Bits From my Personal Collection – Dogfight, the Ace Plaque

Be one of the first 10 pilots to reach 10.000 points and win a special achievement Ace Plaque, be the first to do it, and win a trip to the windy city of Chicago. The early days of computer games were full of marketing tricks, luring people into buying products. Cash prizes, swords, plaques, trips, you name it. Programmer Bill Basham had added a feature to his first game that would display a secret code on the screen if a player reached 10.000 points. The code could be reported to the publisher and the prize claimed, the only thing, a score of 10.000 was virtually impossible to achieve.

While Basham earned a Bachelor in Electrical Engineering from the University of Massachusett in 1973 it would be his Doctorate in Medicine earned in 1977 that would shape his early work life, becoming an employee of the U.S Public Health Service working as an emergency room physician in Pennsylvania and later in Rockford, Illinois.
Basham was a renaissance man and extremely talented, not only in his field of medicine but also in music and engineering, and when he was introduced to the personal computer his curiosity and creativity turned him into one of the early pioneers. Basham acquired his own Apple II computer in 1979 and quickly got accustomed to the small and capable machine, teaching himself Machine Language and experimenting with images and animation.

Experimenting with how many images Basham could force the 1 MHz Apple II to display across the screen at one time soon turned into a game. Inspired by Atari‘s 1975 coin-op Jet Fighter, the many animated images were turned into numerous jetplanes and helicopters battling each other. Single-player, two-player, team play, and a custom game mode option with up to eight human players using the keyboard at the same time were added, alongside joystick and paddle controls. The goal was to destroy all opponents on the screen and advance to the next level, with faster and an increasing number of enemies attacking.

Basham living in Rockford, Illinois at the time, had noticed local software company Micro lab from magazines and contacted them for a publishing deal. Micro Lab agreed to publish the small but rather impressive and challenging game for the Apple II in 1980 as Dogfight.

Bill Basham’s first game, Dogfight, published by Micro Lab in 1980 for the Apple II.

While the gameplay was simple, the mere fact that Basham was able to put up to eight fighting vessels on-screen with animation at the same time was quite impressive. The game could be played as single-player or two-player in versus or team mode. Up to 8 human players could fight against each other, which of course required some physical efforts with that many hands on the Apple II keyboard at the same time

Dogfight was advertised with the chance of winning one of 10 special achievement plaques if a pilot reached a score of 10.000 points in either single-player, two-player or in team play. Basham had programmed the game to display a special code when 10.000 points were reached. While earning a score that high was pretty much impossible, Basham had added trick code, and if the game was hacked, the code showing up would be false. Micro Lab received a couple of codes, the first was indeed hacked but the second seemed correct, while it probably was obtained by a more elaborate hacker, Micro Lab ended up calling the person to arrange the trip to Chicago. The person answering the phone was allegedly a prostitute from the Cincinnati area. No need to say that she wasn’t interested in coming to Chicago to show off her dogfighting skills.

While the Ace Plaque stunt didn’t help Dogfight become a huge success, the game was received with good reviews for its simple yet impressive amount of fast-paced hi-res graphics and many gameplay modes but the dogfight concept had already been exhausted and made it hard for it to stand out in the extremely crowded action and arcade market. Also, the game’s controls were hard to get used to and while it featured 16 levels, Basham himself only had managed to complete the first eight, a testament to the game’s high difficulty level.

Basham went on to further develop upon the concept and added support for the Atari Joystick port and a new multiplayer and anti-aircraft gunner game mode. The revised game was released as Dogfight II, initially published under the Micro Lab label in 1981 for the Apple II. In 1982 the title was re-released with new cover artwork under Micro Lab’s newly established entertainment division label Micro Fun.

In 1981 Dogfight was released with a few improvements and added gameplay modes. Dogfight II was initially released under the Micro Lab label but soon a new release with fantastic artwork by renowned artist Don Dixon was released under the newly established entertainment label, Micro Fun

Dogfight II was exactly the same game as Dogfight but added support for the Atari Joystick port and a new multiplayer and anti-aircraft gunner game mode.

Basham found his true love in personal computers and software development. In 1983 he quit his secure physician job and established his own company, Diversified Software Research, DSR, Inc., to write software for the Apple II platform. One of the products was DiversiDOS, a replacement for the Apple II Disk Operating System that was included with the Apple II. Basham’s software was elegant and surpassed Apple’s own, even so, that Steve Wozniak, who wrote the original Apple II DOS, became a customer.
By 1983 Micro Lab no longer held the publishing rights to Dogfight and Basham would include it as a freebie with his Diversi-products. To try and prevent illegal copies of his software, one of the biggest challenges for any developer in the ’80s, Basham re-released Dogfight II, as a special free mail-order version. The game was free to distribute and could legally be tried out for 14 days, after that $30 had to be sent to DSR.
The novel idea of allowing the market to distribute and expose his software freely and with everyone free to try it for a limited period of time proved to work extremely well, and with that Basham became one of the earliest adopters of what became known as the shareware model.

In the mid-80s, along with DiversiDos, the backup software DiversiCopy, and the music program DiversiTune, Basham also created DiversiDial, a specialized type of Bulletin Board System that allowed connected callers to send lines of text, at 300 baud, to each other in real-time, many years before the World Wide Web and instant messaging software like IRC became a thing. Basham’s DiversiDial systems were around up until the early to mid-’90s when most were phased out and the internet started to take over, along with other Bulletin Board Systems with faster connection speeds and other offerings.  
Users of Basham’s programs still to this day honor him with online tributes and reunions of groups who have benefited from his genius as a programmer.

Basham died peacefully in his home in Springfield on Saturday, April 13, 2021, after three and a half years of struggle with ALS. He was 70 years old.

Sources: Softalk Nov. 1980, Softline May-June 1983, Gallery of Undiscovered Entities, GatheringUS – Bill Basham Memorial, Infoworld May 1981

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