The History of Computer Gaming Part 5 - PLATO Ain't Just Greek - by Marty "Retro Rogue" Goldberg

Interactive communities and Empires....

In 1967, Paul Tenczar (an Icthyologist turned computer programmer), set upon developing a powerful language for the PLATO system. Not content with the current programming languages, he set out to develop a high level language that anybody could use. The idea being a language which non-computer people can begin to learn, i.e. most educators at the time. He decided to call the language TUTOR (an obvious reference), and created a powerful graphics orientated high level language that continued to evolve over the years.

You can do the same things in TUTOR that you can do in Pascal, BASIC, C, etc....I have done many of them. Besides this, TUTOR has commands specifically designed for answer judging and response handling. While some of us occasionally curse the q/a routines, they allow very sophisticated interactions between lesson author and student.

- Norman D. Hinton

A PLATO terminal room circa 1972.

TUTOR provided the programming language needed to create highly interactive, graphically orientated programs. Another words it was perfect for games. The first major game that appeared on PLATO was a 2 player SpaceWar written by Rick Blomme. Though all the PLATO terminals were located in a single classroom at this time, by the time the transition to the PLATO IV system began in 1972 (which could eventually support up to 1000 users at various locations across the country) the game became a truly network based multiplayer game.

By 1973, a succession of multiplayer games were inspiring one another. The PLATO system was an open system, and many games were continuously written, deleted, rewritten and added to.

Dogfight, is one of the earliest. A 2d based game with plane icons, every person interested in fighting would appear as icons on a big board page. You'd choose one person and go off with them to the fight page and proceed to do battle with them complete with overhead icon representations of your plane and shots.

Silas Warner
In April of 1973, the largest multiplayer game for many years to come was begun. John Daleske, was at the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts in Ames, Iowa when he stumbled across PLATO. It was soon after starting his game called Empire that he ran across Silas Warner, an Undergraduate Assistant at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN., on the system. Silas had been in charge of Bloomington's PLATO site development, and was himself an already well known PLATO programmer. He also wrote "HELP", the standard introduction to PLATO, and trained faculty and student programmers in PLATO.

I was sitting in a hallway and an inspiration event occured. This is no different than the eureka inspiration events any other creative artist, scientist, writer, etc. would have. The event, lasting a few minutes, was special in that I often had to work somewhat harder at being creative. The design for Empire just popped in, if you will. I had played all the (few) games on PLATO at that time, April 1973. They were Big-Board, challenge games. I had played simulation and tactics board games and the multi-player design for Empire came to me. I was taking an Education class at the time which is what had afforded me access to the two PLATO terminals on campus. We each had some project to do for the class and I had been working on a different one. When the PLATO terminals were installed, I was first on campus. I explored every nook of the system, all the lessons I could find, and the games. Five days later is when the design for Empire came to me. I scrapped my other project and got approval to do something on PLATO instead. I did not know how to obtain lessons and had just run across Silas, so he worked it out to have a lesson started. I did the entire first version myself, up to the point where the game was playable before Silas got involved. So, in one sense, I created the first version entirely myself, but I did have support from Silas. He did review the game for playability and gave comments and suggestions, but I did all the coding.

- John Daleske

Castle Wolfenstien on the Apple II

If Silas's name rings a bell to some of you, it's because he is best known for being the author of Castle Wolfenstien on the Apple II with the company he co-founded: Muse Software.

The game known as Empire, was based on Star Trek and supported up to 32 players at once! After some expansion by Chuck Miller and G. Fritz in 1974 it became the defining multiplayer game that would be a major influence for years to come. Former PLATO programmer Don Gillies provides a description:

Empire is the game to end all games. It is played on roughly a 60x60 universe of "quadrants", you fly through a quadrant in about 10 seconds, in real-time. Your view is a 3x3 long-range scan. You screen replots to update your location every 10 seconds, but you can hit a key to get an early partial update.
The universe is laid out like a 5-spot dice, there are home planets in the four corners (Klingon, Orion, Federation, Romulan). Each home system has 3 planets and a sun. In the center of the dice-like universe is a system of about 6 planets / suns. Also, there are two "dead planets" halfway between each home space.
You have typical weapons (phasers, photon torpedos), long-range and short-range scans. Your ship is a 16x16 icon that looks like the real thing from startrek. You can fly or fire in any direction, but the ship plots only in the cursor directions (d e w q a z x c) because its displayed with a limited set of loadable charsets. Everything - phasers, movement, torpedo travel - is performed in discrete real time. There is no animation, but you can take an updated snapshot any time by hitting a keypress.

Your goal is to drop armies on every planet in the universe. When this happens, the game ends and the team is declared the winner. If you get killed, you can go straight back into the game, which will place you someplace in your home space with few enemies. You can pick up armies from your home planet, take them to another planet, bombard the planet to kill armies, then drop your armies to overtake the planet. If your homespace is taken over, you can bombard the planets and then attmpt a "coup" to reignite your home team armies. The coup can only be attempted about once per hour, and it often fails.
Empire was a MIND BLOWING game. It had 3 million contact hours before 1980. Think about it. PLATO only had 1000 terminals. So, there were only something like 9M contact hours in a PLATO-year.

Empire continued to be expanded over the years, and currently survives under it's newer name - Netrek.

1973 was also the year two influential Dungeon exploring games made their appearance on the PLATO system. The first, was a port of the original DND game by Daniel Lawrence in 1972 on a DEC system. Ported by Flint and Dirk Pellett, the game was a popular role-playing game with a 3 x 3 overhead view of each dungeon area. A similar game by the name of Orthanc (by Paul Resch, Larry Kemp and Eric Hagstrom) appeared as well - with a unique feature. Though still a single player game, it allowed other people running it to meet and talk in the dungeon. Both were the first role-playing games to have actual graphics beyond simple terminal character/ASCII most often seen at that time. These games would go on to influence the design of many games to come.

By 1974, work was started on what is currently considered the first First-Person-Shooter 3D Multiplayer Networked Game. Yes, it used a first person 3D perspective and it was networked for up to 32 players. The game, called SPASIM, was written by Jim Bowery. He began work on "spasim" (I naively intended for it to be pronounced "space sim" but players of the game quickly christened it "spasm") while helping University of Iowa art professor Leif Brush establish that institution's first computer art class in January of 1974. The university had just had a few PLATO IV terminals installed. Jim immediately became infatuated with PLATO:

The experience of PLATO was radically different from almost any other computing environment of the time. Lots of people had ideas of course, but no one had actually turned those ideas into a highly interactive graphical community. Instead of punch cards, teletypes or even video screens with virtual card decks, PLATO had a graphical program editor with single key-press execution, dynamic debugger and an adaptive automated help request system that fed into an online support staff in real time. The coupling with the real-time availability of people online to help you get going meant it was really easy to get up to speed on PLATO - indeed it was easier in many ways than getting up to speed on Internet facilities of comparable complexity today. The educational purpose of the PLATO system was successfully leveraged in bringing lots of new authors up to speed fast.

Jim eventually came in to contact with people like Empire creator John Daleske and Charles Miller (who would create a later influential game), who both helped him in his programming development. It was Empire in fact, that inspired Jim to make his game a 32 player game with a Star Trek theme. Jim then asked around the University's Lindquist Center for 3D perspective programs and managed to obtain an old FORTRAN card deck that turned out to be written by Ron Resch a pioneer in 3D graphics and virtual reality.

At first, the space consisted of a few simple geometric wire frames but within a few days progressed to 3D representations of Empire's 2D space ships. I then made it possible to move around them as the first person with single key strokes (the qweadzxc octa-directional keys for altitude and azimuth and + and - for acceleration and deceleration) while others looked on from their vantage points in Spasim space.

-Jim Bowery

The game soon garnered a following after it's initial release. This version was a simple team-based phasers-and-photon-torpedos Star Trek-type game, mixed with multi-player first-person-shooter dynamics. Movement was entered in polar coordinates, but were calculated in Cartesian coordinates. By July of 1974, the second version was released. It included more strategy, including space stations and active resource management. The object of the second version of the game was to try to avoid going to war with other players and perhaps even cooperate to get to a far off planet where you could obtain enormous amounts of extraterrestrial resources. If you went to war, or you just flew around admiring the constellations, you could suffer the dread "PLANETARY PROLETARIATE REVOLT" during which you would watch, helplessly, as your planet's population and resource-base met with disaster. Though less popular than the first version, it still was a popular game that was way ahead of it's time.

NEXT:More influences and Plato's other legacies....

Comments? Take them to the Forums or Mail us!

Hosted by uCoz