Wednesday, June 30, 2021

BRIEF: Everything We Know About 1970s Mainframe RPGs We Can No Longer Play

A PLATO terminal in a museum case at the University of Illinois; photo taken by the author in 2013.
        
This entry summarizes a series of 1970s mainframe games that have been so lost we don't even have screenshots. 
 
Before posting this entry, I scoured available books, magazines, web sites (including those archived), and message boards. I also asked several dozen PLATO authors, administrators, and former CRPG Addict contributors--everyone I could find--for any additional recollections about the games. I stopped only when I was confident there was nothing left to learn. If you have any new or conflicting information about any of the games below, I welcome your comments below or an e-mail to crpgaddict@gmail.com. I will update the information below with any new material discovered. However, please do not take it upon yourself to try to track down and contact any of the people listed here on my behalf; it is likely that I have already reached out and they either declined to respond or already told me all they could.
 
Except for Don Daglow's Dungeon, all the games listed below were written in a language called TUTOR for the PLATO educational mainframe hosted by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. (Some of the authors of these games come from schools that had PLATO links, like Purdue University, Iowa State University, and Indiana University.) Many of the games written on this system have been preserved and are playable today at Cyber1. Games that are not lost, and that I've already covered, include The Dungeon (1975), The Game of Dungeons (1975), Orthanc (1975), Moria (1975), Oubliette (1977), Swords and Sorcery (1978), Avatar (1979), and Camelot (1982).
   
Students began writing these games almost immediately after the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. The developers were aware of the games being written by other students, and there was a healthy mix of cooperation and competition. It's tough to nail down specific dates, or a specific order, for some of the games because they were continuously updated throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. (Some of them, like Orthanc, even had new coding added well into the 2000s.) What is the "release year" of games developed under such circumstances? There was no distinction between "beta testing" and actual gameplay.
     
The other important thing to understand about these early games is that they were bootlegging computer space. In the early years, university administrators and system operators frowned upon wasting precious system resources for games (not an entirely unreasonable perspective given the number of stories I've heard about students neglecting their studies to write and play games). Authors tried to disguise their games by giving them educational-sounding names or prefixes used by the lesson spaces allotted to various university departments. pedit5 (The Dungeon) had that file name because it was created on the space allotted to the Population and Energy group. I don't know what the prefix for m199h meant, but that was almost certainly a file name, not the actual name of the game, just like almost no game in Daniel Lawrence's DND line, including Lawrence's, was actually called DND.
   
Many PLATO RPGs were started, deleted, re-started, and deleted again. When Reginald Rutherford's pedit5 was deleted, students re-created it as Orthanc. When Orthanc got axed, they brazenly followed up with Orthanc2. An entire series of games beginning with the word Think was chased off the system one by one and re-created. Eventually, university officials gave up and allowed the games to remain, which is why the post-1976 games are much better preserved, sometimes in multiple versions. 
    
m199h (1974 or 1975)
     
m199h is the legendary lost "first" CRPG, supposedly written on the PLATO system at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. m199h would have been its file name, but it almost certainly had a more descriptive title, just like pedit5 was really called The Dungeon and dnd was really The Game of Dungeons. It was written in the lesson space allocated to a foreign-language department.

A lot of web sites and books mention the game, but almost all of them draw from only two sources. The first is a note file on PLATO written by Dirk Pellett, one of the contributors to The Game of Dungeons. It covers the history of RPGs on PLATO. He says:
        
It is "common knowledge" that someone created the very first dungeon simulation game in a lesson called "m199h" which was NOT created by the account director for the purpose of gamers playing games. When it was discovered, it got the axe. Unfortunately, little else is known about m199h, either the author, or what it was like, and no known copy exists.
     
This would seem to be the source of Brian Dear's brief mention of the game (which he accidentally calls m119h) in The Friendly Orange Glow, the basis of numerous subsequent citations.
   
The second source is, I believe, a comment on my own blog. A lot of sites, including MobyGames, claim that the game was developed "in a lesson space reserved for foreign language instruction," an assertion that I believe first appeared in this comment by Don Gillies. Gillies was a student at the university in the 1970s. He wrote Swords and Sorcery (1978) for PLATO. Gillies thought that m199h was actually the third or fourth Dungeons & Dragons derivative written for PLATO. Most other accounts say m199h was the first, but I believe all of them trace back to Pellett, so in the end, we basically have one PLATO developer saying it was the first and one saying it wasn't. It's possible that neither of them is wrong, but each is applying a different standard for how a game is "dated."
     
A 2011 recollection from a Cyber1 administrator, who had played m199h in the day, was that it was at least partly based on a game called Monster Maze written by a Terry O'Brian on a CDC 6600. Gillies said that The Game of Dungeons and m199h "looked almost exactly the same after the splash screen; if you were in the dungeon, you could hardly tell which game you were playing." This suggests that m199h would have been a top-down game in which the character explored a maze-like level, found items and treasures, and fought monsters. It had good graphics, according to most recollections, but smaller than The Dungeon or The Game of Dungeons. It had no multi-player capabilities.
   
In 2016, one of my sources wrote to me that he had discovered, in some forgotten boxes, printouts of screen captures of all the spells and "graphics characters" used in m199h, "including a very beautiful character in robes with a lantern that represents the player himself." I have spent the last five years periodically begging him to scan them and either send them to me or post them somewhere on the Internet. Of course, I wanted the "scoop," but I would have been happy if he'd offered them to anyone just so we could see what they looked like. I've been delaying this entry, or one like it, for years, hoping I could include some of those screenshots along with it. Alas, he stopped replying to my e-mails several years ago, and I assume it's a lost cause.
        
Dungeon (1975)
     
Dungeon, credited to John Daleske, Gary Fritz, Jon Good, Bill Gammel, and Mark Nakada, is in some ways as much of a mystery as m199h. John Daleske is famous in PLATO circles for creating Empire when he was an Iowa State University student in 1973. Numerous game histories and PLATO histories mention him and Empire, but none of them seem to be aware of Dungeon. The game doesn't show up in Dirk Pellett's history, either. I wouldn't have known about it at all except I was trying obvious keywords in PLATO, and up popped the title screen you see below. The copyright dates show that someone visited it as late as 2004.
      
The one game for which I can show an image.
      
In any event, the game doesn't seem to be any more than the title screen. The key commands that would normally run the program or take you to the documentation do nothing.
   
The obvious question is whether Dungeon is the same game as the mysterious m199h. After all, Daleske already had two years of TUTOR experience and had created some extremely popular games. He would have been well-positioned to create a Dungeons & Dragons-inspired game as soon as the tabletop edition generated interest. m199h is a rumored game from 1975 for which no one remembers the real title or author; here is a named game from 1975 that has a title and author. It would hardly be the first time that the same game was rebuilt under a new lesson name. And the title screen suggests that Dungeon fits Gillies' recollection that the monster and item graphics were smaller.
  
Alas, John Daleske's own brief notes on the game say that it had a first-person view and supported multiple players, whereas the limited information we have on m199h suggests it was top-down and single-player only. Moreover, Daleske notes that the game was "incomplete," which is probably why we cannot play it today. He also says that it was a "predecessor to Moria," which currently has the distinction of being the earliest complete first-person, multi-character CRPG. Does "predecessor" mean that it inspired Moria or that it simply preceded it?
    
Dungeon (1975)
      
Dungeon is the only game on this list not hosted on PLATO. It was written in 1975 or 1976 by Don Daglow, then a graduate student at Claremont University Center in California, on the university's DEC PDP-10. Daglow is one of the only student developers from this era to make a career in game design and programming. He worked for Mattel (programming for Intellivision titles) in the early 1980s and Electronic Arts in the mid- to late 1980s, where he produced Stuart Smith's Adventure Construction Set (1984) and wrote a module for it. After a brief stint at Brøderbund at the end of the decade, he founded Stormfront Studios and designed the two Savage Frontier games (1991 and 1992), Neverwinter Nights (1991), and Stronghold (1993), among many non-RPGs. Later switching to more of an executive role, he oversaw the production of Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor (2001) and Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone (2004), again among many others.
     
What we know about Dungeon goes back to May 1986, when Daglow wrote an article titled "The Dark Ages of Computer Game Design" for Computer Gaming World. Amid a long discussion about the difficulties programming games on overburdened mainframes and hiding them from system administrators, he mentions his "first adventure game, which continually updated a 40 x 80 map to show what your party had seen, so excruciatingly slow as to be unplayable." In a subsequent article in the August 1998 issue, he mentions that the game had "both ranged and melee combat, lines of sight, auto-mapping, and NPCs with discrete AI."
    
Daglow has dropped other tidbits in a variety of interviews, but the most complete account comes from a 2015 interview with a French blogger. Here, we learn that in contrast to endless randomly-generated content of his PLATO contemporaries, Daglow designed his Dungeon more like a Dungeons & Dragons module, with both fixed encounters and "wandering monsters" on a fixed map. It was a single-player game with a party of six characters. (Multiple players could huddle around the same computer and control their own characters, but that's not the same as the multiplayer experience on PLATO, where the students could literally communicate and cooperate from different terminals.) Daglow "religiously followed all the D&D rules," which included slow combat and even slower leveling ("getting to the 4th level was a big deal"). "Graphics" were all text characters. A lot of sites, including Wikipedia, seem to rely on this interview in reporting that Daglow's line-of-sight programming included considerations of torchlight and infravision, but I'm not sure that's exactly what Daglow says in the interview. Specifically, he says that rules about lighting and infravision in D&D inspired his use of line-of-sight in the game, but not necessarily that he implemented those specific features. Nonetheless, I suppose we can extrapolate based on his claims of strict adherence to D&D rules.
    
Some sites continue to report Daglow's Dungeon as the "first computer role-playing game," a status that remains uncertain without more clarification of the dates of his game, m199h, or both. But I don't get the sense from his writings and interviews that his Dungeon was played to the extent that the PLATO games were played. The Dungeon, Orthanc, and The Game of Dungeons, all 1975 contemporaries, had thousands of eager players competing for playing time and saved game slots. We also have recollections from dozens of actual players of the PLATO games (and can, of course, play many of them ourselves right now), whereas we have only Daglow's recollections on Dungeon. I don't mean this to cast doubt on Daglow's account, just to emphasize that the PLATO games had an influence--felt directly in later commercial titles like Wizardry (1981)--that Dungeon did not, and I would thus continue to favor them as the true "first CRPGs."
      
The Think Series (1975-1977)
      
The Think series was a succession of games, or variants of the same game, with file names like Think2 and Think15. Don Gillies told me that they had been written by students of the University Laboratory High School (basically a high school run by the University of Illinois). The original was written by a Jim Mayeda. As with many of the other early RPGs, the file names were meant to disguise from university administrators the fact that the file contained a game; the games had nothing to do with "thinking" in particular. The games supposedly took the grid-based gameplay of Mike Mayfield's Star Trek (1971) and ported it to a high-fantasy wilderness setting. The files were eventually deleted, but Don Gillies used the concept to write Swords and Sorcery (1978), which I covered in 2019.
    
Pits of Baradur (1976 or 1977)
     
The limited information we have about Pits of Baradur mostly seems to come from a single source: a Griffith M. Morgan III, who wrote an article about the PLATO games in the Spring 2012 issue of the hobby magazine Irregular. He says that the game was created by his two friends, Justin Grunau and Michael Stecyk, and that he himself had designed one of the dungeon levels. Morgan is almost certain the same person as "Blackmoor," who provided essentially the same information on a message board in 2019, adding only that the file name was "baradur." Per recollections of a former student in the comments section below, it was apparently a top-down dungeon crawl (thus in the "pedit5" Dungeon line), "Tolkien-themed, brutally hard, not partiularly fun, and not super popular."
   
Bugs 'N Drugs (1977 or 1978)
     
Brian Dear has a little more information about this Game of Dungeons reskin by medical students Mike Gorback and David Tanaka. It predictably used the lesson name bnd. Instead of a dungeon, the game took place in a hospital. "As you walked the corridors of the hospital, you would encounter 'monsters,' but in bnd they were bacteria or germs, and your 'weapons' to fight them were various antibiotics." Dear is the sole source on this one, but Gorback confirmed the game (without supplying any more details) in an Amazon product review. In the comments section below, former student Felix Gallo says that it was ostensibly meant to be educational.
     
Drygulch (1980)
    
Drygulch is perhaps the best-documented game in this list, partly because it was developed as a commercial product. (Here I am continuing to rely on Dear's well-researched book.) In the mid-1970s, Control Data Corporation (CDC), which had been supplying hardware and software for the PLATO system for years, obtained a license from the University of Illinois to commercialize PLATO. Around 1980, the company began selling home terminals and terminal software for micro-computers, plus a service called "Homelink" that allowed home computers to connect to CDC's data center for $5 per hour.
   
The service failed for a variety of reasons, but one of its outcomes was Drygulch, a western-themed MMO written by CDC employee Mike Johnson. A write-up in the November 1984 Antic magazine describes the gameplay:
    
PLATO's Drygulch is set in an Old West town. You are a miner trying to live long and prosper, which is not easy when hazards abound in the mines and in the wastelands surrounding the town. You must eat and drink enough to keep healthy, make sure you have enough prospecting equipment, etc. There are elections for sheriff, mayor, and mine inspector. Each position offers potential for added fun and profit.
    
The game featured stores, a stable, a hotel, a jail, and a cemetery. Players could play good or bad characters, and the former could bounty-hunt the latter and send them to jail. The interface contrasted a two-dimensional town with a three-dimensional mine that served in place of a dungeon, allowing players to fight enemies and return with heaps of gold.
   
As Drygulch was played well into the mid-1980s, I can't help but think that some photographs, if not screen shots, must still exist somewhere, but there don't seem to be any online. I don't know why Drygulch wasn't preserved by efforts like Cyber1, but I suspect it's because the game was owned by CDC and not the University of Illinois.

67 comments:

  1. Drygulch almost sounds like it could be the grandfather of Sierra's ImagiNation Network role-playing games. Alas, INN was also a service that failed for a variety of reasons, but I have fond memories of playing Red Baron online.

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  2. Interesting article, totally lost artifact. I was surprised by the number of games that existed on mainframe.

    Another graveyard of video games is the French minitel, I don't think any was preserved even though there were hundreds of them. Most were terrible quality and there were only an handful of RPG (almost always multiplayer - same system as mainframe) but still.

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    1. I wonder how many other systems like PLATO were out there and hosted DND-derivatves written by eager students in the 1970s, but we don't remember them because they weren't as well-preserved as PLATO.

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  3. The Plato terminals were alive and well into the early 1990s. I have vague recollections of a Plato terminal running on Macs, as the terminals became scarce.

    Also - don't forget about the 'games' that were used for teaching. I do remember an archeology class - forget which, since I took several of them, that had an online dig. You had a big grid, and you decided where to dig, and funds were subtracted from your account to finance the dig. If you found anything, it would be rendered on the screen, and you can then dig around to see if you could find anything else interesting. You were supposed to submit a paper based on your findings. You could also try to secure more funds by petitioning the professor. If he liked your proposal, you'd get more funds to continue your dig.

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    1. stepped pyramidsJune 30, 2021 at 9:21 PM

      The first "management game" (which was influential on both RPGs and strategy games of all sorts) was an educational simulation:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sumerian_Game

      And, of course, war games themselves originated as an educational and planning tool for the actual military. A lot of game genres owe their origins to more practical products.

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    2. I was born in 78 and have vivid memories of using a program called Logos to animate geometric designs on a primitive Apple in the 80's. Monochrome monitor. Yeah, that's the totality of my street cred around here.
      This was an interesting trip into something that's not in my wheelhouse. Very cool blog, great write up, good commentary. Bookmarked.

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  4. Can't help but think of all those overzealous system administrators deleting all these games which are now forever lost to history as being a little similar to those people who used to burn Egyptian mummies for fuel. So much of the early heritage of video games is all lost because these unimaginative short-sighted spoilsports were more concerned with making sure students were doing their homework on time. I hope they feel good about themselves.

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    1. To be fair, we're also talking about a time when computing time and memory space was a lot more valuable. I'd compare it more to someone throwing away a pile of papers littering a classroom that turned out to contain an author's unfinished manuscript - tragic, but understandable.

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    2. I can't help but detect the distinct scent of the nasty troll that keeps getting his comments deleted. The last sentence is a dead giveaway - it's how the troll doesn't feel, and why he keeps posting things to make everyone else feel like he does.

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    3. Yeah, I have to agree with Ian. It's a bit like saying I should leave the graffiti on my garage because the artist might turn out to be the next Banksy. There's no way the administrators could have known that they were seeing the birth of a new genre, that's not what the system was for anyway, and it was having a measurable effect on academic performance.

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    4. You don't burn Egyptian mummies for fuel anyway - you grind them up and snort them through the nose, like a British Gentleman.

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    5. Another thing Egyptian mummies were used for: paint. Ground up and turned into a pigment called 'Mummy Brown'. Think about that next time you visit the art museum to look at some Pre-Raphaelite paintings. You are literally seeing dead people.

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    6. Memory, storage, and processing capacity were just so limited! The PLATO story is well documented in "The Friendly Orange Glow" by Brian Dear for those interested. I read it when it came out and it was very enlightening.

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    7. Still, programming is hard. And making any game is an accomplishment resulting from focus and dedication from a human person. Even if the resources are valuable, I would want to give the author a chance to archive all that work somehow, not just delete it.

      I don't think the analogy of throwing away papers littering a classroom works. This is an art project taking up space in the corner of the classroom.

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    8. Consider the perspective of the people who needed those resources for other, more legitimate projects. They also needed the space and processing power, often for theses/dissertation work. Them complaining that they couldn't do the work may have been what drove the admins to delete the games. I know a woman who worked on Plato stuff at UIUC around this time and getting time on a terminal was a constant consideration for her. Imagine how frustrating it would be to realize that you can't work on your dissertation because a cohort of students is playing m199h all the time.

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    10. There's always cheaper storage... they had tapes that were slow and difficult, but could archive stuff you don't need access to. The compute resources could be conserved while not destroying data. From a storage perspective, also, even then, these games were still probably tiny.

      I know I come at this with decades of hindsight, but destroying data is an irreversible action. That just seems to be way disproportionate to the crime. A permanent solution to a temporary problem...

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    11. I feel like to expand the classroom metaphor, this is less throwing away a student's art project and more throwing out a comic they made using the school's resources while in math class. Sure, it's something they made, but it was made with supplies that were supposed to be used for teaching, at a time they're supposed to be learning something completely different.

      While cheaper storage existed at the time, why would PLATO admins archive something that to them wasn't even supposed to be on there at all? To them it was just taking up space that was supposed to be used for actual lessons, and distracting students from what they were actually supposed to be doing.

      Personally, I graduated from high school in 2015, and grew up with computers in school being fairly normal. A lot of this feels like the 70s equivilant of doing things like blocking Youtube or preventing Minecraft from being installed, where at the end of the day those aren't what the computers are there for and the people running it are going to do what they can to make sure they're used for education. To me, these games make me think of the Minecraft world I had in my Java class: it wasn't what I was there to do, it distracted me from actual assignments, and while losing access to it was a shame, it wasn't my computer and the school whatever they wanted with it. Now, that didn't stop me from playing Nethack because these things were running XP or were Macs and the command prompt wasn't locked down, but from the sounds of it PLATO games getting deleted didn't stop anyone either.

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    12. Very well-argued Twibat. It's too bad that the system administrators didn't realize that they were on the frontier of a new art form, but I don't think they deserve to be condemned for doing their jobs.

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    13. This might be a Lawful/Chaotic alignment split.

      Shredding a comic that a student made using (let's even say expensive) math supplies still seems pretty harsh to me... But, my son scribbles mindlessly on a scrap of paper and we put it up on the fridge.

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    14. Everything gets lost to time eventually. And digital storage, even tape, is not very suitable for long term preservation when compared e.g. to a stone tablet. When archeologists research this era in a few thousand years, they might find little information, but lots of plastic.

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    15. The mummy metaphor is somewhat ironic because mummies, themselves, were sometimes made of discarded papyrus fragments, some of which seem to contain very rare and important texts (like new poems from Sappho! Very early biblical manuscripts! - but the provenance of these documents is unclear. This article in the Atlantic about the possibly fraudulent biblical scholar Dirk Obbink is fascinating reading: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/museum-of-the-bible-obbink-gospel-of-mark/610576/). The creators of the mummies thought the documents were worthless and the mummy cartouche was valuable; unscrupulous scholars today think the documents are worth more and destroy the cartouches to try to retrieve them. And what's more, both groups may have been right when they made those decisions. How were they to know every copy of Sappho's works would be lost and they would only survive in fragments and citations?

      It's hard to blame the system administrators for not seeing the historical value of these early games, especially since none of them seem to be masterpieces based on these descriptions. This seems like a somewhat different case than the people playing the predecessors of Zork on mainframes, who must have known they were on to something special.

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    16. That article doesn't support the notion that anything potentially useful was used for mummy wrappings. The references to works of Sappho and others are to finds of loose papyrus, and it is quite specific that most of the paper found in mummy masks was worthless ephemera.

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    17. Fragments of Sappho poems were certainly found in mummy wrappings in 2004 in a papyrus held at the University of Cologne (This was published as P.Koln XI 429+430). It's likely that Obbink was copying this discovery when inventing a new provenance for his fragments. It's also possible that they were in fact originally found in a cartouche, but their provenance is uncertain because they were smuggled. In any case, the general idea that important texts were sometimes used for mummy wrappings is certainly true.

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    18. The Liber Linteus, the longest extant Etruscan text, was used as mummy wrapping: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liber_Linteus

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    19. The initial post about mummies being burned may have actually been referring to the Nag Hammadi codex. Read under 'Discovery'.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nag_Hammadi_library?wprov=sfla1

      This doesn't really change the point of burning things that someone else will find important, but interesting anyway.

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    20. Rather than assuming we lost countless treasures though, I tend to think that much of what was valuable or popular persisted. Including roguelikes, which are born from similar ground as this.

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  5. I tend to favor the line of reasoning that m199h was never a functioning game... or that it could have been Dungeon. Or that it was a variant of The Dungeon that died quickly.

    I think Pellet wrote the article I read recently discussing the timeline of The Dungeon and The Game of Dungeons that made no mention of an earlier game that actually worked.

    I don't think we'll ever have a definitive answer unless somebody comes up with some new printouts at this point.

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    1. I agree. I wrote this entry as a kind-of catharsis, to put any fretting about those vanished games behind me and move on.

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  6. bnd was a reskin of =dnd that was ostensibly intended to teach medical students about treatment mechanisms. So instead of casting spells at monsters, you chose medicines to defeat bacteria/viruses/etc. The monsters you fought started out as common bugs, but then pretty soon you had to bust out the arcane antibiotics in order to defeat them. You also built up resistance to antibiotics over time which shortened your stay in the dungeon.

    m199h sounds like it could have been a lesson name used for a particular section of a particular class (e.g. math 199, section h) but then repurposed/hacked to be this game instead. That was fairly common on PLATO.

    Source: author of navatar, #2 all time Empire HOF (go Orions!)

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    1. I was hoping that this entry would attract some people who had played the games in the day. I just didn't expect it to happen so quickly! Thanks for your recollections, Felix. I'm surprised that those games still existed on PLATO as late as your years at the university.

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    2. PLATO was still going strong at UIUC CERL when I left. dnd, bnd, moonwar, adventl (adventure), empire. By the time I graduated in..92?, empire was dying but avatar was resurgent. I helped write & design the 3rd version of avatar (I invented the 'afterlife' and warlocks) with Andrew Shapira and others -- larger maps, more baddies. Opinions were mixed, and many stuck with oavatar. Around that time, someone got busted for cloning avatar and selling it; if I remember correctly, some of the avatar authors were convinced that wizardry was a ripoff of avatar, but it was different enough that they decided not to sue.

      on PLATO, because it was a mainframe and intended for computer based instruction, there were frequently sites (computer centers) where games were restricted during peak hours. We treasured finding those sites where restrictions were lax or set up wrong, and also finding games that were either in hacked versions of lesson storage or were educational games that were still fun. Bugs'n'Drugs was one such that was frequently not restricted, but which was fun to play anyway. You just had to make sure an operator didn't see you and restrict the game. Fun times. Thanks for the memories.

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  7. also, baradur was a top down dungeon crawl, tolkien themed, brutally hard, not particularly fun and not super popular. Oubliette and later avatar eclipsed it quickly.

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    1. This comment has more information about Baradur than the total of everything that existed previously.

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    2. It's nice to know Baradur actually existed...

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  8. I feel these games' unavailability is all that's keeping them desirable and famous. If we could actually play them, I bet many would get the same kind of review as The Dark Kingdom did.

    Also: $5/hour for computer time in 1980 dollars. That's $16.33 today. Plus a phone line (I guess) for the communication, plus the cost for the hardware, plus it becoming useless junk when they went out of business. 20 hours of gaming a month would set you back a cool $325.

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    1. I almost never do this, but I think I need to edit that Dark Kingdom entry to be less negative. It was 1980, after all. Everything being published in that era was pioneering.

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  9. More discussion on HackerNews

    https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=27690504

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  10. It seems like whenever something truly brand-new is invented, the earliest examples get lost to time because the people who would care to preserve it haven't found it yet.

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    1. Various people over the years have commented that the innovator in (or creator of) a product space is very rarely the market leader. I think this applies here, too. I have often wondered if this is because the innovator is a "look what I built!" person and the market leaders are those done by "wow, let's sell that!" people.

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    2. Sometimes it is a simple case of innovators not being good at selling their concept, while somebody with that ability scoops it out from under them (Xerox and the Macintosh, for example). Sometimes the innovative product is just too clunky to use and it takes serious refinement to make it mass-market ready (early MP3 players vs the iPod). And sometimes it takes an Established Name to get somebody to try a new product no matter what.

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  11. I have nothing substantive to add -- in the 1970s my interests did not include playing CRPGs -- but I love well-researched posts like this. There are few things that I enjoy more than reading about obscure historical topics. Kudos!

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  12. OCD is compelling me to ask you to number the BRIEFs, please? I need numbers.

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  13. Had to share... from the PLATO IV reference manual:

    "Of the five senses, only tasting the terminal is not advised. Although smelling the terminal is permissible, it does not appear to be of any great benefit educationally. You can, however, with rather pleasant results, see, hear, and touch it."

    https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED124144.pdf

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  14. Have you ever played any BBS door games?

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    1. One, but on a simulated BBS door, not an actual one.

      Delete
  15. Whao!

    You can still access the PLATO games.

    Magical times back then. Plasma Screens, messaging, email, printers, and much more.

    dnd was very fun.

    Yeah, I helped a tiny bit on Baradur. It was fun as heck watching Justin and Mike work on it.

    Fun times back then being surrounded by geniuses and feeling like the stupid one in the room.

    I recall at one point they even used a command to turn on the Microfiche projector when you went to the ethereal plane where the invisible stalkers lived.

    It would make a loud clunk and your orange plasma screen would be back lit with a green hue.

    I still run the weekly Sunday night Empire battles, dubbed Griff war in my honor. Dungeon games are kind of lame and always will be. Head to head fighting over a universe is where it's at. Most gamers are too weak for that kind of action though.

    Get a sign on and come play: cyber1.org

    And yes, I am a bit sarcastic most times.

    Recent history on computer dungeons games seem to overlook Future War which deserves its place in the genre.

    Griff

    Oh oh, blatant product promo to follow:
    https://vimeo.com/ondemand/sobfinal/

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    Replies
    1. I started covering Future War on my own blog (http://crpgadventures.blogspot.com/2020/04/game-42-futurewar-1977.html?m=1). It's definitely an RPG - stat-based combat, progression by earning experience, inventory, etc., even though it looks like a primitive 3d shooter. I got derailed from it because of a bug that meant the stairs from level 4 weren't granting access to level 5. It's been fixed since then and it's on my list to get back to at some point.

      Delete
  16. What a great article! I worked on some games while at UC Irvine 1979-81 (I didn’t graduate — long story). We didn’t have Plato but I believe we had a Dec/10 and/or PDP/11. When I left school I made sure I had printouts but sadly, I have no idea where they are now. I was more interested in space games than dnd, so that’s what I worked on. My last one was a variant of Missile Command where you had to launch escape ships and save your colonists before the dome over your space colony was destroyed. You could also target the incoming missiles and shoot them down, giving you more time to launch rockets, but you couldn't launch both defensive missiles and escape rockets at the same time. (It was called IO after Jupiter’s moon, but also because the file name could be construed as being related to Input/Output.)

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  17. This is why I'm here. Great article and comments.

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  18. "In 2016, one of my sources wrote to me that he had discovered, in some forgotten boxes, printouts of screen captures of all the spells and "graphics characters" used in m199h" - My mind is trying to grasp why someone would dangle that carrot before you, only to then say... no, you, nor anybody else shall see them! Like why mention them to you at all? Is there cause to believe it was a lie simply to antagonise you?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Chet mentions this on the missing games page (referenced on the sidebar) in the comments.

      Argh... wish the dude had come through or just said he was mistaken!

      Delete
    2. No, I don't think he was trolling. He helped me out on some other things. I think he just never found time to prioritize scanning a bunch of documents for an anonymous guy on the Internet.

      Delete
  19. Please excuse me if this has come up before, but has Chet written anything on muds yet? In mid 90s I found them really interesting, but too repetitive for my young self. They are probably the next multiplayer CRPG step after PLATO.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2017/02/game-241-neverwinter-nights-1991.html

      He did cover Neverwinter Knights which was an early online game... not sure if it was a mud?

      Jimmy at the Digital Antiquarian did the old British game called MUD.

      https://www.filfre.net/tag/mud/

      I don't think either of them has gone forward in time enough for the MUDs of the 90s...

      Delete
    2. I covered MicroMUD, a single-player version of the original MUD:

      http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2018/02/game-282-micromud-1988.html

      I really consider MUDs and MMOs a fundamentally different experience--some of them aren't even RPGs--and thus they have not appeared on my list.

      Delete
  20. Is there a specific reason the photograph of the PLATO system at the top of this entry is posted with such a low resolution?

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Yes. I secretly hate my readers.

      Delete
    2. Sorry, that's not a secret.

      Delete
    3. My first thought was "wow that is really high-res, is he playing a modern game now?"

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    4. I thought it was for retro people on dial-up

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    5. When I go to a museum with my wife, she usually ends up waiting for me at the exit for an hour or so. That's because she browses through the exhibits, while I try to read ALL the documenting text. I would have loved to be able to read what's written there.

      Delete
    6. Ii just tracked down the original photo and uploaded it. It's still hard to read the text. I'm not sure what I used to take it--it was 8 years ago.

      Delete
    7. Very cool. Many thanks! :)

      Delete
    8. Fwiw: I certainly feel less hated now, intended or not.

      Delete
  21. ULB - Université Libre de Bruxelles - Belgium had two Control Data mainframes (CDC 720 and 750) as well as a room full of Plato terminals. Students were even payed to program educational stuff in Tutor language. The Dungeon and Dragons game was available after hours I believe.
    The Plato terminal screens were mostly b/w A4 portrait.
    Not sure if any color terminal existed.
    There was a b/w terminal that could project color slides from the back of the crt onto the crt screen !
    The geography lessons would teach you that France was about the size of Texas !
    I brought an elderly family member to show her what computers could do !
    Few members of the public had any clues about what computers were at all at the time. I wrote programs on punch cards before gaining access to Televideo terminals...

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  22. An absolutely vital post. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete

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