Thursday, May 23, 2024

Futurewar: Summary and Rating

As far as I made it.
United States
Independently developed
Released 1977 for the PLATO mainframe at the University of Illinois
Updated several times between 1977 and 1980; recreated for Cyber1 in 2017
Date Started: 26 April 2024
Date Ended: 20 May 2024
Total Hours: 20
Difficulty: Hard (4.0/5)
Final Rating: 18
Ranking at time of posting: 136/521 (26%)
FutureWar was designed so that it is possible to win, but I wouldn't say that it was "designed to be won." Its audience was hundreds of college students who had no Netflix, Kindle, or Spotify, and who had less than half a dozen other games to occupy their time. I managed to get a character to the third-highest rank on the leaderboard (the only two higher are owned by the game's creator), see all of the levels, and get killed by the final boss. That seems good enough. 
There I am at #3. I guess I made it to master sergeant.
The game consists of 20 levels. The first five are the starting zones for each of the game's factions: Americans, Guerrillas, Barbarians, Martians, and Cyborgs. The Cyborgs have the worst "home" level. You can't leave the opening area without wading through radioactive waste and sewage, and much of the rest of the level has large pools of it. 
The Cyborgs got the raw end of this post-apocalyptic land-grab.
Fortunately, the faction level on which you start isn't the only one that you can access. When the game was current, you might get into fights by visiting other factions' levels, but for the modern player, you can pick and choose, especially since the bases don't do anything.

The Martian Zone has a smiley face in the wall pattern. The Americans and Guerrillas have the most maze-like levels. The Barbarians have a nice mix of corridors and open space, and I ended up settling on them for that and other reasons.
Maybe this is supposed to be an actual martian.
Each faction level has an elevator that takes you to Level 6, the beginning of the dungeon proper. From there, most levels have an elevator back up to the faction levels. Levels get incrementally difficult as you go down, but this is mostly imperceptible until you reach Level 12.
One of the more difficult enemies that I fought.
It's not hard to keep a character alive once you stabilize him around character Level 10 or so; however, it did take me many hours to get there. Perhaps more important than the character level is finding certain bits of equipment. Once you have a bulletproof vest or flak jacket, your character is effectively immortal for the first 5 levels. Exploding treasure chests, mines, and hazardous terrain become far more dangerous than any foe. Once you find a force field and a jetpack (allowing you to fly over hazardous terrain), your character is immortal until at least dungeon Level 15. I can't tell you about the last five levels because I didn't fight a single enemy on them. I was just trying to reach the endgame at that point, and I had found an "Invisibility" field, so I could walk through entire levels without tripping any encounters. This turned out to be a bad idea.
Invisibility lets weak characters get further than they probably should.
Combat for most characters never gets more interesting than lining up the barrel of your gun with an enemy and hitting S)hoot. I feel like the game almost requires you to miss your first few shots in order to artificially prolong combat. Although I was playing a barbarian, the only faction that can use a club, I could never get the club to work. I ended up just using an Uzi for most of the game. Technos and holy men face a very different game, with 16 different offensive technologies (i.e., spells) to use, and I frankly wonder if these options aren't functionally necessary to defeat Doctor Brain at the end of the game.
Hard to imagine that Doctor Brain could survive a nuclear device.
After the five faction levels, you face the War Zone, the Battle Zone, the Arena, the Lethal Zone, No-Mans-Land, and the Crater. Except for the War Zone, No-Mans-Land, and the Crater, I only mapped them long enough to find the way to the next level. The Arena lives up to its name by having a large, open area in the middle of the level with what could be "cells" in a ring around it. The Crater has a single hallway in a ring around a largely open and fractured level, with numerous pits to the one below. No-Mans-Land is the most mazelike of all the levels.
No-Mans-Land. I'm glad there weren't more levels like this.
You start on all of these levels at (2,1). On the five faction levels, (1,1) is the exit, but for the six levels below it, that square is nothing special. For the first 11 levels, the elevator down is found invariably at (20,20), though again you can sometimes find a second elevator or a pit if you want a shortcut. If you want to level up, heal, recharge, and leave the dungeon, you have to find an elevator back up to the faction levels and use the exits.
The Radioactive Wasteland (Level 12) changes the rules somewhat. For the first time since the Cyborg Zone, there's an "exit" at (1,1), letting you heal and save without trekking all the way back up to the first five levels. There are exits every two or three levels for the rest of the game. 
There were times that I got a lot more experience from looting than from combat.
Below the Radioactive Wasteland are the Mutant Zone, the Outer Limits, the Suburbs, the Dead City, the Basement, the Sub-Basement, the Sewer, and finally the PITS. These levels mix things up by putting the down elevator somewhere other than (20,20), although that spot returns for the last three levels. 
Late in the game, I just rushed from one level to the next, fleeing from most combats and then using my invisibility device once I figured out how it worked. Because of this, I missed a lot of late-game grinding plus any late-game equipment. The most advanced weapon I found was an M-60 machine gun, which my hunter character couldn't use, but there are at least 10 more weapon types beyond that. It was a similar story with armor.
My character only got as far as the ballistic vest.
I also missed a lot of miscellaneous gear. I've already talked about the uses of jet packs, invisibility cloaks, and force fields. Flashlights help you see enemies in nearby squares, but only sometimes. There were several items I didn't find, including a "spirit vial," which allows for a free resurrection. 
Not unless it comes with an assistant gunner and an ammo bearer.
Despite all that I missed, I made it to character level 48 and the PITS. I didn't really have trouble with most enemies even on this last level. I made my way to the (20,20) square, and I was automatically teleported to battle with Doctor Brain. He had almost 1,000 hit points, and he killed me in two blows.

Author Erik Witz was kind enough to send me an image of the winning screen:
This screen comes at the conclusion of a fun cinematic that has some other plot points. Witz suggested I leave it undescribed so that future winners still get an unexpected reward.
The game also has another surprise: somewhere in the PITS, you can find a hole to an even lower level. This turns out to be Hell. On this level, you can find the Devil himself; he's apparently about as hard as Doctor Brain.
Witz's character battles Satan himself.
I wish I could take the time to win this legitimately. It has some balance issues, but overall it's a clever game whose "win" condition is only about as onerous as the batch of commercial CRPGs that we'd see a decade later. As always, I'm impressed at what these kids (Witz was 15) managed to produce at the dawn of the genre, with no references or templates. If Futurewar had been released for the microcomputer, it would have been a smash hit. It would have blown away just about every other game available for the next 7 years.
I forgot to mention that you can get specific statistics on your opponents in combat.
In several emails, Witz alerted me to several other bits of information about both Futurewar and other PLATO games of the time. One thing that I have to keep reminding myself is that these games were in relatively constant development, so what we're playing today is not necessarily what players saw in the games' release years. Moria (1975), for instance, which I'm sure at one point or another I've called the first 3D RPG, actually didn't get its 3D perspective until late in 1977 or 1978. Even in Futurewar's initial release, "only your guy rotated, not the maze view." (Having typed that, I confess that I can't imagine what it functionally looked like.) Oubliette (1977), it turns out, had the first proper perspective-shifting 3D view, which Witz quickly copied for Futurewar.
The last shot I took of the character with all his statistics and gear.
While we're on the subject of "firsts," I must report, without fully understanding it, that Futurewar's graphics are more advanced than anything else on PLATO at the time in that "the character graphics were stored in datasets and loaded for every encounter which allowed for a vast array of sprites." Witz built his own character editor to accomplish this. It's kind of the first game with animated enemies, in that they jump around the screen during combat (the images themselves don't change).
The last couple of levels have either broken windows or abstract art on the walls.
[Ed. After publishing this entry, I heard again from Erik Witz. I was incorrect above; there are some enemy graphics that are animated, including a "mutant" whose mouth opens and closes. Witz also said that he's reasonably sure Futurewar's 3D interface predates Oubliette's.]
A shot from Witz's graphics editor shows how the face of the "mutant" is animated.
I think it's also the first CRPG with "terrains," including radioactive waste, rubble, sewage, and fire. Here again, I'll hide my technical ignorance by just quoting directly from Witz: "Because Futurewar keeps 4 bits per square, it can handle up to 16 possibilities . . . no players, one player, more than one player, mutant, treasure, item, elevator, mine, pit, teleporter up, teleporter down, base, and multiple terrain types." Other contemporary games were more limited in what they could provide in a single square.
Not that I would have minded if these squares didn't exist.
Finally, one of my favorite parts of the game is the random graffiti that we see spray painted across the walls. I took note of a random sample:

This is an example of what I was just complimenting in relation to Dungeon Hack: Using randomization to add a little fun and flavor to what would otherwise be just a bunch of repeating textures. In this case, they fit the weird, post-apocalyptic vibe of the game quite well.
I feel like a sign with this message would be so much more effective than one telling you to beware of a specific animal, such as a dog.
It amazes me that this far into this project, I'm still finding new uses of the word "first" for games created in the 1970s. And if Witz hadn't taken the time to re-enter the code in 2017, we probably never would have heard of it. What other lost wonders are still waiting to be discovered?

Witz wrote to me that he never even thought of trying to make a career in gaming, although "after learning of the millions made by people like Lord British, I wish I had stayed in the field." He seems to have done very well for himself in the private sector regardless.
All right, it's time to Kilroy up and see if I can make any sense of Loremaster.


  1. AlphabeticalAnonymousMay 23, 2024 at 12:50 PM

    What an impressive feat -- the game itself, but also playing through it so far in such a relatively short span of time.

    The article seems to mix references to Doctor Brain and to Doctor Evil; are there two doctors in the house?

    1. No, that was just me being sloppy. Surprised I didn't accidentally throw a Who or a No in there, too.

    2. How awesome would an rpg where the villains were a group made up of Dr.'s Brain, Evil, Who, and No be?

    3. AlphabeticalAnonymousMay 24, 2024 at 12:17 PM

      The jokes about 'playing Doctor' would just about write themselves!

  2. Congrats on the number three slot! The PLATO games are always interesting to read about, too.

    I know "Loremcaster" is a typo, rather than an intentional portmanteau of Loremaster + lorem ipsum, but given the janky nature of the game it actually works!

  3. "Futurewar: Summary and Rating"

    Well, I've read the summary, but can't find the rating - how does it compare on the gimlet?

    1. AlphabeticalAnonymousMay 23, 2024 at 3:29 PM

      You can find it on the "Game Rankings" google spreadsheet linked from the main blog page. Total score 18: receiving highest scores in equipment and gameplay, lowest in NPCs.

  4. Awesome. You have reached the end of futurewar and you have made it look easy. I wish I had the time necessary to complete the feat and see that final animation.

    Regarding Moria and Oubliette, I reached the same conclusion, but I am glad to have confirmation from a contemporary author.

  5. "If Futurewar had been released for the microcomputer, it would have been a smash hit. It would have blown away just about every other game available for the next 7 years."

    It also probably would have taken about 7 years for a port of Futurewar to a microcomputer to even be possible.

  6. I would presume that the reason for the smiley face in the Martian level is because of the famous "face on Mars" image from the Viking lander, which would've been taken the year before release (1976):

  7. I assume that stuff about graphics means "other PLATO games loaded all their monster graphics into memory at once and thus couldn't have that many different monster graphics, while Futurewar was able to fetch graphics only when needed from disk for a much bigger array of monster graphics."

    Dr. Brain, huh? I guess he never grew out of wanting to live within a dungeon.

  8. An invisibility field ? This pre-dates "Predator" (the 1987 Schwarzenegger movie) by ten years !

    1. Romulan ships had cloaking devices all the way back in the Star Trek TOS.

  9. Very american, that everyone can use an Uzi, but only Barbarians (literally: From another country), can use clubs :-)


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