The RPG Scrollbars: Old Habitats Die Hard

There’s no better way to cause trouble than to talk about ‘firsts’. Say for instance that King’s Quest IV featured the first female adventure character, and you’re probably going to be drowned out by some pedant waving a copy of Infocom’s Plundered Hearts in your face. That pedant may even be me. Of course, that’s nothing compared to the folly of calling, say, Everquest the first MMO and leaving it without some very quick clarification. The extent of the first M in MMORPG, the importance of success over existence, the jump between mainframe and computer and all manner of other stuff makes it tricky to plant a flag everyone can actually agree deserves to be there.

But there aren’t many games with a better claim than Lucasarts’ Habitat, the latest classic game to get a fancy modern revival project. It definitely deserves it.

Habitat is arguably Lucasarts’ most impressive bit of coding – a multi-participant virtual online environment originally built for the Commodore 64, in the space-year 1986. Not a typo. 1986. On the surface it was much like later, more famous chatrooms, and indeed it was bought by and used and upgraded by the company that made one of the most famous during the 90s, WorldsAway. However, even at this early stage, it was a complex beast, complete with avatars, weapons, in-game housing and a persistent world full of items and goodies to play with instead of simply empty locations. And player events, with the most famous being a devs vs player maze game where the devs got magic instakill guns. Unfortunately, one forgot their invulnerability flag, had their corpse looted, and so the fancy tool got into the wild. Even then, you can see the innocence of the era by the fact that the developers negotiated with the player for its return in virtual monies instead of just dropping the mighty banhammer.

Habitat is also interesting purely for its central concept – being an object orientated system that almost smacks of a human version of Creatures, where the focus was more on providing potential objects to play with rather than stock quests as such. The funniest of those items had to be the players’ own heads, which apparently led to the stock way of griefing players. Persuade them to remove their head. Persuade them to hand over their head. So began the legend of the literal head-hunters.

This was so early that even post MOO and MUSH on mainframes, every lesson was being learned for the first time. Initially, any player could be killed and looted. Later, Habitat developed dedicated PvP zones, and would have had player operated justice if the developers had solved the issues in time. In another case, again from the ‘innocent nascence of the genre file’, players supposedly – and I’m going from Engadget’s fantastic series written back in 2012 here – found a way of breaking the game economy, but were allowed to keep the money as long as they spent it on making the world a better place. And if the piece is anything to go by, they accepted, running treasure hunts and the like to spread the wealth.

Now, obviously you’ll note that the second-hand nature of many of these stories. Habitat’s not a game I ever played in its original format, due to three basic reasons – I live in the UK, I never owned a C64, and I was six when it came out. Still, I have a real fondness for these proto-MMOs simply because I remember the dreams and fantasies of that era when the concept of the internet was actual, literal magic rather than an essential service we all simply take for granted. I remember, many years before having my first modem and coming to live in fear of the phone-bill’s arrival every three months, just poring over the magazines of the time and trying to imagine what it would be like to step into those worlds, like Meridian 59 and Everquest and Asheron’s Call and Ultima Online. Having the modem didn’t really help much though. Games were charged like other internet services, which is to say by the minute/hour, rather than the subscription fees we got used to, and in the UK, local calls weren’t free. For the first few years I was online, the best you could hope for was a penny a minute connections in weekends.

There was exactly no chance I was playing these games at launch.

But I could certainly live vicariously through them. One of the biggest examples of that came courtesy of Sierra’s InterAction magazine, which was frequently bundled with UK mags, and for a while at least delighted under the title ‘A blatantly biased look at games from the Sierra family’. Sierra’s offering was called The ImagiNation Network, and almost the exact opposite approach to Habitat. Habitat invited players to build their own world, Sierra just wanted them to play nice in theirs. Lucasarts encouraged players to find their own fun, Sierra populated its world with lots of pre-made games, from classic casino offerings to early RPGs like Shadow of Yserbius – Yserbius being Elvish for ‘better RPGs’. Everquest these early games were not.

Still, just look at it. Look at how beautiful it was, especially for the time, and especially factoring in things like different palettes for the changing seasons. And think! If you played it, you too could meet people like this! For surprisingly little money!

Like Habitat, ImagiNation spawned a revival project, which you’ll find here. If you’re interested, I wrote it up in detail for a Crap Shoot column in Another Place some… Christ, more than six years ago. How time flies, turning even retro columns retro. Sierra would also launch a game that initially looked a lot like Habitat, although which ultimately would draw more inspiration from other MMOs – The Realm, a game which I confess I have few memories of save for an early beta that consisted entirely of walking around a forest built in an extended version of the SCI engine where you’d occasionally encounter a monster, but more usually a female character stripped to her bra and pants. I was about to say ‘Of course, I’m sure that it became something very different’, but then I looked for a screen and… well… got this. So. Yeah.

But back to Habitat. The revival project is one of the few that’s actually in a good place, legally and technically. Lucasarts sold Habitat and it ended up with Fujitsu, whose people happily handed over permission to play, and the team has big chunks of the source-code. The full story can be read here, in a Paste article from 2016. As of this year however, the NeoHabitat Project is swinging into full action, with a call for Java engineers and other programmers, and progress including being able to connect to NeoHabitat with an actual C64. Unlike ImagiNation, there’s still a long way to go before anyone steps back into the world, but at least it’s progress. The team’s homepage is here, with the plan being to re-build the whole system as an open source project. I know I’d love to see that. A slice of history not in fact gone when the servers were unplugged, but simply sleeping in conceptual stasis for a second chance.

It’s just a shame how much does get lost forever, from the community to the sense of wonder that could only happen back in the early 80s and 90s when Clarke’s Law was very much in effect, and sufficiently advanced technology really was indistinguishable from magic. And not just the kind with fireballs, awesome as that will always be.

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15 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Superelastic says:

    Cheers, I enjoyed that! Used to spend a chunk of time in Active Worlds back in 1995(ish).

    I recently read True Names: And the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier which, in addition to Vernor Vinge’s little masterpiece, has a couple of articles about the creation and problems with Habitat by people who helped build it.

    • gummybearsliveonthemoon says:

      Oh wow, Active Worlds, I’m almost certain that was the weird 3D thing I spent many hours in waaaay back in the day… or, no, that was WorldsChat, is that the same thing?

      I really liked this article, by the way, Richard. Historical info like this is always fascinating to me. And I was a big fan of Crap Shoot.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        Thanks!

        I don’t believe WorldsChat and WorldsAway had any connection to each other, but there were quite a few of those chat focused programs early on.

  2. phlebas says:

    Plundered Hearts? Pah, Commander Kim Kimberley starred in Snowball 4 years before that, and two sequels!

    Habitat looks kind of interesting though – the missing link between MUD and MMORPG?

  3. Fnord73 says:

    Oh how 13 year old me longed and lusted for the future at this point. And what did we get? MOBAs

  4. Babymech says:

    I was going to just leave a snarky comment about how nobody ever talks about the Shadow of Yserbius / Fates of Twinion, and boy is my face red with egg now. Those games were great.

    Also, and this has nothing to do with the article, I also remember plowing hours into the Legend of the Red Dragon. Not exactly massively multiplayer, but hugely important to prestige in.

  5. Yserbius says:

    Ironically, I never did use ImagiNation. I merely had about 7000 ads and CDs for it everywhere, so I always longed to play the game that would later become my global username.

    This is also the first time I’ve ever heard it spoken out loud in an official capacity, so I clarified my pronunciation.

    I never head of Habitat but I did play a demo of The Realm. Combat was really slow turn based and instance dungeons had a maximum capacity of, like, one. So much of the gameplay consisted of standing outside dungeon entrances.

  6. Premium User Badge

    ErraticGamer says:

    Holy crap, a screenshot of The Realm. I spent YEARS in The Realm.

    It was not all that great a game, but the community was amazing.

  7. Someoldguy says:

    I have fond memories of The Realm. Back then I couldn’t afford home dialup either, so I used to stay late after work and even drop in at weekends to get some gaming time. Hardly ever saw anyone wandering around in just their underwear in-game. Much like I hardly ever saw WoW players bumping and grinding in bars. It had a great system for enchanting magical items that I wish had been used more widely.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Yeah, my memories of The Realm were very early beta where all there was were some repeating forest screens, chat, and the ability to fight maybe two things. I never played the full version.

  8. AimHere says:

    Today’s the day I get to be the pedant.

    Level 9’s Snowball beats Plundered Hearts by 4 years when it comes to female-led adventure games – it came out in 1983. Not only was the main character female, ALL the human characters were female, since it was set in a cryogenic spaceship sent to colonize another planet.

    When you’re freezing people to send them to another planet, men are a waste of space, since the only thing they’re really needed for can be transported in a test tube. I can’t imagine the shrill noises coming from parts of the gaming community if someone made a game with that setting today…

  9. TheAngriestHobo says:

    My first MMO was supposed to be Meridian 59. I pointed it out to my grandmother, who ended up remembering what I told her and buying it for me for my birthday. Thing was, she didn’t understand computers at all, and didn’t realize that she should have talked to my folks before buying an online game for a ten-year-old kid. My parents were understandably worried about the kinds of people I might be exposed to and stepped in to take the game away from me… about seven seconds after I unwrapped it. Ten-year-old me did not react well to that particular emotional roller coaster.

  10. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    I thought the fictional online community shown in latter-season Halt and Catch Fire was too advanced for its time, but I guess it was just based on this.

  11. Chillicothe says:

    “And player events, with the most famous being a devs vs player maze game where the devs got magic instakill guns. Unfortunately, one forgot their invulnerability flag, had their corpse looted, and so the fancy tool got into the wild. Even then, you can see the innocence of the era by the fact that the developers negotiated with the player for its return in virtual monies instead of just dropping the mighty banhammer.”

    Ahahaha Love this stuff.