Fun with PLATO

Matt Barton's picture

Moria: Note the 3D, first-person view of the dungeon.Moria: Note the 3D, first-person view of the dungeon.No doubt, one of the great "unsung" heroes of the computer gaming industry is PLATO, a "computer assisted instruction system" originating in the 1960s that was so far ahead of its time that it gives you goosebumps to read about it. Until a few days ago, all I'd been able to do was see second or even third-hand accounts of what gaming was like on this platform, but then I learned about Cyber1.org, an organization that simulates the PLATO system on the web. I applied for an account, received one a few days later, and have been having great fun checking out some truly classic CRPGs! Check it out (with screenshots!) below.

The first game I played was Moria, simply because that's the only listed in the online catalog (you have to know the names of the others to play them, apparently). Written in 1975 and updated in 2004, Moria reminded me very much of the game Wizardry and perhaps even Bard's Tale. I was so impressed with the game that I tracked down one of its programmers, a guy named Kevet Duncombe. It offers a tiny, first-person 3D view of the dungeons, and lots of on-screen information about your character's condition and inventory. Perhaps the best aspect of the game is the excellent documentation, which is clear and well-written. There are also some novel features I haven't seen in other games, such as the ability to tie a string around something in a room and use it to backtrack in case you get lost. However, apparently monsters can chew through it! The game also features an extensive guild system, but sadly, I don't see that being very useful since there aren't many people playing it today.

Here's a little blurb from Kevet about the game's development:

Believe it or not we hadn't even heard of D&D until after we started the project. I hadn't read Tolkien at the time. The guys doing dnd seemed to be having a good deal of trouble getting the bugs out and I was curious what made it so tough. When I thought up the notion of generating the dungeon on the fly as you walk around I couldn't resist and prototyped a 2d, top down version. That was the impetus. Before you know it Jim and I had turned it into a playable game, and we just kept adding features.

Avatar: Another classic PLATO dungeon crawler. Note the similarity to Moria.Avatar: Another classic PLATO dungeon crawler. Note the similarity to Moria.The next game I tried was Avatar (you have to type in "zavatar"), first written in 1979 and updated until 1984. It looks very similar to Moria, though it's a bit harder to get into (the documentation isn't as clear as Moria's). There are some interesting features, though, such as 10 different races (including unheard of ones like osiri, cirillian, and morlochs). It seems based more strictly on TSR's D&D rules than Moria, with standard stats like str, int, wis, con, and of course hit points. Plus, there's a simple good/neutral/evil alignment system. To be honest, I was more impressed with Moria, though Avatar appears to be more complex. It's also very difficult. I created two different characters, equipped them, and died within a few minutes after leaving the city. Definitely not a newbie-friendly game! However, apparently Avatar was the "big one" as far as CRPGs on the PLATO is concerned--at least that's what Mike told me, the guy who set up my cyber1 account.

Orthanc: Note the cool automapper at the lower right.Orthanc: Note the cool automapper at the lower right.The last game I was able to play was Orthanc, though there is no date listed for it. It's much different than the previous two games. Instead of a 3D, first person view, you get a top-down view of your character (rather like Ultima). Apparently, the dungeons are changed every so often (10 days or so) to keep it fresh. One very nice feature is an auto-mapper, which may very well be the first such tool in this type of game--I'm not sure, though. The game also claims to be "colorized," though I'm baffled about what that means (everything on PLATO is monochrome, or at least from what I've seen). I've heard that Orthanc is based on the older game "pedit5," which was a very early CRPG (if not the first ever). Sadly, pedit5 got deleted by some short-sighted administrators, and thus lost to history. In any case, it's interesting to see how much variety you had with CRPGs on the PLATO.

Dungeon: Looks great, but I can't get past this title screen...!Dungeon: Looks great, but I can't get past this title screen...!Unfortunately, I wasn't able play the "granddaddy" game, DUNGEON. Although I could load up the title screen, I couldn't figure out what to press to get past it. I tried every key combination I could think of to no avail. Argh! That was a real disappointment, let me tell you. I was also able to find some notes about the classic "dnd," though apparently the actual game isn't up yet. There was a great deal of talk about it, but I guess the plans fell through. It's a real shame, because Dungeon and dnd are two of the oldest CRPGs!

All in all, I've been having too much with my PLATO simulator, and I haven't even tapped into the many classic non-CRPG games available, such as Empire (space combat), Panzer (precursor of Battlezone), and Airfight (early 3D flight sim). This system is a goldmine for computer game historians, because very little has been written about these early yet amazingly ahead-of-their-time games. I encourage everyone here to apply for a cyber1 account and start exploring the system! Who knows, maybe we can get a group of us together to try some dogfighting or even form a guild in Moria!

Comments

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Online
Joined: 12/31/1969
PLATO and gaming

Great job, Matt. I just applied for an account at Cyber1 (though stupidly not with my AA e-mail account). I should get access within a few days.

By the way, as far as I know, none of the games were ever converted for use on the micro PLATO implementations (TI-99/4a, Atari 8-bit, etc.). I'd love to track down the reason for that (was it because the games weren't "official"?, was it because the games used screen modes that the micro implementations couldn't easily accommodate?, etc.)...

======================================
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
(A PC Magazine Top 100 Website)
======================================

n/a
Matt Barton
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Joined: 01/16/2006
Perhaps legal issues

Well, I'm still trying to work out what happened to PLATO after it was purchased by company named CDC. I'm ignorant on the subject, but to speculate, perhaps they were concerned about the possible licensing issues. TSR may have sued them over games like Dungeon and DND. Or perhaps CDC just wasn't interested in publishing games. It's very hard to say.

n/a
Bill Loguidice
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Joined: 12/31/1969
Control Data Corporation
Matt Barton wrote:

Well, I'm still trying to work out what happened to PLATO after it was purchased by company named CDC. I'm ignorant on the subject, but to speculate, perhaps they were concerned about the possible licensing issues. TSR may have sued them over games like Dungeon and DND. Or perhaps CDC just wasn't interested in publishing games. It's very hard to say.

Control Data Corporation. They were the ones who released micro PLATO and briefly sold rebranded TI-99/4a systems after Texas Instruments pulled out of the home computer market, leaving them high and dry on their premiere home platform. I think I read that CDC's attempts at commercialization were what ultimately did them in, though seeing how the market for home computers took off, you certainly couldn't blame them (meaning that the terminal/mainframe scenarios wouldn't have been sustainable anyway).

This looks like a decent history of what ultimately happened: http://www.livinginternet.com/r/ri_talk.htm

The catalog I have from CDC for their home computer products is probably indicative of why they ultimately failed commercially. A lot of the lessons were brutally overpriced. Also, it seems a lot of the CDC PLATO software I have for the TI-99/4a is proportionately hardcore education stuff, meaning lessons that you could probably expect to sell only a few hundred copies of under the most optimistic circumstances. Perhaps the strategy was to sell mostly to schools as an alternative to using terminals on the "real" system?

As for the games, yeah, it could have been anything from licensing from the original authors (I doubt copyright was an issue since these were fairly generic games and could be modified a bit anyway) to microcomputer capabilities to simply not wanting to confuse a potential buying public on what was being sold as an education system (after all, "games" could be played on the stock platform, without the need for the PLATO system).

======================================
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
(A PC Magazine Top 100 Website)
======================================

n/a
joe_stanton (not verified)
Micro PLATO vs. Central PLATO

The reason why most games from the central system of PLATO did not migrate to Micro PLATO has to do with the differences in both the programming language and the method of delivery.

Central system PLATO has intrinsic support for the multi-user paradigm. Micro PLATO, at least the version I used extensively between 1980 and 1985, had minimal support for a file system at all and had no real network available, let alone intrinsic support for multiple users. The multi-player games on PLATO typically required the use of a "common" disk file loaded into shared memory on the mainframe. Each common could allow hundreds of users to access it "simultaneously" (via mainframe time-slices). The speed of access was and is quite fast and the games relied on this. The programming language, TUTOR, realized access to the "common" data by mapping that memory into re-defineable "nc" variables. This allowed the programmer to simply partition the shared memory "common" as they needed for N number of users. There was no practical way, at that time, that a 4Mhz Z80 processor could have managed to share memory across even 2 or 3 terminals, even if someone created a dedicated shared-memory server, and custom communications hardware (such as an RS-232 network) the latency/lag would be on the order of several magnitudes (guessing) slower and so render the original central system game design unworkable. Games would have had to be completely reworked for the Micro TUTOR language and likely downgraded.

CDC was in the business of primarily selling hardware, big iron, they were also not interested in games at all. The games that CDC did publish with distribution of a PLATO license were reworked to include some small measure of educational content. Micro PLATO was seen by some at CDC as a threat, and after much political infighting PLATO lost and with it Micro PLATO. During and after all that brouhaha several other companies fielded versions of PLATO-like systems with TUTOR-esque languages. These companies were, to name a few, Regency Systems (USE language), GIST (ACCORD Tutor), Computer Teaching Coporation (TenCORE). The one that came closest to delivering real PLATO with less than Cyber hardware was the GIST solution. Signon to Cyber1 and read some of the notes in the notesfile "tutornotes" that discuss some of those if you would like.

Employed as a instructional materials programmer (courseware developer), I was also an active game progammer in the various TUTOR languages but my interest was always in arcade gaming so the shared memory loss did not detract from my experience. Many game programmers from the PLATO era migrated (remember our timeframe here as being the early 1980's) to programming assembly language for Apple II's and then PC's.

Today I am on the system staff at Cyber1.org helping to preserve this incredible living historical museum/system, which can claim so many firsts in the computing world. I also still dabble in the TUTOR language and have done some game programming as well (=asteroids= so far, with =scrabble= following, and some work on modernizing a few others).

Joe Stanton
stanton/s/cyber1

joe_stanton (not verified)
Colorized PLATO

Color on Cyber1 is available when you use the Pterm program to connect using port 8005. This is the "ASCII" connection port and accepts a wider range of terminal capabilities including paint (area fill), color, local fonts, and "fine grid touch". The default connection when you downloaded Pterm was the 5004 port, which is the "classic" port and has only monochrome capability.

Matt Barton
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Joe
joe_stanton wrote:

Color on Cyber1 is available when you use the Pterm program to connect using port 8005. This is the "ASCII" connection port and accepts a wider range of terminal capabilities including paint (area fill), color, local fonts, and "fine grid touch". The default connection when you downloaded Pterm was the 5004 port, which is the "classic" port and has only monochrome capability.

Wow, I'm in awe of your knowledge of this system, Joe! How can I download the color Pterm program? I'd like to check it out. Are you very familiar with the CRPGs I discussed in the piece? If so, I'd love to learn more about them.

n/a
joe_stanton (not verified)
Matt
Matt Barton wrote:

Wow, I'm in awe of your knowledge of this system, Joe! How can I download the color Pterm program? I'd like to check it out. Are you very familiar with the CRPGs I discussed in the piece? If so, I'd love to learn more about them.

Using these TUTOR-like languages was my bread and butter from 1980 through 1995, it was the system I learned to program with, so the Cyber1 resurrection is a blast and I guess I like to give it some props here and there.

To get the colorized Pterm, which first became available in version 4.0.6 (I believe) in mid-late 2006, simply revisit the www.cyber1.org website and follow the installation link. There are Pterms for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and others.

I was never a big RPG gamer, sorry to say, as that is the bulk of the users of Cyber1's interest. But if you do signon to Cyber1 again, be sure and drop a note in notesfiles =gamesnotes=, =frp=, =pad=, or even =pbnotes=. Each of the major games typically has it's own notesfile (forum), so be sure when running one of the games to look for options to go to the associated file.

If you need assistance while on-line, typically myself or one of the other "sysops" are around to respond to a TERM-consult request, if none of us are available the system emails us a notification that you are waiting - I am setup so that such notifications go to my cell phone. To do a TERM-consult, on Mac press CTL-T then type "consult" and press Enter (On Windows you can also press Shift-F2 then "consult"). Or you can do a TERM-talk and enter "stanton/s".

Anonymous (not verified)
oh my gosh

Oh my gosh! I was looking for a place to play DnD(still looking, actually...) when I came across this page. Then I gave up for a while and went to youtube...and found your youtube page by complete accident! just a quirky coincidence we so often take for granted.

Adam (not verified)
Empire! Nothing beat the key

Empire! Nothing beat the key tapping multi player goodness of empire!

---speaking as someone who grew up in Champaign/Urbana and got to use PLATO for years!

davyK
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Joined: 05/21/2006
I played Empire on a VAX

I played Empire on a VAX mini-computer in the early 90s.....

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