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The Game Archaeologist: The return of Habitat


After over four years of writing for Massively, I've ceased to be surprised by how bizarre and unexpected this industry can be. However, if you had told me a few weeks ago that, of all things, Habitat would be coming back online, I would have laughed mightily in your face.

And yet, that's exactly what's happening. The Museum of Arts and Digital Entertainment has taken up the challenge to restore LucasFilm's Habitat to working condition and then, for the first time ever, open this original virtual world up to the internet to play. Museum staff, former Habitat devs, and volunteers have been wrestling with the old code and hardware to make this happen, and I can think of no better topic for this week's column than to look at how this 28-year-old game for the Commodore 64 will emerge blinking in the light of the modern era.

I reached out to MADE's director, Alex Handy, to chat about the project and get clarification concerning what steps will need to be taken between now and the moment the switch is thrown to power up Habitat.

Massively: You said that you came across the source code for Habitat while preparing for a presentation on Lucasfilm games for GDC. Where was the code, exactly? At what point did you come up with the idea to bring it back online?

Alex Handy: Chip Morningstar gave me the code so we could print some out and show it in the museum and at GDC. When I looked at what he gave me and saw that it was basically the entire source tree for the history of the project, I figured we could take a look at the possibility of restoring the game.

I used to work in computer recycling, so I'm familiar with computing history, but when I heard from Chip what sort of computer this ran on, the Stratus VOS platform, I'd never heard of it before. I was super intrigued and made it my mission to find one. It did not take long. We contacted Stratus, and Paul Green was extremely kind in building us a vintage Stratus Nimbus. When I found out Paul could get us a machine, there was no turning back.

Why use old server architecture to run this code? Couldn't it be fashioned to run on something more modern and reliable?

The Stratus platform and VOS operating system are not things you can just emulate. There are no emulators for this hardware. There are emulators for the 68000 series of chips, but the Stratus hardware is entirely proprietary and was built to be highly fault tolerant. It had many features we now take for granted in modern computers, like virtual memory and networking capabilities, but all of this means the computers had to be built from the ground up. As is frequently the case with innovators in a field, the first take on new technology tends to be its own thing; standards and specifications for interoperability come later. Stratus, in the '80s, was top-of-the-line 24/7 computing hardware. That sort of equipment could not be built out of off-the-shelf parts, and as a result, this remains the only way to run the original server without significant recoding on the order of years, not days.

Stratus does support its old hardware, but the 68000 machines were end-of-life'd back in 99. Add to this the fact that Q-Link ran on this hardware and that this was all designed to compile on Stratus hardware, and you've got a recipe for a very difficult emulation, refactoring, recoding, reworking problem.

You have the former Habitat developers helping you with the project. What were their reactions when you approached them with it?

Chip thought it was a crazy idea and that it could definitely be done but that it would be a lot of work. Randy Farmer, on the other hand, is now dedicated to MAKING it work. Chip has a rather taxing day job in the valley, but Randy actually lives near the museum, and he's basically leading this effort.

At first, Randy was shocked Chip had given me the source code, but after we talked, he was all-in for bringing Habitat back. They both put a lot of effort into this project and have both been incredibly gracious about answering all of our questions.

You said that Fujitsu has the rights to Habitat and Club Caribe, its publicly released version. Was it difficult to get permission from Fujitsu for this project? Does LucasArts or Disney have any say over this old source code?

Fujitsu wholly owns the rights. Mostly, Fujitsu purchased the game for distribution in Japan, so when we approached the owners, they were very friendly and helpful. I'm actually hoping to work with their archivists in Japan to track down some things we're missing. Fujitsu has been an extremely honorable and standup partner in this project.

How are Habitat and Club Caribe different from each other?

I may mangle this definition in numbers, but here goes: Client-side, the difference is about eight bytes, plus a different splash screen. Server-side, it's just fewer rooms and fewer items. When the game was handed over and the name was changed, the managers on the project thought that it was too weird for people to grasp in advertising, so they rebranded it as a Caribbean vacation-themed world. Needless to say, the users, Chip, and Randy didn't think this was a very good idea.

You said that emulating Q-Link and finding help doing so was a significant obstacle to the project. How is that coming? Why is Q-Link so important to running Habitat -- couldn't you just do it directly?

We still need significant help from the founders of AOL. This project went from being about preserving Habitat, to about preserving Habitat and VOS/Stratus, to now preserving Habitat, VOS/Stratus, and Q-Link. The scope just keeps getting bigger, but that's because all three of these things were deeply tied into one another.

Habitat is built with the Stratus PL/I libraries, and a set of Q-Link libraries. Without those missing Q-Link libraries, we have to reverse engineer the whole platform to figure out what it is those libraries did and how we can replace them. It will take significantly more time without Q-Link. And besides, Q-Link is terrifically interesting as a preservation project on its own!

What was the atmosphere like during your "Habitat Hackathon"? How many people came out to help?

The atmosphere was electric, as though the entire room had been stuffed full of brains that were all throbbing and pulsating at once. The brain power amongst the 20 or so people we had there was astounding. When it became apparent very early on that we would not be able to compile the server, everyone split into teams and immediately got to work defining the problem, preparing the client, and building all the other pieces that could be handled without the missing libraries. Randy even coded up a test server for the client, which is how we got a region up and running.

Randy, Chip, and two hackers both named Michael stayed and worked for 12 hours cranking out code, listing what was missing, and generally reminiscing about the game and its world.

What will us players have to do to access Habitat when it goes online? Will the game be truly persistent (i.e., offer individual, saved accounts with personal changes in the world) or reset upon logging out?

To access the game when it goes online, you will need the C64 emulator VICE and the three disk images needed to connect (we will provide these). You'll first connect to Q-Link Reloaded, a project we've recently resurrected on its own. Once you're into Q-Link, the server will hand you off to our Stratus box, and you'll swap the disk images to the Club Caribe or Habitat disks. Both should work. The server should be online until it dies, 24/7, 365. Stratus is fairly confident it can run for a long time without failing, but it is older than most of your readers, sooo....

Will Habitat be viewable for free (with accepted donations) or will you or Fujitsu be charging for it?

This is a preservation project. It will always be free to play and use. Fujitsu is not making any money from this, and neither are we. In fact, we're both expending a fair amount of resources to make it free.

What do you think an online Habitat will teach today's generation of players?

I think it will teach them about the history of the culture of videogames and the culture of online communities. A lot of the things you expect in modern MMOs were laid out in Habitat, but those things were not mobs, raids, dungeons, swords, or guilds.

Instead, Habitat showed what a community in a large gaming world can be. The game had things like disease, murder, teleportation, instant messaging, and cosmetic items. When Habitat became Club Caribe and items were removed from the game, the playerbase revolted and raised hell. Sound familiar? And all of this was happening in 1988.

You said that Habitat's return will last only as long as the greatly aging hardware does. Are there ideas to preserve the game past that?

We've always been planning on rebuilding the server in modern languages, but we really do have an obligation to keep this hardware working. It's the only online 68k Stratus machine currently plugged in and working in the entire world. That, alone, makes it a museum-quality piece. We have an obligation to preserve it forever. When we do port Habitat's server, we might turn the Stratus off, but it will remain in our collection and on display.

We've seen many virtual worlds go completely dark, perhaps forever, which pains fans who would love to go back and see these games again. In the larger scope of MMOs and virtual worlds, what could museums, individuals, and other institutions be doing to prepare their preservation?

Museums could be a great way to preserve virtual worlds. There have been a few papers about how to do this, but typically, it only happens when fans get together and rebuild something in the open. I would love to continue to do this type of work at the MADE, but it will require a larger investment of resources, and some major donations before we can plan another project like this. Still, I plan to find another dead thing to resurrect afterwards. It's our job as a museum to preserve the history of this medium, and as an interactive medium, there is no preservation without playability.

Thank you for your insight and good luck with bringing Habitat back to the world!

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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