The History of Computer Gaming Part 4 - The Text Is Mightier Than The Sword - by Marty "Retro Rogue" Goldberg

Arpanet and Adventure

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.

The original BBN IMP team. William Crowther is second from the right.

As a company, Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN) had been founded by two MIT professors in 1948 in Boston as an acoustic consultant company. They were involved in computer hardware research by the 1960's and made their most important contribution towards the end of that decade. Under contract with the government, they set out to research a method for finding a common link to allow various computers to communicate.

At the time, there was no standard communications method. Most computer manufacturers used their own proprietary methods for encoding data internally, and in some cases their own networking protocols as well. The situation resembled the problems railroad owners in the 1800's had, where owners built their tracks with different gauge tracks so that trains and their cars could only be made for a specific railroad line. The problem was solved when a standardized gauge was made mandatory.

A similar method was now being proposed by the government and BBN, whereby a separate smaller computer would act as an interface to the main computer and act as a translator. With these translators (referred to as Interface Message Processors or IMPs) acting as a go between for each various computer on the network, they would now be able to communicate in a common language. The IMPs would then translate the communications back to the native language of the computers they were representing. Because they not only "translated" but also took care of routing and other networking tasks, these IMPs were actually the forerunners of today's modern Internet routers and gateways as well.

The Honeywell 516R that served as the basis for the first IMP's. The R stood for ruggedized.
With a contract to build 4 of these IMPs, they decided to use the Honeywell 516R mini computer and modify it for their uses. The R stood for ruggedized, and they were only certified as such after being shaken, shocked, rocked side to side, frozen, baked, swept to a 10,000 foot altitude, and bombarded with sudden changes in power supply, voltage, and frequency. And thusly the Arpanet was born on October 1st 1969 when the first two IMPs (one connected to a computer at UCLA, the other connected to one at the Stanford Research Institute) communicated. Why is this important? With the eventual addition of more and more college campuses and research facilities to this new IMP based network by the mid 70's, and the creation of the TCP/IP protocol by the late 70's, the Arpanet eventually evolved in to what you now know as the Internet.

Ray Tomlinson, inventor of email and the use of the character @ for network address protocol.

By 1971, networked email was also invented at BBN when Ray Tomlinson wrote the first program to allow the sending of files between computers across a network (in this class the files were text files representing electronic messages). Ray also invented the use of the @ sign as the method for specifying the originating or receiving computer's address.

William Crowther.
One of the people involved in the Arpanet project was a man by the name of William Crowther. Described as an exceptional programmer, he was involved in writing the code that ran the IMPs themselves, as well as the original networking and routing software. When not coding at BBN however William was also an avid cave explorer, often going on extended trips to go spelunking with his wife Pat (also an employee at BBN). The two went so far as to use BBN's computers to map and catalog the various cave systems via a teletype in their living room and a program Pat wrote.

The Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, the inspiration for Adventure.

All this came to a stop however in 1972 when he and Pat began divorce proceedings and Pat left with the kids. In a state of depression caused by missing the constant interaction with his kids he previously enjoyed, William decided to do something to bring him closer and connect again.

"I had been involved in a non-computer role-playing game called Dungeons and Dragons at the time, and also I had been actively exploring in caves - Mammoth Cave in Kentucky in particular.

Suddenly, I got involved in a divorce, and that left me a bit pulled apart in various ways. In particular I was missing my kids.

Also the caving had stopped, because that had become awkward, so I decided I would fool around and write a program that was a re-creation in fantasy of my caving, and also would be a game for the kids, and perhaps some aspects of the Dungeons and Dragons that I had been playing.

My idea was that it would be a computer game that would not be intimidating to non-computer people, and that was one of the reasons why I made it so that the player directs the game with natural language input, instead of more standardized commands. My kids thought it was a lot of fun.
- William Crowther

BBN's PDP-10 where Ray Tomlinson invented email and William Crowther programmed Adventure from.

Using the Fortran programming language (the very first high level programming language, invented by John Backus in 1956 at IBM) and BBN's PDP-10 minicomputer, he set out to write the program. He provided imaginative yet accurate descriptions of the sites and sounds one would experience in reality by using many of the cave features and descriptions he and his former wife had cataloged over the years before.


- A description from the original Adventure. The game was in all capitalized letters because the PDP-10's bit structure only allowed for caps.

Upon the completion of the program later that year and the success of the program (the kids had enjoyed it as he mentioned) the game was subject to a unique prospect. Because it was programmed in a standardized high level (non system specific) language, and it's author had access to a one of a kind network of computers - it soon found it's way across the country a relatively blazing speed for the time. Most programs at that time were widely distributed by paper printouts of source code, or through distribution packs featuring collections of software (such as the previously mentioned Star Trek and Wumpus). William however, passed it to friends across the Arpanet (then up to a full 23 nodes which can be seen here) directly in it's Fortran source code text file format. They passed it to others and son on, and soon even computers not directly connected to the Arpanet had copies running on their system as well. The game became commonly referred to as advent (due to the often limited length of filenames on many computers back there) or Colossal Cave (because of it's reference to the cave), and it soon became a cult classic.

Don Woods, who expanded Adventure and put it in it's recognizable form.
In fact it was cross country in the California city of Stanford (home of one of the original IMPs) that a man by the name of Don Woods ran across Adventure and made the next important contribution to it.

It was the spring of 1976, and Don was doing research at Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence lab. The lab itself had been started when MIT professor John McCarthy (whom you'll remember from earlier in the series as one of the mentors to the original MIT hackers) moved to Stanford in 1962 to start it. Don had overheard another student talking about this interesting game someone had found on the Stanford Medical Center's computer. He asked the student to get him a copy of the game, which turned out to be the game Adventure. After playing it and seeing he'd like to expand it, he managed to contact William (whose name had been left in the program) and get his permission.

The version I found consisted mostly of exploration, with almost no puzzles. But I thought it was an interesting idea for a game, and wanted to tinker with it. The game mentioned Crowther as its author, so I sent mail to crowther@xxx for all hosts xxx on the Internet, which in those days was still very small - it was called the Arpanet then, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency. I got back several error messages from sites that had no person by that name, but did eventually hear from Crowther, who was by then at Xerox. He sent me the source for his program.

It was here that the game took a decidedly Tolkienesque (The Hobbit and Lord Of the Rings - soon to be released as a major motion picture trilogy) turn. With characters such as elves and trolls showing up, as well as increasingly more fantastic locations and fanciful names, Adventure took a decidedly more fantasy based spin. Even though Don denies the connection, this element certainly increased the attraction of the game and could be considered a sign of the times when fantasy novels and gaming were becoming extremely popular.

Tolkien was undoubtedly part of the inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons, and D&D and Tolkien were the inspiration for a role-playing game designed by Crowther and his co-workers in Massachusetts. And that role-playing game - which I believe they called Tales of Middle Earth - was part of what led Crowther to write Adventure. It sometimes surprises people to learn that, when I wrote my parts of Adventure, I had never played D&D or any other role-playing game. Someone eventually introduced me to role-playing because they had heard about Adventure and figured I'd enjoy role-playing - They were right! I had read Tolkien, but I didn't consciously use it as a model for anything. Even the description of the volcano, which some writers have claimed was modeled after Mount Doom, was written with no particular vision in mind.

Woods also expanded the game to include 350 points of interest now, and unleashed it to the Arpanet. This Crowther/Woods version became the standard version of Adventure that all later ports and expansions were based off of.

Later during the same year, a programmer by the name of Jim Gillogly came across the Crowther/Woods version while working at the Rand Corporation (where he still works to this day). Contacting both Woods and Crowther, he got permission to port the Fortran code in to a C language version.

C had been invented in 1971 by Kernhigan and Ritchie to support their "new" Unix operating system. Unix and C were fast becoming a powerful force in computers and the Arpanet, and would eventually become the driving force running most computers on the Internet. This important development solidified Adventure for distribution, and it's later porting to personal computers.

Though the Crowther/Woods version of Adventure became a standard (now commonly referred to as Adventure 2.0), many versions of it actually continued to be developed. A comprehensive family tree of the many Adventure's can be found here. In fact in 1995 Don Woods made a small "comeback" with Adventure 2.5, when he took the C source code and expanded that to include 430 points or "rooms". The most important influence to be felt by Adventure however, would occur in the late 1970's at MIT (and will be covered later in this series).

  • One man's experience coming face to face with an IMP.
  • The Rick Adams site dedicated to Adventure. Very complete, and includes downloads for almost every computer format.
  • Adventure was inducted in to GameSpy's hall of fame this past October. Read all about it here!
  • A collection of the many many versions of Adventure is available Here. All in source code format.
  • Even more Adventure goodness, with versions for many computers ready to run!
  • A walkthrough of Adventure by Beverly Schwartz, an employee of BBN.
  • Play adventureon the web!

NEXT:The first multi-player interactive network based game.....

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