MVP Backgammon Professional Lives

A game product is resuscitated.

Back on April 16, I wrote a memorial to MVP Backgammon Professional on the fifth anniversary of the final beta build of the game. At that time, the project was presumed dead. The publisher, MVP Software, had not released a product nor significantly updated its web page in about four years.

Lo and Behold! In late July, MVP Software finally released MVP Backgammon Professional, much to my surprise and delight. Of course, I found out about the release by accidentally, first by coincidentally seeing its listing on a download site, followed a week or two later by an email from a fan of the game. Thankfully, they made up for that oversight by providing me (upon my request) with a copy of the full game, and I have finally been able to take a few minutes to tell everybody about it.

This is not a normal game review, because I am in no way unbiased. We, SophSoft, wrote the bulk of the game, meaning every last bit of it through the aforementioned beta release, and did most of the artwork for the game as well. One could certainly assume that I would be inclined to praise our portion and may be disposed to criticize the rest, so read this commentary with that in mind.

First of all, let us start with some of The Good. Most of the primary functionality is unchanged from the beta version of five years ago, yet it still holds up well. The program plays a strong game of Backgammon, especially the Copernicus personality (an expert neural network). We had suggested a windowed mode in addition to full screen (and wrote the code to easily support it), and they apparently decided that this was a good idea and added it. Some of the dialog boxes were changed from our last version, and for the most part, the changes were beneficial. Best of all, for us, is that MVP showed real class and left all of the original credits intact, merely adding more of their own.

Now, here is a little bit of The Bad, with regard to the program itself. The pubeval personality, which was a very simple (classic) neural network evaluator, was removed, leaving a large strength gap among evaluators; Gerry Tesauro, who wrote the original pubeval, is still thanked in the credits, though. In five years, we probably could have improved Copernicus, but I suspect that its strength is now somewhat less than GNU Backgammon, which has continued to be improved in the interim. Had I been given a chance, I would have added antialiasing to make the checkers look better on the board (given the faster machines of today), and I would have altered the right mouse button interface. Also, the grafting of the ‘5’ (over a ‘1’) to update the splash screen copyright date looks poor. Why was it not 2006, anyway?

The biggest disappointment with program operation, for me, was that MVP removed all of the direct peer-to-peer networking and replaced it with their Classic Entertainment Online service. The beta version allowed users to connect via Internet, LAN, modem, or serial cable, as well as via the (unfinished) CEO. In the release version, only the latter option is available, albeit complete now. My opinion has not changed in the half year since the previous post that MVP Backgammon Pro should have been released five years ago without CEO, and then an update could be released later (with sales in the meantime). This argument is bolstered by the fact that I have checked CEO many times over the last couple of months and there has never been another backgammon player online (and that is the only game currently supported).

That last part was, of course, a marketing problem rather than any issue with the game itself. Marketing is not a science, so I may be wrong, but I feel that there are several errors in this area, specifically with the limitations of the trial version. The trial omits the Copernicus evaluator, which is the strongest one available, so there is no way to know how strong the program really is without buying it. Actually, it not clear during the trial period that this is the case, so many (if not most) players will probably assume that the AI is weak, because they can only see the deliberately crippled evaluator. Likewise, there are three different board sets, plus three checker sets, with only one each available in the trial, but this is not obvious either.

Ironically, I did not see any way to print an order form from within the program, though that was ostensibly the reason for us parting ways. MVP Software did not like our cost estimate for adding the ability to print an order form (instead of just opening a form in NotePad and letting the user print from there). They demanded that we add the feature for free, claiming that they had three “experts” who said that it would take them no more than 15 minutes to add printing capability. I responded: “In that case, why are you still talking to me?” (Clearly, there was some deeper problem there, but we never found out what it was.)

The bottom line is that MVP Backgammon Professional is a good backgammon program that is fun to play. Even though there was nowhere near five years worth of improvement since we last worked on the game, it still stands up today and is better than most backgammon software on the market. The drawbacks are not severe, and perhaps will give MVP Software something to improve in the future.

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