By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Ian Wall is dope. He's so dope, he's the dope king, ensconced in his Astoria, Queens, apartment, cooking up new ways for international cartels to unload Ecstasy, smack, and 'shrooms. Fortunately for Wall, the illicit doings are only online. More than a half-million gamers have downloaded his hometown drug-dealing simulation, Dope Wars, making it one of the most popular shareware titles, alongside big names like Pac-Man and Quake.
Since it was first developed for DOS machines in 1984, Dope Wars has become the underground's answer to Solitairequick to install, easy to play, and tailor-made for workday lulls. Now Wall, who resurrected the low-tech, high-satire game for Windows on a lark last year, is trying to keep up with demand for the game, putting the finishing touches on a souped-up Version 2.0 expected to hit the wires in May. "I had no idea so many people were addicted to the game," the 31-year-old says. "I guess it's kind of like Tetris." On speed.
Because there are no fat graphics to weigh Dope Wars down, the game is fast, fast, fast. You might say it's a bit of aesthetic genius: All the action takes place on a nifty little text panel that's about as complicated as your desktop calculator. Players start out with $2000 and 31 days to make as much money as they can through buying and selling drugs. To do this, they click on buttons representing subway rides to places like the Bronx, Coney Island, and Central Park, where they peddle their wares. Each hood has its own market prices, which fluctuate with police busts and plain old serendipity ("Colombian freighter dusted the Coast Guard!" reads one bulletin. "Weed prices have bottomed out!").
The quick pace and dark humor of the original Dope Wars made Wall an instant fan after a friend e-mailed him the DOS version last year. A computer programmer and juggler who moved to New York from England, Wall was so smitten by the game that he decided to take it to the Windows-dependent masses.
To pump up the competition, he's added a makeshift multiplayer application that allows dealers from around the world to post their scores in an online table. Wall also hosts a site for the game and was lucky enough to find a sympathetic geek at Download.coma popular, though generally conservative, shareware sitewho agreed to carry Dope Wars. "Fortunately, he was a fan of the original game," Wall says, "so he was quite receptive."
With the Windows face-lift, the game has taken off. Dope Wars, according to The Sunday Timesof Australia, was even discovered last year on the hard drives of police officers in Perth. Better yet, the game got the ultimate props in December: a denouncement by a politician (in this case, Kansas senator Sam Brownback). Undaunted, addicts around the world populate the Dealers Den. Two transcontinental twentysomething friends, Olivier "Ozh" Richard and Axel Estable, created a fan haven for virtual dealers (frenchfragfactory.net/dopewars). "It's a great feeling when you just bought at rock-bottom price and sell when the cops make a bust and the prices are outrageous!" Estable enthuses. "It feels like a stock market. Except there is no risk." Rich Galichon, a 31-year-old computer consultant from New York, puts it more succinctly: "It's a quick diversion."
Diversionary, low-tech computer games like Dope Wars are all the rage these days, despite the hype over Hollywood-quality simulations and first-person shooters. For pedestrian, slowpoke surfers, a program like Bridge is a lot easier to download and manage than, say, Quake III. According to a report issued last month by Media Metrix, a technology research firm, 36.5 million people in the United States played Solitaire and other quick and easy mainstays last year.
For the upcoming version of Dope Wars, Wall promises to add jazzy skins for the on-screen interface, plus he's tweaking existing glitches so dealers can't cheat. And how does the original DOS developer of Dope Wars feel about Wall's piggybacked success? The elusive programmer has sent Wall a few congratulatory e-mails, but wishes to remain anonymous. "He's a respectable computer programmer," Wall says. "He doesn't want to be known for creating drug-dealing programs on the side."