Elonka Dunin in the News

SimuCon Dragon*Con GDC
Space Probes Inc. 500 Hercules & Xena
Miscellaneous Other Stuff PhreakNIC v3.0 Code

New Stuff (June 2002):

St. Louis Business Journal
December 29, 2000, this weekly newspaper did a cover story on the gaming companies in St. Louis, and had a nice write-up on Simutronics.  A link to the article is here.

PhreakNIC v3.0 Code
In July 2000 I heard about an "as yet unbroken" Code that had been posted by the hacker group se2600.  The code (visible at http://www.phreaknic.org/phreaknic.txt) had been unbroken since it was posted in mid-1999.

I took a look at it in late July, and, with some fairly intense effort, cracked it in 10 days.  :)  As my prize, I won free VIP access to the group's hacker convention, PhreakNIC v4.0.  That meant free hotel, free drinks, free T-shirts, etc.

The Code's author, a Nashville hacker and DJ who goes by the handle of JonnyX, asked me to post an explanation of how I cracked the Code.  I did so, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek "cyberpunk tutorial" fashion, over the following six weeks.  The complete tutorial can be seen at http://members.aol.com/nova1337/tutorial.htm.

I was also one of the speakers at PhreakNIC v4.0, and gave a presentation there on how to crack the code.

The St. Louis Linux/Unix community wrote up my accomplishment in their October CRONicle newsletter.

For those who are interested in the Code: It turned out to be a series of over a dozen puzzles, using several different types of cryptography.  Some of the cryptographic techniques were ones that I knew about before starting my attempt on the Code, and some I didn't.  By the end of the process of solving it though, I'd learned quite a bit.

If you have any interest in cryptography (even if you don't know too much about it), I highly recommend taking a look at the Code Tutorial.  You won't need super-computers to solve the Code, and you won't need to learn the complex math behind the encryption methods.  Everything in it is solvable either with word-play techniques (such as cryptograms and anagrams), or with publicly-available software utilities such as a PGP encoder.  All in all, the Code is a fun ride, and I recommend giving it a shot.  Lastly, kudos (and mad props!) to JonnyX for writing it.  :)

This is probably my favorite event each year:  SimuCon, our annual convention in St. Louis, when hundreds of players and GameMasters come from all over the world to meet, party, drink, gab, and in general have a fantastic time for a few days.

There are many many websites floating around with pictures.  There are hundreds of such photos here and there, so for a representative sample, check out this page that points to the official memory sites from SimuCon pasts:  "Memories" (I'm usually listed under Elonka or Nova)
>  A few pictures from conventions past:
   1998: Me and Eric Bloom at SimuCon.  (He's the lead singer of Blue Oyster Cult, and a big fan of GS3!)
   1999: Late night party at SimuCon 99.  Brauden, me, Royce, Caymus, Sorchia, and Celtic
   2000: A page that links to fanpages with SimuCon 2000 pictures by players of all of our games: GemStone III, DragonRealms, Modus Operandi, and Hercules & Xena: Alliance of Heroes

October 1999: Simutronics made the Inc. 500!
This was a longtime dream, to get Simutronics listed in the Inc. 500 as one of the fastest-growing companies in the country.  In 1999, we made it.  :)

Click here to see the main article at the Inc. website.

Another article in that magazine talked about motivating employees, and there was a section ("The Bright Side of the Force"), on how one of the things that Simutronics did was to take everyone in the office out to see the opening of "Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace."  I'm not mentioned in the article, but I *am* the one that put that outing together, even though the CEO is the one that gets credit for it (funny how that works, hmm?).

You can also read the company press release about the achievement.

Space Probes - The Planetary Society - Antarctica

Did you know?  My name is on a microchip that was launched into space aboard a probe -- Stardust -- that is going to rendezvous with a comet, collect a sample, and then return to Earth.  Click here to see the NASA website that proves it!  The probe was launched on February 7, 1999, and is scheduled to return to Earth in 2006.  Click here to learn more about it.

My name is on that chip because of my association with the Planetary Society.  This is the same Society that organized my February 1999 trip to Antarctica.   When there's room on their website, they occasionally post information about the trip on the Planetary Society News webpage.  Another place to see pictures of our trip is at the site of my Australian-British co-traveler, Digby Tarvin (he's got such a cool name!).

Computer Game Developers' Conference

Every year I try to attend the annual Computer Game Developers' Conference in California.  This has evolved from a tiny "living room gathering" of game developers several years ago, to its current massive state which takes over the Convention Center.  One way to tell how long someone has been attending the conference, is to listen to what they call it.  Oldtimers like me refer to it as "DevCon," then it morphed to "CGDC," and now it's the "GDC."  I really look forward to this convention each year, as it's a way to stay connected with my peers throughout the industry.  Sure, sometimes my company is in competition with their company, but I don't see them as enemies, I see them more as "honorable competitors."  We love to get together and share a drink and talk over the war stories that we all have about the trials and tribulations of managing massive online communities.  My fellow DevCon attendees are my pals, no matter which company they work for, and I can't wait to buy the next round for them.  Cheers!

Dragon*Con in Atlanta

Dragon*Con is a huge sci-fi/fantasy/gaming/comic book/movie convention that takes place in Atlanta, Georgia each year.  It brings in over 20,000 attendees, hundreds of special guests and stars, and has over a dozen simultaneous programming tracks, on subjects ranging from "Star Trek" to Tolkien to X-Files to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to British Sci-Fi.  When I attend, I can usually be found in either the Xena/Hercules track, or the EFF (Electronics Frontiers Forum) track, aka the "Hacker Track."

Why would I hang out with the hackers?  Well, I learn a *lot*.  There are many different kinds of hackers: a few of the "black hat" ones are those who go out and try to break things, but there are far more "white hat" hackers who love to explore the web, learn everything that they can about everything, and help find (and plug) the security holes that the more malicious hackers (crackers) might exploit.  DragonCon has some very talented hackers who attend, and who do their level best to educate the rest of the world on how to make your computers and web-surfing as safe and secure as possible.

In 2000, I attended Dragon*Con and sat on three panels:  Two in the EFF track on Multiplayer Online Games, and one in the Xena/Hercules track, on online fandom.  Audio recordings of the EFF panels are available on the web at the EFGA site.  The two panels that I participated in are:
   Thursday, 6/29/2000: Online Gaming: Problems with Current Persistent Online Worlds (MMORPG's)
   On Friday, 6/30/2000: Online Gaming and Virtual Property

While at Dragon*Con 2000, I was interviewed by some folks from the Stratics fan-site.  A transcript of the DragonCon Stratics interview is here.

After Dragon*Con, I also participated in a chat about our Hero's Journey game in the Stratics chat room.  A capture of that July 2000 Stratics chat is here.

In 1998, I attended Dragon*Con to talk about our new game, "Hercules & Xena: Alliance of Heroes."  Originally I was just going to give one talk, but some of the other HX "track" speakers couldn't make it, so I ended up filling in at the last minute and did several talks.  It was kind of difficult sometimes when I'd sit down at the microphone, and apologize to a room full of people, "Sorry, I know you came here to see such and such a person, but they couldn't make it, so I'll be filling in and talking about a different subject.  So don't be afraid to head out if this isn't what you came for."  At which point nearly every single person in the room stood up and headed for the door! <chuckle>.   Thoughts crossed through my mind like, "Hmm, if every single person leaves, and I'm suddenly faced with a room full of empty chairs, what should I do?  Still keep talking?"  Probably the best thing to do if suddenly faced with an empty room would have been to shout, "Okay everybody, let's have a singalong!" <grin>  Or, "Hey everyone, let's do a football-stadium 'wave.'"  Though I suppose if someone else walked in and saw me rapidly standing up and sitting down all by myself it might have looked a little bizarre <chuckle>.

My name is briefly mentioned in the post-convention "track report" of the HX track at Dragon*Con 1998, written by Michael Martinez, track organizer.

Other Stuff about Hercules & Xena: Alliance of Heroes

September 1997: Here's our press release announcing the new Hercules & Xena: Alliance of Heroes game, of which I was Executive Producer

September 1997: Here's a blurb at CNet's Gamecenter.com about the Xena/Hercules game.

April 1998: This is the press release that went out when the HX game opened.   Check out that turnaround time, we did an entire game in less than a year!

Other Miscellany

For a tongue-in-cheek version of who does what at Simutronics, check our 1997 " Grand Posting of Those That Did Stuff"

The new 2001 version of the play.net website credits

April 1998:  A press release that talked about one of our annual conventions, SimuCon '98.

GemStone III Newsletter

1995: Volume 2, Issue 1 of the Kulthea Chronicle, an online newsletter for GemStone III, our flagship product.  As near as I can tell, this particular issue was published in early 1995, back when the game was based on the Rolemaster rules from Iron Crown Enterprises, and shortly before we launched our products on America Online.  We've come a long way since then.  Around the time of this issue, total simultaneous usage in GemStone III was around 50-75 users on a "big" night.  As of 1999, we have several different games up, not just GS3, and total simultaneous usage is more like 5000 users.  Plus we've got plans for our next big game, Hero's Journey, which will take us up into the hundreds of thousands!

Note:  The above link is to Genie service gopher site, which may be down.  If it doesn't work, you can also see a copy of the newsletter which I've got mirrored here.

Entrepreneur Interview

Nick Tommarello,  a business student at Babson College, had to write a paper for his "Entrepreneurship & New Ventures" class.  He was originally going to interview David Whatley, Simutronics CEO, but David couldn't make it, so I stepped in.  Here's the paper that Nick wrote in September 1999 (and yes, it got an A!  Congrats, Nick!):

Simutronics Corporation has been in the multi-player online entertainment business since 1987, a pioneer in the industry.  Their products include such games as GemStone III and DragonRealms, both fantasy role-playing games with well over a thousand players connected at any one point in time.  They have also developed Cyberstrike, winner of the Online Game of the Year award by Computer Gaming World, as well as Modus Operandi and Hercules and Xena.  Simutronics is currently developing a graphical multi-player role-playing game by the name of Hero's Journey.

Simutronics' games initially appeared on GEnie, a well known commercial online service at the time.  Afterwards, Simutronics expanded to Prodigy, CompuServe, and the rapidly growing America Online, but ultimately left the online services in 1997 in order to make its new home on the World Wide Web.  Simutronics employs only 25 to 50 full time workers, but manages roughly 450 part time contractors (also known as GameMasters, GameHosts, and Mentors) who run and expand the various games for a percentage of gross revenue.

I interviewed Elonka Dunin, General Manager of Online Games for Simutronics.  She came to the company in 1990, when it was still in its infancy, and initially ran it out of her loft with the present CEO, David Whatley.  She has been a major contributor to the company's success over the last decade, and profoundly influences it from the lowest to the highest level.  Her primary responsibilities include increasing customer experience and satisfaction, post-launch quality control, and product management for all of Simutronics' various games.  During the lean and unprofitable years, she worked for nearly no monetary compensation, and, therefore, has a number of shares and stock options in the company.

Elonka has an extremely interesting personal background, starting with her family history.  Her father was born in Warsaw, both of his parents being killed by the Germans as they withdrew during World War II.  He was raised by his uncle, a Polish officer placed as commandant of Warsaw by the Russians, and his aunt, a member of the Polish resistance who had been sent to Auschwitz and managed to survive.  Elonka's father and great uncle soon came to the United States, where they became successful entrepreneurs in time.  As such, Elonka's family has been very influential in her life as an entrepreneur, yet not quite in the way one would expect.  Elonka stated, "My great uncle and father tried getting me involved with their businesses, and I resisted wholeheartedly.  But when I found something that was just mine, I could throw my heart and soul into it."

Elonka does not have a college degree, but has a wide breadth of practical experience to draw upon.  After dropping out of college, she spent six years in the Air Force as an Avionics Instruments System Specialist.  However, her job in the Air Force became unexciting because she was not allowed to cross train into different areas.  As a result, she left the Air Force and worked at a number of temporary jobs all over the country, usually as a legal secretary or programmer.  She then decided to travel, and spent the next several years visiting different parts of the world and observing diverse cultures.

These experiences helped Elonka in her present position in several ways.  First, she equated her experience traveling with getting used to change, saying, "The number one hardest thing about traveling is going.  Getting up the energy to pack and head out the door.  There are always reasons to not travel, or to put it off... Entrepreneurship can be the same way.  If everything's right, and the only thing holding you back is fear of change?  Do it."  Elonka has a very high tolerance for ambiguity, and that is an asset to her.

Elonka also feels her experience with different cultures helps her understand some customers better, and actually helps her with some game design.  In addition, her numerous temporary jobs at dozens of various companies across the United States exposed her to a multitude of different sorts of organizational problems, and she draws upon this experience to help in her present position.  Finally, the structured design of the Air Force influenced some of the ways Elonka set up the teams of the part time contractors who run the various games.

The process by which Elonka and the other members of the management team built Simutronics was very successful, yet not as prevailing as it could have been had they had the experience they do now.  Elonka stated, "Simutronics getting where it is today was a combination of factors… The right people at the right time, a lot of hard work, and an enormous amount of luck.  It's like surfing a wave.  We were out there on our boards when the Internet wave came along."

Some of the key factors that Elonka feels was done right, enabling Simutronics' success, were the strong management team, the timing, and its capacity for change.  First, the management team was composed of very diverse people, which gave them strength due to different ideas being explored.  It led to conflict, yet conflict is good to the point where it sparks new ways of looking at things.  The management team also had a complimentary skill set, allowing them to draw on each other's expertise.  Second, Simutronics always managed to catch the latest wave and stay on its feet before it sputtered.  They were on Genie when Genie was big and they expanded to America Online just before its huge growth spurt.  They got off AOL, moving to the Web, when AOL reorganized its contracts with game companies and as the Web was taking off as its own medium.  Elonka stated, "I think David and I like change.  And that's one of the reasons that Simutronics has survived through this very turbulent decade."  By having the capacity for change, combined with some strong entreprenurship skills, Simutronics was able to stay in business despite everything that was thrown at it.

Some of the things Elonka wishes were done differently, if they had the experience then that they do now, would be creating a better version of corporate bylaws, issuing stock options with a better knowledge of the tax consequences, and more training for all employees.  After hearing about the business process, there is also one thing I would have done differently.

Simutronics was largely funded from within. "Sweat equity" was the term Elonka used.  Revenues from Simutronics' various operations funded their expansion, while at times the management has had to take pay cuts in order to get by some rough times.  Simutronics has looked for venture capital and other investment deals in the past, yet, although they had plenty of offers, the management team felt none of them were actually worth pursuing.  Elonka stated, "We want to maintain control, not sell our soul to the highest bidder."

After critiquing the business process by which Simutronics grew to its present state, I am very impressed with how they did it with the sparse resources they had, as not many can build multi-million dollar businesses with nearly nothing to start off with.  However, I believe they should have more aggressively sought new capital from outside investors.  They have had the technological and first mover edge for a long time in this industry, but this advantage will only erode as more companies such as Microsoft and Sony enter in the market.  These companies have deep pockets and can afford to make the mistakes Simutronics already made long ago, learn from them, and then improve their position.

I believe Simutronics will continue to dominate the text-based online game market, but will miss out on the more mainstream graphics based multi-player role-playing games, unless they inject a substantial amount of outside capital into their operations.  Simutronics is currently looking for funding for their graphical based role-playing game in development, Hero's Journey, but there are already several graphically based multi-player games that have been just released by much larger companies.   The management wishes to remain in control, and they should look for deals that enable them to do so, yet something must be given up if this company is to remain the dominant figure in the industry.

Elonka also had numerous words of wisdom for a young entrepreneur, which either taught me, or reaffirmed my belief in, a lot of aspects about business.  She stated, "The essential thing for an entrepreneur that's the most on the "talent" side is the conviction to succeed.  The sheer hard-headed stubborn drive everyone crazy but damnit make it happen stuff... You can't be an entrepreneur and just put an idea out there and hope it sells.  You've got to want it, If you're just dabbling, it ain't going to happen."  This reaffirms my own beliefs, and what was taught in the classroom about the difference between a cocktail entrepreneur and a real one.  It was also interesting to hear her views about the entrepreneurial team.  Elonka stated, "I think one of the most important things I could say is: Don't be afraid to surround yourself with people who think differently than you.  If all of you are thinking exactly alike, some of you are probably unnecessary.  Get other viewpoints."  Again, I find it refreshing to see some aspects of what I learned in the classroom being applied in a real company.

However, I think one of the most important pieces of advice that I will take with me is Elonka's opinion of leadership, when she said, "Don't insist on going in and fixing each problem yourself.  As your team grows, you'll get more done if you have people to fix problems for you, so you can focus your energies on the bigger picture."  I think it would be tempting for an entrepreneur to hang on to the details of the business and attempt to micro manage, yet it is important to see the bigger picture.  To be able to look at the forest, instead of the trees.


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