PLATO Empire - The Well-Known Game of Empire IV

Empire IV - Simplifying for Playability

Early 1976 Chuck and I worked on taking the basic structure of Empire III and implementing the ease of use and simulation of Startrek from -michelin-. My focus had been in developing the next version of Empire that Gary and I had been designing in 1975 (see Empire V for more details. I liked Chuck's approach of simplifying the controls to giving a direction and a warp speed, rather than worrying about the physics of momentum that I had in the earlier versions. Chuck also had a wonderful sense of "setting the scene", both in the initial entry and in the responses to the commands. Funny that we put those messages in Empire IV and V, but made an option to disable them, since most folks don't wait to read them.

Empire IV Title Page

This is a screen shot of the Empire IV title page from the live PLATO system at You can see the ships of each of the four teams, Romulans, Kazari, Federation, and Orions.

Kazari? Kazari! What the heck is a Kazari?

When we were working to copyright Empire IV, Control Data laywers were concerned about naming rights and potentially having to pay royalties to Paramount and others. We had to change "Klingon" to something else. Since so many of the embedded commands use the shortcut of the first letter of the team name, we chose "Kazari". Little known is that the summer 1976 version of Empire IV listed Federation, Romulan, Klingon, and Vulcan. Vulcans were replaced by Orions.

This is the version from which X-trek and later Netrek evolved, down to the commands used. Netrek has since added more options and commands, of course.

Also notice the statistics. Many were added to Empire IV, tracking stats on each team, total HOURS of play time, and one big notice of which specific person took over the last remaining planet to conquer the Empire.

At the bottom of the page note the copyright date of 1977, 1978, and 1983. I'm not sure why the last two specific years are on there. "1977" was when Control Data assumed licensing of courseware from CERL.

Merging the Empire Resurrection

Empire IV is basically the structure from the Empire V understructure, which was an evolution from Empire III and Chuck's -michelin-. Much of the base was completed and working well by Spring 1976. Gary Fritz returned from his six month summer-intern stint at NASA and helped in August a little before I left to head to Minneapolis. Mike Rodby and Jim Battin got involved on the fringes and I know Jim continued on with Chuck and Gary after I left. We had a back-door "operator" options section which listed as operators:

There were probably some others there; I apologize if I'm missing someone.

Overview of Empire IV Features:

Making Objects Identifiable

Ships in Empire III were shown based on their size and type regardless of which team it was associated with. An icon indicated friend and foe. The look of the ship indicated the characteristics of the each ship type.

-michelin- had two teams, Klingons and Federation. Chuck had used the two ship types to represent team.

For Empire IV the look of the ship helped identify the team, which also limited that team to the characteristics of that ship type as show below from the Empire IV Help page. We started with the character set from Empire III and modified it a bit, making four different torpedo types, for example.

Each team's photon torpedoes were separately identified. This way, if one of your team-mates or other friends launched torpedoes, you wouldn't worry about them. (They would not explode on you.) BUT, if there were enemy torpedoes you knew you needed to take some actions. Perhaps try to detonate them. Perhaps maneuver your ship out of the way.

Empire IV Ships

The illustration at the bottom shows how far each object can move in a ten second update.

In Empire IV "space" was laid out with a 64x64 grid of sectors with a star in each quadrant each surrounded by planets, some habitable and others not. The central star system and other planets gave initial territory in which to expand without having to attack someone else's home system.

The goal was for one team to take over all of the planets, thus establishing the Empire.
Empire IV Strategic Display
Note the info and command lines at the bottom of the screen. You could still command your ship and communicate while checking the overall layout.

Typically one did not fly around with the Strategic display; most often one used the Tactical display. The following display shows with Full Information turned on.

The lines show the grid of sectors, this in a 9x9 view of sectors.

The Romulan ship #6 is circled; this is "my" ship. It is currently headed at 270 degrees at Warp 2, plenty of fuel, no damage, 60% energy allocated to the engines, carrying no Armies.

We've received a message from ship #3, a Federation ship.

Empire IV Tactical Display

"Hey! What's that weird object?" - The Doomsday Machine

Around fall/winter of 1976 a weird object occasionally appeared on player's screens. Messages between players and teams began flying. A "Doomsday Machine" had been leashed upon them and like the episode of Star Trek the ship's captains had no idea what it was. Soon, they were to learn that it went around eating the planets, which caused a bit of stir.

The teams and players rallied to battle it, but how does one kill the thing? Phasers and photons had no effect.

It proved nearly invincible. The captain had to cause the ship to self-destruct at just the perfect time.

The initiator of the DDM was a mystery. It came and went from the game at random. (I'm thinking it was Jim Battin.)

It was a great addition to the game forcing a major change-up.

Making the Game Official

August 1976, I had moved from Ames, Iowa, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to work for Control Data in the Courseware Services group. One of my main jobs was to review lessons, certify that they were functioning well, and catalog them. I helped facilitate the copyright and licensing of Empire from the CDC end of the process. In 1976 there were many legal concerns about whether software could even be copyrighted and aspects of some telecommunications act had the many lawyers worried about breaking some law of using the wires to communicate in a non-traditional way.

There was considerable consternation about Empire at CDC. Should games even be licensed and allowed on the system? Others already had, but CDC was looking at the numbers and realizing the contact hours generated could bankrupt the farm.

Once management decided to publish Empire, they insisted there be a maximum of two names on the copyright so that only two checks need be written. On top of all that, they were concerned that since I was IN the Courseware group maybe I shouldn't be allowed to copyright nor license anything, even if prior art.

That's how Chuck and Gary's names are on the main title page and Silas Warner and I are mentioned as Creators on the title page of the Help lesson.

Empire IV - Commands

Commands for Empire IV
COMMAND What it does...
k to set course then (0-359� or arrow keys [a,q,w,we, etc.]
0-9 to set warp 0-10
o orbit a planet
p fire photon torpedo
P fire burst of 3 Photon torpedoes
f fire phasers
F Fire phasers same bearing
d detonate enemy torpedoes
D Detonate OWN torpedoes
b beam armies up/down
B Bombard planet surface
C Coup to recapture home planet
i info on ships and planets
I Information displays
Shift 5,7,or9 change view range around ship 5x5, 7x7, 9x9
e see engine temperature
Shift-LAB strategic or tactical view
M Map of charted planets
DATA player list
Shift-DATA planet list and info
HELP for more information
A Allocate energy to weapons/energy
SUP,SUB raise/lower shields
C toggle Cloaking device
R double Repair efforts
t Quite (Self-Destruct)
Q engage/release tractor beam
m message to all/team/player
ANS ANSwer last message received
L repeat Last message(s)
W War and Peace declarations
E Emergency distress signal

Inside the Programming of Empire IV

Some details on how each version was implemented is sprinkled among each of the sections, however some details are complex enough and important enough to put into their own area. This helps keep the discussion about the features a little more coherent.

See the Game Design sections, notably on Speeding It Up for some insights on how Empire IV was made more playable.