The Game Archaeologist: The PLATO MMOs, part 2

The Game Archaeologist The PLATO MMOs, part 2

In our last installment looking at PLATO, the educational computer network that linked a thousand terminals across the US together, I don't think I stressed enough how awesome this system was for the time. In the 1970s, most universities had computers that required punch cards for input and spat back results on printers, grade schools simply didn't have computers, and if you wanted a PC at home, you'd have to build one from a kit that ended up being little more than a box with blinking lights. To sit down at a PLATO terminal was to jump forward a decade or more: sharp plasma displays, touch screens, speech synthesizers, email, message boards, and of course, the latest games.

Often brewed up by students and programmers in their off hours, the PLATO games demonstrated the potential for online gaming, even if the games couldn't be put into every home. Last time we saw some of the innovations that would fuel MUDs and MMOs in years to come: networking, persistent characters, multiplayer matches with up to 32 people at a time, 3-D gaming in a virtual world, video game bosses, chat systems, and even crafting.

So let's move on to the second batch of what I'm calling the "PLATO MMOs" -- not truly MMO as we know them today but uncanny pre-echoes of what the genre would become.

The Game Archaeologist The PLATO MMOs, part 2

Moria (1975)

Do you recall the thrill that you had the very first time you grouped with other players in an MMO to conquer a dungeon? Take that feeling and magnify it to meet the "world first!" status when Moria came out in the mid-'70s.

Unlike dnd's top-down approach to dungeon crawling, Mines of Moria (or simply Moria) gave it a first-person perspective with simple 3-D pictures. Seeing where you were going and what monsters you were fighting was electrifying to the audience back then. Players could solo or group up to tackle an amazing 248 mazes, which was about 247 mazes more than J.R.R. Tolkien ever created in his Moria.

"Believe it or not we hadn't even heard of D&D until after we started the project," said Moria programmer Kevet Duncombe. "I hadn't read Tolkien at the time. The guys doing dnd seemed to be having a good deal of trouble getting the bugs out and I was curious what made it so tough. When I thought up the notion of generating the dungeon on the fly as you walk around, I couldn't resist and prototyped a 2-D, top-down version. That was the impetus. Before you know it Jim and I had turned it into a playable game, and we just kept adding features."

There were a few interesting concepts with Moria, such as the ability to create camps and leave behind "strings" to help you find your way back to a certain place. Yeah, it's a waypoint. In 1975. However, character creation and development wasn't as advanced as what came soon after.

The Game Archaeologist The PLATO MMOs, part 2

Oubliette (1977)

The brainchild of University of Illinois student Jim Schwaiger, Oubliette (French for "dungeon") combined his love of D&D with his desire to automate the tedious dice rolls and slow pace of progression. "The tiresome aspects of the game could easily be delegated to a computer, allowing the human players to focus on the fun," Schwaiger said.

He focused on creating a D&D-like experience in the form of a multiplayer dungeon crawl. It wasn't a bare-bones affair, either; Oubliette had eight races and 10 classes for players to choose from, its own unique spell language, and a whopping 150 monster types and 100 pieces of gear to discover.

Oubliette became insanely popular virtually overnight. Legend has it that several people ended up dropping out of school because they played this to the detriment of their grades. In any case, this title was a major inspiration for the Wizardry series (of which the latest is an MMO -- or so I've heard) and a continued passion for group dungeon crawls. Oubliette was ported to several platforms and lives on today on mobile devices.

The Game Archaeologist The PLATO MMOs, part 2

Avatar (1977)

The last of our "PLATO MMOs" was the one most similar to an actual MMO: Avatar. No, not the cartoon. No, not the James Cameron movie. No, not the... you know what? It was an old game that you didn't play. Let's move on.

In an attempt to outdo the wonders of Oubliette, students started work on an improved form of the game that wasn't just a great co-op dungeon crawler but a persistent virtual world. A multi-user dungeon, if you will. By the time that Avatar was released into the wilds of PLATO in 1979, it was far ahead of everything that had come before it.

Not only could players make teams of up to 15 people or choose to solo through dungeons, but now they could form guilds and even create quests for each other. Many of the tougher quests required teamwork and altruism as players scrounged for particular items or kills. When monsters were defeated, they'd respawn after 15-minutes, keeping the game from becoming a virtual wasteland. If a player died, he still had a chance: Other players could carry the corpse to a morgue, where life would be returned in exchange for some gold and a hit to one of the deceased player's stats.

You'd be right at home with Avatar's interface, too, as it featured game world visuals, descriptions of actions and inventory, and a chat parser. The end result became the most popular game on PLATO, accounting for 6% of all gametime between 1978 and 1985.

PLATO: MMO ancestor or extinct neanderthal?

When I was researching this article, I came upon an interesting article written by Dr. Richard Bartle (MUD1). In it, he claims PLATO's impact on MMO history was extremely limited if not negligible.

"I do know some industry old-timers who cut their teeth on PLATO and who have influenced virtual world development (eg. Gordon Walton and Andy Zaffron)," Bartle writes, "but the system itself had only a minuscule effect. Our current virtual worlds are the descendents of the text games invented in the late 1970s and the 1980s: MUD1, Sceptre of Goth, Island of Kesmai, Aradath, and Monster. PLATO did have its virtual world, Avatar, but this came after MUD1 and it evolved without interaction with the other games mentioned, on its own, separate (and ultimately moribund) path."

I wanted to include his quote (and the link to his article) to keep things on the up and up around here. It's an easy temptation when researching all of these games to want to make connections where sometimes there aren't any.

But it's an interesting question to chew on: Did PLATO's games have any impact on the development of virtual worlds and MMOs, or are they just the neanderthals of the genre, similar but not really an ancestor? It fascinates me how many of the features that we enjoy today in MMOs were being made in the '70s, although it's entirely possible that other game designers at the time or later on made their own identical features without being aware of these titles. This sort of thing does happen a lot.

If nothing else, it amazes me that there was this passion and drive to create multiplayer worlds that connected players even when we were only at 1,000 linked computer terminals in an era that thought disco was keen.

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.