On Trax


On Trax
The New Zealand Trax Association Newsletter. Issue: 10

Trax Zones in on Microsoft

David Smith
Who do you write to at Microsoft when you want to start up a conversation? Bill Gates, that's who. Furthermore that letter dated 20 October 1997 did receive a reply but not from the man himself. Chris James was the person who replied on the CEO's behalf. Then followed a non disclosure agreement for signing, a presentation of Trax and its proud history, a return of that presentation to Angus Norton CEO of Microsoft Auckland, a redirection back to Heather Burgess (the person you need to speak to), a second non disclosure agreement and, finally, a serious discussion was under way, some six months after the original approach.

Initially the plan was to sell the intellectual property rights to the company. This was not policy at that time so Heather referred me to an associated division of the company I did not even know existed, the Microsoft Internet Gaming Zone. In wishing me luck in "finding someone to partner with on your game" she very kindly added this quote to our list:
"It (Trax) is great fun and addictive to play (easy to get in, hard to get out of!), so I am sure you will find a good opportunity elsewhere".
Happily we were still to find that opportunity with Microsoft itself.

Heather Burgess's counterpart on the Zone at that time was Joshua Howard, a fellow inventor as I subsequently discovered whose game Ants is already a well established and popular title on the Zone. Many further months passed during which e-mails were exchanged and two phone meetings arranged.

On our side I, along with my son Tim who lives and works (for IBM) in Michigan, conducted these initial discussions. By October of 1998, Donald Bailey joined what was now being described as the Trax Implementation Team to work on the software.

In hindsight, making the Zone was a close call. No retail third party abstract strategy game had previously been released on the Zone on a free to exhibit and free to play basis. What appears to have made the difference was Joshua Howard's personal appreciation of the game itself:
"One reason why I was impressed with Trax was that, as a designer of such games, I found it an extremely elegant game".
Others must have agreed and on January 1 of 1999, we were finally told that Trax had been scheduled for release on the Zone on the following January 28, just 4 weeks away.

This welcome news sent the Trax Implementation Team into a panic. For a start, January 1 in New Zealand falls in the middle of almost everyone's summer holiday break, Donald and myself included. In actual fact, Donald and his wife Robyn had already committed to travelling the length of New Zealand with Mel Nicholson and his family until mid January. (Mel was the 1998 challenger for Donald's World Trax Title). As part of their trip, they were all due to stay with my wife Colleen and I from 5th through 8th January. This gave us a much needed time to catch up on developments and plan for the release.

All that notwithstanding, Donald did complete the enormous task of writing the 4.0 version of the Trax player program in time for the intended release date of January 28.

Mercifully, delays at Microsoft's end saw the original date postponed, firstly to 11th February and secondly to 25th February, by which time both sides had fully accomplished the huge amount of work involved in a project of that nature.

So, with a special announcement on Page 1 of the Microsoft Internet Gaming Zone, Trax was duly released to a bemused audience of Spades, Hearts and blockbuster game players. "What exactly is Trax?" was the most asked question. Even Microsoft had difficulty with that and the game was first listed as a "Puzzle". This became a "Board Game" and, in week 3, a free Game in the page 1 list of free games. That listing in particular set an early population record that was not broken until kibitzing (spectating) arrived some 2 months later.

Trax on the MSN Gaming Zone has been a real roller coaster ride. Losing our front page listing before the much needed kibitzing feature was in place had a devastating effect on our player numbers but, as I write this, these have since soared to new heights and climbing. Our first tournament, won by UK_Nomad of England, was a low key affair with 10 starters but the enthusiasm that generated portends many more tournaments, a ratings system and a ladder to further lift enthusiasm for the newly discovered (to many) game.

This new family of loyal Trax fans is the best thing that has happened to the Trax as a result of being on the Zone. Teaching new players has been a difficult business. It is one thing to teach Trax orally across the same table. It is yet another much more difficult challenge to teach it remotely over a computer link despite the wonderful program with its colourful graphics that Donald has written and improved on week after week. Nevertheless, the snowball effect of new learners teaching each other has given the growth of awareness of Trax a huge boost. I would love to name names but that would inevitably leave someone out. They know who they are so thanks a million guys and gals. Help from members of the ITA has also been forthcoming and much appreciated.

A Trax forum has evolved as these new fans have pooled their resources, contributed to buzz sessions and given me for one a tremendous resurgence of interest in the game that has threatened to drive me right up the wall on many occasions in the past. I now really do feel that, united, we can make Trax a worldwide success in the not too distant future.

Grateful thanks are also due to a long list of personnel at Microsoft who have played their part in establishing Trax on their Zone despite the enormous pressures of supporting a hundred other titles each competing for the limited time, resources and bandwidth on the world's largest gaming zone.
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