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History of Online Games

by Jessica Mulligan

For some strange reason, there is this impression in the general public that online gaming began sometime in 1994 or 1995 with Doom and Warcraft.

This irks me somewhat, but none of us should be surprised at this kind of myopia. For most members of the general public, the online world didn't exist until the Internet started to explode in 1993 and online games didn't exist until publishers started adding Internet connectivity to computer games in 1994-95. The press hasn't been much help, mainly because most of the press is ignorant about online games history. As far as they are concerned, online gaming just coincidentally happened when their advertisers started producing Internet-capable games.
Richard Bartle

One of the people that helped start it all.

However, the world of online gaming started about 1969. Yes, that's the 1969 that happened 30 years ago. I thought it fitting, in this 30th anniversary year of the industry, to post a time line with some of the major events in online gaming, just to give us all a sense of scope about the industry.

By the way: This is not meant to be the definitive milestone marker, just something of a draft road map of some major events. If you see an error, know of a major milestone that I missed or one that you believe should be a part of the time line, drop me a line at

This one will be in two parts, because there is a lot to cover. In this edition, we'll cruise up through 1989.

Circa 1969
Rick Blomme writes a two-player version of MIT's famous Spacewar for the PLATO service. PLATO was one of the first time-sharing systems dedicated to experimenting with new ways to use computers for education. Originally built in the late 1960's at the University of Illinois/Urbana, it blossomed into a system that, by about 1972, could host about 1,000 simultaneous users.

Several more games appear on the PLATO service. Multi player games that appeared on PLATO include a version of Star Trek, a Dungeons and Dragons-style game named Avatar which later became the genesis of the first Wizardry! PC game and a flight simulator named Airfight.

Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle head up development of the first working Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) on the DEC-10 at the Essex University, Colchester, UK.

Various versions of the Essex mud are released on the university's mainframe. In 1980, what is now considered the "classic" mud is installed and runs for nine years. Eventually, the popularity of the game with hackers and non-hackers alike causes computer resources to be eaten at a tremendous rate and the university restricts playing time to the evening hours.

Circa 1982-83
Although the mud code is copyrighted, Bartle is pretty liberal about sharing it with other colleges and universities for education purposes. Someone at one of those institutions starts passing around the source code to friends. By the end of 1983, hundreds of illegal copies have been distributed around the world, starting the free access mud craze at universities and, eventually, on the Internet.

Kesmai Corporation ( is formed by John Taylor and Dr. Kelton Flinn and receives its first contract, to develop an ASCII text role-playing game for CompuServe. The game would later launch as Islands of Kesmai.

Bill Louden, in charge of games at CompuServe, buys an ASCII space combat simulator called DECwars on DEC mainframe computer tape for $50.00. He hands it off to Kesmai and it eventually launches as MegaWars I.

Kesmai launches MegaWars I on CompuServe. Finally closed down in circa 1998, it was the longest-running for-pay online game in history. That honor now resides with the current incarnation of the Trubshaw/Bartle mud, MUD II (

The first commercial version of mud is released on Compunet in England.

Islands of Kesmai is released on CompuServe. The game will run for approximately thirteen years and will eventually spawn a graphics-based version, Legends of Kesmai, which is available today on AOL and Gamestorm. The price to play in 1984: About $12 an hour.

Mark Jacobs forms the company that will eventually become AUSI and then Mythic Entertainment ( He sets up a server system in his house and installs 8 phone lines to run his text-based role-playing game Aradath. Cost to play: $40 a month. This may be the first instance of a professionally run, flat-rate online gaming service.

Bill Louden convinces General Electric's Information Services division to fund a commercial, ASCII-based service similar to CompuServe, using the evening hours excess capacity on GEIS's mainframe computers. Named GEnie by Bill's wife (GE Network for Information Exchange), it premiers in October to much hoopla. It is the first serious competition to CompuServe; price in the evening hours is $6 an hour for both 1200 and 300bps. This is half of CompuServe's price for 1200bps access.

In November, Quantum Computer Services (later to rename itself America Online) quietly launches QuantumLink, a graphics-based online service exclusively for Commodore 64/128 users. The price is $9.95 a month, plus about $5 an hour. QuantumLink's graphic interface is a watershed in online services but, because the C-64/128 is already on the wane, no one seems to pay much attention. This will turn out to be a huge mistake on the part of competitors.

The Golden Age of the online services begins.

Kesmai rewrites MegaWars I, files off the serial numbers and launches it on GEnie as Stellar Warrior. It is GEnie's first multiplayer online game; it is not the last.

Jessica Mulligan, working as a volunteer librarian in the Apple II RoundTable on GEnie, finds Stellar Warrior. After her account is turned off by GEnie three times for playing too much, she snags a contract to write a combined Chat-based/Email-based space strategy game. The Rim Worlds War launches at mid-year; it is the first Play-By-Email (PBEM) game on a commercial online service.

Kesmai begins pre-alpha testing of Air Warrior, a WWII combat flight simulator and the first true graphics-based Massively Multiplayer Game, on GEnie. The Macintosh version is demonstrated on multiple terminals at the GEnie booth at the West Coast Computer Faire in early 1986 in San Francisco. The 20,000 attendees are wowed.

QuantumLink begins testing Rabbit Jack's Casino, the second graphics-based online game in the commercial online services industry. In conjunction with LucasFilms, development on Habitat begins .

Steve Case from Quantum Computer Services begins camping out in Cupertino, CA, trying to get John Sculley to allow Apple Computers, Inc. to support a graphics-based online service for Apple II computers. After over 200 days of persistent nagging, Sculley finally agrees.

Air Warrior is released on GEnie early in the year.

Rabbit Jack's Casino is released on QuantumLink.

Kesmai's file scraping worked so well for Stellar Warrior, they strip the serial numbers from MegaWars III and launch it as Stellar Emperor on GEnie.

After working with the private BBS-based role-playing and gaming service Spectre, David Whately sells his idea for a text-based online game to GEnie. Gemstone goes into alpha testing late in the year and what will become Simutronics Corporation is born .

A stripped-down version of mud launches on CompuServe as British Legends.

Quantum Computer Services hires Kent Fillmore, President of International Apple Core, Inc., to start recruiting sysops for it's upcoming Apple II only service, AppleLink-Personal Edition. He recruits and contracts with Jessica Mulligan to manage the Apple II Games Forum.

The original Gemstone role-playing game is launched on GEnie as Gemstone II. Over the next two years, this text-based game will surpass Air Warrior as the most popular game on GEnie.

Quantum Computer Services launches AppleLink: Personal Edition for Apple II computers at the May AppleFest Convention in Boston. It also turns down both of AUSI's games, Aradath and Galaxy II, for its online services, saying it doesn't want to get into text-based games. Eight years later, it will reverse this decision and sign on both Gemstone III and Dragon's Gate, the commercial version of Aradath, after realizing they left millions of dollars on the table for GEnie and CompuServe to snap up.

Jessica Mulligan, now a Quantum Computer Services employee, writes a white paper on the gaming industry and recommends that Quantum license the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game from TSR, Inc. It does so, and AD&D: NeverWinter Nights is born, based on SSI's Gold Box series of AD&D games. Once launched, NeverWinter Nights will run continuously for several years, even though the technology of the graphics interface is hopelessly outdated. In it's last year of existence as a for-pay game, 1996, it will rake in an estimated $5 million dollars.

Next month: The industry takes off.

Jessica Mulligan has been involved in online games for years and currently writes a column for the Happy Puppy web site called 'Biting the Hand'. This article was originally published at Happy Puppy and she welcomes any and all corrections to the history.

(© 1999 by Jessica Mulligan. All Rights Reserved).