Tag Archives: Kesmai

MegaWars Dawn of the Third Age

In order to talk about MegaWars – Dawn of the Third Age I feel I need to delve into the well of ancient games from which I drew the title of this blog.  It is been a while since I’ve gone here, so a refresher might be due.

Back in the early-to-mid 1980s personal computers were becoming common, modems were increasingly becoming an option for the, and online services like CompuServe and GEnie began to flourish.  This was the pre-web era, when even having a GUI beyond a command prompt was considered.  (There is a whole “pre-web online services” category on Wikipedia.)

And while special interest forums, online encyclopedias, and services were often bullet points used to get people to sign up, it wasn’t long before online games came into being.  Kesmai was an early leader in online games and its Island of Kesmai on CompuServe was very much a precursor to today’s fantasy MMORPGs.

Also on CompuServe was a game called MegaWars III.  If Island of Kesmai foretold the fantasy side of the MMORPG genre, then MegaWars III was very much a hint as to what the future might bring when it came to internet spaceships in EVE Online.  Launched on CompuServe in January 1984, it gained a following even at the expensive hourly connect rates that online services charged back in the day.  $15 a month seems like a bargain compared to $6 an hour.

MegaWars III did not feature a long term persistent universe.  Instead games were four week long affairs that saw everybody logging on to scout on the first night to find and colonize planets.  There was a fixed amount of numbered star systems, but the planets around them, and the quality thereof, changed with each game.

Players would colonize and manage their planets, build up defenses, try to take planets from each other, and attempt to blow up each other’s ships.  At the end of the four weeks scores were tallied up and winners declared.  The leader of the highest scoring team was declared Emperor while the highest individual score was named President of the Imperial Senate.  The top 20 scoring players were made senators.

When GEnie arrived on the scene, they wanted online games too and got Kesmai to make a simplified version of MegaWars III which was called Stellar Warrior.  A fun game in its own right, and following the four week campaign model, it did not have the depth of MegaWars III with its planetary management module.  GEnie eventually got a straight up copy of MegaWars III a bit later in the form of Stellar Emperor.

And that is where I came in.  During the fourth four week Stellar Emperor campaign during the summer of 1986 I logged into GEnie via the modem I bought from Potshot for my Apple //e and started fumbling around with online games.

It was then that I first used the handle Wilhelm Arcturus.  I had been recruited by a team called the Arcturan Empire (-AE-) and learned the ways of the game sufficiently to become both Emperor of the Galaxy and President of the Imperial Senate.  You actually got physical trophies for that back then.

Pewter Cups Awarded for Emperor and President titles

The names are probably easier to read on the paper certificates that were also mailed out to winners, including those senators in the top 20.

Wilhelm d’Arcturus Emperor of the Galaxy

Wilhelm d’Arcturus – President on the Imperial Senate

Later I dropped the “d” from the last name to become simply Wilhelm Arcturus.  My tales from those days can be found here:

And so it went.  For most of the balance of the 1980s MegaWars III and Stellar Emperor ran along as identical twins.  As the 90s approached GEnie and Kesmai began to work on improving Stellar Emperor, giving it a GUI eventually, while MegaWars III remained as it was.  If you played them both after 1989 or so you’ll probably say they were different, but before then they were essentially identical.

Into the 90s the internet and the web became a thing and online services started to fade away.  CompuServe was bought by AOL in 1997 and faded away into the background while GEnie shut down in 1999.  Kesmai ran its own online service, GameStorm, through the 90s until the company was sold to EA.  EA did what it always does with studios it buys; shut it down, never to be seen again.  And so all of the Kesmai titles, including MegaWars III, disappeared.

Like all closed online games, somebody out there decided to go ahead and recreate the originals.  I have written previously about Crimson Leaf Games and their resurrection of the original MegaWars III as well as Cosmic Ray Games and their recreation of a 90s version of Stellar Emperor.

But some time has passed since then; seven years in the case of the former and four years for the latter.

Crimson Leaf Games has been hard at work and has produced a new version of MegaWars III, MegaWars: Dawn of the Third Age.  The site for the game is here, and includes a history of MegaWars III worth reading.

The new version has a client and graphics and all sorts of things we associate with more modern online games.

The MegaWars III universe has also expanded from a couple hundred stars to over five million systems to explore.  Space has also changed in a way that might sound a bit familiar to EVE Online players.  Rather than the game being open season for PvP, there are three regions of space.  They are:

  • Empire – no combat and planets cannot be taken
  • Frontier – full combat and planet industries can be bombed but not taken
  • Open – full combat and planets can be taken

The penalty for Empire and Frontier is that you pay taxes that sap your planetary economy, and a hit in score, relative to the wild west of open space.  But in exchange for that you get complete safety in Empire space and some amount of safety in Frontier space.

The game is currently in open Alpha… which seems to be what we would call Early Access if it were on Steam… so you can try it out if you are interested.

So we now have a new take on a game that has its origins in the nearly 40 year old DECWAR, which was, in turn, an attempt to make a multiplayer version of the Star Trek terminal game from the early 70s.

And the beat goes on.

Stellar Emperor Remake

I have written a bit in the past about the Kesmai game MegaWars III, which ran on CompuServe, and its twin on GEnie, Stellar Emperor.

It always raise somebody’s ire when I call them twins.  They were, in fact, as close as twins when I was playing Stellar Emperor back in 1986, back when I was actually winning in online games.  (It has been all down hill for me since then.)

Once they called ME emperor!

However, Stellar Emperor began to diverge from MegaWars III not too long after that, and by around 1990 they were as different as chalk and some sort of dairy product.

MegaWars III basically sat still in time and remained pretty much the same through to the end of its run… and the end of CompuServe’s run… in 1999, thus spanning about 15 years online.  So when, a couple of years back, Crimson Leaf Games decided to recreate MegaWars III, it was pretty recognizable to those who played the original.

I'm in space! Can you even tell?

I’m in space! Can you even tell?

Meanwhile Stellar Emperor changed.  GEnie seemed much more interested in getting graphic front ends into their online game offerings.  Things like Air Warrior were the direction they wanted to go, and Kesmai seemed keen to oblige them, bringing Stellar Emperor along for the ride.  By about 1990 Stellar Emperor would have been practically unrecognizable to a MegaWars III player.  Game mechanics were changed, ships were slimmed down to a series of pre-set sizes, not unlike what Kesmai did in Stellar Warrior (which is the game some MegaWars III players think I am referring to at times when I write about Stellar Emperor), commands were changed or simplified.

And then there was the front end software.

If I recall right, you could still play the game from the terminal interface like the original… at least you could the last time I tried, which would have been in the 1990/1991 time frame.  But the front end client could be used and was there to make the game both more visually interesting and accessible.  And given the state of gaming as viewed from the command line interface these days… what do we have, MUDs, some Roguelikes, and maybe a few other retro experiences hiding in various corners… it was the way to go.  Friendlier graphical user interfaces were the way to go.

And that is about where my personal timeline with GEnie and CompuServe ends.  Oddly, that is about the time where I started dealing with them professionally, but that is another tale altogether and does not involve any online games.

So my memories are of a time when these games were as about as sophisticated as minimal vt52 terminal emulation would allow.  I think of the blinking cursor and arcane commands like “imp 200,100” and text scrolling off the top of the screen, never to be seen again.  And it seemed quite natural, from a nostalgia perspective, to recreate such games from that era with a command line interface, though with the web you can always put in buttons for those of us who cannot remember all of those old commands.

Buttons! I need something to help with scouting though

Crimson Leaf Games added buttons

And who wants to create a new GUI client for this sort of thing which must have a pretty small audience?

Well, somebody does.  I managed to wrest a message from the horrible new Yahoo web mail interface sent to me to announce that there is a remake of Stellar Emperor under way.  And it is not an attempt to redo the original, 1986 vintage command line version either.  This will be a shot at the GUI client version of the game that ran through the 1990s until the game was shut down by Electronic Arts in 2000. (Electronic Arts motto: We buy game studios and kill them.)

Cosmic Ray Games, LLC is the name of the group working on this project.  They have a site up, the game is in beta, there is a client you can download, and a reasonable amount of detail is available.  Their FAQ describes Stellar Emperor as:

Stellar Emperor is an online 4X (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) MMORTS strategy game. It maintains a periodically (usually 4 weeks) persistent universe in which a player colonizes planets and forms teams to compete against others real players. You Explore the galaxy to find planets to manage and build your resources, form teams or alliances to help further your survival, gather intelligence on your enemies, and use your resources to defend yourself or to weaken or eliminate your enemies.

There are several elements that make Stellar Emperor a fun and unique gaming experience, which include:

  • You only play against other real people, no NPCs to waste time on grinding.
  • A periodically persistent universe.
  • All events occur in real-time, whether you are online or not, no waiting for turns.
  • The world has a strict time limit in which you have to earn your way to winning any of the various titles.
  • All players start each war on an even basis. The game can only become uneven for the duration of an individual war, not eternally.
  • You command several planets to do your bidding.
  • You can build for growth and score, or you can build for war to take from others.
  • Build ships or supplies to defend yourself, attack others, or gain an advantage in combat.

You can win a specific title in a war:

  • Emperor – Leader of the winning team.
  • President – Player with the highest planetary score.
  • Warlord – The player with the best overall adjusted combat score.
  • Ravager – The player most successful and attacking other player’s planets.

Combined, these elements create an environment where players must work together to achieve their goals and overcome adversities presented by the other players vying for the same goals, winning the game! You will see expansive battles, strategy execution, conflict, and teamwork as all players battle their way for the top spots.

Given the speed of the game, I might not describe Stellar Emperor using the “RTS” acronym.  It may literally be true, but when you think of an RTS game, you are more likely to imagine StarCraft, which takes minutes to hours to play as opposed to a game that runs out over a four week time frame.  But then it isn’t like an ongoing, persistent universe MMO like EVE Online either, since it does reset every four weeks.

The update I received reported that the game was at about 95% functionality.   There are some screen shots, which I stole, and guides to playing the game on the media page of their site.

While I am interested in general about this sort of nostalgic revival of older games, I am probably not going to jump on this one quite yet.  As noted above, this is really a poke at something that was after my time with the game.  And EVE Online seems to be filling my need for internet spaceships at the moment.  But I will keep an eye on this and will be interested to hear if anybody else gives it a try.

If you want to take a look yourself you can find the game here.

Air Warrior – Vague Memories from the Early Days of Virtual Flight

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!

The Next Generation of Games – May 1989

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.

The Game

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.

Proposed Pacific Theater 1990

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 Planes

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.

Spitfire Artwork Scanned from GEnie Live Wire

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.

P-51 Mustang artwork on a Mac II

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.

Tactics

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.

Historical Simulations

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.

Platform Fun

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.

GEnie Scores Column – June 1988

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?

Selected versions of the Air Warrior scores listed in GEnie Live Wire

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.

GEnie Price “cut”

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.

Improved Air Warrior – July 1990

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.

The spiritual successor to Air Warrior for many players was Aces High, which took the Air Warrior idea to new levels.  WarBirds was also a destination for some Air Warrior players.

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)

Guide to Creating Custom Air Warrior Plane Art (Mac)

The Digital Antiquarian – Games on the Net Before the Web, Part 1 (December 8, 2017)

So Where Exactly is This GDC Online Hall of Fame?

As far as I can tell, it is online.  Which I suppose is appropriate.  And it certainly makes it easier to visit.

I was wondering about that since a number of headlines have popped up about EverQuest being inducted into the Game Developers Choice Online Awards Hall of Fame.

Which is cool.  Yay EverQuest and all that.

And, in each account I have read, it has been mentioned that EverQuest joins Ultima Online in the hall of fame.

And there they are.

The two of them.

Alone together in that virtual hall.

Because this is only the second year, and they only induct one game a year, so there are only the two games.

And for two games representing the world of online games, those two represent a somewhat narrow demographic in online gaming I would say;  online, subscription based, fantasy MMORPGs released between 1997 and 1999 and still running today.

Not that I would deny either game belongs on the list, but when you are admitting one game a year into the hall of fame, “Get all the MMORPGs out of the way first” doesn’t seem like the best plan of action.

Ah well.  They do also induct people into the hall of fame as well.  Last year it was Richard Bartle, so I guess the committee figured they had MUD1 covered as well with that.  Still kind of virtual world oriented there, but at least it is old school, text based stuff.  Real history or whatever.

And this year there was a two-fer, with the induction of Kelton Flinn and John Taylor, co-founders of Kesmai back in the day, and both responsible for a few games which ought to be inducted into the hall of fame at some point, like MegaWars III, Air Warrior, and Island of Kesmai.

Along with the hall of fame, there are various yearly awards voted on and given out.  Last year it was League of Legends that came out as the big winner, grabbing the top spot in most of the categories.  In categories for which they were nominated, they only lost out to EVE Online for the “Best Live Game” category. (Categories with definitions are here.)

This year it was more mixed, with only Minecraft and Rift capping two categories apiece.

All in all, another set of awards.  While I am sure they are all quite meaningful for the recipients (who does not like to be acknowledged for their work?) I do sometimes wonder what such awards really mean in the big picture.  What impact does such an award have?

And, more importantly, which game and person do you think will (or should) be inducted into the hall of fame next year?

Could World of Warplanes be the Second (or is it the third?) Coming of Air Warrior?

Wargaming.net has been talking a little bit about their next title, World of Warplanes, but the details are not yet out in the public domain.  They do not even have a site up for the game yet.  All we really have so far is this:

World of Warplanes is the flight combat MMO action game set in the Golden Age of military aviation. The game continues the armored warfare theme marked in the highly-acclaimed World of Tanks and will throw players into a never-ending tussle for air dominance.

Based purely on aircraft setting, World of Warplanes will allow players to build full-scale careers of virtual pilots offering machines of several key eras, staring from World War I period with “Biplanes” and up to jet fighter prototypes that led the way to modern air forces.

World of Warplanes will feature a wide range of warbirds, each of them unique in their effectiveness and behavior. Virtual pilots will choose from three main warplane classes – single-engine light fighters capable of engaging enemies in close dogfights, twin-engine fighters with their deadly straight attacks, and strafing aircraft, the fearsome threat for ground targets.

Which, frankly, isn’t much… but that never stopped me from speculating wildly.

While Darren was taking something of a pessimistic view of what may come of this game (airborne World of Tanks, to stuff his viewpoint into the tiniest possible box), I think it will have to be somewhat different to survive and make sense, and thus I speculate.

And the reason I feel I have license to speculate over the game that Wargaming.net is making is that I think I have played it already.  And I was playing over 20 years ago to boot.

Back in 1988 the online gaming pioneers at Kesmai launched Air Warrior on GEnie.

I’ve written a little about Air Warrior before, but I will recap.

Air Warrior was an online, multiplayer (allowing something over 100 people on at once, if I recall right) air combat game that took place in something we would recognize as a persistent world.  The world was divided into three factions (creatively called A, B, and C… no wasted bytes there!) in what was initially an asymmetrical world layout with airfields for each faction and a few mountains thrown in to keep people on their toes.

While you could fly the planes of any nation in the game, you were required to commit to a specific faction for a minimum amount of time.  So you might fly for team B, but you could be flying a Spitfire, a Focke-Wulf 190, or a P-38 Lightning.

The world itself persisted while you were off-line.  You logged on, went to an airfield your team controlled, checked out an aircraft, and took to the sky.  Your airfield was protected by an anti-aircraft gun of annoying accuracy to keep your runway from being camped, but you were allowed to mount bombs which could temporarily disable that gun and even the airfield itself, at which point you would have to divert to one of your auxiliary fields.

And while primitive technologically compared to today’s games, Air Warrior worked… most nights.  Okay, the tech of the time was barely up to the challenge, but these were the days before 3D acceleration, when a 32-bit processor was a big deal, and most of the players were using 1.2-2.4 Kbps connections.

All of which is a nice little history lesson.  But why, you might ask, do I think Wargaming.net should/could go this route?

Well, certain bits fit naturally, such as the ability to fly planes from different nations on a given side.

While other realities make a direct translation of the World of Tanks model to airplanes problematic.

20 minute long 15 vs. 15 battles seem unlikely to me to be a viable game model for a couple of reasons.

Reason 1 – The Sky is Big

It is easy to corral 30 tanks into a relatively small area.  Tanks move slowly on the ground and are often best deployed in stationary positions awaiting the enemy.  While the guns on bigger vehicles in the game can reach out a good percentage of the way across the battlefields, cover in its various forms help keep the game from turning into an immediate blood bath.

Airplanes live in a much bigger environment.  If we are talking about WWII aircraft, their environment extends easily to 20,000 feet upwards.  Even limiting the geographical area to the size of a WoT maps, there is a lot of volume in which to run around in a prism 20,000 feet tall.

Meanwhile planes, fighter planes at least, are small.  Yes, they seem big on the ground, but they get lost pretty easily in the sky and can become devilishly hard to see.  And when you see one and want to shoot at it, you have to get pretty close if you want a chance of bringing it down.  Call it 200 yards if you want any reasonable hope of a kill and under 100 yards if you want to stick the knife in good.

Reason 2 – Planes go Fast

Keeping it simple today, aren’t I?

Again, if we are talking WWII fighters, people will be zipping around at 300 mph easily, while achieving (and surviving) 500+ mph in a dive is possible for some fighters of the era.

So you cannot limit the size of the environment to something as small as a WoT battlefield.  The sky, big as it was already, has to get bigger lest we spend most of our time flying out of bounds.

Air Warrior Pacific Theater Map

So you have to make the sky even bigger, which in turn makes opposing planes harder to spot, close with, and kill.  You can see in the picture above one of the few art assets I still have sitting around from Air Warrior.  This was after the great map revision when the world was made bigger and divided into Pacific and European theaters.  Each faction had its own island, while the center could be captured.

And both you and your enemy are both going fast, which means that unless you have the opposition at a serious disadvantage, they can pull away and evade.  And to gain the advantage you want, you can spend quite a bit of time just climbing to altitude in order to be able to pounce on an enemy.

That sends the whole match concept from WoT out the window from my point of view.  In a sky big enough to reasonably hold 30 aircraft attempting to kill each other, 20 minutes won’t be anything like enough time to get a resolution like that in a WoT match.

So my hope is that they will end up with something more like the persistent world in Air Warrior.  Less lobby, more flight time.

But…

Wargaming.net will likely be hosting more than the 100 or so players that could fill up Air Warrior, so I am sure there will have to be some division of players.  Maybe different theaters of war?

Plus, if Wargaming.net chooses to use the same equipment leveling system, where you graduate (or buy your way into) better airplanes, then they will likely have to segregate players by that as well.

Furthermore, I suppose they could force the issue of keeping players focused in a small area by making one side or both focus on defending a geographic area.  Their seeming attempt at a rock/paper/scissors with single engine, twin engine, and ground attack fighters (more like scissors/pinking shears/hedge trimmers) might mean a things won’t be wide open fights in the sky but geographically limited objectives, with people attacking/defending specific ground targets.

And, of course, there already is a game out there that is the spiritual successor to Air Warrior, Aces High, which has been around since 2000.  That is as close to a second coming of Air Warrior as I have seen.

So as much as I would like to see Wargaming.net recreate Air Warrior for the second decade of the 21st century with three factions (if Warhammer Online taught us anything, it is that open PvP needs three factions) and wide open spaces to fly in a free to play game, that might not fit with their plans at all.

What do you think World or Warplanes will end up being?

MegaWars III – The Rebirth

A company called Crimson Leaf Games has taken it upon themselves to recreate one of the more popular online games from early/mid 1980s, MegaWars III.

Back in the day, MegaWars III ran on CompuServe under this name and as Stellar Emperor on GEnie.  Stellar Emperor (not to be confused with Stellar Warrior) began to diverge around 1987 and ended up being a very different game.  But initially they were as identical.

Stellar Emperor is where I first encountered real-time, online computer games, and I have mused on that experience here before, including my own peak in the game.

For me, this represents fond, if somewhat old, memories.

But why re-create this game today?  Crimson Leaf Games says:

Mega Wars 3 had many aspects to the game not found in any current online games. First there is an end to each war. This allows players to gain an understanding of the game over several wars to learn how to play as an individual, a team member and a team captian to lead your team to victory. Second the game is always running any other player (even a team member) can attack and take your planets from you 24/7. If you worry about losing what you worked so hard to acheive, this may not be the game for you.

If you want to make life long friends, work together with others to achieve real goals or just spy on another team to help your team over throw an upset to win then MegaWars III the rebirth is the game for you.

Yes, you will need to learn to type simple three letter commands since there are no buttons to click your way to victory.

That describes what the game was like way back then.  You could get 100 players on concurrently and the competition would become fierce.  But what about today?

I had to go take a look of course, to relive a bit of ancient gaming history.

The game is not free.  They were running a one week demo war last week, so I was able to poke around a bit during that.  But participation in a real, four week war will run you $12.  And the demo war was only last week, so if you want to see how online games were played over 20 years ago, you’ll have to pony up some cash.

I hope they’ll bring back the 1 week demo wars regularly, as $12 buys you a lot of cash in FarmVille or diamonds in Runes of Magic, and you can play either for free before deciding to commit any cash at all.

My first disappointment was that I had to play the game through a web page.   Granted, things look about right in their web interface.

I'm in space! Can you even tell?

I was, however, hoping I could log in via a terminal program.

First, that would recreate the experience moreso for me.  Hours staring at a 24 line, 80 column terminal emulator on my Apple //e was the way I played.

Second, I have a copy of ZMud sitting around, which would let me marco my heart out.  ZMud would have been the dream program back in the day.

No such luck it would seem.

Still, I was able to get into the game and, with a little help from the commands list page, start running around in search of the perfect planet.  The web rendition works well enough, and I don’t even have to obsessively hit return to get status updates.  Well, not as obsessively as I used to.

There is even a version of the interface with buttons for some basic tasks.

Buttons! I need something to help with scouting though

And so the search for planets began.

Finding planets, growing them, and holding them, is the name of the game.  In an active universe, it can be quite a challenge.  In a quiet universe though….

Anyway, I will likely pay the fee at some point to give this re-creation a try.  I think I remember enough planetary management to be a contender.  We’ll see if there is anybody with whom to contend.

I’ll be on as Wilhelm Arcturus, ship # 2451.

Stellar Warrior – 1986

The below is written mostly from memory.  You corrections, comments, and conflicting memories are welcome!  If you played Stellar Warrior, say hi!

I’ve been meaning to finish this for a while.  I’ll use Zubon’s Challenge as an excuse.

But this really isn’t a review.  It is just a fading memory.

Now, into space!

—-

It is late.  Very late.

Late as in “I got off of work at midnight and I have to be in class at 9:30am, but I’ll just log on for a little while.”

But isn’t that always when good gaming happens?

I am staring at an Apple /// monitor sitting atop my Apple //e computer.  Little green lights glow from the computer and the Apple 1200 bps modem (formerly Potshot‘s) sitting next to it.  The monitor itself can show 24 rows of text, each 80 columns in length.  Currently, most of the screen is empty.  A cursor blinks in the lower left hand corner next to the prompt.

I type in short commands.

NAV C

As I type in commands at the bottom and hit return, earlier commands and responses disappear off the top of the screen, never to be seen again.  There is no scroll back.

I am flying a battleship in enemy territory.  I am playing Stellar Warrior.  My ship number is 8891.

I have been rolling up that rarest of rare treats, a single battleship province.  All by myself, of course.

Then I notice that the player count has gone up from 1 to 2.  I do a “who” list.  It isn’t anybody on my alliance.  I’m on the B alliance, in the far corner of D territory, and this guy is a D.

I pop out of the star system I have just turned to my alliance and hit the number 1 macro key.

It types out a rapid command followed by a return.

SEA 300

Search scan, range three hundred light years.

Nothing visible.

There are 12 key star systems in this province.  If I turn 8 of them to my side, the province will change over from the D to the B alliance.

I have already turned 6 of those systems and now the province is in dispute.  That means it shows up as a big question mark in the middle of D territory.

The map of the play galaxy looks like this:

CAAAAA  BBBBBB
AAAAAA  BBBBBB
AAAAAA  BBBBBB
AAAAAB  BBBBBB
AAAAAA  BBBBBB

CCCCCC  DBDDDD
CCCCCC  DDDDDD
CCCCCC  DDDDDD
CCCCCC  DDDDDD
CCCCCC  DDDDDD
CCCCCC  DDDD?D

(I cannot remember the dimensions of the territories now, but 6×6 looks right.)

Both the C and the B alliances have been working to take some provinces, the main way you, your squadron, and you alliance earn points to win the four week long game.  You can see where I am.  It is the question mark, the system in dispute.

The galaxy itself persists, like current day MMOs.  If you log off, other people can undo your work.  This game is only a few days into the full four weeks, but some early scouting found that coveted single battleship province.  Now I can sneak in late on a weeknight and take it.

Of course, somebody else may take it back, but then I’ll happily retake it.

SEA 300

Still nothing.

NAV 320

My battleship moves off toward the next system on the list, star system 320.  Maybe the guy who just logged on will wait until I take the province, then just take it back when I log off.  And I’ll need to log off because it is late.

SEA 300

I keep hitting that macro over and over again.  He may not be close enough to see yet.  Or he may be in a destroyer, the stealthiest of the five craft you can fly in this game (scout, destroyer, cruiser, battlecruiser, and battleship), and only visible on scanners within 60 light years.

I arrive at my next target system.  The planet I am going to take will start broadcasting my presence on channel 400 any second now.  Time to get in there and take it.

NAV B

I move to the planet and start the process of wearing it down.

ATT

Short for Attack, that is it.  I will keep typing that command until the planet falls.  Or until my ship gets blown up.  The planet shoots back as I attack.

ATT

And then there is that other player.

ATT

If he drops into the system in a cruiser, a ship meant for in system laser battles, he can probably stop me from taking this planet.

ATT

He hasn’t popped in yet.  Maybe he’ll wait and just retake the province.

ATT

Finally the planet succumbs.  My ship is damaged.  I can refresh the shields at my newly captured base, but I won’t be able to do repairs or get a fresh ship for a while.  I start out towards the edge of the star system.

IMP 100,100

I need to get far enough from the star to warp into hyperspace.  As I get far enough out, I quickly edit then hit my “peek” macro.

WARP 0,0
SEA 300
NAV 320

My ship pops into hyperspace, but remains stationary.  I scan, then dive back into the system.  GEnie is wonderfully responsive to commands, and this takes a fraction of a second.

Nothing on scan.  Just the nearby star systems.  I head for the last system I need.

NAV 1008,20

My battleship will only safely fly at warp 8.  I can push beyond that, but then heat starts to build up and if the drive gets to 3500 degrees Celsius, it will go boom.  I can help cool it down by dumping fuel, but I won’t need to do that.  The system I am going to is only a few light years away and I will barely get to warp 10 in that space.  No heat worries.

Then as I start closing on the system, frantic lines of text begin to scroll across my screen.  Torpedo hits from the other player, bearing 0, which means he is straight ahead of me.  He has popped out of the system I am heading towards.  His position means it is easy for me to fire back.  I hit another preset macro over and over.  Each time it types:

LOA 1
TOR 1

Load torpedo tube one, fire torpedo tube one.  Again, GEnie processes this as fast as the macro can go.  But GEnie’s responsiveness is working against me this time.  His hits are coming in fast.

If he is in a destroyer, I might be able to kill him first, or at least drive him back into the system.  If he is in something bigger, he already has too many hits on me.

I score hits, but his fire comes in too rapidly for me to survive.  My ship explodes and I am dumped out to the game menu.

He was in a battlecruiser.

I load back up in a scout ship because I am way back in B territory.  I fly back towards the base system I captured earlier.  I can hear on channel 200 that he is taking back the system I just took.  I fly flat out, dumping fuel.  I get to the system and switch to a destroyer.

I move to a system close to where he is and begin pop scans, aligned to the system he is in, waiting for him to show up.

We end up stalking each other for another hour.  Eventually I grow too tired to continue.  4am?  Again?

I fly to the weakest base in the province that I own and change to a battleship.  I know that when I log back in, the base will no longer belong to me, but I will be able to retake it quickly.  I say farewell on channel 1 and log off.

Stellar Warrior.

A company called Kesmai built a game for CompuServe called MegaWars III.  An incredible and addictive game that ran for many, many years, it became a legend with some.

When GEnie came onto the scene in 1985, they wanted a game like that as well.  Not the same game, but one like it.  So Kesmai made Stellar Warrior, which was similar to MegaWars III in many ways, but very different in certain key aspects.

Rather than colonizing, growing, and defending six planets of your own, you belonged to an alliance of many planets.  Ships cost nothing and could be swapped out for different classes, which were all preset.  Your objective was to take war to the opposing alliances by taking their bases and their provinces.

It could be a very intense and very light game to play.  It did not have the compulsion factor of MegaWars III or GEnie’s clone Stellar Emperor, but it could be a lot more fun.  With the resources of an alliance at your disposal, you could concentrate on combat and tactics.    The game was about battling the people who were there rather than defending your planets against the people who would be there when you logged off.

I am sorry I missed the game at its peak.  When I started playing Stellar Emperor in 1986, during the 4th campaign, most people had moved to that game and Stellar Warrior was pretty quiet most nights.  While Stellar Emperor might have 100 people on for the start of a campaign, and rarely ever less than 20 on any given evening, getting a dozen people into Stellar Warrior was something of a rare event.

Still, it did happen now and again.  If your team got shut down in Stellar Emperor and all its planets taken, we would spend some time in Stellar Warrior, where the action was intense and the losses were always made good.  At least until the next Stellar Emperor campaign started.

PvP… heck, RvR… in 1986, online and in just 24 rows and 80 columns of text.  Those were the days.

A special thanks goes out to Spectrum and the team at MegaWarsIII.com.  I had to use their .pdf of the original MegaWars III manual from CompuServe to remember some of those commands from so long ago.