ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog


The research for the documentary took me in many different directions, as I reached out trying to find out any and every possible subject people might be interested in. Cinematic limitations prevented me from throwing everything I learned on the screen, but there was still a lot of neat stuff I pulled up. A lot of this has gone (and will go) into the BBS Documentary Library.

Among these subjects were a host of external programs that were vital but also tangental to the BBS experience. Probably the most debatable of these were terminal programs; while I considered having something about the programs used to connect to BBSes (which got complicated to a greater degree in the early 1990s), I ultimately decided against it. Similarly, I didn’t include more than a bit of information on Door programs, and didn’t list a ton of other ones that constituted strong memories and experiences for folks.

Among these programs was a door called “Dope Wars”, an economic game where you sold drugs around New York City (sometimes modified for other locations) to gain monetarily while also on the run from the cops and other issues facing a hard-working drug dealer. The “Dope Wars” (or “Dopewars”) game was popular enough that it exists to the modern day, called “Pimpwars” and other variations. The graphics are better, and the gameplay has been tweaked, but the core in the same.

The “Dope Wars” door is in fact based off of an earlier DOS game called “Drug Wars”, which has an authorship by “John E. Dell” of the Happy Hacker Foundation. No other information about him existed. While addressing other issues, I made an effort to contact him.. and failed.

Towards the end of production, however, I recieved a very nice surprise: John Dell himself, coming to me to let me know that he was THAT John Dell, and he had in fact created Drug Wars, 20 years earlier. Naturally, his life went in other directions, but one of his students had noticed a plea I’d put up for his contact information. It pays to ask, it really does.

I spoke to Mr. Dell at length on the phone one day, and we discussed BBSes in general and the history of Dopewars/Drugwars, as well as his own history. Ironically, he was doing some computer work for an anti-drug/drug education group. I asked if I could forward some questions to him, just for the sake of history, and he said OK. Here is the result of those quick questions. I provide them to give the proper history to the beginning of the Dopewars Program.

Tell me about the circumstances of coming up with Drug Wars; where you were at school, where the inspiration came from, why you implemented it like you did.

I had to write a program for my sophmore computer class at Shasta High School (1982-1983). A classmate of mine named Tripp Johnson (actually his father) had a nice computer that I think was a TRS-80 clone. It was a big green screen box and it had the old huge 8″ floppy drives (That’s all I can remember about it that computer). Anyway, Tripp had a game for that computer that was a commodities trading program. I think something about the Chicago mercantile exchange. You could buy and sell wheat, flax, barley, etc over a period of time and hopefully make money on it.

I thought this was a decent game, but could be made more interesting and it was enough to give me the idea for Drug Wars. So the two novel twists were of course doing the buying and selling drugs rather than wheat, and travelling from place to place to get the fluctuation in price rather than waiting a day on the market for the price of flax to go up 🙂 The rest of the game fell into place from those basics.

The stuff with officer hardass and the various events in the program (columbian freighter busted) that caused prices to go up or down were the fun part that I just kept adding to make the game more interesting.

At the time, the computer classroom had maybe 3 or 4 TRS-80’s and only one Apple so I chose the TRS-80. Another reason for choosing the TRS-80 was that it was easier to to do a block graphic of officer hardass. So during gunfights, the screen drew a very basic torso of police officers (however many were chasing you) and each one holding a gun. When they would shoot at you, the gun barrel would flash.

I got an ‘A’ from Mr. Robathan on the project, but as I recall, he didn’t care for the subject matter 🙂 Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any copies of this TRS-80 version that survived. In 1983 or so, my Dad bought a shiny new IBM PC XT, so of course I had to re-write it for the PC. I think the graphic torso of officer hardass was the only thing that didn’t make it into the DOS version because I couldn’t figure out how to do it easily and eventually lost interest.

When did you stop thinking about Drug Wars; was it after you uploaded it to a few places? Was it some years down the line after you moved from BBSes? When do you think you parted ways?

I never actually uploaded it to any BBS that I can recall. I had given my brother and a few friends in the Redding, CA area a copy of the program in 1984 and 1985. That’s about it. So one of them must have uploaded it to a BBS, because in 1985 I left for college at Annapolis. There wasn’t time for writing programs other than what was required for coursework, so I’d say that is when I forgot about it.

Is there anything you would have done different in creating Drug Wars? Do you think you might have considered turning it into a business? Was it a one-off creation or were there other similar ideas you tried?

I wanted to do the graphical officer hardass gunfight because at the time, anything graphic/animated was cool. I never considered turning it into a business. While still in high school, I had dabbled in writing a Dungeons & Dragons program for DOS, but never had anything real useful.

When did you start to find out how far along the Drug Wars derivatives had come along? Do you remember what went through your mind? What did you think of where it had gone? (Dopewars, Pimpwars, etc.)

This is pretty amazing, but I guess somewhere in 1998 or 1999, my brother sent me an email that said “hey, remember that drug wars program you wrote, check this out”. It was a link to website. I couldn’t believe it. Somewhere in the history section of the web site, he had credited me and the drug wars/dope wars programs for his inspiration. I eventually emailed him and identified myself as the author of drug wars. He (the beermat guy) said he’d received dozens of emails from people claiming to be ‘The John Dell’. Pretty funny. Anyway, he offered to put up a brief history of drug wars if I sent it to him. So, I did send him some basic info similar to what I wrote in answer to question 1, but he never put it on the site, and then wouldn’t return email because I think he was afraid I would ask for money or something stupid like that. He has long since removed any mention of the original drug wars on his website.

Your program has been updated and transferred through a lot of platforms and come up to the present day. Did you have anything you wanted to say to the people who ran into your program back then, and

Some random thoughts in no particular order:

  • I’m astounded at how this program has become so popular.
  • I even saw a version for a Nokia phone! Ridiculous!
  • Even more amazing to me it that at least one person (beermat guy) is making a living off of this.
  • I’d like to know who originally uploaded the DOS version to a BBS.
  • I’d love to find a copy of the old TRS-80 version from 1983.
  • Avoid the version which has the gator/spyware crap in it.
  • In the spirit in which it was originally created, use a free version, there are many of them.

For those who think such an idea could must have come from a druggie, not so! I was a clean cut kid who grew up in northern california and then went to the U.S. Naval Academy, followed by naval flight school and flying helicopters (then I returned to my roots and really got back into computers).

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  1. peterb says:


    Dopewars is in fact a reimplementation of an earlier trading game by Art Canfil, called Taipan!, a 1982 Apple ][ (and TRS-80) game by Mega-Micro computers. The original is available in disk image form, here: A more recent port of the game to the Infocom z-machine is here: The underdogs entry is here: Another retrospective, with images, here:

    While I don’t want to doubt John Dell’s memory — after all, he was just in High School at the time — I find some of the particular symmetries between the two programs (Borrowing from the loan shark, the number of places one can visit being the same, the way combat is resolved) to be too analogous for this to be mere coincidence. Basically, if he came up with these game mechanics without seeing Taipan!, then I am Marie of Roumania.


  2. Jason Scott says:

    Peter, let me first thank you for providing citations along with your message. It makes the parallels and studying of the matter that much easier to do.

    I feel I have to defend Mr. Dell on one point; he definitely wrote Drug Wars, and he definitely was the source for the family tree of Dopewars and Pimpwars that came after. That he lays specific claim to and without evidence to the contrary, that’s what I think the case is.

    I’ll also hasten to point out this is me going to Mr. Dell and asking him about all this and what it’s about and the rest, not him spontaneously coming to a history site and painting himself as the hero in the center of a programming epic.

    That aside, I agree with your statement; it definitely seems on the face of it that Drug War’s mechanics rise from Taipei. Implementation was obviously different (programmed by Mr. Dell) but the core mechanics are definitely almost exact.

    That said, there’s no reason to point the finger at Mr. Dell or even accuse him of a fuzzy memory. Even in his recounting of events, he mentions three other influences: Mr. Robathan, Tripp Johnson, and a commodities program.

    It is entirely possible that any of these folks could have given the young John Dell some ideas for his program that ended up in his work. If we go along this route, the commodities program, written in the time of the early 1980s when game mechanics were swapped around with great swagger and frequency, sounds like the prime suspect; written between the publishing of Taipei (1982) and 1984, it could have lifted elements from its predecessor, which Dell then lifted into Drug Wars.

    He never claims he invented it wholecloth out of his head, just that he ultimately programmed Drug Wars, as a school project, with the help of some friends and for fun, and was then surprised at how far it travelled afterwards.

  3. Ed says:

    I don’t know a single American high school student who hasn’t heard of DopeWars. Thanks to the TI-83, 84, and 85 calculators this game lives on in perpetual motion. I know when I was a sophomore I was responsible for bringing it in to my school (had to buy the special serial cable since USB had yet to become a way of connecting your TI to your computer). Last I checked it’s still circling around the school (6 years later). It’s obviously a very slim, text only version, but still one of (if not THE) most popular games for the TI series calculator.