Teenage Spacekicks: On Planetarion And Caring Too Much

At my Secondary School, for a few months at least, our teenage politics was defined by who was kissing whom, who had insulted whom, and who was sending spaceships to defend or attack whom. My friends and I were all playing Planetarion, a browser-based massively multiplayer game of long-term space domination. Each player was given control of a planet and would strive to gain the most points by mining their asteroids, building ships and capturing enemy planets.

What allowed the game to consume us was the glacial pace it moved at. The world would update once every ‘tick’, where a tick was a single hour. When you did anything, you would be given an ETA: it will take this number of ticks for your ships to be constructed, it will take this number ticks for your ships to reach their target.

The delayed response between performing an action and seeing its conseqeunces meant there was room in between for nail-biting obsession. More importantly, it meant we could log on to the game in the school library, make a few discrete moves and log off again before any disapproving teacher could catch us.

Unfortunately, my friends and I were all young teenagers. It wasn’t like we needed an excuse for bickering or Machiavellian backstabbing, and Planetarion simply provided a platform for our worst compulsions. Plus, disclaimer: I was kind of an asshole.

While I’d long forgotten the specifics of my old Planetarion games, a quick check of my hard drive revealed an MSN chatlog from the time.

Oh boy.

It seems my friends and I had just been sent a general message from the Minister of War (of, I guess, our coalition/group, and a stranger to me and my school friends), saying that defences should always be provided to attacked comrades. However, after committing 500 ships to defending one friend, and sending a 1500 ship counter-attack against his enemy, two other friends needed defending. They were angry I wasn’t sending ships to help them, too. I’ve obscured the names that could be in any way identifiable, except for my own:

Graham says:

im defending [Friend] with 500 ships and attacking the guy thats attacking him with 1500 in the hope he’ll racall. this is what i was asked to do, wga

Graham says:

what more could i do??

Officially Well Known Again! says:

currently there is no orders in the gal

Graham says:

[Friend] asked me on icq to attack the guy and see if he recalls, and asked me to defend. so thats what im doing

Officially Well Known Again! says:

[Friend] says “Jump under the bus Smitz!”

Bye Smitz ure dead now!

That’s some real nice typing skills you’ve got there, “Smitz”. And I’ve no idea whether ‘wga’ is slang or a typo.

Graham says:

im not defending [Friend #2] or you because im worried about being attacked my self

Graham says:

my points went from 300 thousand to 1.1 million

Graham says:

i have the most roids in the galaxy and am second in points

Officially Well Known Again! says:

smitz thats is mince

I had forgotten that “mince” used to mean bad! Conversely, I remember that the concern for my planet at the time was genuine, but trying to explain my tactics by bragging about how great I was probably wasn’t a great idea.

When bragging didn’t work, I tried name-calling, branding those complaining as “little shites.” The use of plural prompted requests for who the other shites were, but I refused to name names. There aren’t timestamps in the log, but I can only imagine this went on for hours. Until!

[Friend #2] has been added to the conversation.
[Friend #2] says:

why the fuck are u saying we’re all shite smitz?

My log ends here, but these choice extracts are meant to illustrate the type of conversations we’d have, where my friends and I would re-enact scenes of palace intrigue over badly spelt MSN chats.

(And I was completely an asshole. Sorry, school friends!)

When I stopped playing Planetarion, I forgot it almost entirely until I played Neptune’s Pride as an adult. It’s a similar multiplayer game about space domination, but unlike Planetarion’s three-month-long rounds featuring hundreds or thousands of players, the Neptune’s Pride match I played had only eight.

I was friends with almost all of the players, and by the time the match reached its halfway point, I had betrayed four of them. Similar to my Planetarion experience, our actions and plans within the game were discussed at length via IM conversations, alongside many messages sent through the in-game mail system, each forming inevitably broken alliances.

But when we’d later talk about the match online or in person, we’d do so unemotionally. Equally, when we each came to write about the match on Rock Paper Shotgun, PC Gamer or on our personal blogs, we wrote with the understanding that it was a game and we were role-playing, or simply playing, and that our actions weren’t personal.

Except for the ending, about which I still feel guilty. (I am still an asshole. Sorry, Kieron!)

This position of emotional remove wasn’t the case when I was a teenager, and it isn’t how a lot of people experience gaming. The experiences I had in Planetarion would spill over into school the next day, and there would be further arguments, accusations, name-calling and eventual fuming silence. We’d fall out with one another regularly. The game wasn’t just play. It mattered to us in a real and powerful way.

I’m glad that I’ve matured, that my priorities are different, and that my friendships can no longer be sent spinning by the movements of virtual spaceships. But I also sort of miss that intensity, of a time when my relationships were so strongly embedded in videogames, and when we all cared far too much.

Planetarion is still running today, but I haven’t played it in fifteen years. This article originally appeared on my personal blog in 2010. It’s no longer available there and was only read by eighty people, so in the grand old RPS tradition, I’ve revised it slightly and posted it here.

33 Comments

  1. Sucram says:

    Well this takes me back to some very blurry memories. Think I last played Planetarion back in 2001 with PC Gamer UK (LEECH). Played some of The Violet Sector after that. suprised to see both are still running.

    • Silverhood says:

      I played Planetarion briefly, but gave it up for The Violet Sector, which was both slower paced (8 ticks a day) but also way more intense when the 300 vs 300 spaceship battles did kick off.

  2. symuun says:

    God, yes, I know exactly this feeling. I was a terrible person to both online and offline friends while playing Freelancer multiplayer as a teenager, because my clan had to be the Best Clan rather than the one that was having the most fun. Part of it for me was feeling actually successful at something, at an age when nothing else seemed to be working out. I think it left me feeling entitled to say whatever I wanted to people because I was a big shot, but it ultimately led to the clan being killed off.

  3. Metalfish says:

    Internet spaceships* are always serious business.

    *See also: spacemarines, spaceninjas and spacewizards.

  4. Philopoemen says:

    For me, it was Stars! at university in 1997, and badgering someone to hurry up and send their orders in so we could generate the next turn. Then arguing about it in the common room, and the wooing/cajoling diplomacy that went on behind the scenes. 16-player PBEMs whilst studying…bad idea.

    • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      Stars! Oh, what a game. Like Dwarf Fortress in that its interface was best described as trying to rule the galaxy by mashing your face up against a 1992 era spreadsheet program, but also like Dwarf Fortress in that it was deep and complex and riveting once you learn to “see the Matrix in the code”.

      • frightlever says:

        Written by a couple of Microsoft programmers, who probably worked on Excel. Must be due a Kickstarter revival.

        link to groups.google.com

        Never played Stars! multiplayer. What I really miss about it is the way it handled resources, how late game you’d be scavenging battlefields to be able to build new ships, and you actually had to transport those resources to the intended planet. Distant Worlds comes closest to this feeling, though no scavenging, sadly.

        When I was at school browser based games were science fiction. We played Play-By-Mail and waited a week between turns and plotted the results on graph-paper maps. True story. I did play on a team that used PRESTEL to communicate (and of course there was Starnet on Micronet).

        • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

          I played Stars! with old-school multiplayer. Four of us sitting around the computer, controlling a single Empire together, debating and discussing every nuance, drawing maps, arguing over objectives and trading support for influence with the other “Ministers”, as we called ourselves.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Skabooga says:

    It’s good to remember that we were all silly teenagers once, and that silly teenagers have a chance at growing into something different.

    So, should we start calling you Smitz now?

  6. killias2 says:

    Oh my God, I remember this game! I took it pretty seriously for a cycle or two. I remember being in the biggest, most powerful alliance in the game at one point. There was a leadership collapse, however. I tried to rally the remnants, but it didn’t work. My poor sector (I was SL) got pounded, and I think I finally quit after that. Good times though, overall.

  7. JFS says:

    We were gamers once, and young.

    • jezcentral says:

      Yup, with top 5 games lists that hadn’t been calcified by time.

      (I mean, really, how can Starcraft still be in my top 5?, And just look at my avatar!)

  8. Sardonic says:

    So is this the first Browser space empire game eh? I played a good bit of Ogame and thought it was pretty cool. It’s a shame the genre has stagnated so much.

    Also browser games make people weird, this is a proven fact.

  9. Matt_W says:

    This reminds me of the months-long games of VGA Planets I used to play with a group of friends during college.

  10. Honsou says:

    Played this in Secondary school, lots of fun.

    There was another game as well, Diaspora? Anyone remember that?

  11. Ejia says:

    My browser game of choice was Utopia, which I started playing in 1997. Always played a province of mages and thieves, and I had to maintain three different IM accounts just in case some other kingdom mates wanted some scrying and sabotage done.

    But then the only reason I started playing it was because there weren’t any BBSes on which to play Falcon’s Eye (by the same creator, I think), Barren Realms Elite, and LORD on anymore. At least not locally. But apparently they’re alive and well on the Internet now, so that’s nice.

  12. melnificent says:

    I used to be a writer on the Official Planetarion User Portal when that was a thing. Sadly it disappeared along with lots of the things I miss about the old game. I started during R2 and stopped somewhere around R10-11, when life intervened.

    I miss the 4am SMS to get on and defend gal mates

  13. Radiant says:

    I hated this game.
    It developed my understanding that in massively multiplayer games it was always the biggest mob of the biggest arseholes that always won.

    Fuck you Fury coalition. I hope all your children have tiny dicks.
    Even the daughters.

  14. Jayson82 says:

    I remember playing this game, it was fun till the borg came. I’m not kidding a group calling themselves the borg showed up and started to force people to join them, some did for fun other did out of fear. If you turned them down you found yourself with 24/7 attacks with sometimes over a million ships from the borg players by the end there was a lot of borg players to throw around that kind of ships.

    It was interesting watching them take over the game but not fun to play against.

  15. Laythe_AD says:

    Played this back in secondary school as well, during round… two, I think? And then the next. I suppose that would be three. Funny to look back at how consuming and fresh it felt at the time.

  16. Calculon says:

    Ya thanks ‘Smitz’ for reminding me I didnt have any friends in high school. Jerk. (in all seriousness, great article btw)

  17. kwyjibo says:

    I played a bit of Planetarion back in the late 90s (or was it early 00s?), but it was the wait times and ETA that killed it for me, never got into it. I did get a bit more into Earth 2025 which was the other browser game that was big at the time, but the browser game that I really got into, that no one else has heard of is Astronest.

    Planetarion’s “wait x hours” gameplay has become the norm for free to play mobile games. It’s this frustration that F2P monetises, I wonder if Planetarion guys ever went onto make big bucks this way.

  18. frightlever says:

    Good read. That “Smitz” thing is gonna stick.

  19. apa says:

    Reading this I almost considered going back to Plane’arion but … no, never. It’s been almost 15 years since I had to stay awake until 4 am to send an attack… come back from lunch and see someone coming in to steal my roids and have to send my fleet away instead of defending not to lose all the ships … someone in our system angered some mega alliance and they started raiding all of us on regular basis… There must have been some good moments and wins too but the losses stick to my mind better. Nope, won’t go back.

    When they implemented voting someone out of the galaxy we weren’t playing so seriously anymore so I tried to tour the galaxy by asking everyone vote me out. It didn’t work: I got stuck to some galactic back end with no active players – no one to vote me onwards.

  20. Gap Gen says:

    Very much this. The school had to ban it in the end because the IT centre was jammed with people blocking up the adsl refreshing ten Planetarion windows at once.

    My memory were two friends getting each other annihilated by powerful players because one pulled out of an attack on me when it was obvious I had more powerful allies. Then in the second round I was lumped into a galaxy of Germans and Americans, which turned into a full on race war in the end for various reasons. I was made GC by the German faction, who just scraped a majority, as I was the only person everyone trusted, and spent much of the summer negotiating peace (or forcibly kicking the instigator out, previously the most powerful person in the galaxy) and trying not to get raided by people who noticed that we were busy killing each other or attacked by our alliance, which was linked to the guy we kicked (turns out they didn’t care anyway).

    I agree that the “wake up at 4am to build a factory or lose out” game mechanic wasn’t great, but if you didn’t care about being the best it wasn’t that much of a problem.

  21. mz says:

    As ‘Smitz’ said, Planetarion is still going… but only just. Back in ye olde days, during round 2-5, there used to be tens of thousands of planets (though, despite a rule of ‘one planet per player’, that was hardly the case…). Round 58 started last friday, and there’s a planet count of 785786.

    Some attempts have been made to make the game accessible to people who do not want to wake up in the middle of the night to save or advance their planet. You can queue research and constructions, allowing you to stay away from the game for up to a whole 15 hours(!) at a time. You can shelter your fleet in underground bunkers, protecting them from attack even if you’re not around. You can tell your fleets to launch at an arbitrary point in the next 12 hours, rather than only now, at this very moment. You can get sent a mail when you’re under attack, and an ingame notification is displayed to everyone in your galaxy and alliance, allowing you or the people you play with to organize defense for you.

    However, a game in decline retains only its most hardcore players, and Planetarion is no exception. Going from clueless newbie to seasoned veteran is significantly harder now than it was when the game first started. The game makes some small attempts to teach you how to play, but by and large your new player is at the mercy of more experienced players. As you might imagine, in a game that for all intents and purposes is purely PvP, the atmosphere is fairly cut-throat. You might get lucky and find someone who’s willing to show you the ropes, perhaps even recruit you into an alliance, but you could just as easily find yourself wiped off the map not because someone hates you, but merely because they want to make room for someone else, and it’s cheaper to exile a small planet from a galaxy than a big one.

    And the game’s greatest weakness remains: there are no graphics. Don’t expect to actually see your fleets in frenzied combat, or your pods capturing some poor fool’s ‘roids. Planetarion is purely text-based, and there is little chance of that ever changing. This makes the game unacceptable to vasts swathes of people.

    And that’s a real shame. Because for all its issues, I have never played any other game that did war as well as Planetarion, save (and it’s a big save) EVE Online. Rounds are slow and last for weeks, which is surprisingly game-changing. You pour your heart and soul into your planet. Working for hours past your bed time to minimize your alliance’s losses under overwhelming assault, then seeing your labour bear fruit when hostile fleet after fleet goes up in smoke is a feeling unparalleled in gaming. Likewise, getting your fleet caught out in the open and seeing it get wiped out of orbit is an incredible downer; you can really break someone’s will to play.

    Additionally, the time between ticks allows you to really communicate with people, as opposed to someone’s anonymous space marine avatar. The people you play with become your friends, because you have a shared purpose. And though the community has shrunk, there’s still real political manouvering. The level of intrigue makes office politics look like kindergarten. There’s an IRC server where every alliance and galaxy has one or more private channels, and people talk about the game as much as they do about anything. There’s a public forum, an invaluable propaganda tool where people from opposing alliances interact. There’s as much disagreement over who is right and who is wrong as there is over what exactly the facts actually are. Did Apprime attack Conspiracy first, or was it the other way around? Did Faceless gather an overly large a coalition, or was it necessary to prevent Ultores from running away with the round? Do these Ascendancy pricks ever get tired of mentioning their alliance, even though disbanded 20 rounds ago? These questions are discussed endlessly, and the answer is usually somewhere in the middle, just like in the real world. Who you manage to convince and who you don’t not only decides this round, but influences the next, because it will be largely be played by the same people.

    Though I still hang around in the community, I no longer play the game. Despite that, no game has influenced my student years as much as Planetarion has, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

    • Surlywombat says:

      Thanks for writing this, I played back in the early rounds. Interesting to hear how its doing.

  22. Scumbag says:

    I remember being at college and this game getting banned. Was listed alongside various gore and porn sites as webpages you could get a disciplinary over. People still found loopholes to use to play it.

  23. Emohawk says:

    Wow, memories. I remember setting my alarm for 3:00am to launch an attack at some poor planet our commanders had targeted. That was early rounds when I was with the Legion (VtS). Before that I had fought tooth and nail against them as BlueTuba. I was fortunate to be in the same galaxy as McIvan (if anyone remembers the name from way back). I could never do that now, I’m not sure how I managed playing back then.
    Played a similar game a few years ago that had 1 minute ticks. Games lasted a few hours – that was good but can’t remember the name..

  24. Iainn says:

    My game of choice was Antrophia. Seems to have vanished into the ether a little, but there is some kind of holding page still at the dot com. No Twitter updates since Feb. so I guess it has been recently active. Oh well, no trip down memory lane for me just now.

  25. phlebas says:

    Great piece, but I’m afraid I spent most of it reeling from the opening “When I was at secondary school … browser-based massively multiplayer game”. I feel old now.
    When I was at secondary school I played Shades via Prestel for a while, until my parents got the phone bill.

  26. frenz0rz says:

    Looking back (and up at these comments), it’s odd to think that there were so many of these games around at once and all of them seemed pretty popular at the time despite being very similar. Do they even have a genre name?

    Our game of choice at the time was Star Fury, and oh my god it’s still running!

    Edit: Incidentally, the Internet Archive is perfect for this sort of thing.