The Game Archaeologist: The PLATO MMOs, part 1

The Game Archaeologist The PLATO MMOs
In tracing the history and pre-history of MMORPGs in this column, we've spent a lot of time outside of the 2000s and into the explosive '90s, the experimental '80s, and even the extraordinary '70s. Early pioneers like MUD1, Dungeons & Dragons, GameLine, bulletin board systems, Habitat, Island of Kesmai, and even Maze War have contributed to the development of these games we enjoy today.

But I think we're going to outdo ourselves this week. We're going to go back further than ever before in the The Game Archaeologist time tunnel. When we arrive at our destination, we'll see that MMOs started germinating within a decade of computers being able to talk to each other.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you 1961.

The Game Archaeologist The PLATO MMOs
The rise of PLATO

In 1961 we hadn't even gone to the moon yet, Vietnam was just heating up, and Lord of the Rings was only seven years old. Computers were beastly large, hugely expensive, and unknown outside of government and university facilities. It was this year that PLATO II -- Programmed Logic Automatic Teaching Operations -- became the world's first educational computer network.

PLATO's mainframe time-sharing terminals were developed to provide computer education to university (and later, grade-school) students, and as such, connecting users became a goal as successive systems were created. The system quickly pioneered many technologies, including touchscreens (in 1972!), plasma displays, and interactive peripherals. In an era of punch cards, PLATO allowed its users quick input via keyboard and quick feedback via terminals. In 1967, Paul Tenczar created TUTOR, a special programming language for PLATO that made it scads easier for people to program highly interactive graphical titles. Like, y'know, games.

As the '70s progressed, more schools and universities acquired PLATO terminals, meaning two important components were in place for the growth of MMOs: Students were given the tools to write their own programs and the technology to communicate with other computers. Communities formed using PLATO's online communications, which included shared note files, instant messaging, and bulletin boards.

Before multi-user dungeons came along in the early '80s, amateur programmers on PLATO were already whipping up games that allowed several users to group up, explore virtual worlds, and slay the dragon. While none of these fit the modern definition of MMOs -- most notably lacking world persistence or truly "massive" numbers of online players -- the following games started the ball rolling in that direction. I think you'll be amazed with the ingenuity that this generation cooked up.

The Game Archaeologist The PLATO MMOs
Spacewar (1972)

Spacewar wasn't a PLATO original, but when the classic PvP title was adapted for the platform, players didn't have to be in the same room to play as each other. Instead, by 1972 there were a thousand PLATO terminals that could pit players against each other, making Spacewar a fully networked multiplayer game.

Empire (1973)

Iowa State College student John Daleske was tired of the current game offerings on PLATO and dreamed up a multiplayer tactical game one day for a class project. With the help of a few others over the next year, Daleske's game Star Trek-themed Empire took the PLATO nation by storm.

Up to 30 Empire players chose one of four factions to fight for, flying their starships across the galaxy in pseudo-real time. Ships could fight against each other, but the real challenge was to ferry armies from one's home world and drop them on other planets in order to conquer the galaxy. It was so popular that by 1980, over three million hours of play had been racked up in Empire among the 1,000 PLATO terminals. Its spirit exists to this day under the titles like X-trek and Netrek.

dnd (1974)

"In 1974-75, you could play every video game in the world in about 60 minutes (and, I think I did on several occasions)," said dnd creator Ray Wood. Bored and unsatisfied with the offerings out there, Wood and his college friend Gary Whisenhunt decided to make their own dungeon crawler that was humorous, full of in-jokes, and above all else, fun.

The Game of Dungeons, better known as dnd to its players, was just a single-player RPG, but it helped to lay the foundations of many games that followed. Players could choose their own difficulty level by deciding how deep into the dungeon to go, roll for their stats, leave the dungeon to sell and stash loot, and save their progress so their characters could be persistent. It was also the first video game to feature bosses. The player community gave the programmers lots of feedback, resulting in plenty of changes over the years as dnd evolved -- much as MMOs do today. Development on dnd continued until 1985.

The Game Archaeologist The PLATO MMOs, part 1
Spasim (1974)

Out of all of the titles on this list, Spasim (pronounced "space sim") is probably the most direct ancestor to the modern MMO. It was a 32-player networked space sim where players flew wire-frame ships through four systems to blast each other and compete for resources. Spasim had an in-depth storyline and initially required its users to do some serious calculations to fly the ships (educational terminals, remember?) as they moved every second in real-time. Its creator touted it as the world's first 3-D multiplayer online game, and if that is not impressive enough, it was the first game to introduce crafting with its second version.

One of Spasim's coolest feature was the "Talkomatic" chat system, which allowed players to communicate, coordinate, and smack talk to their hearts' content. It's hard to imagine a multiplayer game without a chat system today, isn't it?

Next time on The Game Archaeologist, we'll look at the rest of PLATO's notable lineup and see how they each contributed to the MMO genre!

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.
This article was originally published on Massively.