Back in early 1986 I was in college, I had a job that paid the bills with a lot left over for fun (at least it seemed like a lot back then), an Apple //e, a 1200bps modem I bought from my friend Dennis, and a desire for a new gaming experience.At the time CompuServe, The Source, Delphi, and GEnie were all offering some sort of online gaming, but only GEnie and CompuServe had games that sounded good to me. I chose GEnie because they had the bargain basement connection price of $5 per hour (non-peak hours only!) while CompuServe was charging $6 per hour for 1200 bps (less for 300 bps, more for faster), a monthly minimum charge, plus a surcharge for dialing in from my location through another service.$5 per hour! So think about that next time you bitch about $15 a month for an MMO.
The game that appealed to me was Stellar Emperor (SE) by Kesmai. (Had I chosen CompuServe, it would have been MegaWars III, which was the same game.)
I set up my GEnie account one Friday night, found my way to the SE menu and entered the game.
I was assigned the number 2451. Each player had a number assigned. You also put a name in with your number. The name could be changed, but the number was associated with your account. To change it you had to leave your account inactive for a set period of time (90 or 120 days as I recall) and then you could start again and be assigned a new number.
I chose the name Wilhelm because I happened to have Hogan’s Heroes on in the background while I was logging in and I had just heard Werner Klemperer announce to somebody that he was “Colonel Wilhelm Klink, Commandant of Stalag 13!”
This is why my handle on the blog is Wilhelm2451. It represents my first online gaming name. (In game it would have shown up as “2451 Wilhelm” but whatever.)
Stellar Emperor, which began commercial development in 1981, had some things any MMO player will recognize.
– A persistent universe. The game kept going when you logged off.
– Guilds. Well, teams, but effectively the same thing.
– Public and private chat channels. You could have three channels active. The channels were numbered from 1-999. Channel 1 was the universal channel, everybody kept that live. Then your team could grab a channel and use that for private communication.
– Direct tells to players for private messages.
– A trade skill of sorts (planetary management)
A game of Stellar Emperor lasted four weeks.
The first night of the game was the busiest. You might find 100+ players on at once. The galaxy was laid out into sectors with each sector containing a number of stars. The stars, each identified by a number, remained in their positions from game to game. The planets around those stars changed from game to game. On the first night people would scout the star systems looking for planets to colonize.
Each player was allowed six planets. Planets had two attributes, habitability and metal content, both on a 1-100 scale. You wanted both to be as close to 100 as possible. You and your team would divide up the galaxy and begin scouting the 1200+ star systems.
There were text files available of each of the sectors and the stars they contained. These were a requirement as the stars were not numbered in any order, so if you tried to scout them in order, you would spend most of your time traveling across the galaxy.
Travel, while not slow compared to EVE Online, still took time, so even in scouting a sector you would try to choose an efficient path from star to star. We would all note where the decent planets were in our sectors, especially those already occupied by members of other teams, and we would try to find six good planets for ourselves.
You had to grab your planets on the first night if you wanted to have a chance of winning the game. On a 99 habitability rated planet even a few hours lost could change your final score enough to drop you a couple of pegs in the ranking.
There was a scoreboard that was updated once a day. For the first week or so, it reflected kills made by individual pilots. You could attack any other ship and get points for kills, but in the end, the scores for planets are what decided the game. Still, there were people game for combat, especially on the first night when everybody was out in scouts. One player who went by the name Berserker (ship ID 7020 as I recall) who wrote a fighting program for the game that was viciously efficient. You would have to gang up on him with three or four other ships to kill him. So here it is 1986 and we already have botting.
Later in the game, as people built shipyards, score began to reflect ship size. Only in the last half of the game would planet scores begin to take over. You had to be careful not to let your score spike too soon. Other teams probably scouted the locations of your planet so they could take them away from you if they looked good enough.
Planetary management, planetary defense, and planetary take overs were all arts unto themselves.
And did I mention that all of this was played in text on a screen that was 80 columns wide at 24 rows tall? No ANSI color even, just plain, scrolling text.
Further notes about Stellar Emperor can be found by clicking on the tag or going here. I also wrote a bit about Stellar Warrior and Air Warrior, which were also games on GEnie back in the day.