Friday, November 18, 2022

Bugs and Drugs: Summary and Rating

I represent the last 109 of those 179,909 deaths.
Bugs and Drugs
United States
Independently developed in 1978 on PLATO educational system at the University of Illinois
Date Started: 4 November 2022
Date Ended: 18 November 2022
Total Hours: 7 (unfinished)
Difficulty: Hard (4.0/5)
Final Rating: 27
Ranking at Time of Posting: 265/483 (55%)
Bugs and Drugs is the first known educational CRPG. Developed on the same educational system (PLATO) as most of the earliest CRPGs, it takes the game mechanisms of The Game of Dungeons (1975) and sets gameplay in a hospital, where the character (who starts as a medical student) wanders the halls and, in place of monsters, encounters a variety of diseases, conditions, and infections. In place of armor, the player has surgical masks, gloves, and other medical equipment. Nurses' stations, labs, lounges, and libraries provide information and succor. Surviving the game requires the player to know the best antibiotic or other therapy to apply to a specific disease. Other encounters test the player's knowledge of treatments, definitions, and history. While it is possible for a non-medical student or professional to navigate the game through experimentation, luck, and Google, long-term success is difficult without the specialized knowledge the game is meant to test.
I got no takers on my suggestions to make Bugs and Drugs a group project, so I gave it another few hours on my own. My basic strategy was to lurk around the entrance, since escaping to the menu restores your hit points and medications. Every time I encountered a bug, I checked my spreadsheet to see if I'd already worked out the best treatment, then applied that. If I didn't have it logged in my spreadsheet, but I had a formulary (which was rare), I used that to determine the best treatment and logged it. Otherwise, if the bug was obviously related to tuberculosis (i.e., it had "TB" in the name), I tried "TB Therapy." If it was obviously a virus (e.g., influenza), I tried "Viral Therapy." Anything else, I tried high-dose penicillin. I logged successes and failures in a growing database.
I made it to "Med Student!"
TB therapy, viral therapy, and the occasional "mugger" all asked medical trivia questions. (I suppose "trivia" is the wrong word, since we're dealing with knowledge that saves people's lives, but you get the idea.) These I also logged in a spreadsheet, noting both correct and incorrect answers.
As I covered last time, it's not so easy to Google the best treatments for many of the infections offered, given that the game is over 40 years old, and some medications (particularly Amoxicillin and Doxycycline) were either not widely available or not widely prescribed. Also, you only have about 30 seconds to apply the right treatment. It was much easier to Google the answers to the trivia questions, as you have unlimited time to answer them.
You can also look up the answers to trivia questions in the library. Every time I had five library keys, I made my way there to log a few correct answers. However, it was a risky journey, and I often died trying to get to the library or get back from it. The most useful item in the game, I discovered, is a hormone shot, which automatically resurrects you when you die. Unfortunately, these are found only rarely.
I'm picturing two interns arguing over my corpse: "You're going to give him the shot." "No, you're going to give him the shot." "I ain't givin' him the shot!"
I managed to get one character up to Level 2 ("Med Student"), which I guess I'll have to regard as my own personal triumph. 
A GIMLET is kind of silly for this type of game, but I can't have a blank row in the spreadsheet, so let's give it a try:
  • 3 points for the game world. It's unique, but also rather silly and unbelievable as a setting. I vacillated between 2 and 3 on this one and decided to be generous.
Level 6 of the hospital. Who would build a real hospital like this?
  • 2 points for character creation and development. It's too bad that the creators didn't find a way to add "classes" to the game, such as specialists with bonuses against certain types of diseases. Character creation is otherwise rather basic, with only a few attributes to roll and reroll. I didn't experience enough development to determine whether it was rewarding, but my Level 2 character didn't seem any stronger than my Level 1.
  • 0 points for no NPCs as such.
  • 5 points for encounters. The game does best here. Not only are its "monsters" highly original (compared to other CRPGs) but you get all manner of other random encounters that offer a variety of rewards and punishments. There are no "role-playing" options, exactly, but the encounters do test your medical knowledge.
Trying to provide viral therapy.
  • 3 points for combat. I want to give more credit for originality, but I already applied that to "encounters." Combat is rather binary: you either know the right treatment or you don't. There are a few other variables, such as the resistance level, to consider, and a whole set of "options" that I didn't have a chance to explore because you have to purchase them.
  • 3 points for equipment. In addition to the defensive items that you can wear, I liked the other variety of finds: defenses, white blood cells, library keys, formularies, level maps, and the ability to discern resistance levels, among others.
  • 5 points for the economy. I didn't use it much, but there are quite a number of things you can buy in the lounge, pharmacy, and store. The store sells hormones (which resurrect you when you die), so the economy definitely never runs out of utility.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. I find the PLATO graphics extremely functional, though of course not immersive. There is no sound. The keyboard interface works well, and the game usually does a good job of indicating your options on screen at any given time.
  • 1 point for gameplay. I look for nonlinearity, replayability, moderate-hard difficulty, and a sensible length in this category, and I can't really see any of them here except a little replayability.
That gives us a subtotal of 26, but I'm going to award a bonus point for accomplishing something that few RPGs of its era managed to accomplish: ensuring that the time students spent playing games wasn't completely wasted. That gives us a final score of 27, much higher than the 18 I gave to The Game of Dungeons. That surprised me at first, but Bugs really does offer a lot more. The only reason I'd play Dungeons over this is that Dungeons doesn't require me to spend so much time frantically Googling "staphylococcus" and usually getting the spelling wrong.
This was the only question whose answer I already knew.
There's a part of me that wants to keep building my database and to get a character to retirement, then pull a Frank Abagnale and try to pass the USMLE with my accumulated knowledge. I'm not sure it's really even possible to win, though. Only 83 people have done it since 1979, out of over 400,000 created characters. As far as I can tell, the leaderboard has never been cleared.
In any event, I can't keep letting myself get distracted by these incredibly long games if I'm ever going to get out of the early 1990s. I'm glad I got to at least cover it. Maybe someday, Think2, The Pits of Baradur, and M199h will resurface in the same way.


  1. I could see adding classes after you graduate from medical school... internal medicine would be the base class... those of us in oncology would have bonuses for gram negative bugs since we cause neutropenic fevers with these agents... surgeons would be handicapped (ha!)... and infectious disease would be the top of the totem pole. I'm glad you found this one and documented it!

  2. I concur with arthurdawg's sentiments. Good to see you get to experience the game and document it for the rest of us. And I would agree that it is probably best to leave this one behind.

  3. Abagnale CLAIMS to have done something like that at least…

    1. Yes, the real Abagnale was full of it. But "Frank Abagnale" is also a fictional character in the film Catch Me If You Can, so the reference still works.

  4. All I'm curious about, for the dataminers out there, is if the game has some sort of "final level", "final boss", "Amulet of Yendor", or even any type of ending cutscene for getting the highest rank. I have to admit I'm asking for no other reason than trying to see how funny it would be for such video game conventions to get applied to such a relatively-realistic and low-stakes world, similar to Mission: Mainframe.

    Well, like Chet said, people dying isn't exactly "low-stakes", but "foes" like Hep C aren't exactly known for being under the ultimate employ of Morgoth Bauglir or anything.

  5. I have to admit I'm impressed, but also somewhat mystified, by the statistics screen at the top. Unless there is some kind of in-game clock - Chet did not mention one and I can't see any indication for it in the screenshots - I'd assume the numbers are supposed to reflect real world time spent on the game by users logged in?

    More than 400,000 characters created and close to 180,000 deaths, even for over 40 years that's either a lot of or some very dedicated players in a game that many have never heard of and that was essentially thought to be lost by most. But an average (!) of more than 6 million hours played per day? Close to 125,000 hours per entry/character and over 283,000 per death (Chet reported 109 deaths in about seven hours played)? So maybe there is an in-game timer? Or is this related to the total time the game has been online? Maybe I'm grossly misreading something or my brain's not completely awake yet and someone more versed in statistics can help clarify.

    1. The only way this makes sense to me is if the time statistic is buggy. If you take the ~220.000 entries that did not die, and multiply it by the 43 years since 1979, you get in the same order of magnitude as 5E10. It's a bit higher, but not all games were started in 1979. But even that explanation doesn't make much sense - the game would have to keep track of the start dates of over 200.000 games. I think it's probably just broken.

    2. Yeah, those statistics are clearly wonky. If the average number of hours per day were 6,096,385, you'd have to have over 250,000 players going for 24 hours a day throughout the entire period. I wonder if some Y2K rollover thing happened.

      I can believe the number of entries, though--roughly 25-30 per day throughout the entire period, but most of them were probably between 1979 and 1983.

      I was joking about about the 109. I don't think I fielded THAT many characters. It was more like 20-25.

  6. Maybe this (and Angband) was the cure for your addiction with winning all the games you play. ;)

  7. I had a very similar experience when documenting the successor to this game in Cyber1:

    I'm looking forward to trying BND, but I've already requested twice a Cybis signon without success. I hope it's only a matter of time, as they could be overwhelmed with too many requests after your first post about the game.

    1. At least the map looks more like a plausible hospital in that one.

      It took about 10 days between my CYBIS request and getting a password.

    2. Thanks, that calms me down. I don't want to miss the opportunity to explore this and other games that may be kept there.

    3. @Explorador: Your research and resulting coverage of early CRPGs is really impressive and the rhythm you have been building up since last year as well. Maybe more people would take note if it was written in English - with modern translation tools that should not be an issue, but people are lazy (and I include myself, but I speak Spanish).
      [Not sure if you already know, but your blogspot profile does not link to your blog, just an empty (blogspot) page.]

      Anyway, great work and lucky for Chet he tightened his 'CRPG' criteria and also does not accept new direct game submissions from readers anymore. Otherwise you might still keep him busy with discoveries from the early ages for quite a while, I think!

    4. Thank you very much.

      I forgot that I made a blogspot account when I started with my site and I was not sure whether to use wordpress or blogspot.

      As for the language, I've always thought about it, but when I have time and could start translating, I end up flipping through old magazines looking for new games or analyzing one I've found (after all, I'm also an addict).

      Regarding the games, since I couldn't match what CRPGAddict had already done here, I tried to at least bring something new by bringing to light some forgotten ones. Not all of them are strictly rpgs, but sometimes it's hard to discover a game that there's barely any data on the internet and put it back in its hole just because it's not the right genre. Another problem I have is with dates, sometimes I find games with no references anywhere and no date in the source code, and I don't know what to do with them.

      I'm having a dilemma right now with a game called D & D Adventure which was apparently written by Joel Mick, who wrote some text adventures in 1979 and 1980, and then apparently ended up working for Wizards of the Coast on Magic: the Gathering. In the game you control a warrior, a cleric and a wizard (chosen from several pre-defined characters), and at any given moment you are presented with multiple choices to decide what to do. It has combat, spell casting, magic items, a quest and pre-defined encounters. The problem is that there doesn't seem to be any character development, and I can't find references or dates anywhere, but I don't want to leave the game back in its hole.

    5. I think El Explorador has created a great niche for himself. While my master list relies heavily on other people's findings, he is a true, well, "explorador," mining original magazines and disks for hints of lost games.

      It would do both his and my blog a disservice if I chased after him, covering the same games shortly after he's done all the work finding them and getting them to run. Thus, I'm happy with my current approach. In the fullness of time, the games he discovers will make it to various catalogues, and from there to my master list, and maybe I'll cover them after his entries have stood as "exclusives" for a while.

    6. Unfortunate about the language choice. I don't trust auto-translations, no matter how available they are. I just saw one the other day translate "pet the cat" as "masturbate the cat". It's a pity, I really really like totally obscure magazine games and cassette games from the era when there were no rules and everyone made original games.

    7. It's not really a "choice," Harland. He's writing in his own language. It's far less time-consuming, and likely more accurate, for the reader to translate to his chosen language than for the author to do it. Yes, Google Translate goofs it sometimes, but rarely to the point that you can't figure out what's happening.

    8. Thanks again, this feedback motivates me to continue "exploring" games for at least a few more years.

      Not writing fluently in English is something I really regret, and being quite a perfectionist I don't trust automatic translators either, so it would take me a long time to check and correct the translations sentence by sentence.

      The worst thing is that in many cases I already had to translate game elements or texts into Spanish, and to correctly translate them back into English I would have to play again (or review screenshots, manuals, and source code) to make sure I use the same words for monster names, classes, attributes...

  8. I´d put this down as a very unusual game with story. Never going to have mass appeal. Programming doesn´t have to be for profit motives.

    1. Well that of course is very true for the Plato era.

  9. So how educational was it? It seems that while the game is a challenging test of knowledge, it's hard to learn a lot from it because getting answers to the trivia questions from the in-game library was made difficult and time-consuming.

    In the last post on this game, you mentioned Matt Barton's advocacy of CRPGs as learning tools, and you expressed some past skepticism because there is not a lot of real-world knowledge to be gained from playing them, outside of a few exceptions like Pirates! or Darklands. (You also mentioned that this wasn't your final opinion.)

    But all players of complex games have learned a huge amount of facts, rules, systems, probabilities, and so on -- it's just that these are not from the real world, but are merely the games' fictional facts, game rules, and so on. But consider the incredible amount of what players learn, and how effortless the learning process is, all while enjoying themselves. This does show that video games *can* teach huge amounts of knowledge and system understanding, even to people without any desire to learn. So, games that have real-world settings and realistic simulations of real-world conditions might, theoretically, actually be one of the best possible ways to learn about those real-world settings and systems.

    It would be cool if the philosophy of MicroProse -- making games that semi-realistically encapsulate some aspect of the world -- was more wide-spread and applied to more game genres.

    (Also, aside of applicable real-world knowledge, there are also applicable skills that one might learn from games, and these don't need to have anything to do with realistic simulations. Ingenuity, grit and perseverance, hand-eye coordination, and so on.)

    However, I think that games also can teach detrimental habits. For example, a lot of games enable, encourage and reward the player to complete them to 100 percent. However, in real life, trying to complete every possible task to 100% might not be the best choice. Perfectionism of this kind can cause procrastination. Completing less-important tasks in a more perfunctory way can be necessary in order to gain the time to focus on the most important tasks.


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