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The Game Archaeologist and the veteran of Kesmai


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Aaand we're back! Did you miss me? No? Not even a little bit? Aww, you know how to make me feel all kinds of appreciated!

Even though it's been quite some time since we finished up our two-part series on the Kesmai company and its incredible (and little-remembered) role in powering up the MMO genre, I wanted to return to take the topic for one last spin. A fellow blogger, Wilhelm "The Ancient Gaming Noob" Arcturus, backs his nickname up by providing memories and stories from gaming eras well before many Massively readers' time. Since he actually played several Kesmai titles back in the day and lived to tell the tale, I wanted to pick his brain before we moved on to other titles.

So join me in welcoming Wilhelm and his magical clockwork nostalgia retrieval system!

Air Warrior
The Game Archaeologist: Please introduce yourself and give us an overview of how you got involved with Kesmai's games and services back in the day!

Wilhelm Arcturus: I am Wilhelm Arcturus. Not my real name, but that's all you're going to get. I have a blog called The Ancient Gaming Noob at which I have been writing for over five years now. The point of the blog, which can seem rather pointless at times, is to record what I have seen and experienced in games, which generally means online games where a shared world and community come into play. This is to help me remember what has happened and when.

I also try to record some of my memories of my early days of online gaming, which stretch back to 1986, when long-time friend and fellow blogger Potshot was hard up for cash and sold me his 1200 bps modem. This got hooked up to my Apple IIe and got me into the online world, such as it was back then. I was going to school full time and working full time at that point, so I clearly needed a time consuming hobby to fill in the idle hours.

At that point there were two notable players amongst the online service crowd, CompuServe and GEnie, both of which offered online multiplayer games. Both were quite opaque to an outside observer, so I chose GEnie based entirely on its billing scheme. The hourly connect charges were about the same, but CompuServe had a $10 monthly minimum and billed in one-minute increments, while GEnie had no monthly minimum and billed in six-second increments. Clearly I did not want to potentially pay for 59 unused seconds! And it seemed possible that I might spend less that $10 a month using an online service that charged $5.00 an hour. So GEnie was the winner.

At that point, Kesmai had its space combat game Stellar Warrior running on GEnie; it was a simplified derivative of itsr MegaWars III game on CompuServe. The company had also just ported MegaWars III over wholesale as Stellar Emperor. MW3/SE was the more compelling of the two, combining space combat, exploration, and planetary management. I ended up there within minutes of logging into GEnie for the first time, part-way into the fourth four week campaign.

Stellar Emperor
So how much did you end up spending on playing online games back then?

Yes, literally "spending" time playing online games. Even in my young and foolish days, I realized that spending money on a game at $5.00 an hour was something I could not do with abandon. Still, I went nuts on a few occasions. During one four-week Stellar Emperor campaign, I spent over $1,000 to win. I got the prize for both leading the victorious team and getting the top individual score. I have two pewter cups at home and a couple of signed certificates to prove it. And very expensive little nick-nacks they are.

That campaign -- or getting the credit card bill for that campaign back in 1986 -- was the high-water mark of my spending on GEnie. After that, I played much more judiciously. But that also meant I was never really a contender again. People talk about "pay to win." I can tell you about that.

Later, when Air Warrior came along, the requirements to play long hours to be good were reduced. There was an offline mode in which you could practice so that you could spend your online time having fun rather than learning the game.

So what was the community like back then? Was everyone just in awe of this whole "online" thing? How did people connect outside of the game without the internet?

It was definitely a different age. We were not all so connected. The internet was a thing, but it was isolated, and all of these online services were their own islands.

Things were a lot more anonymous, but in a good way, the way the internet was before "the September that never ended." You were primarily known by your handle in-game and the number of your ship. That held your reputation. People might know your account name as well. You could exchange email with the online service, though it was an awkward process. And there was very little out-of-game contact. There was no web at that point on which to create a guild forum or the like. You could chat on the official forums. And most of us were using the only phone line we had, so you could either be online or chat on the phone but not both.

So most of what happened with people happened within the confines of the game. And yet communities formed; regular groups or teams stayed together through different campaigns. On the first night of a Stellar Emperor campaign, the big deal was to scout the galaxy, to go through all the star systems and find the best planets. We would form up our team, pick a chat channel (basically a number between 1-999), split up various sectors between us, and go out and scout. It was tedious, but it was the time during a campaign when most of us were on for a long stretch, so we would chat about everything. After that, you got to know the people who were on in your time frame. I worked nights and so tended to get on late Pacific time, but there were often the same dozen people on, and we would chat as we went about our business of re-scouting over time to find where people set down their colonies.

I did link up with some fellow Air Warrior players who lived near me, and we used to have lunch together about once a month at a Chinese place at 19th and Taraval in San Francisco. And I went to the Air Warrior convention they had in Dayton, Ohio. But guild forums, blogs, easy-to-use email, and things like Google were all a long way off.

Air Warrior box
With connectivity being as slow as it was back then, how did combat play out? Was it super-laggy? Did people have time to taunt each other in chat? Did you just hit the fire button and pray for the best?

In Air Warrior, there were good nights and bad nights. On a good night, you could come screaming out of the sky, lay your gun sight on an unsuspecting victim, close into range, fire, see hits, see smoke, and get a kill. It felt as real as possible, given the primitive nature of things.

And then there were nights when the universe seemed to be following a unique set of rules. An enemy plane would suddenly hover into view in range of your guns, only to jump a mile away a second later. You would hear that *ping* sound that meant you were taking hits, only to look everywhere and see nobody in range... or even in sight. And then that invisible nobody would shoot you down.

Nights like that could be extremely frustrating and lead to the game's nickname: "Air Warpier." Give what Kesmai was trying to do and the state of the art at the time, I am surprised that things worked well as often as they did. At least I am in hindsight. It was tough to be charitable at the time, as it was five dollars an hour to play!

What would you say Kesmai's greatest legacy ended up being?

Kesmai's greatest legacy? Being the trail blazer for online gaming. I mean, the company had a 3-D, real-time, online, multiplayer, combat flight simulator in 1988. That pre-dates Wolfenstein 3-D, which is probably the first great 3-D shooter, by four years, and that was a single player game. And when do we get to online multiplayer shooters?

Kesmai made games that showed what online games could be, including things like building the bonds of community. But it shared much of that with other early online games, like MUD1. I think Kesmai's being ambitiously ahead of its time while still making things work is probably its biggest achievement.

Thanks for sharing!

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.

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