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History of Online Games Part II

by Jessica Mulligan

Welcome to part two of the time line, a 30th birthday tribute to online games.

This was intended to be a two-parter, but I am expanding it out to three parts, simply because there is so much to cover. In this section, we will cover the time period from 1989 to 1993, just before the recent explosion of online gaming. And to reiterate from Part I:
Shiny Armour

Some old shiny armour.

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

Bill Louden hires Jessica Mulligan as GEnie's first dedicated games product manager and gives her virtual carte blanche to sign up more online games.

GEnie signs AUSI's Galaxy II, a real-time space strategy game. On launch, it immediately becomes the third most popular game on GEnie, behind Air Warrior and Gemstone.

GEnie licenses the venerable Diplomacy board game from Avalon Hill and contracts with AUSI's Mark Jacobs and UNIX/Open Source guru Eric Raymond to develop an online game, based on Raymond's existing UNIX version of the game.

GEnie launches A-Maze-ing, a Macintosh based 3D maze combat game similar to the Amiga-based computer game MidiMaze. This is the first online 3D "shooter," it will not be the last.

Quantum Computer Services more or less de-emphasizes online games after launching development of NeverWinter Nights, even though they have several in development, including a helicopter flight simulator from Sierra, a version of Hangman from Broderbund and a working version of the wildly popular board game Cosmic Encounter. Only Hangman sees the light of day.

GEnie signs AUSI to develop a text based role playing game. It will eventually become Dragon's Gate, which is still available today on AOL.

GEnie signs Activision and Kesmai Corporation to develop an online version of the MechWarrior 3D 1st person computer game.

Diplomacy Online launches on GEnie.

GEnie signs with strategy game legend Jim Dunnigan to develop The Hundred Years' War for the service. Dunnigan delivers the definitive turn-based online strategy game, allowing up to 300 players to relive the medieval war as French, English and other European noble families in campaigns that can last for over 400 real-time days.

GEnie begins negotiating with Origin Systems to develop an online version of Ultima, to be called Multima, and introduces them to Kesmai as the prospective developer.

GEnie signs with Clem Chambers and Alan Lenton to bring the British-based space trading and adventure game Federation II to the service. It launches late in the year and rapidly becomes quite popular.

CompuServe signs with Spectrum Holobyte to develop an online version of the Falcon F-16 flight simulator. It will remain in development for years, including working versions shown in 1991 and 1992, but will never be released to the public. CompuServe offers no explanation.

GEnie signs with Simutronics, John Weaver of RS Cards and Scott Hartsman (now a VP at Engage) to convert the Gemstone III code into a persona-based chat system, a sort of role playing game with no rules. Named ImagiNation, it launches into beta later that year. GE's lawyers forget to trademark the name, an omission that will come back to haunt them.

GEnie begins an experiment called Basic Services, in which about 25 percent of all products on the service, including message boards and chat, are offered for a flat monthly rate of $8.95. It is so successful that, on the first day of flat-rate service, so many people attempt to log in simultaneously at the 6pm start time that the entire GEnie service crashes. It is a precursor to what will happen tp AOL when it changes to a flat rate service in December, 1996. History repeats itself. Again.

Dragon's Gate launches on GEnie in February and rapidly moves into the top three game spot on the service, alternating on a monthly basis with number two Air Warrior.

Testing the waters with the competition, Origin Systems begins negotiating with Quantum/AOL to develop the Ultima online game. Origin closes negotiations with GEnie and begins negotiating an agreement with Quantum. The deal eventually falls through and the Multima project goes on the back burner for several years.

Ken Williams, CEO of Sierra Online, announces the upcoming Sierra Network, designed to be a private online gaming dial-in service to feature Sierra products.

Founder Bill Louden leaves GEnie after seven years as general manager. This is the beginning of the end for GEnie.

MPG-Net, a privately owned company funded by wealthy online games enthusiast Jim Hettinger (now CEO of iEN), launches a new dial-in gaming service with The Kingdom of Drakkar, a top-down view graphic role playing game. It rapidly becomes popular, signing up more than 3,000 players who pay between $3 and $5 an hour for access.

GEnie launches CyberStrike from Simutronics. It is Simutronics' first foray into graphics-based games, going head-to-head in competition with Multiplayer BattleTech from Kesmai.

Quantum Computer Services integrates its Macintosh, Apple II and PC services into one service, renames that service America Online, renames the company America Online, Inc. and goes public.

The Sierra Network, Sierra Online's foray into online gaming, launches with a flat-rate subscription model of $14.95 per month. The only content is a series of such wildly exciting two- to four-player games as Nine Man's Morris. Subscriptions are few and far between. Over the next two years, TSN will try many pricing schemes until its pricing structure is more complicated than a Rube Goldberg device, and will rename itself the ImagiNation Network (INN) when it realizes GE forgot to trademark the name.

The Golden Age of the proprietary, closed loop online services such as CompuServe and AOL is already ending. Although there will continue to be good growth for two to three more years, a project originally funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is about to change the way everyone in the world communicates and exchanges information. This change does not include room for proprietary online services.

The Golden Age only lasted about six years.

Setting the stage for 1993

At the end of 1992, there are an estimated 3 to 10 million homes that actively use modems to subscribe to online services. The range is so wide because no one has really been keeping an accurate count. The top five services, in order of publicized subscriber numbers, are Prodigy, CompuServe, America Online, GEnie and Delphi.

On university mainframe computers around the world, students are constructing muds and inviting other students to log in and have some fun. By the end of 1992, there will be over 50 muds available on the old DARPA-Net, a distributed network mainly used by academics and government research agencies.

Computer game publishers are experimenting with multiplayer products. There are several instances of two-player, modem-to-modem games, including Empire, Perfect General, Falcon, Command HQ and Fire Fight. Now, they are adding LAN/IPX code on top of TCP/IP protocols to games in an attempt to move up to four and even eight players.

Commercially, there are about 14 to 16 for-pay multiplayer games available on the online services, with another eight or nine in development. The total gross income of all of them together amounts to between $10 and $15 million annually. There are also a wide range of trivia and word jumble games available, including NTN Trivia on GEnie and variously homegrown word and trivia games run in chat sections by interested subscribers.

1993 will change everything.

NEXT MONTH: It's 1993; do you know where your wallet is?

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).