fact, I would give the link right now but I don’t really want you to read it.  It is poorly written, poorly organized, full of inexplicable holes, and full of blatant mistakes.  It’s out there if you really want to see it, but trust me, it’s bad.

To top it off, when Planets was distributed as a shareware program, users were advised to “please read the manual” at the end of the installation process, but different versions of the download included different sets of documentation in the archive file.  Some users would receive the Planets 3 client version of the documentation and some would receive the Planets 3.20 host version.  Therefore users downloading the same product would receive different documentation that only partially overlapped, and much of the material was wrong anyway.

On the same note, as Version 3’s twenty-first-century incarnation, Planets Nu is just as poorly documented.  I have utmost respect for Joshua Perina, the founder of Nu.  He has done an outstanding job of singlehandedly reviving this ancient game, but his documentation skills are hardly an improvement over Wisseman’s.  In fact, many of the older pages in the “How to Play” section of planets.nu are directly copied from Wisseman’s documentation.  To cite one example, at the time of this writing the help page on the Cobol http://planets.nu/documentation/cobol-class-research-vessel contains the same poorly-written text and awkward grammar so ubiquitous in Wisseman’s prose.  It also contains a blatant error, since the Cobol does in fact scoop fuel when on a tow or intercept mission.  The page even includes the indication that Ramscoop “Only works with HOST 3.20 or Better.”  (From above you might recall that Host 3.20 dates from 1995, indicating that these words have not been changed in 18 years.)  Dozens of other pages in the “How to Play” section on Nu contain similar problems.

Poor-quality text full of mistakes, indiscriminately and inconsistently copied-and-pasted from one version to another, has dominated the official user manuals for VGA Planets for the last twenty years.

The Unofficial Docs

In response to the game’s poor documentation, many options have arisen to help players learn to play.  For many years, the best source of quality information on VGA Planets has been Donovan’s VGA Planets Super Site: http://www.donovansvgap.com – Donovan’s contains a wealth of helpful information.  Donovan’s has done a very good job of making  the help section of the site accurate and complete.  The best glossary of VGA Planets you’ll find anywhere is at http://www.donovansvgap.com/help/alphabetised.htm  (For comparison’s sake, click down to the page on the Cobol fuelscoop and compare it to the Nu page cited above).

Also on Donovan’s, in the “General Info” section are two good documents that are even worth printing out: Eden Tan’s Infolist http://www.donovansvgap.com/info/infolist.htm is the best desktop reference.  My own copy is bound and has pencil marks all over it from a decade of use.  Also, “Master at Arms” – http://www.donovansvgap.com/info/master.htm is the most important and most accurate detailed explanation of combat.

One caveat about Donovan’s: the race guides and opinion pages contain both excellent and dubious information.  I recommend only using Donovan’s as an authoritative source following the links listed above, and taking other things that you read on that site with a grain of salt.  In the race and strategy guides, there are some wonderful articles written by thoughtful experts, and there are some that are of much lower quality and contain mistakes.  Another warning: every single bit of material on Donovan’s predates Nu.  You will find references to the client program, to Unpack and Maketurn, to the Tim Continuum, to the third-party utilities and to the process of putting a turn together.  None of these apply to Nu.  Having had the history lesson above should help you to discern which information is current and which is not.

Some Nu users have endeavored to start a wiki handbook at http://www.vgaplanets.org – this site can serve as a good quick reference for formulas and the shiplist.  You will find accurate and quality information on this wiki, although the site is very incomplete at this time.  However, the single biggest problem with vgaplanets.org is the issue common to many wikis: without strict moderation, it is difficult to assure quality writing and accurate information, and most importantly to separate fact from opinion.  The wiki is attempting to blend information pages with strategy guides, and this is a fatal flaw.

For example, http://vgaplanets.org/index.php/The_Robotic_Imperium at the time of this writing contains this dubious sentence: “Golems are powerful but they are fuel pigs; they are excellent starbase defence with T1 engines.”  This sentence contains both a non-encyclopedic colloquialism and an opinion about strategy with which many expert players would heartily disagree.  (For instance, such expert players might be happy to tow away a StarDrive Golem before assaulting a Robot base.)  For the purposes of documentation, the porcine colloquialism is far less improper than the opinion.

Another very helpful tool that I use quite often is the calculator found at http://www.vgaplanets.ca/vgapcalc.php – this can be very helpful if you know how to use it.  However it does contain at least one serious error in the Crystal habitation table.  I have written to the author asking him to fix it, to no avail.  Also, it is important to note that some of the results you get on this calculator will be obsolete due to differences in the host configuration on Nu.  But If you know enough about Planets to use the calculator, you’ll be able to figure out when the results you get are the correct ones for your situation.  Is the calculator perfect?  No.  Useful?  Most definitely.

Docs to Avoid

Having been given the synopsis of the history of the game, you now know that if playing on Planets Nu or on any other hosting site using the standard host, you should avoid gleaning any information from a document about PHOST or one that refers to a version of the standard host older than 3.22.  A general internet search on a specific topic will yield a mixed bag of results.  You might have a question about a specific ship and the answer you receive will refer to an older version of Host or to PHOST.  Don’t believe everything that Google pulls up for you!

I’ve personally been (and will remain) very active in the forums on Nu, but I’d like to encourage you not to search the forums if you are looking for authoritative information.  The forums are a great place to socialize and to share secrets and strategies.  However, if you ask a simple question like “How much damage prevents a Loki from decloaking?” you may get a dozen different answers before somebody finally goes to Donovan’s to find the right answer.  If you ask how far apart your Fireclouds have to be to initiate a chunnel, you will certainly get people that will say 10LY and others who will say 100LY (since the official documents say one thing in one place and another in another place).

After the variety of different answers you then are likely to get an explosion of opinions about the way things should be.  As one example, I will cite this thread http://planets.nu/discussion/towing where I answered a user’s question about tow conflict, and how Nu’s behavior matches that of Host 3.22.  I received a response later in the thread from a user who said that, because it didn’t make sense to him intuitively, it must be a bug – not a bug in Nu but a twenty-year-old bug in VGA Planets itself and therefore the rule should be changed.

It’s really funny how often people report a bug in the Nu forums when it’s actually not a bug, but rather something they just don’t like about the game.

The reason that the forums can never serve as a user manual is the same fundamental problem of  the wikis: no authority and no moderation.  This leads us now full-circle to the original question: Where are the Docs?

The Vision of Planets Magazine

Right now, Planets Mag is a blog.  We are soliciting and collecting videos and articles from expert players and featuring new content on a regular basis to build up our readership and to keep people interested and to encourage people to read the blog, watch the videos, and participate by liking and commenting on our posts.  Behind the scenes we are also beginning to compile a number of articles with pure, unadulterated facts.  We intend for Planets Mag eventually to replace Donovan’s as the go-to site for great, quality information about VGA Planets.  We want for Planets Mag to be both the indispensable reference guide and the place to read strategy and race guides from experts.

In keeping with this spirit, we have agreed to set up a standard of quality from the outset.  If anybody posts information that is factually wrong, the editors will delete or change it.  There will be no mistakes, inaccuracies, or questionable statements.  Mistakes do happen, and if there is something inaccurate, please notify us so that we can fix it immediately.

All posts on Planets Mag get categorized and keyworded, and eventually we will have a whole searchable database of high-quality information, along with the new accurate documentation that won’t ever show on the blog, but it will be in the database.

We won’t be all business here, either.  There will be plenty of fiction, humor, and miscellaneous fun stuff.  Maybe even more recipes!

So, where are the docs?  If you search or browse Planets Mag now, you won’t find much.  Sooner or later, this will be THE source.  Watch this site, and visit often.  Exciting things are soon to come!

Editor’s Note: 2021

The preceding was the state of the NuNiverse in 2013. Since then, both the site’s Documentation Team and the Planets Magazine have advanced considerably.

Since Planets Nu has filled the documentation gap quite adequately in the mean while, here at the Mag we’ve opted to concentrate on expanding our library of guides, lists, strategy discussions, opinion articles, fan-fiction, and all the rest of the content that Planets players have been producing all along. We still aim to maintain the same high standards we began with, and we’re hoping to keep new articles coming into the foreseeable future, even as we work to update the original content to keep it current.

We hope you enjoy the journey!
– Talespin and Gnerphk

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6 thoughts on “Where Are The Docs?

  1. Thanks ECV, great reminder of the periods of time that I hit and missed during my on and on experience starting in ’93 and moving on through the years.


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