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.
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.
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.
Silas's name rings a bell to some of you, it's because he is
best known for being the author of
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.
Empire continued to be expanded over the years,
and currently survives under it's newer name -
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.
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
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.
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.