So how did the concept of online gaming come about in the first place? In this section, we will cover some ground on when and how did online games finally evolve to what they are today.
One of the people that helped start it all
For some strange reason, there is this impression in the general public that online gaming began sometime in 1994 or 1995 with Doom and Warcraft.
This is not true at all, but none of us should be surprised at this kind of myopia. For most members of the general public, the online world didn't exist until the Internet started to explode in 1993 and online games didn't exist until publishers started adding Internet connectivity to computer games in 1994-95. The press hasn't been much help,mainly because most of the press is ignorant about the history of onlinegaming. As far as they are concerned, online gaming just coincidentally happened when their advertisers started producing Internet-capable games.
However, the world of online gaming started about 1969. Yes, that's the 1969 that happened 31 years ago. I thought it fitting, in this 31st anniversary year of the industry, to post a time line with some of the major events in online gaming, just to give us all a sense of scope about the industry.
|1969||Rick Blomme writes a two-player version of MIT's famous Spacewar for the PLATO service. PLATO was one of the first time-sharing systems dedicated to experimenting with new ways to use computers for education. Originally built in the late 1960's at the University of Illinois/Urbana, it blossomed into a system that, by about 1972, could host about 1,000 simultaneous users.|
|1970-1977||Several more games appeared on the PLATO service. Multi player games that appeared on PLATO include a version of Star Trek, a "Dungeons and Dragons" style game named Avatar which later became the genesis of the first Wizardry! PC game and a flight simulator named Airfight.|
|1979||Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle head up development of the first working Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) on the DEC-10 at the Essex University, Colchester, UK.|
|1979-1980||Various versions of the Essex mud are released on the university's mainframe. In 1980, what is now considered the "classic" mud is installed and runs for nine years. Eventually, the popularity of the game with hackers and non-hackers alike causes computer resources to be eaten at a tremendous rate and the university restricts playing time to the evening hours.|
|1982-1983||Although the mud code is copyrighted, Richard Bartle is pretty liberal about sharing it with other colleges and universities for education purposes. Someone at one of those institutions starts passing around the source code to friends. By the end of 1983, hundreds of illegal copies have been distributed around the world, starting the free access mud craze at universities and, eventually, on the Internet.|
|1982||Kesmai Corporation (http://www.gamestorm.com/company/) is formed by John Taylor and Dr. Kelton Flinn and receives its first contract, to develop an ASCII text role-playing game for CompuServe. The game would later launch as Islands of Kesmai. Bill Louden, in charge of games at CompuServe, buys an ASCII space combat simulator called DECwars on DEC mainframe computer tape for $50.00. He hands it off to Kesmai and it eventually launches as MegaWars I.|
|1983||Kesmai launches MegaWars I on CompuServe. Finally closed down in 1998, it was the longest-running for-pay online game in history. That honor now resides with the current incarnation of the Trubshaw/Bartle mud, MUD II (http://www.mud2.com/).|
The first commercial version of mud is released on CompuNet in England. "Islands of Kesmai" was released on CompuServe. The game will run for approximately thirteen years and will eventually spawn a graphics-based version, Legends of Kesmai, which is available today on AOL and Gamestorm. The price to play in 1984: About $12 an hour.
Mark Jacobs forms the company that will eventually become AUSI and then Mythic Entertainment (http://www.mythicgames.com/). He sets up a server system in his house
|1985||Bill Louden convinces General Electric's Information Services division to fund a commercial, ASCII-based service similar to CompuServe, using the evening hours excess capacity on GEIS's mainframe computers. Named GEnie by Bill's wife (GE Network for Information Exchange), it premiers in October to much hoopla. It is the first serious competition to CompuServe; price in the evening hours is $6 an hour for both 1200 and 300bps. This is half of CompuServe's price for 1200bps access. In November, Quantum Computer Services (later to rename itself America Online) quietly launches QuantumLink, a graphics-based online service exclusively for Commodore 64/128 users. The price is $9.95 a month, plus about $5 an hour. QuantumLink's graphic interface is a watershed in online services but, because the C-64/128 is already on the wane, no one seems to pay much attention. This will turn out to be a huge mistake on the part of competitors. The Golden Age of the online services begins.|
Kesmai rewrites MegaWars I, files off the serial numbers and launches it on GEnie as Stellar Warrior. It is GEnie's first multiplayer online game; it is not the last.
Jessica Mulligan, working as a volunteer librarian in the Apple II RoundTable on GEnie, finds Stellar Warrior. After her account is turned off by GEnie three times for playing too much, she snags a contract to write a combined Chat-based/Email-based space strategy game. The Rim Worlds War launches at mid-year; it is the first Play-By-Email (PBEM) game on a commercial online service.
Kesmai begins pre-alpha testing of Air Warrior, a WWII combat flight simulator and the first true graphics-based Massively Multiplayer Game, on GEnie. The Macintosh version is demonstrated on multiple terminals at the GEnie booth at the West Coast Computer Faire in early 1986 in San Francisco. The 20,000 attendees are wowed.
QuantumLink begins testing Rabbit Jack's Casino, the second graphics-based online game in the commercial online services industry. In conjunction with LucasFilms, development on Habitat begins.
Steve Case from Quantum Computer Services begins camping out in Cupertino, CA, trying to get John Sculley to allow Apple Computers, Inc. to support a graphics-based online service for Apple II computers. After over 200 days of persistent nagging, Sculley finally agrees.
Air Warrior is released on GEnie early in the year and Rabbit Jack's Casino is released on QuantumLink.
Kesmai's file scraping worked so well for Stellar Warrior, they strip the serial numbers from MegaWars III and launch it as Stellar Emperor on GEnie.
After working with the private BBS-based role-playing and gaming service, Spectre, David Whately sells his idea for a text-based online game to GEnie. Gemstone goes into alpha testing late in the year and what will become Simutronics Corporation is born.
A stripped-down version of mud launches on CompuServe as British Legends.
Quantum Computer Services hires Kent Fillmore, President of International Apple Core, Inc., to start recruiting sysops for it's upcoming Apple II only service, AppleLink-Personal Edition. He recruits and contracts with Jessica Mulligan to manage the Apple II Games Forum.
The original Gemstone role-playing game is launched on GEnie as Gemstone II. Over the next two years, this text-based game will surpass Air Warrior as the most popular game on GEnie.
Quantum Computer Services launches AppleLink: Personal Edition for Apple II computers at the May AppleFest Convention in Boston. It also turns down both of AUSI's games, Aradath and Galaxy II, for its online services, saying it doesn't want to get into text-based games. Eight years later, it will reverse this decision and sign on both Gemstone III and Dragon's Gate, the commercial version of Aradath, after realizing they left millions of dollars on the table for GEnie and CompuServe to snap up.
Jessica Mulligan, now a Quantum Computer Services employee, writes a white paper on the gaming industry and recommends that Quantum license the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game from TSR, Inc. It does so, and AD&D: NeverWinter Nights is born, based on SSI's Gold Box series of AD&D games. Once launched, NeverWinter Nights will run continuously for several years, even though the technology of the graphics interface is hopelessly outdated. In it's last year of existence as a for-pay game, 1996, it will rake in an estimated $5 million dollars.
Bill Louden hires Jessica Mulligan as GEnie's first dedicated games product manager and gives her virtual carte blanche to sign up more online games.
GEnie signs AUSI's Galaxy II, a real-time space strategy game. On launch, it immediately becomes the third most popular game on GEnie, behind Air Warrior and Gemstone.
GEnie licenses the venerable Diplomacy board game from Avalon Hill and contracts with AUSI's Mark Jacobs and UNIX/Open Source guru Eric Raymond to develop an online game, based on Raymond's existing UNIX version of the game. GEnie launches A-Maze-ing, a Macintosh based 3D maze combat game similar to the Amiga-based computer game MidiMaze. This is the first online 3D "shooter," it will not be the last.
Quantum Computer Services more or less de-emphasizes online games after launching development of NeverWinter Nights, even though they have several in development, including a helicopter flight simulator from Sierra, a version of Hangman from Broderbund and a working version of the wildly popular board game Cosmic Encounter. Only Hangman sees the light of day.
GEnie signs AUSI to develop a text based role playing game. It will eventually become Dragon's Gate, which is still available today on AOL.
GEnie signs Activision and Kesmai Corporation to develop an online version of the MechWarrior 3D 1st person computer game.
Diplomacy Online launches on GEnie.
GEnie signs with strategy game legend Jim Dunnigan to develop The Hundred Years' War for the service. Dunnigan delivers the definitive turn-based online strategy game, allowing up to 300 players to relive the medieval war as French, English and other European noble families in campaigns that can last for over 400 real-time days.
GEnie begins negotiating with Origin Systems to develop an online version of Ultima, to be called Multima, and introduces them to Kesmai as the prospective developer.
GEnie signs with Clem Chambers and Alan Lenton to bring the British-based space trading and adventure game Federation II to the service. It launches late in the year and rapidly becomes quite popular.
CompuServe signs with Spectrum Holobyte to develop an online version of the Falcon F-16 flight simulator. It will remain in development for years, including working versions shown in 1991 and 1992, but will never be released to the public. CompuServe offers no explanation.
GEnie signs with Simutronics, John Weaver of RS Cards and Scott Hartsman (now a VP at Engage) to convert the Gemstone III code into a persona-based chat system, a sort of role playing game with no rules. Named ImagiNation, it launches into beta later that year. GE's lawyers forget to trademark the name, an omission that will come back to haunt them.
GEnie begins an experiment called Basic Services, in which about 25 percent of all products on the service, including message boards and chat, are offered for a flat monthly rate of $8.95. It is so successful that, on the first day of flat-rate service, so many people attempt to log in simultaneously at the 6pm start time that the entire GEnie service crashes. It is a precursor to what will happen tp AOL when it changes to a flat rate service in December, 1996. History repeats itself. Again.
Dragon's Gate launches on GEnie in February and rapidly moves into the top three game spot on the service, alternating on a monthly basis with number two Air Warrior.
Testing the waters with the competition, Origin Systems begins negotiating with Quantum/AOL to develop the Ultima online game. Origin closes negotiations with GEnie and begins negotiating an agreement with Quantum. The deal eventually falls through and the Multima project goes on the back burner for several years.
Ken Williams, CEO of Sierra Online, announces the upcoming Sierra Network, designed to be a private online gaming dial-in service to feature Sierra products.
Founder Bill Louden leaves GEnie after seven years as general manager. This is the beginning of the end for GEnie.
MPG-Net, a privately owned company funded by wealthy online games enthusiast Jim Hettinger (now CEO of iEN), launches a new dial-in gaming service with The Kingdom of Drakkar, a top-down view graphic role playing game. It rapidly becomes popular, signing up more than 3,000 players who pay between $3 and $5 an hour for access.
GEnie launches CyberStrike from Simutronics. It is Simutronics' first foray into graphics-based games, going head-to-head in competition with Multiplayer BattleTech from Kesmai.
Quantum Computer Services integrates its Macintosh, Apple II and PC services into one service, renames that service America Online, renames the company America Online, Inc. and goes public.
The Sierra Network, Sierra Online's foray into online gaming, launches with a flat-rate subscription model of $14.95 per month. The only content is a series of such wildly exciting two- to four-player games as Nine Man's Morris. Subscriptions are few and far between. Over the next two years, TSN will try many pricing schemes until its pricing structure is more complicated than a Rube Goldberg device, and will rename itself the ImagiNation Network (INN) when it realizes GE forgot to trademark the name.
The Golden Age of the proprietary, closed loop online services such as CompuServe and AOL is already ending. Although there will continue to be good growth for two to three more years, a project originally funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is about to change the way everyone in the world communicates and exchanges information. This change does not include room for proprietary online services. The Golden Age only lasted about six years.
At the end of 1992, there are an estimated 3 to 10 million homes that actively use modems to subscribe to online services. The range is so wide because no one has really been keeping an accurate count. The top five services, in order of publicized subscriber numbers, are Prodigy, CompuServe, America Online, GEnie and Delphi.
On university mainframe computers around the world, students are constructing muds and inviting other students to log in and have some fun. By the end of 1992, there will be over 50 muds available on the old DARPA-Net, a distributed network mainly used by academics and government research agencies.
Computer game publishers are experimenting with multiplayer products. There are several instances of two-player, modem-to-modem games, including Empire, Perfect General, Falcon, Command HQ and Fire Fight. Now, they are adding LAN/IPX code on top of TCP/IP protocols to games in an attempt to move up to four and even eight players.
Commercially, there are about 14 to 16 for-pay multiplayer games available on the online services, with another eight or nine in development. The total gross income of all of them together amounts to between $10 and $15 million annually. There are also a wide range of trivia and word jumble games available, including NTN Trivia on GEnie and variously homegrown word and trivia games run in chat sections by interested subscribers.
DARPA-Net is now increasingly known to the public as the Internet. It has become open to commercial enterprises, even though the great majority of the users are still government employees, contractors, university students, instructors and researchers. Small local companies, many of which used to provide one to 16 line BBSes, are now becoming Internet Service Providers, as well. By the end of 1993, there may be as many as 4 million Internet users; no one is really keeping a count at this point, because few people really care. The press starts to pick up on the phenomena and starts to talk up the Internet.
The World Wide Web, an innovation by Tim Berners-Lee of CERN, is still a text-based toy for students and interested researchers. However, some university students, including some unknown geek named Marc Andressen, are trying to change all that with a graphic interface named MOSAIC. The online services are still pretty much unaware of the Internet as a commercial opportunity. Their subscribers can't access the Internet via the service and the overall subscriber numbers are still pretty small - maybe 6 million or so active subscribers. By the end of the year, with Internet use beginning to skyrocket, they will all start paying very close attention.
In mid-1993, Prodigy goes from flat rate to hourly charges of about $3 an hour, causing a huge customer backlash. Smelling blood, AOL and then GEnie lower their rates to $3, too and the price war begins. As usual, CompuServe chooses to ignore the price war. This is the first in a line of major errors that will end up with them being owned by AOL in four years.
In the computer game industry, the trend is in modem and LAN connectivity to allow two players to compete against each other. Isolated instances occasionally allow 4 player to participate. More and more games are shipped to retail with modem code built in. For the most part, 1993 is a pretty dull year for massively multiplayer games on the online services. Simutronics formally released CyberStrike on Genie, Red Baron and Shadow of Yserbius, and RPG, picked up steam on INN and MPG-Net started to add some small games to complement their RPG, Drakkar. The price drop to an average $3 an hour did do wonders for use of games on GEnie and AOL; usage of most games rose to between 1.5 and 2 times what it was before. With all the above taken together as a whole, however, 1993 was the watershed year for multiplayer gaming. The groundwork and infrastructure was laid for explosion to come. And, man, did it come!
The singular ground-breaking title this year is Doom from id Software. Other great titles were released this year (including Warcraft by Blizzard, which will slowly build the real-time strategy niche into a large one, too) and the actual publication date of Doom was December 10, 1993, but who cares? This is the game that put first-person shooters on the map and virtually created a brand new section of the computer games industry. Most appealing was the addition of LAN code to allow 4 players to connect and happily frag each other. Both Doom and Doom II are showered with just about every game and technical achievement award in existence.
Late in the year, the guys at id will start hearing a new refrain: "Please add TCP/IP so we can play this across the Internet!" After Doom II is released in October, they begin to oblige. They also start pondering an interesting thought: What if we built Internet connectivity in our next game?
Jim Clark, who made Silicon Graphics a billion dollar company, has recruited Andressen and pals to form Netscape and make the MOSAIC code into something more useful for viewing the World Wide Web. The first version of Netscape Navigator is released late in the year an is an immediate smash success. The web is now somewhat useful for even relatively unsophisticated computer users.
Traditional media companies are starting to get the idea that online gaming is going to be big someday. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp buys ace multiplayer game developer Kesmai Corporation for an unknown price. AT&T buys INN from Sierra Online for an estimated $50 million.
By this time, AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy all offer some Internet content to their subscribers. This consists mostly of access to USEnet newsgroups, gopher and, oh yeah, something called the World Wide Web. Main result: AOL's unsophisticated customers head out onto the newsgroups and get soundly slaughtered for violating every posting protocol on the Internet.
Id begins openly testing Quake, an improved version of Doom with some Internet server and play capability built in. It's like giving heroin to an addict; gamers want more, and id gives it to them. This open testing process proves to be a PR bonanza; this isn't building buzz, it's building demand for a product into a homicidal frenzy. Everyone and his grandmother seems to be developing an FPS or RTS game. Clones of Doom and Warcraft are being published on nearly a monthly basis. Descent and Command and Conquer build large audiences of their own. By some estimates, over 300 text-based muds are now available on the Internet, almost all of them free of charge.
Gemstone III goes live on AOL late in the year and immediately builds a following. It is soon followed by several Kesmai games, including perennial favorite Air Warrior. Hasbro and Westwood release a Internet-capable version of Monopoly. Four years later, it is still a top 20 seller.
Quake is formally released and the boys from id have changed the world again. In almost no time at all, Quake servers start appearing all over the world. On some nights, over 80,000 people will be fragging each other in 10,000+ simultaneous game sessions. After getting a taste, players want more. Lots more. By the end of the year, about 20 titles will have Internet connectivity in some form or another. Three years later, at the end of 1999, Microsoft's Gaming Zone alone will offer 118 Internet-playable titles. At the Electronic Entertainment Exposition in May, Origin Systems demonstrates an early pre-Alpha test version of a little game called Ultima Online. It excites some modest interest.
AOL buys INN from AT&T for about 20 percent of what AT&T paid Sierra Online for it a couple years previously, proving once again that AT&T couldn't market immortality if it had an exclusive.
In December, AOL switches from an hourly to charge to a flat rate of $19.95 a month, which proves to be so popular it gives new meaning to the phrase, "Can't get there from here." The pricing also includes access to the massively multiplayer games on the service; players rejoice as AOL's margin fall through the floor.
Origin releases Ultima Online for play across the Internet. Despite massive problems with bugs and lag, the game has over 50,000 paying customers within three months. The game proves there is a large audience of gamers waiting for MMRPGs.
Henceforth, the Modern Era of Online Gaming begins.