Syp, in his role as the Game Archeologist over at Massively, has not one but two GREAT posts up about one of the early powers in online gaming, Kesmai.
Granted, my enthusiasm for Kesmai is such that even a favorable passing reference to them gets you to at least one thumbs up. But here we have two posts full of details and memories.
His first article covers the Island of Kesmai, one of the early ancestors to modern MMOs, created in parallel to MUD1, while the second article covers the life of the company with a heavy focus on their game Air Warrior.
And while I could complain about his failure to mention MegaWars III and Stellar Emperor (a game I won at one point) along with some other titles, like Stellar Warrior, I think I will just join his nostalgia parade by adding in my own memories of Air Warrior. All that comes after this could have been his for his article if only he had talked to me… and when you read it… if you read it… you’ll have to decide if that is a warning against ever talking to me!
I have mused a bit on Air Warrior in the past. Now I am going to try and dig deep into the recesses of my brain for really old tales.
I will say up front, to avoid repeating it with every entry, that these are all “as I recall it” memories, many of which I am sure have been distorted by the passage of time. Some of them are, no doubt, flat out wrong.
These are thing that happened from 1988 to 1990 in my personal timeline and involve the original versions of Air Warrior running on GEnie. If your own personal time frame is different, think a minute before you tell me, “Oh no, that is not the way it was!” This isn’t Air Warrior II or Air Warrior III or the AOL or Game Storm version. This is the really old shite!
I was a party to many of these things below, though surely not as many as I remember. Time does that. Feel free to correct or add to my recollections in the comments. But don’t call me a liar, I swear all this is true to some degree!
On with the show.
Like any good PvP focused multiplayer online game, Air Warrior was divided into three factions. These were named A, B, and C. Each side had its own set of airfields. On the original, asymmetrical map the fields never changed hands, though could be put temporarily out of commission. In the revised symmetrical maps (one of which is pictured above) there were contestable airfields which could change sides.
Each airfield was defended by an NPC anti-aircraft gun that was brutal, but which could be bombed to put it out of commission for a short time. In addition jeeps with a machine gun mount could be driven out onto the airfield, though this may have come later in the game. Tanks were also available to capture contestable airfields.
In the early days of the game, planes were identified by the pilot’s number. (Mine was 3103.) You could see who you were fighting. This made it easy, at times, to avoid the good pilots (e.g. 5186, 3799, 5940). Later that was changed and you could only see the type of plane being flown, not the pilot. After that, you just had to stay clear of the Spitfire at 20,000 feet waiting to pounce on you. Same people.
The game ran at a speed of half real time. It was felt, among other things, that shooting at enemy planes… which were just single pixel black dots at anything but very close range… would be too difficult at the speeds WWII aircraft flew.
As soon as a plane flew within visual range of you, it put up an icon in your field of vision with the distance. This seems like a recipe for disaster. How could you ever surprise anybody? Yet somehow we did. It did help that you had to actually look in the right direction, so you wouldn’t get an icon in your front windscreen for somebody behind you.
There was also a map, a sample of which is posted above. In the upper corner of each of the grids, when the map was brought up in game, there was an icon indicating how many friendly and how many enemy planes were flying in a given grid. This was a simulation of early radar intercept tracking. It told you where you might find enemy planes without actually putting a big red arrow in the sky.
The most commonly flown planes I saw were the Spitfire and the Focke-Wulf 190. The Spit had speed, maneuverability, and the firepower of two 20mm cannons. The 190 had even more speed in a dive and four 20mm cannons, allowing a quick, clean kill.
At one point, the Bf-109K was in the game with incredible speed and hitting power, but it got knocked back to a G model at which point there was nearly always a better plane to fly to do what you wanted to do.
The Japanese Zero also had a pair of 20mm cannons and could turn inside of any other plane it faced. If you could tempt new players into a turning fight, you could kill them easily with the Zero. On the other hand, any pilot who knew what he was doing and had a faster plane… and almost everything was faster… could have you for lunch by using speed. And the Zero needed precious few hits to kill.
The P-51 Mustang was flown surprisingly infrequently. I recall the night that Jerry Pournelle came to try the game. While he was flying off in the wrong direction, never to be seen again, he complained on the public channel that if the game were at all realistic we would all be flying P-51s.
On the other hand, the F4U Corsair, a later addition to Air Warrior, was flown quite a bit. It also stood in for the P-47 Thunderbolt, which Kesmai did not bother to introduce to the game as the two planes would perform close to identically in their model. Or so they said.
The Corsair was big and heavy but fast in a dive and well suited to zoom and boom tactics. It could play the vertical game. The guns were a bit light relative to the 20mm cannons, but adequate. And the Corsair could carry a pair of bombs, so was useful for fighter bomber operations, like taking out anti-aircraft guns, tanks, and jeeps.
Likewise, the P-38 Lightning found work as a fighter bomber, though it was a bit more fragile
In addition to single seat fighters, Air Warrior also allowed you to fly bombers. You could fly a B-17 Flying Fortress, a B-25 Mitchell, or an A-26 Invader. The pilot also acted as the bombardier and could switch to a bomb aiming UI for the bomb run.
In bombers, other players could occupy the gunner positions. The pilot had to stay in his position, but gunners could change to any unoccupied gun position in the plane.
The B-17 was sometimes abused because of its numerous gun positions. A full B-17 would bomb the NPC anti-aircraft gun, land on the enemy airfield, and camp the aircraft spawn point. This was not an easy thing to pull off well and a lot of B-17s went down attempting it.
The A-26 was the the over-powered bomber in my mind. Fast, but with two rear facing turrets, a pile of guns fixed forward, an 8 x 500lb bomb capacity, and the ability to drop them one at a time (as opposed to four bomb “sticks” in the B-17), it made for a serious bombing platform. I would climb to 20,000 feet, turn towards the enemy airfield lined up on their runway, open up the throttles and put the plane in a shallow dive. I was tough to catch and if you went head on I had a lot of guns to play with as well.
There were also other special planes you could fly. There was a WWI zone where you could fly biplanes (and the Fokker Dr. 1 triplane) against other pilots. In the original version of the game, the WWI zone was part of the same map as the rest of the game, it was just really far away.
The German Me 262, a WWII jet fighter, was also available in the game, though its use was restricted to special events. During one such special event, one pilot took a fully fueled Me 262 and used its speed to get to the WWI zone, where he shot the hell out of some biplanes. Or at least tried to.
Later the F-86 Sabre and the MiG-15 were introduced, though like the Me 262, they were for special events. You could, however, fly any of the planes in off-line practice mode. You could dive the F-86 and break the sound barrier.
The Plane Models
While you started out facing forward, you could use keys to turn your head various directions. As you looked out, part of your view was obscured by a black silhouette that represented your plane. So there was a big black engine and dashboard when facing forward (with a gunsight of course), wings when looking left or right, and the back of the cabin and tail when looking backward. The keys could be combined, so you could look forward and left for 45 degree angle view, with a combination of the black areas obscuring your view. When looking up, all was clear, while looking down got you nothing but black, the bottom of your cockpit. Down was only there, I imagine, so it could be used in combination with other keys, as what aircraft had anything at the bottom of the cockpit?
You could create bitmap artwork to replace the black silhouette of your plane. Some people made some amazing looking artwork for the game, all in 72dpi bitmap.
The enemy in that picture… an Me 262 I would guess… is damn close to be showing up with such detail.
Of course, if you think about it, you can spot the opportunity to abuse the system by creating artwork that does not obscure your vision at all. Fortunately Kesmai had heard about Wonder Woman’s invisible plane and put in a check. If your artwork did not obscure a required percentage of the screen, the default black silhouette would load instead.
If you look closely, you can see that the P-38 in that picture is only 53 units… feet? yards? I don’t remember… away, which is very close for air combat.
Still, there were possibilities. I toyed with ideas, like making an art set that would turn my plane into a high-winged monoplane, all the better to see (and pounce on) people below me.
And then there was the F4U Corsair. Did you know that it did, in fact, have a window at the bottom of the cockpit. And Air Warrior supported this, allowing a small percentage of the floor to be open. I used this to create a graduated bomb sight that would let me use the two-bomb Corsair as a level bomber to knock out ground targets.
In the early days of the game, before my time, when they were still nailing down the flight models, there was the era of stall fighting.
As I heard it described, during this time one of the viable ways to get on an enemy’s tail in a turning fight was to drop your flaps, put down your landing gear, set your wings perpendicular to the ground, and pull back on the stick. All of this would put you into an impossibly tight turn with little or no loss of altitude. If you opponent wasn’t doing the same, you would turn inside of him and be able to line him up for an easy kill. And if you were doing this close to the ground, anybody diving on you would likely go splat.
Even after that was fixed, when I started playing and when gravity would pull your slow and tightly turning plane towards the ground, flaps down, gear down, and the tightest turn you could manage was often the tactic of last resort… or first resort for a new player. It can be hard to fight the temptation to just keep trying to point the nose of your aircraft at the enemy.
For all of the primitive nature of the game… I was playing a multiplayer flight simulator in 1988 on a Mac SE with a 9 inch, 512×384 resolution black and white screen with a 2400 bps modem (which made me ‘leet)… the game was surprisingly well suited to aircraft combat tactics as practiced in the real world.
The book recommended in the forums was Robert L. Shaw’s Fighter Combat: Tactics and Maneuvering. My copy is still on my book shelf, and was signed by a number of players at the Air Warrior convention at Dayton, Ohio in 1989.
The things it taught were true in the game. Speed and altitude were life. Zoom and boom tactics were viable. If you went head on against another guy and, after the pass, he turned on the horizontal… went left or right… while you went vertical… over the top for a loop… you were going to end up being able to get behind him because gravity gave you an extra G for your turn. (The egg-shaped loop or some such.) Plus coming back down you gained back the speed you lost, while the speed he shed in his turn was gone for good.
Surprising things mattered in the game. Or maybe it was just surprising that they were modeled at all. For example, you could choose how much fuel you wanted to carry, represented as a percentage of your total capacity. New pilots chose 100%, which in the P-51 Mustang they inevitably picked, would give them something like six hours of flight time at full throttle in the half-speed world of Air Warrior.
They were not going to last six hours, and the game modeled the extra weigh all that excess fuel added to the plane. So they basically tied a great big rock to the tail of their Mustang.
(Flying a P-51 was like a “kill me now” sign at that time… though it could be fun to fly one and troll as an easy kill. I shot down Tango Circus (3799), one of the best pilots in the game, while flying a P-51 because he thought he could get another kill in first, in front of me, without worry. I got him, which gave me one kill against the hundred or so he had on me. It felt good.)
Experienced pilots never used more than 10% fuel, and there was some discussion as to how little you could get away with in a given plane.
Every so often Kesmai would run a scenario to simulate a historical encounter. These were reasonably rare as they took time to set up and used up resources. I only remember two.
The first I one I remember, and only vaguely at that, was a Korean War scenario, so it was MiGs versus Sabres over the Yalu. Honestly though, my memory on this one is so tenuous that they might have just had a jets day in the regular game. But some part of me thinks this was a scenario.
The other one I remember was a WWII Pacific based scenario re-enacting the shoot down of Admiral Yamamoto. The setup for this was a gaggle of Zeros escorting a pair of C-47s, one representing the plane carrying Yamamoto, between two points on the map, while a smaller group of P-38s had to find them and shoot them down.
Air Warrior was originally available on the Macintosh. After its initial success, support was extended to such major computing platforms as the Atari ST and the Amiga 2000. Also, support was thrown in for something called DOS on IBM compatibles equipped with the right video hardware.
The Macintosh client was maintained separately from the Atari/Amiga/DOS client. Due to a mis-translation of certain constants from the Mac code base to the A/A/D code base, aircraft on the latter code base were modeled with considerably more horsepower. As is usual, it took a bunch of complaining on the GEnie forums and demonstrations of planes driven by the Mac client getting left in the dust in level flight at 100% throttle before things changed. Balance issue!
Despite this horsepower imbalance, Mac pilots represented a lot of the “old hands” in the game and were always heavily represented at the top of the rankings, primarily because they used proven real world tactics. (You did not want to get down to a flaps down, gear down turning fight if you were in a Mac against a pilot on another platform. The horsepower advantage would crush you. I had the opportunity to play on a friend’s MS-DOS machine and the performance difference was noticeable.)
Terrain avoidance was also handled by the client. It was a more trusting time. Early in the game, losing the terrain… ending up flying in a world empty of mountains, air strips, buildings, or whatever… was not an unheard of event. On of the classic tales of the game is when the pilot of a B-17 with a full complement of gunners was flying to bomb an enemy airfield and lost the terrain. He flew onward, since everybody else was still with him, until he flew through a mountain. He happily continued on, but everybody else in the plane crashed and was returned to the lobby as they came into contact with the mountain.
And the game, at least on the Mac side, had a built in key command to take screen shots. As I do today, I took many screen shots back then. I had quite a gallery of odd-shaped black silhouettes in my gun sight, streaming smoke and such. I wish I knew where they were today. That was so many computers and so many hard drives ago, I fear they are lost forever.
Scoring – A kill has been awarded
There were few things as satisfying as closing in on that little black dot, just a pixel in size, that represented your foe, placing it in the gun sight (without losing it in the clutter), hitting the fire button and seeing a couple more pixels shoot out of it, indicating hits and damage. Maybe you would get a smoke trail, and ugly black triangle hanging on the back of the plane like a kite. And then the magic message would appear.
A kill has been awarded!
Or something like that. At this point, the actual text is lost to me, but that is what came to mind. That could be the kill message from Stellar Emperor or Stellar Warrior.
How to meaningfully keep score in a way to compare pilot skill was something of a pain. A number of different methods were tried with varying degrees of success.
At first, the top score over a 4 week campaign was the pilot with the longest kill streak. That is, the pilot who shot down the most planes without getting shot down himself, was the winner. This, of course, modified people’s behavior. People with decent kill streaks in process would bail out of their plane rather than fight at the first sign of trouble.
So things were changed so that if you took a hit before you bailed out, the person who hit you got a kill and you took a loss. One loophole closed, but then people with streaks would just refuse combat unless they had an unbeatable advantage.
Then there were experiments with kill ratios. I think the results published in GEnie Live Wire, the bi-monthly newsletter for the online service… isn’t that quaint, an online site felt the need to publish a physical newsletter… went from kill streaks to just raw kills per campaign to whatever they felt like for a given issue. Sometimes they would list a campaign number. Sometimes they would forget to put the scores in at all.
Still, it is a damn good thing that GEnie did publish that newsletter, because I couldn’t find anything else about the old days of the game. Where was Jason Scott when all this stuff needed saving?
Eventually in game there was a pilot rating system that was akin to chess ranking, which took into account your rating and the rating of the person you shot down for any adjustment. Akin, I would imagine to what World of Warcraft uses for their arena rankings and League of Legends does for their ELO.
Playing on GEnie
Let’s just say that $15 a month seems pretty damn cheap by comparison, and free to play seems simply insane.
That screen shot is from when they “cut” prime time pricing from $36/hour to $18/hour. Oh, and they raised non-prime… which is when everybody used the service… from $5/hour across the board to tax the higher speed users! GEnie sure could spot the trend in computing. Isn’t it Moore’s Law that says computing power gets more expensive over time? (No, it effectively says the opposite. That was sarcasm.)
Anyway, that foresight no doubt explains what GEnie is today… a memory and some old magazines out in my garage.
The Game Evolving
A lot of things changed with the game over time. My memories are of the original map and then the updated version as shown above. But then I ran across this list of updates in the July 1990 edition of GEnie Live Wire and they sound familiar too.
This article makes it sound like there was interim state for the Pacific and European theaters which I do not recall. The persistence of memory indeed. Everything I say might be wrong.
And then came Air Warrior II and Air Warrior III, which were sold as stand alone box games with online capabilities and which ran through the 90s.
Where Things Stand Today
And then Electronic Arts bought Kesmai in 1999. We know how that sort of thing generally turns out when EA buys a company that makes online games. Everything ever associated with Kesmai pretty much disappeared from the face of the earth by the end of 2001. At least it out lived GEnie by a couple of years.
And then there is World of Warplanes from Wargaming.net, which is in alpha testing right now, and which has potential to fill the Air Warrior niche as well, though I think War Thunder is more on track.
I am always surprised at how few people have heard of Air Warrior or its successors. But flight sims, and competitive online flight sims especially, are something of a niche market I suppose.
Addendum: For some more memories… probably more accurate as well… check out DoKtor GonZo’s posts from about 8 years back, when this was all a bit fresher in the mind. I should have looked at it before I wrote this, but such is life.
Supplemental material that may support or contradict what I have written.
The Air Warrior Manual – Version 1.4, November 1988
Air Warrior Survival Tips by Cap’n Trips
The Air Warrior Pilot’s Guide by R. Wolf (Dec. 1991)
The Digital Antiquarian – Games on the Net Before the Web, Part 1 (December 8, 2017)