Friday, October 16, 2009

Retro Shop Talk: Roger Schrag on Airline (1983)

Early TRS-80 game programmer Roger Schrag handled several TRS-80 Color Computer conversions for Adventure International back in the day.  We took a look at Arex a few weeks ago, and now we turn our attention to Airline, originally created by George Schwenk for the Atari 400/800.

Airline is a simple strategy game for 2-4 human or computer players.  The object is to lease landing rights from 36 airports of varying size to establish routes, buy planes to fly them, and collect fares each turn.  When the specified number of turns is up, the game ends, with victory going to the most profitable airline executive at that point.

I asked Roger Schrag about the conversion process:

If I remember right, this was a very vanilla conversion. I pretty much converted everything as-is. About all I did on my own was introduce some color.  I worked from the Model I version. I knew there was an Atari version, but I never saw it.

Technically, Airline is very simple -- it's kind of like Monopoly without the board and the element of chance.  Only one player can purchase the landing rights at any given airport.  Each player can buy landing rights anywhere on the 6 x 6 grid, but flight routes only operate between adjacent cities, so while a distant airport can be bought up to block another player's expansion, it won't produce any fare revenue in isolation, while a cluster of airports near each other can produce quite a bit of cash each turn.

The game's approach is generally realistic.  The airports correspond to real cities and airports, and the planes available for purchase are based on real-world aircraft, including Airbus, DC-10, Boeing 747, and the Concorde, as well as a generic Prop plane.  The player has to balance the cost of landing rights at various airports versus seating capacity in building a fleet -- empty seats are a drain on profits, insufficient capacity is a bottleneck.

The artificial intelligence is fairly simple -- the computer players generally start somewhere on the board, then buy nearby landing rights and appropriately sized planes.  In the screenshot above, note the pixels across the bottom row while "CoCo Pro is thinking hard..." -- like most humans, I'm a pattern recognition machine, and I almost convinced myself that these "garbage" pixels were related in some way to the AI algorithms.  Roger recalls:

The "garbage" display while a computer player is thinking is just pseudo-random pixels drawn across the screen. Any significance you read in is purely coincidental.  I don't think the computer opponents have distinct personalities, but I don't remember absolutely for sure.  I really didn't get into Airline enough to want to fiddle with the strategies used by the computer players. I think I just converted them over exactly as-is.

The game's catalog blurb prides itself on the game's lack of random elements, but the approach proves flawed in the long term.  The absence of randomness is useful for development of a winning strategy, but once the player has figured out how to beat the computer it can be done consistently, and the challenge dissolves; there are no difficulty levels or rule variations to enliven the proceedings after that point. The game might hold up better playing against other humans, as the computer players' strategies are fairly conservative and very predictable.  They don't seem to try to block other players' expansion opportunities or otherwise disrupt the playfield in any interesting way, even by making mistakes as human players would.

Roger Schrag shares his thoughts on Airline, and draws some interesting contrasts to a much more venerable strategy game:
Personally, I never really got into the game. At the time I didn't think about games with random elements versus games that rely entirely on strategy. Today, though, I do think about that dichotomy quite a bit because I really enjoy the game of Go. Go is the world's oldest board game still played in its original form, and the strategy goes so deep that computers still have not mastered it the way they've mastered chess and most other games. There is no luck or randomness involved--you control your own destiny. But in Airline I'm not sure the strategy is deep enough to keep it interesting over the long run.
I also thought the game would be more fun played between people rather than one person against the computer. Of course, at the time, when I had a friend over we usually ended up playing Stratego rather than sitting in front of the computer to play a game. But boy have times changed!

After several tries and defeats, I managed to figure out the right balance of acquisition and maintenance to turn a winning profit against the computer, if only just:

I decided to declare victory and quit the Airline business while I was ahead.  It's ultimately more of a puzzle than a game -- the experimentation is fun while learning the rules, but once it's understood, there's little reason to go back to it. 

My thanks once again to Roger Schrag for taking the time to share his memories and recollections of the wild-and-wooly early days of computer gaming.

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