The Game Archaeologist moves into Lucasfilm's Habitat: Part 2

Justin Olivetti
J. Olivetti|01.17.12

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The Game Archaeologist moves into Lucasfilm's Habitat: Part 2
Last week on the exciting cosmic adventures of the Game Archaeologist, we uncovered the ancient civilization of Lucasfilm's Habitat, one of the early predecessors to graphical MMOs. While we talked about how it came to be and pondered just how much money we'd waste if game companies were still charging by the minute, we didn't have the time or space to cover the community and events that formed around this experimental project.

That day has come. Prepare your bladder for imminent release!

Giving a bunch of players tools to do every which thing in the game and turning them loose without strict regulation might seem like a recipe for an instant sewage pit of a game today, but our cultured, classy behaviors weren't quite trained into us in 1986. When players first set eyes on Habitat, they weren't thinking of min-maxing, kill-stealing, or raid progression; they were trying to make sense of a virtual world using the only frame of reference they had to date: their own lives. Out of a melting pot of ideas and objects came fascinating stories from one of the earliest MMO proto-ancestors of the modern era. Get your '80s on as we head back... to the future!

Head swapping
Cartoons and violence

For all its posturing as a virtual world empowering its cartoony citizens to achieve anything, Habitat wasn't against including combat as one of its neighborly interactions. It certainly wasn't a strict RPG-like system; you didn't level up or focus on stats, but a bit of the ol' ultra-violence was an option for those who desired it.

Avatars had a fixed 255 hitpoints, although the game hid the actual numbers and would merely inform players as to their general state of health. You could attack with a gun or a hand-to-hand weapon, targeting players and ordering an attack. The attack would either land or not, and if it did hit, a small amount of damage would be shaved off the other player's health. Getting hit was harder than you'd think, as players not interesting in participating in combat could either go to ghost (observer) form or by simply running around. That's right: You couldn't be hit if you were moving. Almost makes it seem pointless, doesn't it? And yet players somehow still got their Call of Duty on with spontaneous firefights across urban locales.

If a player died, his corpse was lootable, which did cause some measure of griefing between the ne'er-do-wells and the newbies too innocent to know how to save themselves.

A kinder, gentler form of combat was a dueling system right out of Harry Potter (you heard it here: J.K. Rowling ripped off Habitat for Harry!). Players equipped with wands could go to a judge for a duel and then try to hit each other three times to win.

Living for the weekend

Live events, both player-made and GM-run, were the highlights of Habitat for many players. In the early days, the devs had to discover the hard way what designers know full well today: that players will often defy expectations to consume content way faster using more unorthodox methods than anticipated.

One such lesson happened with an event called the D'nalsi Island Adventure. The devs slaved away at creating this interactive adventure puzzle, whipping up 100 regions and preparing actors for the event. The devs thought, at best, it would take the community days at best to solve.

It took eight hours. The live event was over so quickly, in fact, that most players never got a chance to experience it at all.

Another quirky recurrent event that happened late in the testing cycle was the creation of the Dungeon of Death. The dungeon's upcoming appearance was highly promoted in advance using the in-game newspaper, so by the time it arrived, the populace was understandably curious.

The dungeon consisted of a maze where players would race to secure treasures before GMs (or, as they were called back then, "system operators") would hunt them down in the form of either DEATH or THE SHADOW. The GMs had special one-shot-kill guns and health-restoring wands to make these characters invincible, death-dealing spectres.

However, things did not go as planned as one GM forgot to use a wand on himself after a session. He handed off DEATH to another controller who was ignorant of DEATH's now-precarious situation. As the new DEATH got into a firefight with four players, he found himself killed and his corpse now available for looting -- which included the special, never-meant-to-be-in-the-hands-of-players instakill gun.

Amusingly enough, instead of banning the player or using the system's powers to take the item back, the GMs negotiated with the bandit to reclaim the item for a huge amount of in-game currency. The actual exchange went down as a spontaneous live event of its own with crowds of curious spectators watching the player and GMs get into the spirit and ham it up.

Walking down the street

With no universal goal system imposed on users, players were free to decide how they wanted to spend their time in the game. Social interaction was one of Habitat's biggest draws, going so far as to allow players to marry in-game. Once married, the two players' houses -- or "turf," as it was called -- were merged into one, although it was difficult for the developers to figure out ways to make cohabitation (pun intended!) work.

Quickly following the first wedding in the game was the first in-game divorce, with players taking on the roles of lawyers to help the two parties separate their property and goods.

Players would group up for social gatherings known as Parties and Sleep-Overs. Sleep-Overs were more risky on the behalf of the host, as she would be opening up her house for players to stay even while the host wasn't logged into the game. Because this meant that invited players could potentially steal everything not nailed down in the host's turf, a large measure of trust was involved.

Cootie catchers

Long before World of Warcraft players caused a game-wide epidemic with a Corrupted Blood glitch, Habitat designers were intentionally infecting the game world just to see what happened. Probably the most infamous plague was a simple case of Cooties, which was released during the beta test period.

The devs cursed several players with the Cootie virus, which would change that player's head -- the main piece of visual customization a player had -- with a special one that signified that the avatar in question had not, indeed, had his or her Cootie shot. The Cootie head could be transferred to someone else if touched, which turned the infected into pariahs who had fun hunting down the normals.

They blogged before it was cool

Without an internet community and the tools that came with it -- forums, blogs, Twitter, fan sites -- players had just one method of keeping in touch with the events and hot topics in Habitat: the in-game newspaper. Called The Weekly Rant, this newspaper was run by a series of players who would serve the community by compiling news, events, and stories for the weekly rag. Players could then purchase a copy of The Weekly Rant through an in-game vendroid (a vending machine).

Griefers Anonymous

As soon as Habitat's doors opened, there were those who would play the game just to ruin others' experiences (sounds familiar, eh?). The devs had no idea how much or little the community would be able to police itself, but some tools were provided to do so. For example, players looking to harass griefers could spam with with EPS messages (tells) that would fill up their screens and make any further interaction difficult.

Probably the worst griefers were the headhunters -- and yes, it's exactly how it sounds. Since player avatars were defined by their removable and replacable heads, some took it as a challenge to "liberate" their fellow Habitatians of their noggins. Typically, this would happen when a griefer would spot a complete newbie and "help" her out by showing her how she could remove her head. Once the newbie did so, the griefer would ask her if she could pass the head over so she could be shown something else. You can probably imagine what happened from there.

Devs also had to figure out the right balance of object ownership. Initially all players could be looted if killed, and objects could be stolen right off of their bodies if the robber was fast enough. However, public dislike for these "features" caused the devs to institute what we now would recognize as PvP zones outside of the cities. There was also some experimentation with an elected Sheriff position, but the devs couldn't quite figure out what powers to give a player in order to help him or her maintain law and order.

Bar hangout
Unlimited wealth

Griefers, PvPers, bloggers, and social butterflies -- who was there left for Habitat to invite? Oh yeah: the exploiters.

The most infamous tale of exploiting in Habitat came virtually overnight when a few enterprising souls figured out that there was an easy way to exploit the game's economy. Every player was granted 100 tokens a day in currency, which would hopefully be drained back out through various vending machines and whatnot. However, some players figured out that a pawn machine sold two items -- dolls and crystal balls -- at a lower price than the machine would buy back. With players making up to 12,000 tokens per sale, millionaires sprang up all over the place.

The devs were at a loss to figure out the sudden rapid increase in the economy, as the number of tokens in the game quadrupled over the course of one night. Eventually they found the culprits responsible and discovered the pricing errors, although the exploiters were allowed to keep their funds as long as they used the tokens to better the game. And so they did: The millionaires put on treasure hunts and quests, to the delight of many.

Habitat's habits

While the original two-year trial run was short and successive virtual game worlds like Ultima Online would vastly overshadow Habitat's achievements, I personally am in awe that so much of what we know and love about MMOs today was already starting to fall into place over a quarter of a decade ago. I don't know if anyone reading this actually played Habitat back in the day, but if so, please sound off in the comments and let us know about your experiences!

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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