The History of Computer Gaming Part 5 - PLATO Ain't Just Greek - by Marty "Retro Rogue" Goldberg
More influences and PLATO's other legacies....
was during the design of the first version that another game
was designed that was to have a huge impact. Silas Warner had
asked to take a look at the Spasim code, and within two weeks
had modified it in to the first 3D airplane/flight simulator
known as Airace (short for Air Race). Showing a 3D cockpit
view of the horizon and other players as you raced, the game
became an even bigger hit than Spasim. Silas however, was to
unknowingly spawn an entire industry with his program. By late
'74/early '75 a PLATO programmer by the name of Kevin Gorey
had been inspired by Silas' code, and decided to write a
similar game that allowed you to fight in the fashion of the
2D game Dogfight. The game Airfight was born, a 3-D real-time
flight simulator with 3-D views of horizon & airport &
enemy. It was this game that University of Illinois student
(and amateur pilot) Bruce Artwick saw, and inspired him with
his thesis on "A versatile computer-generated dynamic flight
display". Part of the thesis had been to write a similar
flight simulator on a 6800 based microcomputer - the first
such microcomputer based simulator. Airfight proved it was not
only possible to model such a thing on a dedicated system, but
also gave him graphical direction.
In late 1978, some students (I was not able to obtain their names, feel free to email them to me if you know) began work on a game that was being called "The Oubliette Buster". The first versions was released in late 1979, and the entire project took a full 3 to 4 years to fully develop. What they wound up creating was the most successful game ever on PLATO, and a multi-player dungeon game that many still strive to excel to in features and standards. That game was Avatar. The students pulled out all the stop on it by using Oubliette as a starting point, not simply as a level to beat. It can best be described as a fully graphical D&D based MUD (Multi User Dungeon) system.
The dungeon consisted of 15 square levels 30x30 each. Inter-player communication and interaction is fully supported, including the exchange of items and gold. They stocked the dungeons with an even larger array of magic items, monsters, and spells that to be cast, outdoing Oubliette in sheer variety and volume. The game also automatically repopulates it's monsters every 15 minutes. A feature common in modern MUD's, playersu can be 'quested' for a monster or item, which means that you are required to defeat that monster or find that item to raise your character to another level. Like Oubliette, you can also run in groups or individually. They also added a resurrection feature where dead players can be carried back up to the morgue, where a fee could then be paid for a raise (loss of constitution stat). As in D&D, certain classes of characters can cast resurrection spells as well.
PLATO's Other Legacies
To be sure, PLATO was on the forefront of computer gaming technology in the 1970's. However, due to the very nature of it's purpose and design, it was also on the forefront of a lot of other areas. Some of the most gifted programmers on PLATO were actually children, which was able to occur because PLATO was an educational system. One of the most important was a 16 year old by the name of David Wooley.
David came to the labs in 1972 as a 16 year old university student and junior system programmer. After wetting his hands for a year, he was given a project by TUTOR creator Paul Tenczar (who was also the head of the system software staff at this time). Paul wanted David to write a program that would allow multiple people to report bugs online at one time. The current method was to write to a common file called NOTES, that anyone could write to but only one at a time. This also meant the file was not protected and could be deleted by anyone, and there was no way of recording who added what to the file either. Paul wanted David to write an actual program that would automatically tag an entry with the date and the user's ID and store it safely in a tamper-proof file. The same program would allow convenient viewing of the stored notes. Each entry would appear on a split screen, with the user's note on the top half and the system staff's response below.
It occurred to me that half a screen might not be enough space for some notes. And that some problems might require back-and- forth conversation between a user and the system staff. A limit of one response per note wouldn't permit much dialog. I came up with a design that allowed up to 63 responses per note, and displayed each response by itself on a separate screen. Responses were chained together in sequence after a note, so that each note could become the starting point of an ongoing conversation. This is what John Quarterman calls a star-structured conferencing system, and PLATO Notes was apparently the first of its kind
When it was released on August
7th, 1973, PLATO Notes became the first graphical conference
system of it's kind. Features that would not again be seen
until the world wide web sprang in to action, and web based
conferences sprung up (such as our own star based
About this time, a few people began to ask for private notesfiles. We had all seen how useful Notes was for discussing development of PLATO itself. Couldn't the concept be extended to allow any small group of people working on a project to communicate among themselves? In fact, a group in Chicago that was using PLATO to develop pharmaceutical courseware wrote a clone of Notes for their own use. Suddenly the future clicked into focus. I abandoned the categories project and began to implement Group Notes.
And thus was born Group
Notes. There could now be an unlimited number of notes files,
and users would be able to create private work group files. By
distributing notes across many files, he solved the technical
problems of dealing with large volumes of information. The
60-category limit thusly vanished. The burden of managing
notes files would be distributed, as well; no longer would the
system staff have to oversee everything. Notes would also now
be organized by subject, as so many people had insisted.
Released in January, 1976, use of this new version of Notes
exploded. Soon there were public notes files for subjects like
books, movies, religion, music, and science fiction, as well
as many private notes files for work groups. Does this all
sound familiar as well? That's because this was the precursor
to the Usenet and it's many newsgroups.
The original Urbana based PLATO system as well, while it continued to grow and enjoy strong support during the 80's, was loosing it's edge as mainframe technology became obsolete. In the early 90's, the mainframe based PLATO system at Urbana was gutted and replaced. The old technology abandoned in favor of more personal computer orientated technology. It was renamed
While the original PLATO network is no more, it's contributions live on in the games of today as well as the many applications it inspired such as Lotus Notes, Notesfiles, the tin newsreader, TenCORE, and Macromedia's Authorware.
For the many devoted users of PLATO over the years though, it's a sad and bittersweet ending.
"I was given a tour of the Chemistry Learning Center today, to a room where there had been PLATO terminals. The cable for the terminals was literally hanging from the wall, the terminals have been replaced by IBM PCs, and the students were using the Web. With PLATO, if you asked a question, you got an answer back in less than a second. If you ask a question on the Web, it can take as long as 15 or 20 seconds to get your answer, while the Net clunks away. The students were falling asleep. I asked myself, 'Is this progress?'"