Tag Archives: Stellar Emperor

Summer Reruns – Online Gaming in the 80s

It officially turned Summer in the northern hemisphere yesterday, so I can legit post a Summer Reruns post.

This time for a look way back in time at the online video games I played in the 80s, a time when a 2400bps modem made you special and the command line was pretty much your only online interface option.  Back then you paid a per hour online charge that makes the whole $15 monthly subscription thing look like a serious bargain.

GEnie Price “cut” back in 1989 actually raised prices for non-prime time

While the internet was a thing at the time (I had a shell account through a company called Portal back then, which at the time was run out of a suburban house that backed up to the middle school I attended years before, and an email address with the domain cup.portal.com), only online services like GEnie and CompuServe had the infrastructure to let people all over the country connect together to play games.

I started online games with an Apple //e and an Apple 1200bps modem that I bought second hand from Skronk.  Later I upgraded to a Mac SE and a Zoom 2400bps modem that came in an odd smoked acrylic case.

Apple and Zoom modem pictures gleaned from the internet

That set off a series of events which led me to start my own BBS… back when BBS meant a modem hooked up to somebody’s computer that you could dial into… and eventually launched my so-called professional career of the last 28 years or so.  Time flies.

But before that I played… and spent too much money on… online games.  Fortunately I spent some time writing about them during the early days of the blog, when those memories were at least 10 years more recent than today.

Those were not the only games I played, but the ones that had the biggest impact and, thus, left the strongest memories.  All Kesmai titles, but Kesmai was the online powerhouse of the time. (Staff from Kesmai ended up developing the original PlanetSide as part of Lodestone Games.)

I also vaguely remember playing Island of Kesmai on CompuServe as well as a version of Maze War and the beta of Gemstone on GEnie back then, but not with enough detail to tease anything beyond “I was there” from my brain.

These games were very revolutionary at the time, unique experiences that left indelible impressions on players who were there.  However, they were also very much games of their time in terms of technology.  Impressive as they were in their era they would appear as rough and primitive by today’s standards, where the phone in my pocket certainly has more power and resources than the VAX minicomputer that hosted Stellar Emperor back in the day.

However, that has not stopped people from attempting to recreate these old games, or at least MegaWars III and/or Stellar Emperor.  I have covered those in posts now and again.

And so it goes.

As far as video games go, the 80s started with me owning an Atari 2600 and going to arcades to play video games.  I then moved to the Apple II platform and played a number of the classic games of the era.

Apple ][+ back in the day

Then there was the modem that got me online in 1986, then the move to Macintosh, and the decade ended with me running my own BBS.  MUDs and then MMORPGs still lay in the future for me.

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.

Picking My 15 Most Influential Games

Jackie at Kitty Kitty Boom Boom, prompted by lvling life, put up a list of her top 15 video games.

There was a methodology by which you were supposed to generate that list.  It wasn’t supposed to be a big deal.  You were not supposed to spend a lot of time with it.  And, of course, I tossed that aside.  Rather than a quick list of 15 special games, I ended up with my list of the 15 most influential video games in my gaming career so far.

And what do I mean by “influential?”

I mean that they opened up new idea, new genres, or new points of view for me when it came to video games.

Influential does not mean that they were my favorites, the games I played the most in a given genre, or even all that good in a few cases.  So, for example, I have played a LOT more World of Warcraft than EverQuest at this point in my life, and I am not really all that keen to go back to EverQuest.  But EverQuest is the more influential of the two.  Without it, there would be no WoW, and without me playing it in 1999, I might not have made it to WoW.

Anyway, on to the list.

1. Star Trek (1971) – many platforms

Star Trek in vt52

Star Trek in vt52

I have covered this as the first computer video game I ever played.  While incredibly simple, this game showed me the way, let me know that computers were going to be an entertainment device

2. Tank (1974) – Arcade

Tank!

Tank! In Black and white!

This was the game AFTER Pong.  Not that Pong was bad.  Pong was new and fresh when it came out, but I must admit that it did become a little dull after the first pass or two.  And then Tank showed us that man need not entertain himself with virtual paddles alone.  I wouldn’t touch Pong after a while, but Tank was always good.  You just needed somebody to play with.

3. Adventure (1979)  – Atari 2600

This Castle is Timeless!

This Castle is Timeless!

Yes, I got that Atari 2600 for Christmas way back when, but then there was a matter of what to play.  It came with the Combat cartridge, which included Tank.  And I also had Air-Sea Battle and a few others. But the problem was that these games were all unfulfilling unless played with two people.  And then came Adventure.  Not only wasn’t it the usual 27 minor variations on three two-player themes, it was specifically, unashamedly single player only.  Here, loner, good luck storming the castle!  And it had odd behaviors and minor flaws.  I tried putting that magic bridge everywhere and ended up in some strange places.  It also had a random mode, that might just set you up with an unwinnable scenario.  And there was an Easter egg in it.

It was both different and a harbinger of things to come.

4. Castle Wolfenstein (1981) – Apple II

Graphics - 1981

Graphics – 1981

This was the first game that I saw that indicated that I really, really needed to get a computer.  An Apple II specifically, because that was what Gary had.  And he also had Castle Wolfenstein.

It was not an easy game.  You lost.  A lot.  The control system left something to be desired.  You really needed a joystick to play.  And there were so many quirks and strange behaviors that somebody created a utility program a couple years after it came out that basically “fixed” a lot of the worst annoyances.  I bought it gladly.

Achtung! Give me your uniform.

Achtung! Give me your uniform.

But this game was the prototype for many that followed.  You’re in a cell and you need to escape.  You need make your way through the castle, picking up guns, keys, ammunition, German uniforms, and grenades.   Oh, grenades were so much fun.  There were other, later games I considered for this list, but when I broke them down, I often found that Castle Wolfenstein had done it already, in its own primitive way.

5. Wizardry (1981) – Apple II

Apple ][+ The Upgrades Begin

Apple ][+ and Wizardry

Basically, the party based dungeon crawl in computer form.  Monsters, mazes, traps, treasure, combat, and death.  Oh, so much death.  NetHack was a potential for this list, but I realized that randomness and ASCII graphics aside, Wizardry had pretty much everything it did.

And I spent hours playing.  I mapped out the whole game on graph paper, including that one level with all the squares that would turn you around.  The one with the pits of insta-death.  It also taught me the word “apostate.”

6. Stellar Emperor (1985) – Apple II

The GEnie version of MegaWars III at its inception, it was my first foray into multiplayer online games.  I have written about the game, even about winning.

Emperor of the Galaxy

Emperor of the Galaxy

But it was the online, playing with other people, usually the same people, making friends and enemies and having ongoing relationships that sold the game.  Again, it was primitive, even in its day, with ASCII based terminal graphics.  But there was magic in the mixture.

7. Civilization (1991) – Mac/Windows

The flat world of original Civ

The flat world of original Civ

Sid Meier was already something of a star by the time Civilization came out, but this cemented things as far as I was concerned.  I was considering putting Civilization II on the list rather than this.  Once I got Civ II, I never went back and played the original.

But that wasn’t because the original was crap.  That was because the sequel built on what was great in the original.  It was purely an evolutionary move.  But it was the original that hooked me, so that has to get the nod for influential.

8. Marathon (1994) – Mac

Spooky

Spooky

For me, this was the defining first person shooter.  There was a single player campaign.  There was a multiplayer deathmatch mode.  There were a variety of weapons.  There was a map editor and some mods and an online community that built up around it.  Everything after Marathon was just an incremental improvement for me.

Marathon on my iPad

Marathon on my iPad

There have been better graphics, better rendering engines, different weapons, plenty of variety on arena options, all sorts of updates on match making and connectivity, but in the end those are just updates to what Marathon already did.  To this day, I still sometimes say “I’ll gather” when creating a game or match for other people to join.  That was the terminology from 1994.  I wonder what Bungie has done since this?

9. TacOps  (1994) – Mac/Windows

Before video games I played a lot of Avalon Hill war games.  Those sorts of games made the natural transition to the computer, which was ideal for handling much of the housekeeping chores.  However, in the transition, some old conventions got dragged along as well, like hexes.  And I hate hexes.  Yes, on a board game you need to use that hexgrid for movement.  I could accept that for Tobruk set up on the kitchen table.  But a computer was fully capable of handling movement without such an arbitrary overlay.  A couple of games tried it, but they tended to fall into the more arcade-ish vein, which wasn’t what I wanted.

And then I picked up a copy of TacOps.

Giving orders on an open map

Giving orders on an open map

I bought it on a complete whim, picking up the very rare initial boxed version off the shelf at ComputerWare before it went completely to online sales.  And it was a revelation.  Hey, terrain governs movement.  And cover.  And visibility.  That plus simultaneous movement phases rather than turn based combat meant wonderful chaos on the field.  The game was good enough that the military of several countries contracted for special versions of the game to use as a training tool.

I originally had Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin on my list.  That is where Battlefront.com really came into their own with the Combat Mission series.  But aside from 3D graphics, TacOps had done it all already.

10. TorilMUD (1993) – various platforms

Have I not written enough about the last 20 years of TorilMUDPrecursor to the MMORPG genre for me.  Without it I might not have understood that camping mobs for hours at a stretch was “fun.”

11. Diablo (1996) – Windows

A simpler time... in HELL

A simpler time… in HELL

I have written quite a bit about my fondness for Diablo II, while I haven’t gone back to play the original Diablo since the sequel came out.  But I wouldn’t be still talking about Diablo II or comparing the merits of Diablo III, Torchlight II, and Path of Exile had the original not been something very, very special.

12. Total Annihilation (1997) – Windows

Total Annihilation

Total Annihilation

Total Annihilation was not the first RTS game I played.  I am pretty sure I played Dune II and Warcraft before it.  It is not the RTS game I have played the most.  I am sure I have more hours in both StarCraft and Age of Kings.  But it was the first RTS game that showed me that the genre could be about something more than a very specific winning build order.  All the units, on ground, in the air, on the water, were amazing.  The player maps were amazing, and player created AIs were even better.  The 3D terrain and line of sight and all that was wonderful.  And new units kept getting released.  And you could nuke things.  I still find the game amazing.

13. EverQuest (1999) – Windows

Fifteen years later and nothing has made my mouth hang open like it did on the first day I logged into Norrath.  I can grouse about SOE and the decisions they have made and the state of the genre, but that day back in 1999 sunk the hook into me good and hard and it hasn’t worked itself loose since.  Pretty much what this whole blog is about.

Froon!

Froon!

14. Pokemon Diamond (2006) – Nintendo DS

Before we got my daughter a DS lite and a copy of Pokemon Diamond, Pokemon was pretty much just a cartoon on TV and a card game somebody’s kid at work played.  Sure, I knew who Pikachu was, but I had no real clue about the video game.

And then in watching my daughter play, I had to have my own DS and copy of the game.  Make no mistake, despite its reputation as a kids game, Pokemon can be deep and satisfying.  It tickles any number of gamer needs.  My peak was in HeartGold/SoulSilver, where I finally caught them all.

Back when 493 was all

Back when 493 was all

While I have stopped playing, that doesn’t mean I don’t think about buying a 3DS XL and a copy of Pokemon X or Y and diving back into the game.  It is that good.

15. LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy (2006) – many platforms

Filling this last slot… tough to do.  There are lots of potential games out there.  For example, I like tower defense games, but which one sold me on the idea?  But for a game that launched me into a lot of play time over a series of titles, I have to go with LEGO Star Wars II.

LEGO Star Wars II

LEGO Star Wars II

That is where Travelers Tales really hit their stride.  The original LEGO Star Wars tried to hard to be a serious and difficult game.  With this second entry, they realized the power of simply being fun and irreverent.  That was the magic.

And I only have to look at the shelf of console games we have to see that LEGO games dominate as a result of this one title. They have evolved, and in some ways I think they have lost a bit of their charm by trying to do too much.  We got the LEGO Movie Game for the PS3 and it didn’t have the joy of LEGO Star Wars II.  Still, 8 years down the road, the influence of LEGO Star Wars II got us to try it.

Fools Errand?

Of course, putting limits like an arbitrary number on a list like this means it must ring false in some way.  And what does influential really mean?  I know what I said, but I can look back at that list and nitpick that, say, Castle Wolfenstein might not belong.  And what about genres I missed, like tower defense?  I could make the case that Defense Grid: The Awakening belongs on the list.  What about games like EVE Online?  Actually, I explained that one away to myself, seeing EVE as sort of the bastard child of Stellar Emperor and EverQuest or some such.  And while TorilMUD is so powerful in my consciousness, would I have played it had it not been for Gemstone? Where does NBA Jams fit?  And what other Apple II games did I miss?  Should Ultima III be on there?  Lode Runner Karateka?

And somehow this all ties into my post about platforms and connectivity options I have had over the years.

Anyway, there is my list, and I stand firm behind it today.  Tomorrow I might change my mind.  You are welcome to consider this a meme and take up the challenge of figuring out your 15 most influential games.

Others who have attempted to pick their 15, each with their own history:

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.

Items from the Mail Bag – Press Releases and Special Offers Edition

Digging into the mail bag, another reminder that I haven’t felt inspired to write about much new of late.

Darkfall: Unholy Wait

Aventurine sent me the press release announcing that Darkfall: Unholy Wars would finally launch on April 16th, after a five month delay.

DFLOGO B-450

Back in September of 2012 they announced that the original Darkfall would shut down on November 15th to make room for Unholy Wars, which was slated to launch on the 20th of the same month.  And then… well… the Aventurine reputation needed to be maintain.  So here we are, seven months after that announcement, and the game should launch next week.

Now, the press release points out that this time was well spent, that much was learned from the beta.  We shall see next week.  Maybe.

Blizzard Remains Steadfast

After running out my seven free days of World of Warcraft, I remained on the fence about whether it would be worthwhile to subscribe or not.  And then, ten days later, I received an email from Blizz with a subject line asking me to resubscribe to the game.

WoWResubNow

I was intrigued.  I wondered if Blizz might sweeten the deal now that they had me thinking about the game.  A special offer might have been enough to tip the balance.

But there was no special offer.  It was just a link to the standard subscription page.  Blizz isn’t at a point right now where it feels the need to anything special to get people to come back.

Twitter Pushes Advertising

Twitter has decided that I am a small business and, as such, I need to advertise on their service.  So I received a whole stream of messages from them offering me a free $50 advance on my advertising.

TwitterAd

I have not taken them up on their offer, having no idea what I would even promote.

Mega Wars IV

Crimson Leaf Games, which recreated the classic CompuServe game Mega Wars III that I poked my nose into ages ago, has taken the idea a step further and created Mega Wars IV which includes a full graphical client done in Microsoft Silverlight.

MegaWars4

Interestingly, Stellar Emperor, the version of the game that ran on GEnie, which I have also covered, went this route in the early 90s, adding on a graphical client and updating the game, thus diverging it from what stated off as its twin, Mega Wars III.

Populist Wish Fulfillment

I keep getting press releases around a film titled Assault on Wall Street.  The synopsis for the picture is:

Jim is an average New Yorker living a peaceful life with a well paying job and a loving family. Suddenly, everything changes when the economy crashes causing Jim to lose his job, home and wife. Filled with anger and rage, Jim snaps and goes to extreme lengths to seek revenge for the life taken from him.

The poster shows the star, Dominic Purcell a pistol in one hand, a combat rifle in the other, with bullet riddled NYPD cars and SWAT teams deploying in the background.

So, yeah, gun violence.  I guess that takes Occupy Wall Street up a notch.  Let’s go kill the 1%!

Given that the only name I recognize in the cast is Eric Roberts, and that they are sending press releases to random gaming blogs, I am going to guess they couldn’t get any funding from those in the 1%.

World of Tanks Rolls On

Wargaming.net is very good about sending out regular press releases.  Two big things they have coming up are the World of Tanks 8.5 update, which includes more German tanks, redone maps, and changes to what non-premium accounts can do.  There is a preview over at The Mittani.

And then there is World of Tanks Blitz.

WoT_Blitz_Logo_800px

This is Wargaming.net’s attempt to bring World of Tanks to mobile platforms.  Featuring 7 vs. 7 battles, I will be interested to see how they translate their Windows shooter to that mobile world.

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)

Items from the Mail Bag

The email address on the About page here is an address that I use primarily for blog related activity.  I have other accounts for personal email, game registration, and the like.  Too many addresses probably, as I have no doubt I’ve lost a couple due to memory lapse.

So mail that comes to that blog address is generally addressed to be in my role as the guy who write The Ancient Gaming Noob.  I get press releases from a variety of companies, which I like, and the usual amount of spam, which I do not.

And then there are the messages that don’t quite fit, simple requests from individuals or small companies sharing information about an article or a product.  Some of these are no doubt shot-gun blast email attempting to get attention from some quarter, but some probably just went to me.  Maybe.

So I have decided that every so often I’ll just make a weekend post and put together these sorts of messages and let you tell me which ones were worthwhile and which were the suck.  This is what I have for June, in the order I received it.

  • Crimson Leaf Games, who remade MegaWars III/Stellar Emperor, have been working on a version of the game that has a GUI called WarpPlus.  They plan to branch it out into at least two different games when the work is complete.  You can see more at their site.
  • Technorati would like me to blog on their site, though they would allow me to cross post here.  They say I would get a lot more readers.  You or I can apply here.  I am not sure what Technorati’s role in the world is these days, so I am not sure what this offer means beyond “come give Technorati content for free.”
  • Jane at MSO Marketing “came across” a two year old post on the site about WoW Patch 3.2 would like me to post a few links on my site for a hosting company.  However, MSO Marketing does not buy links, though they would like to “support my web site with a donation.”
  • Chris at What MMORPG? would like me to link his site on the blog, but I cannot really tell what category his site would fit into, much less if the whole thing is an attempt to make money through game registration referrals.
  • GimmeGolf, which I mentioned in a post ages ago, and which has since ceased operation, but announced a deal where their registered users get special perks if they subscribe to World Golf Tour.  It does not look like you have to be a registered user, you just have to go to World Golf Tour from the GimmeGolf site.  So if you are quitting EVE and looking for a golf MMO, here is your chance.
  • Sara McDowell, who runs a site that appears to make money on referrals to video game design university programs, thinks my readers would be interested in her post on The 15 Greatest Video Game Designers of All Time.  A lot of Japanese guys on that list.
  • The Action Marketing Group, whose web site has an message about the company that flashes by so fast that I could not read it, thinks I would be interested in playing classic Atari games on Pepsi Throwback’s Facebook page.  I’m not sure how they failed to work Twitter into that pitch.  If you get a high score, you could win something.
  • Anna Miller, who runs a site that appears to make money on referrals to online degree programs, and who uses the exact same title, wording, and formatting as Sara McDowell, wants to share her post about the 12 Most Violent Video Games of All Time.  “All Time” is apparently an important modifier in these things, certain to help these sorts of posts stand up over time.  All time.  And I am going to guess that this post and Sara’s post were lifted from some other site.

All I can really say about the sites as a whole is that none appear to infect your computer with malware.