RSS

Patreon About-Face

As many of you have doubtless heard by now, Patreon has abandoned all plans to institute the billing changes which have caused such chaos and consternation over the past week. CEO Jack Conte has posted a public apology, and it’s a very good example of the genre: no making excuses; no placing the blame partially on us with weasel words like “if you felt like you were wronged”; no asking for forgiveness that will have to be earned, not given. There’s not even a single “awesome!” in sight; unlike most of Patreon’s missives, it doesn’t read like it was written by an over-enthused Valley girl. Patreon says that they still want to address the problem which allegedly prompted the changes in the first place — a problem which was never a problem at all for this blog — but they promise to do so in consultation with the community instead of unilaterally, and they promise to find ways to protect the small donors on which this blog and many other projects depend. “We are nothing without you,” Jack Conte writes. He’s correct; hopefully Patreon will never forget that again.

All of this leaves me, not for the first time this week, with a tough decision on my hands — and just after I’d settled on what seemed the right direction forward at that.

On the one hand, if not actively angry anymore I’m still highly irritated. This last week has cost me stress and restless nights, and I got the joy of devoting last weekend almost entirely to working out the technological bits and pieces that would be needed to roll out a more localized funding solution relying on Memberful. And of course this has all cost me a few dozen patrons, many of whom had been with me for a long, long time. I don’t blame them for jumping ship. Not in the least: I blame Patreon. So, there’s a part of me that still wants to wave my middle finger in Patreon’s direction and tell them exactly what to do with their apology.

Yet there is the cutting-off-the-nose-to-spite-the-face factor in doing so. I’m actually kind of proud of the Memberful solution I was pulling together, but it has its drawbacks. It relies on a lot of WordPress hacking to work just the way I want it to — the kind of thing that all of my experience with software tells me would become a source of constant headaches, needing to be tinkered with as new releases of WordPress come down the pipe. And I’m sure there are bugs which I would spend lots of time chasing, and then there’s the confusion inherent in offering dueling pledging systems for the same blog. I would also be forced to take on the role of customer-support guy: figuring out why people’s credit cards were rejected by Stripe, why they couldn’t get into their accounts, etc. I was prepared to take on that burden if there was no other alternative, but I’d prefer to avoid it. While I like to think I’m a decent programmer, I believe I’m a very good to excellent writer. (This serves as the universe’s way of compensating me for the staggering number of everyday things at which I’m freakishly terrible.) I’ve worked many years in IT, but now, at 45 years old, I want to be doing the thing I’m best at as often as possible. In other words, I’d like to just be a writer, and to let someone else — like Patreon — take care of the technical and customer-support stuff. That was actually working out pretty well before last week. So, my decision, arrived at not without some agonizing, is to stay with Patreon as this blog’s primary support mechanism.

Now we get to the heart of the matter. What does this mean for those of you who are or were patrons, but took action of your own in response to Patreon’s boneheaded move?

Well, those of you who front-loaded your pledges onto the first article each month to avoid the extra fees can change things back to the way they were in a few weeks. Because pledges are once again aggregated at the end of the month, just as they’ve always been in the past, I’ll pay the exact same amount in processing fees either way.

Those of you who jumped ship entirely have a harder decision. Obviously I would like to see you come back — would like for you to give Patreon another chance — but only you know whether that feels right. I’ve already seen the gamut of sentiment expressed in your comments over on my area of the Patreon site, from “I’ve lost all trust in Patreon” to “Sites backing down in the face of user outrage needs to be encouraged, not discouraged.”

If you can see your way to coming back, I’d be thrilled to have your support again. But if you just can’t justify it, I totally understand. This decision wasn’t an easy one for me either. Perhaps somewhere down the road, if Patreon continues to behave as they promise to from now on, you’ll feel that they’ve earned your forgiveness and your business. Either way, I know where the blame for the loss of your support resides. Hint: it’s not with you. Thank you for all of your support in the past.

And with that all said, I’m going to spend the next couple of days working on writing articles instead of stressing over Patreon and/or Memberful, publish a long and (I think) interesting article tomorrow, and then enjoy a weekend spent visiting the Christmas markets and putting up a tree with my wife instead of sitting hunched in front of the computer putting the final pieces of a new pledging solution in place. I figure I deserve it; it’s been one hell of a last seven or eight days. I hope you all have a similarly relaxing weekend in the offing.

Thank you for your past, current, and/or future support, as the case may be, and happy holidays! See you tomorrow with more piping hot digital antiquaria!

 

Patreon Update

I’ll be rolling out a new pledging system for this site next week. Built on a platform called Memberful, it will let you pledge your support right from the site, without Patreon or anyone else inserting themselves into the conversation. The folks from Memberful have been great to communicate with, and I’m really excited about how this is shaping up. I think it’s going to be a great system that will work really well for many or most of you.

That said, my feeling after much vacillation over the last several days is that I won’t abandon Patreon either. Some of you doubtless would prefer to stay with them, for perfectly valid reasons: for high pledge amounts, the new fee schedule is much less onerous; some of you really like the ability to pledge per-article rather than on a monthly basis, which is something no other solution I’ve found — including Memberful — can quite duplicate; some of you really want to keep all of your pledges to creators integrated on the same site; etc. And of course it’s possible that Patreon will still do something to mitigate the enormous damage they did to their brand last week. At the risk of introducing a bit more complication, then, I think the best approach is just to clearly explain the pros and cons of the two options and leave the choice in your hands.

For right now, those of you who are current Patreon patrons don’t need to do anything. The article which I’ll publish on Friday will still be bound by the old rules; the new ones won’t go into effect until December 18. On or about December 18, I’ll introduce you to the new pledging system, and you can decide then what works best for you.

Thanks for your relentless positivity during what was a pretty stressful few days — and a big welcome to the few of you who defied all the conventional wisdom by signing on with Patreon in the midst of this whole brouhaha. The stress is vastly less now: the path ahead is becoming clear, and, best of all, I continue to be blessed with the best readers in the world.

More news in a week!

 

Games on the Net Before the Web, Part 1: Strategy and Simulation

Right from the beginning, games were a component of the commercial online services that predated the World Wide Web; both The Source and CompuServe included them among their offerings from the moment those services first went online. In the early years, such online games were mostly refugees from 1970s institutional computing. Classics like Star Trek, Adventure, and Hammurabi had the advantage of being in the public domain and already running without modification on the time-shared computer systems which hosted the services, and could thus be made available to subscribers with a minimum of investment. Eventually even some text-only microcomputer games made the transition. By 1984, CompuServe, now well-established at the vanguard of the burgeoning online-services industry, had a catalog that included the original Adventure along with an expanded version, nine Scott Adams games, and the original PDP-10 Zork (renamed for some reason to The House of Banshi). And those were just the text adventures. There were also the dungeon crawls Dungeons of Kesmai and Castle Telengard and the war games Civil WarFantasy, and Command Decision, while for the less hardcore there were the CompuServe Casino, board games like Reversi, and curiosities like a biorhythm charter and an astrology calculator.

The fact that so many games were on offer so quickly indicates that they must have paid their way, at least to some extent. The hard reality remained, though, that these single-player games which happened to be played online were a hard sell to many subscribers. Paying $6 or more per hour to play a text-only game didn’t make a whole lot of sense to many of them when they could buy or even type in something just as satisfying for their local machines.

Group discussion about games, on the other hand, was something only the online services could offer with any degree of convenience or regularity, and it absolutely thrived in consequence almost from Day One. Adventure games were an especially popular topic, and for very good reason; given the non-sequiturial puzzles those early adventures were so rife with, outside help was about the only way most players had a reasonable chance of solving many of them. When Sierra in 1982 released perhaps the most absurdly unfair early adventure of them all in the form of Time Zone — twelve disk sides and more than a thousand rooms of complete inscrutability — The Source’s users mounted a pioneering crowdsourced effort to solve it. Its home was called The Vault of Ages:

Welcome to the Vault of Ages. Here we are coordinating the greatest group effort in adventure-solving: the complete mapping of On-Line’s Time Zone.

Herein we are gathering, verifying, and correlating information about each time zone. Feel free to visit here anytime, but remember that for the Vault to fill, we need your contributions of information. Any time you have new information about mapping, puzzle solutions, traps overcome, items found, email this info to me. After verification, your contributed jigsaw-puzzle piece will be added to the Vault file, and your name will be entered upon the rolls as a master solver.

Unsurprisingly, the first person known to have solved Time Zone, a tireless adventure fanatic and gaming journalist named Roe R. Adams III, was a Source and Vault of Ages regular.

The online services would continue to be a vital meeting point for gamers, gaming journalists, and, increasingly, the developers that made the games for many years to come, right up until they were superseded by the modern World Wide Web. Countless gamers who weren’t subscribers nevertheless benefited from the walkthroughs and strategy guides that filtered down from the likes of CompuServe onto the network of local bulletin-board systems and into the halls that hosted users-group meetings, to eventually be passed from hand to hand on playgrounds and in lunch rooms as smudged printouts whose unassuming appearance belied the precious information they contained.

But, while it’s certainly noteworthy in itself, our main concern today isn’t with this far-reaching game-solving grapevine. We’re rather concerned with the games that subscribers were actually playing online in increasing numbers by the middle of the 1980s — games which by and large weren’t the roll call of golden oldies that opened this article. We’re interested, in other words, in how the online services learned to take advantage of their uniqueness as interconnected real-time communities of tens or hundreds of thousands of people to offer players something they couldn’t get from an offline game. In doing so, they would give the world a sneak preview of its online future in yet one more way.


One of the executives who worked under Jeff Wilkins at CompuServe in the early 1980s was named Bill Louden. He was an unusual character there in several ways, not least in being a living embodiment of where computing was going as opposed to where it had been. Unlike most of CompuServe’s management, who had been raised at the bosom of institutional computing, Louden had come to his current job through microcomputers. He had been working as a Radio Shack store manager in CompuServe’s hometown of Columbus, Ohio, when the TRS-80 arrived in 1977, and he became such an instant home-computing zealot that he founded the Central Ohio TRS-80 Users Group shortly thereafter. He joined CompuServe in 1979, hired by Wilkins to be a bridge between the hobbyist-oriented personal-computing community which he knew so well and the dominant culture of business-oriented big-iron computing inside CompuServe.

Among the many things which Louden understood but CompuServe’s other managers largely did not was the appeal of games. He became the foremost advocate for them inside the company — an advocate for, that is, going beyond just scooping up the low-hanging fruit of Adventure and Hammurabi and calling it a day. He believed that games, if given the proper priority, could become not just an occasional distraction for the service’s subscribers but the primary reason some of them chose to sign up in the first place. By acting upon that belief, he would become another forgotten pioneer, one of the most important architects of online gaming’s future.

The first of Bill Louden’s pet projects to hint at the true potential for online gaming was at first glance just another tired institutional refugee. Back in 1978, a new game had appeared on the DEC PDP-10s that lived at the University of Texas at Austin. DECWAR was at bottom yet another variation on the tried-and-true Star Trek strategy game, but some of its embellishments to the formula were very significant. Instead of a single player hunting computer-controlled Klingons and Romulans, DECWAR had room for up to eight players, who faced off against one another in two teams of four, with the balance of the teams filled up by the computer when fewer than eight humans could be rounded up. Just as significantly, the game was played in real time.

DECWAR first came to Bill Louden’s attention in 1982; he saw the potential it held for CompuServe immediately. Making inquiries with the university, he found the game’s developers were willing to sell him its source code for $50. When his superiors refused to part with that princely sum, he bought the source himself using his own money. Louden then did much of the work that was required to adapt the game to CompuServe himself, excising in the process the last vestigial remnants of the Star Trek intellectual property. (Out of similar legal concerns, the original Star Trek game had itself become the thinly veiled Space Trek on CompuServe by this point.) Louden also added innovations like a leader board which saw players progress in rank from cadet to admiral as they won games and blew up other players’ ships, adding at least a dollop of long-term persistence to tempt them to keep playing. And he gave DECWAR a new name: MegaWars.

CompuServe advertised MegaWars widely for the first year or two, even as their marketers ignored other pioneering initiatives like CB Simulator. Garish MegaWars depictions like these contrasted strangely with the company’s usual staid image. (One can only imagine what those members of the board who had been against launching the consumer service from the start thought of this sort of thing.) As was par for the course during this time period, the imagery of the advertising had almost nothing to do with the game, which featured neither interpersonal combat nor scantily-clad warriors of either sex.

MegaWars went up on CompuServe circa August of 1982, much to the dismay of the University of Texas’s student coders, who had neglected to copyright or attach any legal restrictions whatsoever to the source code they had given to Louden for $50. Playing it was a daunting proposition: it usually required about two to three hours — meaning as much as $20 in connection fees — to finish a complete match, and the player had to learn 32 separate textual commands, which had to be typed in real time as the galaxy exploded in battle all around her. Yet, despite or because of its challenging nature, it proved enduringly popular, spawning a cult of hardcore players who stuck with it for years and years. In fact, it would become CompuServe’s most durable single game of all, remaining on the service for the next fifteen years. “The people that play MegaWars are extremely serious,” CompuServe’s communications director was soon warning. “The expertise level is very high.”

It didn’t take long for MegaWars players to form themselves into consistent teams that themselves sometimes stayed together for years. Intra- and inter-team politics could come to fill as much space as actually playing the game. Team Dune, for instance, was made up of fans of Frank Herbert’s iconic series of science-fiction novels; everyone on the team was expected to take the name of a Dune character as a handle. “Dictators” were selected from among the team’s members for three-month terms in hotly contested elections that could sometimes turn violent. It was all a part of the fantasy. A Team Dune member named Martin Maners, better known on CompuServe as “Leto II,” had this to say:

I’ve always had a vivid imagination. I like science fiction and Star Wars. When you sit down in front of your computer and play MegaWars, you really leave the earth, you’re really out there. It helps me relax, especially with the way MegaWars lets me talk to other players on my team. It’s nice to be able to sit back and do something completely different for a change.

With MegaWars, Bill Louden had put his finger on the real strength of gaming on a service like CompuServe: the opportunity for subscribers to play against one another rather than alone with the computer. “MegaWars is a challenge and is entertaining as well, but the real enjoyment comes from the multiplayer aspect of the game,” said one subscriber. “Interacting with other human players is what makes it interesting in a way that a ‘man vs. computer’ game just can’t match.” Another subscriber noted that it was “not like a game you would run on your personal computer. Here you get to pit yourself against a real person who could be across the street or the country. A much more formidable foe! It’s both entertaining and challenging, and at the same time it’s a great way to meet people and make new friends.”

If CompuServe was to continue to develop their games in this direction, however, they would need to move beyond public-domain institutional refugees like DECWAR/MegaWars. Luckily, Louden had recently been fielding inquiries from a pair of outside programmers with aspirations to do just that. They called themselves Kesmai.

Kelton Flinn and John Taylor, a duo better known as Kesmai.

Kesmai weren’t your stereotypical teenage bedroom coders. John Taylor, who had a masters degree in computer science, worked for General Electric’s High Performance Division, writing software for industrial robots, while Kelton Flinn was working on a PhD in applied mathematics at the University of Virginia. They picked their company’s name as their favorite from a long list of random ones that had been spit out by a name-generating program.

Several years before, while still an undergraduate, Flinn had written a very ambitious game on his university’s computer which combined Star Trek-like space combat — played in real time, no less! — with a conquer-the-universe strategic layer of economics and politics. He called it simply S. He remembers one particular incident as the turning point in its development: “One person’s favorite planet was taken, and he picked up a chair and stalked across the room with it to clobber the culprit. ‘Bob, put the chair down, it’s only a game…’ I guess I should have known then we had a potential hit!”

After much lobbying on Kesmai’s part for a development contract, Bill Louden agreed to let them bring S to CompuServe as a sort of trial project, renaming it in the process to MegaWars III. (MegaWars II had been an ill-fated attempt to add graphics and sound, at least of a sort, to the first MegaWars using the character graphics and simple bells and whistles allowed by some otherwise textual communications protocols. Dismissed by Louden himself as “poorly done and abysmally slow,” it didn’t last very long.) Kesmai greatly expanded on the already ambitious S template for CompuServe, making the universe much larger, adding more diplomatic options, and adding a veritable sub-game all its own of starship design. It seems safe to say that, by the time they were done, there was nothing of comparable complexity available even in single-player form on the microcomputers of the time. Indeed, the end result can’t help but remind one of the so-called “4X” games — “explore, expand, exploit, exterminate” — that wouldn’t become really practical on PCs until the early 1990s, when the steady march of technology would lead to strategic epics like Civilization and Master of Orion. In contrast to most of those later games, though, MegaWars III offered all the unpredictability of dozens of human opponents, with whom one could communicate at any time using “hyperspace radio,” whether to make or break trade deals and military alliances or just to shoot the breeze.

A single game of MegaWars III could host up to 100 players, and ran for four to six weeks. At the end of that time, the player who had earned the most points through conquest and the economic development of her colonies would be crowned emperor (this system would later be cheerfully nicked by Master of Orion as one of its own victory conditions, thus further cementing the similarities between the two games). With a victor thus declared, it would be time to wipe the slate clean. A brand new universe would be generated, and players who had been disappointed by their performance last time could try their luck on this new playing field. Some modern online games could perhaps take a lesson from this constant rolling-over of the virtual universe, which was done with conscious intent: Louden notes that it “kept newbies from feeling they had no way to catch up and were just meat for the slaughter.”

That said, little else about MegaWars III was forgiving; it was even more demanding than the game to which it had been billed a sequel. Eight hours of real time corresponded to about a month of game time. Those who hoped to have a shot at the winner’s circle knew that they had to sign on every night, sometimes for hours at a time, to maintain their empires. The subscriber known as “L’Eagle,” a self-described “corporate lawyer” in real life, became something of a community legend for winning the very first game of MegaWars III, which ran from January 19 until March 15 of 1984. He was already a veteran grognard at that time, with a history with war games which dated back well into the previous decade. For someone like him, MegaWars III provided an experience that could only have been approached in the past by some of the more elaborate play-by-mail campaigns run by companies like Flying Buffalo. The CompuServe version, however, had the added allure of instant feedback, along with the instant gratification of real-time chat — always useful for taunting a vanquished foe.

Just as with the first MegaWars, interactions with other players in MegaWars III were, even more so than all of the complicated rules, the heart of the game’s appeal. L’Eagle described the game, with its delicate tissue of alliances, in terms that actually smack as much or more of Diplomacy as Master of Orion. Such is the effect of adding the human element to the 4X equation.

The game has very few limitations. That’s part of the charm. But everyone has to work to keep the game good-spirited. At one point, the game’s authors thought that team members would turn on one another, that friends would become enemies. But after six weeks of planning together, the last thing you would do is back-stab.

L’Eagle is perhaps overstating the case just a bit. Back-stabbing was hardly unknown in MegaWars III; in fact, just as in Diplomacy, it was a virtual necessity for those with serious aspirations to win. Still, MegaWars III co-creator Kelton Flinn wasn’t wrong when he noted that “it’s a social game, as well as a competitive one.” Already in 1984, the year of MegaWars III‘s debut, CompuServe hosted a gathering of players in Columbus that attracted several dozen attendees. It was only the first of many.

Journalists, conditioned to think of computer games as strictly kids’ stuff, frequently expressed surprise when they were informed that the average age of a hardcore MegaWars I or III player was somewhere north of thirty. Really, though, it couldn’t have been any other way. The great disadvantage of these early online services, the necessary temper to any nostalgia for the era of the net before the Web, was how expensive they were. The whole time you were playing, the meter was running. Just as with CB Simulator, some people got addicted to the games, often to the detriment of the rest of their lives. Regulars soon noticed cyclical patterns to some of their comrades’ comings and goings. L’Eagle:

You can tell when the MasterCard bills come. People disappear. Later, they come back and say, “Yeah, I just had to cut down a bit.” Teenagers, you might never see them again. Fortunately, I make a lot of money.

As always, digital utopianism only got you so far in a world that at the end of the day still ran on money.

By mid-decade, then, multiplayer gaming — as opposed to the older species of single-player games that happened to be played online — was establishing itself as a staple of online life, not only on CompuServe but also on services like PlayNet and QuantumLink. As we saw in an earlier article, the latter pair offered a variety of simple board games that more casual players could enjoy with the added benefit of graphics, an area CompuServe would soon push into as well. The potential of online games remained sharply limited, however, by the fact that the vast majority of subscribers to the various services were still using 300-baud modems, which transferred data at the glacial pace of approximately 30 to 35 bytes per second — or a little over 2 K per minute.

When that logjam finally broke, it did so, as so often happens in technology, with head-snapping speed. The breakthrough was helped along by GEnie, the new online service which launched in October of 1985 to become the most serious challenger yet to CompuServe’s dominance. A big drag on the adoption of faster modems had actually been CompuServe itself, which charged $6 per hour for 300-baud access but a well-nigh absurd $12 per hour for 1200-baud connections. GEnie, on the other hand, launched at $5 per hour for both 300 and 1200 baud, soon forcing even the industry leader to adjust their own rates in response. With a new standard pricing model thus established, subscribers rushed out to buy the new, faster modems that were also coming down rapidly in price. GEnie reported at the beginning of 1986 that less than 40 percent of their subscribers had upgraded to 1200 baud; by the end of the year, that number had topped 90 percent. And 1200 baud was itself only a beginning rather than an end: 2400 baud was coming on strong, with 9600 baud out there on the not-too-distant horizon. What might developers of online games be able to do with those sorts of connection speeds? Bill Louden and the boys at Kesmai had some ideas.

Louden had left CompuServe in 1984, disaffected by what he saw as too many “corporate people” encroaching on his domain. After some misadventures trying to set up a regional online service of his own called Georgia Online, he was tapped by General Electric to run GEnie. Like any good manager of an upstart, he surveyed the leading company in his industry — i.e., his recent employer CompuServe — for weak spots where GEnie could offer something more to customers. As we’ve just seen, one of these was making higher-speed connections affordable. Another, unsurprisingly given Louden’s reputation as the “games guy” even while he was still at CompuServe, was games. Louden strove to make GEnie a haven for gamers, both for talking about offline games — the service would verge on displacing CompuServe in the years to come as the foremost source for walkthroughs and strategy guides — and for playing online games.

For their part, Kesmai were happy to work for any service willing to pay them. The fact that John Taylor was still going to work every day at GEnie’s corporate parent General Electric, not to mention Kesmai’s established relationship with Louden, made a development contract with the new service a natural step. MegaWars III therefore soon came to GEnie as well in thinly disguised form as Stellar Emperor. But that was merely an old CompuServe glory being revisited. GEnie’s crowning gaming glory would be a radical departure from anything seen online to date.

Air Warrior, a multiplayer air-combat simulator using aircraft from both of the world wars, was first offered to owners of the Apple Macintosh in late 1986. Although the game ran through GEnie, it was provided as a standalone application which handled all of the minutiae of logging in and communications for itself, in lieu of the text-only terminal programs subscribers normally used to access the service. This approach allowed it to make use of cutting-edge 3D graphics, the likes of which had never before been seen in an online context. It was nothing short of revolutionary, the very first game of its kind, and those who wished to play it had to pay for their spot at the bleeding edge — to the tune of no less than $11 per hour, more than twice GEnie’s normal going rate. Luckily for Kesmai, who had expanded greatly and invested a lot of money in the project, a fair number of well-heeled users proved willing to pony up.

Choosing a plane to fly — or, alternately, a vehicle to drive — in Air Warrior.

Ported to the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST in 1987, Air Warrior used what we today would call the “software as a service” model to perpetually evolve throughout its long lifespan, with players expected to download the updates which appeared almost monthly on GEnie and merge them into their local disks. By 1988, this process had brought the game to a certain maturity. Three “theaters” — one for World War I, two for the more popular World War II — were kept in constant operation, complete with leader-board tallies of aircraft shot down and ground targets destroyed. Similarly to MegaWars III, a winner of each campaign was declared every three weeks and the theater reset to keep anyone from running away with things for too long.

During a campaign, players could cast their lot with any of three opposing militaries. Some players preferred to be lone wolves, Red Barons lurking in the cloud cover to swoop down on their prey, but most took it upon themselves to further organize into squadrons, with all the resultant social interaction you might expect. Indeed, Air Warrior became more and more team-oriented as time went on. Lumbering B-17 bombers took off on strike missions with not only a pilot but no fewer than six other players filling the various gun turrets, escorted by more players in single-seater Mustangs and Spitfires. Meanwhile still other players would be mounting a coordinated ground assault in jeeps and tanks. All were bound together by the magic of chat — or, in in-game terms, by their multi-band radios. And on the other side, of course, was a similarly well-coordinated group of defenders hoping to add to their point tallies by taking down some of those juicy B-17s.

The Air Warrior application incorporated a terminal layer for handling logging into GEnie and other command-oriented tasks. Here a player is checking out his personal history.

The obvious forerunner to modern multiplayer wargasms like the Battlefield series, Air Warrior was distinguished, like so many of these early online games, by a devotion to the game’s fiction that would be very foreign to most of today’s eager gibbers and fraggers. Air Warrior billed itself as a flight simulator the equal of the ones being made by companies like subLogic and MicroProse, and many players took it very seriously indeed on those terms, implementing historical tactics and even radio protocols, spending hours when they weren’t flying laboring over their planes’ custom paint schemes. Inevitably, some new players showed up in garishly painted monstrosities and tried to single-handedly run roughshod over the place, but such respectless cretins usually didn’t live very long; one sign of the game’s worth as a simulation was the fact that the historically accurate tactics were mostly the ones that worked. And of course the fact that you were paying $11 per hour for the privilege had a way of driving up the average participant’s age and assuring that only those who really, really hankered after a vintage air-combat experience stuck around.

In the air in Air Warrior. Note the chat window, vital to squadron coordination, that’s open to the right.

Newbie pilots wishing to find acceptance within a squadron’s ranks had to contend with the realistic flight mechanics while tranquilly accepting their designated role in each operation; true to history, new pilots were usually given sheltered positions as wingmen to more experienced fliers which gave them little opportunity to run up their personal kill tallies. Still, greenhorns quickly learned to appreciate the extra cover, as nothing about Air Warrior was forgiving. Woe betide the pilot who forgot that the escape key was meant literally in this game: it led to an instant, no-questions-asked bailout.

Death meant that you had to start over with a new character, so all serious players practiced their wheels-up landings and their water ditchings extensively using the game’s weapons-less offline practice mode. Even the effects of fuel usage were modeled accurately; planes became faster and more maneuverable as they got lighter. But this too, of course, was a double-edged sword: many an Air Warrior pilot wound up dead because of inattention to the fuel gauge. To help the youngsters out, the experienced pilots instituted a flying-and-tactics clinic which ran every Thursday night for years. The life saved, they reasoned, might just be their own if they got saddled with one of these greenhorns on their wing.

Lining up on a bridge, one of the ground targets which players got points for destroying.

In marked contrast to the Kesmai games that had preceded it, Air Warrior remained always on the cutting edge of audiovisual technology. It shone most of all on the Amiga when that machine was the audiovisual class of the industry; it wasn’t even ported to MS-DOS until 1989. Once there, though, it continued to evolve apace, becoming in early 1993 one of the first games of any stripe to support the new generation of “Super VGA” graphics cards. The Air Warrior community would always remain a relatively small one; a 1993 magazine report describes about thirty players active in each theater most evenings, the very same number cited by another report from 1989. But despite such limited numbers of active players, Air Warrior became, like the MegaWars games, rather astonishingly long-lived, actually managing to outlast its original host service GEnie to make it all the way to 2001. For those seeking a certain kind of historically grounded multi-player combat experience, emphasizing real-world tactics, it was in many ways a better take on online gaming than most of what’s available today. And even for those who didn’t know the difference between a Hellcat and Zero, it remained a living example of the potential for online gaming, an aspirational ideal at the vanguard of the field for many years.

While it may be a little hard to recognize today, the SVGA Air Warrior looked spectacular in its day — not just spectacular for an online game, but spectacular, period.

This survey, sketchy though it’s been, has hopefully been enough to demonstrate both how influential the online services of the 1980s really were on online gaming as we know it today and how compelling the games they offered could be even when taken entirely on their own terms. Yet the creations we’ve seen so far, groundbreaking though they’ve been in their various ways, have all been relatively short-form experiences: games with beginnings, middles, and ends that spanned no more than a handful of weeks. What persistence these games did possess was thanks to players like the desert rats of Team Dune, who found ways to make the fiction last even when the game proper was over. But what of games which truly have no ending? What of games which aren’t so much games at all as virtual worlds, even virtual societies — real Second Lifes for their inhabitants, one might say. Today such virtual worlds consume the free time of millions of rabid players, and stand as the most complex virtual spaces ever created. Next time, then, we’ll find out how game developers discovered the power of persistence, many years before Warcraft — much less World of Warcraft — was a twinkle in its creators’ eyes.

(Sources: the books On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and its Founders by Michael A. Banks and Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy; Softline of May 1982; Online Today of June 1987, January 1988, and February 1989; Byte of September 1982; Antic of November 1984; Compute!’s Gazette of May 1985; Family Computing of June 1986; InfoWorld of October 21 1985 and December 2 1985; Compute! of July 1987; Amazing Computing of August 1987 and March 1989; the STart “games issue” for 1988; Computer Gaming World of January 1990 and May 1993; CompuServe’s games catalog/brochure from 1984; the Games of Fame online articles on MegaWars and MegaWars III; the history page from a recent MegaWars revival.)

 
 

Tags: , , , ,

Changes to the Patreon Billing Model

So, I awoke this morning to find a bit of a bombshell from Patreon awaiting me in my inbox. You will soon be hearing directly from Patreon about this, but I’d prefer you learn about it from me first. Here’s what Patreon wants me to tell you:

In the past, I was covering Patreon’s 5% fee and all of the processing fees in full for all of my patrons. This meant that every month I saw anywhere from 7-15% of my earnings taken out to cover those processing fees.

Starting December 18th, Patreon will apply a new service fee of 2.9% + $0.35 to each of your individual pledges. This service fee helps keep Patreon up and running and standardizes my processing fees to 5%.

This ensures that creators like me keep more earnings in order to continue creating high-quality content. I hope you understand and continue your pledges on Patreon. You can read even more about the service fee here.

Note that these new fees apply on a per-article basis. In other words, those of you who have pledged $1.00 per article will now be paying $1.38 per article in real terms.

I’m not at all happy about this change, which is uniquely damaging to the very model this blog uses: of fairly small pledges given on a per-milestone basis. Instead of collecting 7 to 15 percent in fees for credit-card processing, Patreon will now be collecting 37.9 percent from those of you pledging $1 per article. This is all rather disappointingly disingenuous; the obvious question to ask is why the service fee should be collected on each individual per-post pledge instead of on the monthly lump sum which is actually submitted to the credit-card companies for processing. I have to assume on this basis that this change has more to do with “keeping Patreon up and running” than it does with “standardizing my processing fees.” If Patreon needs to increase their cut to stay viable, fair enough, but this is not a terribly transparent way of approaching the problem.

That said, there are some things we can do. Patreon isn’t planning to institute this change until December 18, so there’s still time to write to their customer-service department and/or to Jack Conte, CEO, and share — politely, please! — your feelings about it. If they get enough heat for it, perhaps they might consider a mid-course adjustment.

Assuming, though, that that doesn’t happen:

While I do share Patreon’s hope that some of you will be willing to pay the increased fees, I do understand that everyone has different economic circumstances and places a different value on the material I write, and I will certainly not blame any of you who feel the need to make changes of your own on the basis of what I’ve just shared here. As a patron, you can avoid seeing your monthly charge increase by adjusting your pledge to account for the new processing fees. Those of you currently pledging $1.00 per article, for instance, will want to change that to 62¢ per article (Or not: Alan informs us below that Patreon will no longer accept pledge amounts of less than $1.00. The best thing to do in this situation is probably to cap your monthly spending at $3.00. They just don’t make things easy on us, do they?); those of you pledging $2.00 will want to change that to $1.59; etc. (I’m sure you’re all more than capable of doing the math for yourselves.)

Another possibility, especially if you’d like to see more of your pledge go to me and less to Patreon, is to make a per-article pledge equal to what you’d like to spend for the four articles I normally publish per month. After you do this, set a monthly cap of the same amount on your spending. This will ensure that the processing fee is only collected once, although it does carry with it the risk of paying for articles I haven’t written if, as has very rarely happened in the past, I can’t manage to publish four articles in a given month for one reason or another. (I will always be sure to let you know if and when that’s going to happen, so you can adjust your pledges accordingly if you wish.)

From my side, an obvious alternative is to switch to a flat monthly billing model. I’m reluctant to do so, however, both because it will afflict everyone with the risk I’ve just described in the previous paragraph and — being totally honest here — because it has the potential to be hugely disruptive to what’s become a steady income stream that I rely on.

But I’ll be in touch before December 18, so there’s no need for any of us to make any hasty changes right now. In the meantime, I’d appreciate your thoughts about what this change means to you and how I might minimize its impact on you and everyone else.

Thank you so much for your support over the years! You remain the only reason I can do the work I love most.

(Update, December 8, 2017: Since I all but accused Patreon of being crooks in the post above, I should perhaps share what they’ve finally clarified to be their ostensible real rational for these changes. Some Patreon creators — I’m not among them — make some of their content available only to those who have pledged their support. Because patrons have always been billed at the end of the month, it was possible to make a pledge, consume all that juicy content behind the paywall, then delete the pledge before the bill came due. Patreon wants to prevent this behavior by switching to a model where patrons are billed immediately upon pledging, and continue to be billed immediately thereafter. In other words, when I publish a new article after December 18 backers will be billed right away for that single article alone. This would account for the exorbitant transactions fees on small pledges.

It’s hard for me to imagine, however, that there are enough devious people abusing the existing system to justify this change; based on my life experience, most people are of basically good faith, and most on Patreon in particular just really, earnestly want to help fund what they believe to be worthwhile creative work. So, given that this is effectively destroys the very economies of scale that make Patreon worthwhile in the first place, it rather strikes me as using a bazooka to blow away that fly that’s crawling around your nose. If this behavior is really such a problem — and I’ve certainly never seen it mentioned as such by any actual creator — there are other ways to head it off, such as billing only the first transaction immediately. Personally, I find that most people willing to work that hard to cheat the system tend to be pretty miserable anyway, so I’d just let them be.

I do suspect that another, less public motive may be to drive creators and patrons away from per-milestone pledges and toward flat monthly subscriptions which will deliver a more predictable income stream to the company. But that’s just speculation…)

 

 

A Net Before the Web, Part 5: The Pony

Even as Bill von Meister and company were flailing away at GameLine, a pair of former General Electric research scientists in Troy, New York, were working on the idea destined to become Control Video’s real future. Howard S. Goldberg and David Panzl had spent some time looking at online services like CompuServe and The Source, and had decided that they could never become a truly mass-market phenomenon in their current form. In an era when far more people watched television than read books, all that monochrome text unspooling slowly down the screen would cause the vast majority of potential customers to run away screaming.

Goldberg and Panzl thought they saw a better model. The Apple Lisa had just been released, the Macintosh was waiting in the wings, and you couldn’t shake a stick at any computer conference without hitting someone with the phrase “graphical user interface” on the lips. Simplicity was the new watchword in computing. Goldberg and Panzl believed that anyone who could make a point-and-shoot online service to go up against the SLR complexity of current offerings could make a killing.

But how to do so, given the current state of technology? It was all a 300-baud modem could do to transfer text at a reasonable speed. Graphics were out of the question.

Or were they? What if the graphics could be stored locally, on the subscriber’s computer, taking most of the load off the modem? Goldberg and Panzl envisioned a sort of hybrid service, in which as much code and data as possible was stored on a disk that would be sent out to subscribers rather than on the service’s big computers. With this approach, you would be able to navigate through the service’s offerings using a full GUI, which would run via a local application on your computer. If you went into a chat room, the chat application itself would be loaded from disk; only the actual words you wrote and read would need to be sent to and from a central computer. If you decided to write an email, a full-featured editor the likes of which a CompuServe subscriber could only dream of could be loaded in from disk, with only the finished product uploaded when you clicked the send button.

The PlayNet main menu. Note that system updates could be downloaded and installed on the user’s disks, thus avoiding the most obvious problem of this approach to an online service: that of having to send out new disks to every customer every time the system was updated. The games were also modular, with new ones made available for download to disk at the user’s discretion as they were developed. All told, it was an impressive feat of software engineering that would prove very robust; the software shown here would remain in active use as PlayNet or QuantumLink for a decade, and some of its underpinnings would last even longer than that.

Goldberg and Panzl were particularly taken with the possibilities the approach augured for online multiplayer games, a genre still in its infancy. CompuServe had put up a conquer-the-universe multiplayer strategy game called MegaWars, but it was all text, demanding that players navigate through a labyrinth of arcane typed commands. Otherwise there were perennials like Adventure to go along with even moldier oldies like Hangman, but these were single-player games that just happened to be played online. And they all were, once again, limited to monochrome text; it was difficult indeed to justify paying all those connect charges for them when you could type in better versions from BASIC programming books. But what if you could play poker or checkers online against people from anywhere in the country instead of against the boring old computer, and could do so with graphics? Then online gaming would be getting somewhere. The prospect was so exciting that Goldberg and Panzl called their proposed new online service PlayNet. It seemed the perfect name for the funner, more colorful take on the online experience they hoped to create.

When they shared their idea with others, they found a number who agreed with them about its potential. With backing from Rensselaer Polytechnic University, the New York State Science and Technology Foundation, and Key Venture Corporation, they moved into a technology “incubator” run by the first of these in May of 1983. For PlayNet’s client computer — one admitted disadvantage of their approach was that it would require them to write a separate version of their software for every personal computer they targeted — they chose the recently released, fast-selling Commodore 64, which sported some of the best graphics in the industry. The back end would run on easily scalable 68000-based servers made by a relatively new company called Stratus. (The progression from CompuServe to PlayNet thus highlights the transition from big mainframes and minicomputers to the microcomputer-based client/server model in networking, just as it does the transition from a textual to a graphical focus.) Facing a daunting programming task on both the client and server sides, Goldberg and Panzl took further advantage of their relationship with Rensselaer Polytechnic to bring in a team of student coders, who worked for a stipend in exchange for university credit, applying to the project many of the cutting-edge theoretical constructs they were learning about in their classes.

PlayNet began trials around Troy and Albany in April of 1984, with the service rolling out nationwide in October. Commodore 64 owners had the reputation of being far more price-sensitive than owners of other computers, and Goldberg and Panzl took this conventional wisdom to heart. PlayNet was dramatically cheaper than any of the other services: $35 for the signup package which included the necessary software, followed by $6 per month and $2 per hour actually spent online; this last was a third of what CompuServe would cost you. PlayNet hoped to, as the old saying goes, make it up in volume. Included on the disks were no fewer than thirteen games, whose names are mostly self-explanatory: Backgammon, Boxes, Capture the Flag, Checkers, Chess, Chinese Checkers, Contract Bridge, Four in a Row, Go, Hangman, Quad 64, Reversi, and Sea Strike. While they were all fairly unremarkable in terms of interface and graphics, not to mention lack of originality, it was of course the well-nigh unprecedented ability to play them with people hundreds or thousands of miles away that was their real appeal. You could even chat with your opponent as you played.

In addition to the games, most of the other areas people had come to expect from online services were present, if sometimes a little bare. There were other small problems beyond the paucity of content — some subscribers complained that chunks loaded so slowly from the Commodore 64’s notoriously slow disk drive that they might almost just as well have come in via modem, and technical glitches were far from unknown — but PlayNet was certainly the most user-friendly online service anyone had ever seen, an utterly unique offering in an industry that tended always to define it itself in relation to the lodestar that was CompuServe.

Things seemed to go fairly well at the outset, with PlayNet collecting their first 5000 subscribers within a couple of months of launch. But, sadly given how visionary the service really was, they would never manage to get much beyond that. Separated both geographically and culturally from the big wellsprings of technology venture capital around Silicon Valley, forced to deal with a decline in the home-computer market shortly after their launch that made other sources of funding shy away, they were perpetually cash-poor, a situation that was only exacerbated by the rock-bottom pricing — something that, what with prices always being a lot harder to raise on customers than they are to lower, they were now stuck with. An ugly cycle began to perpetuate itself. Sufficient new subscribers would sign up to badly tax the existing servers, but PlayNet wouldn’t have enough money to upgrade their infrastructure to match their growth right away. Soon, enough customers would get frustrated by the sluggish response and occasional outright crashes to cancel their subscriptions, bringing the system back into equilibrium. Meanwhile PlayNet was constantly existing at the grace of the big telecommunications networks whose pipes and access numbers they leased, the prospect of sudden rate hikes a Sword of Damocles hanging always over their heads. Indeed, the story of PlayNet could serve as an object illustration as to why all of the really big, successful online services seemed to have the backing of the titans of corporate America, like H&R Block, Readers Digest, General Electric, or Sears. This just wasn’t a space with much room for the little guy. PlayNet may have been the most innovative service to arrive since CompuServe and The Source had spawned the consumer-focused online-services industry in the first place, but innovation alone wasn’t enough to be successful there.

Still, Goldberg and Panzl could at least take solace that their company had a reason to exist. While PlayNet was struggling to establish an online presence, Control Video was… continuing to exist, with little clear reason why beyond Jim Kimsey and Steve Case’s sheer stubbornness. Kimsey loved to tell an old soldier’s joke about a boy who is seen by the roadside, frantically digging into a giant pile of horse manure. When passersby ask him why, he says, “There must be a pony in here somewhere!” There must indeed, thought Kimsey, be a pony for Control Video as well buried somewhere in all this shit they were digging through. He looked for someone he could sell out to, but Control Video’s only real asset was the agreements they had signed with telecommunications companies giving them access to a nationwide network they had barely ever used. That was nice, but it wasn’t, judged potential purchasers, worth taking on a mountain of debt to acquire.

The way forward — the pony in all the shit — materialized more by chance than anything. Working through his list of potential purchasers, Kimsey made it to Commodore, the home-computer company, in the spring of 1985. Maybe, he thought, they might like to buy him out in order to use Control Video’s network to set up their own online service for their customers. He had a meeting with Clive Smith, an import from Commodore’s United Kingdom branch who was among the bare handful of truly savvy executives the home office ever got to enjoy. (Smith’s marketing instincts had been instrumental in the hugely successful launch of the Commodore 64.) Commodore wasn’t interested in running their own online service, Smith told Kimsey; having released not one but two flop computers in 1984 in the form of the Commodore 16 and Plus/4, they couldn’t afford such distractions. But if Control Video wanted to start an independent online service just for Commodore 64 owners, Commodore would be willing to anoint it as their officially recommended service, including it in the box with every new Commodore 64 and 128 sold in lieu of the CompuServe Snapaks that were found there now. He even knew where Kimsey could get some software that would make his service stand out from all of the others, by taking full advantage of the Commodore 64’s color graphics: a little outfit called PlayNet, up in Troy, New York.

It seemed that PlayNet, realizing that they needed to find a strong corporate backer if they hoped to survive, had already come to Commodore looking for a deal very similar to the one that Clive Smith was now offering Jim Kimsey. But, while he had been blown away by the software they showed him, Smith had been less impressed by the business acumen of the two former research scientists sitting in his office. He’d sent them packing without a deal, but bookmarked the PlayNet software in his mind. While Kimsey’s company was if anything in even worse shape than PlayNet on the surface, Smith thought he saw a much shrewder businessman before him, and knew from the grapevine that Kimsey was still tight with the venture capitalists who had convinced him to take the job with Control Video in the first place. He had, in short, all the business savvy and connections that Goldberg and Panzl lacked. Smith thus brokered a meeting between Control Video and PlayNet to let them see what they could work out.

What followed was a veritable looting of PlayNet’s one great asset. Kimsey acquired all of their software for a reported $50,000, plus ongoing royalty payments that were by all accounts very small indeed. If it wasn’t quite Bill Gates’s legendary fleecing of Seattle Computer Products for the operating system that became MS-DOS, it wasn’t that far behind either. PlayNet’s software would remain for the next nine years the heart of the Commodore 64 online service Kimsey was now about to start.

The best thing Goldberg and Panzl could have done for their company would have been to abandon altogether the idea of hosting their own online service, embracing the role of Control Video’s software arm. But they remained wedded to the little community they had fostered, determined to soldier on with the PlayNet service as an independent entity even after having given away the store to a fearsome competitor that enjoyed the official blessing of Commodore which had been so insultingly withheld from them. Needless to say, it didn’t go very well; PlayNet finally gave up the ghost in 1987, almost two years after the rival service had launched using their own technology. As part of the liquidation, they transferred all title to said technology in perpetuity to Jim Kimsey and Steve Case’s company, to do with as they would. Thus was the looting completed.

Well before that happened, the looter was no longer known as Control Video. Wanting a fresh start after all the fiasco and failure of the last couple of years, wanting to put the Bill von Meister era behind him once and for all, Kimsey on May 25, 1985, put Control Video in a shoe box, as he put it, and pulled out Quantum Computer Services. A new company in the eyes of the law, Quantum was in every other way a continuation of the old, with all the same people, all the same assets and liabilities, even the same philosophical orientation. For all that the deal with Commodore and the acquisition of the PlayNet software was down to seeming happenstance, the online service that would come to be known as QuantumLink evinced von Meister’s — and Steve Case’s — determination to create a more colorful, easier, friendlier online experience that would be as welcoming to homemakers and humanities professors as it would to hardcore hackers. And in running on its own custom software, it allowed Quantum the complete control of the user’s experience which von Meister and Case had always craved.

The QuantumLink main menu. Anyone who had used PlayNet would feel right at home…

Continuing to tax the patience of their financiers — patience that would probably have been less forthcoming had Daniel Case III’s brother not been on the payroll — Quantum worked through the summer and early fall of 1985 to adapt the PlayNet software to their own needs and to set up the infrastructure of Stratus servers they would need to launch. QuantumLink officially went live on the evening of November 1, 1985. It was a tense group of administrators and techies who sat around the little Vienna, Virginia, data center, watching as the first paying customers logged in, watching what they did once they arrived. (Backgammon, for what it’s worth, was an early favorite.) By the time the users’ numbers had climbed into the dozens, beers were being popped and spontaneous cheers were in the air. Simultaneous users would peak at about 100 that night — not exactly a number to leave CompuServe shaking in their boots. But so be it; it just felt so good to have an actual product — an actual, concrete purpose — after their long time in the wilderness.

In keeping with the price-sensitive nature of the Commodore market, Quantum strove to make their service cheaper than the alternatives, but were careful not to price-cut themselves right out of business as had PlayNet. Subscribers paid a flat fee of $10 per month for unlimited usage of so-called “Basic” services, which in all honesty didn’t include much of anything beyond the online encyclopedia and things that made Quantum money in other ways, like the online shopping mall. “Plus” services, including the games and the chat system that together were always the centerpiece of QuantumLink social life, cost $3.60 per hour, with one hour of free Plus usage per month included with every subscription. The service didn’t set the world on fire in the beginning, but the combination of Commodore’s official support, the user-friendliness of the graphical interface, and the aggressive pricing paid off reasonably well in the long term. Within two months, QuantumLink had its first 10,000 subscribers, a number it had taken CompuServe two years to achieve. Less than a year after that, it had hit 50,000 subscribers. By then, Quantum Computer Services had finally become self-sustaining, even able to make a start at paying down the debt they had accumulated during the Control Video years.

One of QuantumLink’s unique editorial services was an easy-to-navigate buyer’s guide to Commodore software.

Quantum had the advantage of being able to look back on six years of their rivals’ experience for clues as to what worked and what didn’t. For the intensely detail-oriented Steve Case, this was a treasure trove of incalculable value. Recognizing, as had Goldberg and Panzl before him, that other services were still far too hard to use for true mainstream acceptance, he insisted that nothing be allowed on QuantumLink that his mother couldn’t handle.

But Case’s vision for QuantumLink wasn’t only about being, as he put it, “a little easier and cheaper and more useful” than the competition. He grasped that, while people might sign up for an online service for the practical information and conveniences it could offer them, it was the social interchange — the sense of community — that kept them logging on. To a greater degree than that of any of its rivals, QuantumLink’s user community was actively curated by its owner. Every night of the week seemed to offer a chat with a special guest, or a game tournament, or something. If it was more artificial — perhaps in a way more cynical — than CompuServe’s more laissez-faire, organic approach to community-building, it was every bit as effective. “Most services are information- and retrieval-oriented. It doesn’t matter if you get on on Tuesday or Thursday because the information is the same,” said Case; as we’ve seen from earlier articles in this series, this statement wasn’t really accurate at all, but it served his rhetorical purpose. “What we’ve tried to do is create a more event-oriented social system, so you really do want to check in every night just to see what’s happening — because you don’t want to miss anything.” Getting the subscriber to log on every night was of course the whole point of the endeavor. “We recognized that chat and community were so important to keep people on,” remembers Bill Pytlovany, a Quantum programmer. “I joked about it. You get somebody online, we’ve got them by the balls. Plain and simple, they’ll be back tomorrow.”

Indeed, QuantumLink subscribers became if anything even more ferociously loyal — and ferociously addicted — than users of rival services. “For some people, it was their whole social life,” remembers a Quantum copywriter named Julia Wilkinson. “That was their reality.” All of the social phenomena I’ve already described on CompuServe — the friendships and the romances and, inevitably, the dirty talk — happened all over again on QuantumLink. (“The most popular [features of the service] were far and away the sexual chat rooms,” remembers one Quantum manager. “The reality of what was happening was, if you just let these folks plug into each other, middle-aged people start talking dirty to each other.”) Even at the cheaper prices, plenty of subscribers were soon racking up monthly bills in the hundreds of dollars — music to the ears of Steve Case and Jim Kimsey, especially given that the absolute number of QuantumLink subscribers would never quite meet the original expectations of either Quantum or Commodore. While the raw numbers of Commodore 64s had seemingly boded well — it had been by far the most popular home computer in North America when the service had launched — a glance beyond the numbers might have shown that the platform wasn’t quite as ideal as it seemed. Known most of all for its cheap price and its great games, the Commodore 64 attracted a much younger demographic than most other computer models. Such youngsters often lacked the means to pay even QuantumLink’s relatively cheap rates — and, when they did have money, often preferred to spend it on boxed games to play face to face with their friends rather than online games and chat.

Nevertheless, and while I know of no hard numbers that can be applied to QuantumLink at its peak, it had become a reasonably popular service by 1988, with a subscriber base that must have climbed comfortably over the 100,000 threshold. If not a serious threat to the likes of CompuServe, neither was it anything to sneeze at in the context of the times. Considering that QuantumLink was only ever available to owners of Commodore 64s and 128s — platforms that went into rapid decline in North America after 1987 — it did quite well in the big picture in what was always going to be a bit of an uphill struggle.

Even had the service been notable for nothing else, something known as Habitat would have been enough to secure QuantumLink a place in computing history. Developed in partnership with Lucasfilm Games, it was the first graphical massively multiplayer virtual world, one of the most important forerunners to everything from World of Warcraft to Second Life.  It was online in its original form for only a few months in early 1988, in a closed beta of a few hundred users that’s since passed into gaming legend. Quantum ultimately judged Habitat to be technologically and economically unfeasible to maintain on the scale that would have been required in order to offer access to all of their subscribers. It did, however, reemerge a year later in bowdlerized fashion as Club Caribe, more of an elaborate online-chat environment than the functioning virtual world Lucasfilm had envisioned.

But to reduce QuantumLink to the medium for Habitat, as is too often done in histories like this one, is unjust. The fact is that the service is notable for much more than this single pioneering game that tends so to dominate its historical memory. Its graphical interface would prove very influential on the competition, to a degree that is perhaps belied by its relatively modest subscriber roll. In 1988, a new service called Prodigy, backed by IBM and Sears, entered the market with an interface not all that far removed from QuantumLink’s, albeit running on MS-DOS machines rather than the Commodore 64; thanks mostly to its choice of platform, it would far outstrip its inspiration, surpassing even GEnie to become the number-two service behind CompuServe for a time in the early 1990s. Meanwhile virtually all of the traditional text-only services introduced some form of optional graphical front end. CompuServe, as usual, came up with the most thoroughgoing technical solution, offering up a well-documented “Host Micro Interface” protocol which third-party programmers could use to build their own front ends, thus creating a thriving, competitive marketplace with alternatives to suit most any user. Kimsey and Case could at least feel proud that their little upstart service had managed to influence such a giant of online life, even as they wished that QuantumLink’s bottom line was more reflective of its influence.

QuantumLink’s technical approach was proving to be, for all its advantages, something of a double-edged sword. For all that it had let Quantum create an easier, friendlier online service, for all that the Commodore and PlayNet deals had saved them from bankruptcy, it also left said service’s fate tied to that of the platform on which it ran. It meant, in other words, that QuantumLink came with an implacable expiration date.

This hard reality had never been lost on Steve Case. As early as 1986, he had started looking to create alternative services on other platforms, especially ones that might be longer-lived than Commodore’s aging 8-bit line. His dream platform was the Apple Macintosh, with its demographic of well-heeled users who loathed the command-line interfaces of most online services as the very embodiment of The Bad Old Way of pre-Mac computing. Showing the single-minded determination that could make him alternately loved and loathed, he actually moved to Cupertino, California, home of Apple, for a few months at the height of his lobbying efforts. But Apple wasn’t quite sure Quantum was really up to the task of making a next-generation online service for the Macintosh, finally offering him instead only a sort of trial run on the Apple II, their own aging 8-bit platform.

Quantum Computer Services’s second online service, a fairly straightforward port of the Commodore QuantumLink software stack to the Apple II, went online in May of 1988. It didn’t take off like they had hoped. Part of the problem was doubtless down to the fact that Apple II owners were well-entrenched by 1988 on services like CompuServe and GEnie, and weren’t inclined to switch to a rival service. But there was also some uncharacteristically mixed public messaging on the part of an Apple that had always seemed lukewarm about the whole project; people inside both companies joked that they had given the deal to Quantum to make an online service for a platform they didn’t much care about anymore just to get Steve Case to quit bugging them. Having already a long-established online support network known as AppleLink for dealers and professional clients, Apple insisted on calling this new, completely unrelated service AppleLink Personal Edition, creating huge confusion. And they rejected most of the initiatives that had made QuantumLink successful among Commodore owners, such as the inclusion of subscription kits in their computers’ boxes, thus compounding the feeling at Quantum that their supposed partners weren’t really all that committed to the service. Chafing under Apple’s rigid rules for branding and marketing, the old soldier Kimsey growled that they were harder to deal with than the Pentagon bureaucracy.

Apple dropped Quantum in the summer of 1989, barely a year after signing the deal with them, and thereby provoked a crisis inside the latter company. The investors weren’t at all happy with the way that Quantum seemed to be doing little more than treading water; with so much debt still to service, they were barely breaking even as a business. Meanwhile the Commodore 64 market to which they were still bound was now in undeniable free fall, and they had just seen their grand chance to ride Apple into greener pastures blow up in their faces. The investors blamed for the situation Steve Case, who had promised them that the world would be theirs if they could just get in the door at Cupertino. Jim Kimsey was forced to rise up in his protege’s defense. “You don’t take a 25-pound turkey out of the oven and throw it away before it’s done,” he said, pointing to the bright future that Case was insisting could yet be theirs if they would just stay the course. Kimsey could also deliver the good news from his legal department that terminating their marketing agreement early was going to cost Apple $2.5 million, to be paid directly to Quantum Computer Services. For the time being, it was enough to save Case’s job. But the question remained: what was Quantum to do in a post-Commodore world?

In his methodical way, Case had already been plugging away at several potential answers to that question beyond the Apple relationship. One of them, called PC-Link, was in fact just going live as this internal debate was taking place. Produced in partnership with Radio Shack, it was yet another port of the Commodore QuantumLink software stack, this time to Radio Shack’s Tandy line of MS-DOS clones. PC-Link would do okay, but Radio Shack stores were no longer the retail Ground Zero of the home-computing market that they had been when CompuServe had gotten into bed with them with such success almost a decade ago.

Quantum was also in discussions with no less of a computing giant than IBM, to launch an online service called Promenade in 1990 for a new line of IBM home computers called the PS/1, a sort of successor to the earlier, ill-fated PCjr. On the one hand, this was a huge deal for so tiny a company as Quantum Computer Services. But on the other, taking the legendary flop that had been the PCjr to heart, many in the industry were already expressing skepticism about a model line that had yet to even launch. Even Jim Kimsey was downplaying the deal: “It’s not a make-or-break deal for us. We’re not expecting more than $1 million in revenue from it [the first] year. Down the road, we don’t know how much it will be. If the PS/1 doesn’t work, we’re not in trouble.” A good thing, too: the PS/1 project would prove another expensive fiasco for an IBM who could never seem to figure out how to extend their success in business computing into the consumer marketplace.

So, neither of these potential answers was the answer Quantum sought. In fact, they were just exacerbating a problem that dogged the entire online-services industry: the way that no service could talk to any other service. By the end of the 1980s Quantum had launched or were about to launch four separate online services, none of which could talk to one another, marooning their subscribers on one island or another on the arbitrary basis of the model of computer they happened to have chosen to buy. It was hard enough to nurture one online community to health; to manage four was all but impossible. The deal with Commodore to found QuantumLink had almost certainly saved Quantum from drowning, but the similar bespoke deals with Apple, Radio Shack, and IBM, as impressive as they sounded on their face, threatened to become the millstone around their neck which dragged them under again.

Circa October of 1989, Case therefore decided it was time for Quantum to go it alone, to build a brand of their own instead of for someone else. The perfect place to start was with the moribund AppleLink Personal Edition, which, having just lost its official blessing from Apple, would have to either find a new name or shut down. Case wasn’t willing to do the latter, so it would have to be the former. While it would be hard to find a worse name than the one the service already had, he wanted something truly great for what he was coming to envision as the next phase of his company’s existence. He held a company-wide contest soliciting names, but in the end the one he chose was the one he came up with himself. AppleLink Personal Edition would become America Online. He loved the sense of sweep, and loved how very Middle American it sounded, like, say, Good Morning, America on the television or America’s Top 40 on the radio. It emphasized his dream of building an online community not for the socioeconomic elite but for the heart of the American mainstream. A member of said elite though he himself was, he knew where the real money was in American media. And besides, he thought the natural abbreviation of AOL rolled off the tongue in downright tripping fashion.

In the beginning, the new era which the name change portended was hard to picture; the new AOL was at this point nothing more than a re-branding of the old AppleLink Personal Edition. Only some months after the change, well into 1990, did Case begin to tip his hand. He had had his programmers working on his coveted Macintosh version of the AppleLink software since well before Apple had walked away, in the hope, since proven forlorn, that the latter would decide to expand their agreement with Quantum. Now, Quantum released the Macintosh version anyway — a version that connected to the very same AOL that was being used by Apple II owners. A process that would become known inside Quantum as “The Great Commingling” had begun.

Case had wanted the Mac version of AOL to blend what Jeff Wilkins over at CompuServe would have called “high-tech” and “high-touch.” He wanted, in other words, a product that would impress, but that would do so in a friendly, non-intimidating way. He came up with the idea of using a few voice samples in the software — a potentially very impressive feature indeed, given that the idea of a computer talking was still quite an exotic one among the non-techie demographic he intended to target. A customer-service rep at Quantum named Karen Edwards had a husband, Elwood Edwards, who worked as a professional broadcaster and voice actor. Case took him into a studio and had him record four phrases: “Welcome!,” “File’s done!,” “Goodbye!,” and, most famously, “You’ve got mail!” The last in particular would become one of the most iconic catchphrases of the 1990s, furnishing the title of a big Hollywood romantic comedy and even showing up in a Prince song. Even for those of us who were never on AOL, the sample today remains redolent of its era, when all of the United States seemed to be rushing to embrace its online future all at once. At AOL’s peak, the chirpy voice of Elwood Edwards was easily the most recognizable — and the most widely heard — voice in the country.

You’ve got mail!

But we get ahead of the story: recorded in 1990, the Edwards samples wouldn’t become iconic for several more years. In the meantime, the Great Commingling continued apace, with PC-Link and Promenade being shut down as separate services and merged into AOL in March of 1991. Only QuantumLink was left out in the cold; running as it was on the most limited hardware, with displays restricted to 40 columns of text, Quantum’s programmers judged that it just wasn’t possible to integrate what had once been their flagship service with the others. Instead QuantumLink would straggle on alone, albeit increasingly neglected, as a separate service for another four and a half years. The few tens of thousands of loyalists who stuck it out to the bitter end often retained their old Commodore hardware, now far enough out of date to be all but useless for any other purpose, just to retain access to QuantumLink. The plug was finally pulled on October 31, 1994, one day shy of the service’s ninth birthday. Even discounting the role it had played as the technical and philosophical inspiration for America Online, the software that Howard Goldberg and David Panzl and their team of student programmers had created had had one heck of a run. Indeed, QuantumLink is regarded to this day with immense nostalgia by those who used it, to such an extent that they still dream the occasional quixotic dream of reviving it.

The first version of America Online for MS-DOS. Steve Case convinced Isaac Asimov, Bill von Meister’s original celebrity spokesman for The Source all those years ago, to lend his name to a science-fiction area. It seemed that things had come full-circle…

For Steve Case, though, QuantumLink was the past already in 1991; AOL was the future. The latter was now available to anyone with an MS-DOS computer — already the overwhelmingly dominant platform in the country, whose dominance would grow to virtual monopoly status as the decade progressed. This was the path to the mainstream. To better reflect the hoped-for future, the name of Quantum Computer Services joined that of Control Video in Jim Kimsey’s shoe box of odds and ends in October of 1991. Henceforward, the company as well as the service would be known as America Online.

Much of the staff’s time continued to be devoted to curating community. Now, though, even more of the online events focused on subject areas that had little to do with computers, or for that matter with the other things that stereotypical computer owners tended to be interested in. Gardening, auto repair, and television were as prominently featured as programming languages. The approach seemed to be paying off, giving AOL, helped along by its easy-to-use software and a meticulously coached customer-support staff, a growing reputation as the online service for the rest of us. It had just under 150,000 subscribers by October of 1991. This was still small by the standards of CompuServe, GEnie, or Prodigy, but AOL was coming on strong. The number of subscribers would double within the next few months, and again over the next few months after that, and so on and so on.

CompuServe offered to buy AOL for $50 million. At two and a half times the latter’s current annual revenue, it was a fairly generous offer. Just a few years before, Kimsey would have leaped at a sum a fraction of this size to wash his hands of his problem child of a company. Even now, he was inclined to take the deal, but Steve Case was emphatically opposed, insisting that they were all on the verge of something extraordinary. The first real rift between the pair of unlikely friends was threatening. But when his attempts to convince CompuServe to pay a little more failed to bear fruit, Kimsey finally agreed to reject the offer. He would later say that, had CompuServe been willing to pay $60 million, he would have corralled his investors and sold out, upset Case or no. Had he done so, the history of online life in the 1990s would have played out in considerably different fashion.

With the CompuServe deal rejected, the die was cast; AOL would make it alone or not at all. At the end of 1991, Kimsey formally passed the baton to Case, bestowing on him the title of CEO of this company in which he had always been far more emotionally invested than his older friend. But then, just a few months later, Kimsey grabbed the title back at the behest of the board of directors. They were on the verge of an initial public offering, and the board had decided that the grizzled and gregarious Kimsey would make a better face of the company on Wall Street than Case, still an awkward public speaker prone to lapse gauche or just clam up entirely at the worst possible moments. It was only temporary, Kimsey assured his friend, who was bravely trying but failing to hide how badly this latest slap in the face from AOL’s investors stung him.

America Online went public on March 19, 1992, with an initial offering of 2 million shares. Suddenly nearly everyone at the company, now 116 employees strong, was wealthy. Jim Kimsey made $3.2 million that day, Steve Case $2 million. A real buzz was building around AOL, which was indeed increasingly being seen, just as Case had always intended, as the American mainstream’s online service. The Wall Street Journal‘s influential technology reporter Walt Mossberg called AOL “the sophisticated wave of the future,” and no less a tech mogul than Paul Allen of Microsoft fame began buying up shares at a voracious pace. Ten years on from its founding, and already on its third name, AOL was finally getting hot. Which was good, because it would never be cool, would always be spurned by the tech intelligentsia who wrote for Wired and talked about the Singularity. No matter; Steve Case would take being profitable over being cool any day, would happily play Michael Bolton to the other services’ Nirvana.

For all the change and turmoil that Control Video/Quantum Computer/America Online had gone through over the past decade, Bill von Meister’s original vision for the company remained intact to a surprising degree. He had recognized that an online service must offer the things that mainstream America cared about in order to foster mainstream appeal. He had recognized that an online service must be made as easy to use as humanly possible. And he had seen the commercial and technical advantages — not least in fostering that aforementioned ease of use — that could flow from taking complete control of the subscriber’s experience via custom, proprietary software. He had even seen that the mainstream online life of the future would be based around graphics at least as much as text. But, as usual for him, he had come to all these realizations a little too early. Now, the technology was catching up to the vision, and AOL stood poised to reap rewards which even Steve Case could hardly imagine.

(Sources: the books On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and its Founders by Michael A. Banks, Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner by Alec Klein, Fools Rush In: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Unmaking of AOL Time Warner by Nina Munk, and The Must be a Pony in Here Somewhere: The AOL Time Warner Debacle by Kara Swisher; Softline of May 1982; New York Times of December 3 1984; Ahoy! of February 1985; Commodore Power/Play of December 1984/January 1985; Info issues 6 and 9; Run of August 1985 and November 1985; Midnite Software Gazette of January/February 1985 and November/December 1985; Washington Post of May 30 1985 and June 29 1990; Compute! of November 1985; Compute!’s Gazette of March 1986 and January 1989; Commodore Magazine of October 1989; Commodore World of August/September 1995; The Monitor of March 1996; the episode of the Computer Chronicles television series entitled “Online Databases, Part 1”; old Usenet posts by C.D. Kaiser and Randell Jesup.)

 
13 Comments

Posted by on November 24, 2017 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

Tags: , , ,