PLATO - Excellent Game Platform

PLATO - Also an Excellent Platform to Design Games

Ted Nelson in his classic "Computer Lib / Dream Machines" included coverage of PLATO and PLATO's games as of 1974. He sounded excited about the platform and the already existing breadth of games, from board games to sophisticated multiplayer games.

The Computer Education Research Laboratory (CERL) at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, had installed terminals all over the United States and even some in other countries. All terminals on a system (network) connected to a mainframe over a 1200 baud line [1]. Later, as more PLATO systems were installed around the world one could connect to those other systems. These terminals were graphic with 512x512 pixel resolution screen, touch panels, a rear-projected micro-fiche, and more. This was a totally different world from punched tape and cards.

One could interact with others by going into lessons (programs) that used shared memory ("common"). Games used this "common" for communicating between the players, including challenges/invitations to play and the moves of each player. The games in 1973 were all two-player games. The invitation to play against each other was done by showing a list of all players available and selecting one to challenge; since the names were showed on an electronic equivalent of a bulletin board, they became known as "Big Board" games.

It was one thing to play against a computer, but something entirely different to play virtual players anywhere in the world [2].

Features of existing games on PLATO Spring 1973:

For the following table, I don't know the exact dates and order. These are my best recollections from notes I made in October 1975. I have also amended some entries based from notes by Dirk Pellett.

We have detailed a few games here, which may be selected from the table below or index on the right.

PLATO Games Through 1975
Game Approximate Date Authors Features
Spacewar Late 1960s Rich Blomme Big Board. Two players.
Chess 1972 ? Big Board. Two players.
Moonwar 1972? ? Big Board. Two players.
Dogfight 1972? ? Big Board. Two players. Fly airplane around 2D airspace to shoot at opponent.
Backgammon 1972? ? Big Board. Two players.
Empire May 1973 John Daleske 2D single screen. Eight players each on a planet. Simulation of planets, growing economy and trade. Ships attack other planets. Renamed "Conquest" and improved by Silas Warner 1974-1975
LIFE 1972? ? ?.
Darwin1 1972? ? ?.
Spasim 1974 James Bowery 3D first-person shooter. Multiple players. Nice graphics. Not very playable.
Nova 1974 Pete Rowell and Al McNeil 3D first-person. Multiple players. Detailed in Computer Lib and Dream Machines by Ted Nelson, 1974.
Airfight 1974? Brand Fortner 3D first-person shooter. Fly airplanes to shoot down opponents. Two teams plus X-plane simulator. Multiple players. Predecessor to Flight Simulator.
dnd 1974-5? Gary Whisenhunt, Ray Wood 2D first-person. Multiple players. Enhanced in 1977 by Dirk and Flint Pellet.
Trek 1975? ? ?.
SUBWAR 1975? Dave Dennis ?.
DUNGEON 1975 John Daleske 3D first person maze. Multiple players. Incomplete. Predecessor to Moria.
Panzer 1975 John Daleske / Derek Ward 3D first person shooter. Tanks firing on each other. Multiple players. For Fort Knox School of Armor.
Empire 3D 1975 John Daleske and Gary Fritz 3D strategic and tactical sections. 150 players. Incomplete.
Galaxy 1975 Gary Michael 3D first-person. Multiple players. Incomplete.

Association of Game Authors

I'm not exactly sure when we started lesson -gchars-, but around the end of 1974 we formed a loose association of game authors. We had an initial group and then added game authors over time. Following is a list from probably about mid to late 1976.

In the hope of making advanced simulation-type games an integral part of PLATO, the following game authors have agreed to share this lesson space cooperatively, and work together to solve the problems which confront the author interested in using the computer for primarily recreational purposes. These problems have their roots in political and educational issues as well as in the area of software and hardware support.

Following is a list of authors that appeared below the statement; It is from probably about mid to late 1976.

Gary R. MichaelMichael BergerPeter W. Rowell Tom Grohne
Alan R. McNeilBob NorthAlex Dimitrief Steve Stone
John DaleskeDave ArmstrongSilas Warner Brand Fortner
Dave DennisBill RoperChuck Miller Mark Nakada

We had severely limited development space and could potentially lose the space; some did, though their games resurfaced under other accounts.

A "character set" (charset) held a compressed, ready-to-send-to-the-terminal group of alternate characters for display, an early form of "font". The characters did not have to be some typeface, but could be used for anything; they were essential for fast game playing on a 1200 baud network. Each character represented an 8 x 16 grid of pixels, either on or off. Character sets took two blocks of space, but did not have to be 'in' the lesson. This freed up those two blocks for program space.

We set up lesson -gchars- to hold our character sets and, later, linesets. By 1976 it had six parts (7 blocks per part). One did not just use someone else's charset, but asked first.

Lesson -gchars- has been restored on the Cyber1 PLATO system. I made the Inspect code open to allow viewing.

[1]: A 1200 baud line would seem like a VERY slow dial-up line. Most dial-up connections now can go at least in the 20,000 baud range and often to 57,600 baud; between 20x and 48x. Your slowest DSL line would be over 300x faster.

[2]: Allow me a little hyperbole once in a while.