With Thanks to Maury Markowitz and Bill Louden
Megawars.Net is the latest chapter in a decades-long story that began in the mid 1970’s with a game simply called WAR.
Created at the University of Texas at Austin on the CDC-6600, WAR was a single-terminal, two-player game based on the original online, text-only space strategy game called Star Trek.
WAR was essentially a single terminal, two player game version of Star Trek where each player took turns at the teletype keyboard in an effort to hunt the other player down. The primary addition to the game was a strategic portion where you took over planets, and then turned then into starbases. This planetary element would become a key ingredient in later versions of the game.
During a port to a DEC-10 machine, a huge number of features were added to the game and the number of simultaneous players was increased to ten. Thanks to an innovative memory sharing strategy, players could run copies of the game on their local machines, but play against others on a shared star map, allowing players to join or leave a game in progress without disrupting the experience for others. When there were too few human players in a battle to keep it interesting, the game would automatically spawn computer-controlled enemy opponents until such time they were no longer needed to provide a challenge to the player. Repackaged under the name DECWAR, this feature-packed upgrade was released sometime in late 1978.
The Big Move
New updates in July 1979 and then later in November of 1981 continued to breathe new life into DECWAR, but the next big leap for the game came with its discovery in 1982 by Bill Louden, at the time the head of the CompuServe games group. According to Louden, “I was looking for items to add to the CompuServe system and was assigned entertainment, games, and personal computing. We had a bunch of typical single player games, but I thought multiplayer games would be a bigger hit.” Louden was so taken with the original DECWAR game that he paid out of pocket to get the source code. “It required a $50 fee to get the Magtape from UofT,” he recalls. “My management wouldn’t approve the funds, so I bought it with my own money.”
“My management wouldn’t approve the funds, so I bought (DECWAR) with my own money.”
— Bill Louden
The version Louden received was less than perfect. “It did not run on our hardware because at the time there were many different flavors of Fortran for the DEC systems. We had to go through the process of converting it.” Louden discovered more than conversion was needed. “DECWAR was a two player sort of game riddled with lots of Star Trek copyright violations, so getting it to run took several months of effort.” The resulting game allowed for hundreds of simultaneous players and included a new universe, a new enemy, and a chaotic evil foe: the Acheron. Louden found the game he envisioned would be limited by the computer and network speeds of the time, so he designed it with both simultaneous and an asynchronous modes: simultaneous was for live fighting and asynchronous was for planet building. These new design elements were co-written by Louden and Russ Ranshaw (aka: the Wizard of 10), a DEC game programming vetran.
CompuServe released this “re-imagined” version of the game in 1983 under a new name — MegaWars.
Over the next few years a number of imitators appeared and even Compuserve, emboldened by the popularity of DECWARS, and now MegaWars, began work on a color graphics update to be called MegaWars II. Louden, who had nothing to do with the sequel, recalls, “Poorly done and abysmally slow, it never saw the light of day.”
“S” Marks The Spot
The next big change in Megawars came from an unlikely source: a top secret game-cum-tech demo. In 1979, University of Virginia students Kelton Flinn and John Taylor were working with Bill Louden on an MMORPG called Island of Kesmai. Louden recalls, “Kelton mentioned that they also had this thing called ‘S’ that mimicked the physics of space flight and planetary orbits. It was a space shooter with mostly mathematical text outputs. Kelton could look at the 5 digit numbers and know whether they were hits or misses. I joked that we needed a better interface for ‘normal’ customers.”
“S” had another advanced feature, one that would sweep across the game world of the time: it was the first game designed to be viewed and played via CRT, as opposed to teletype.
Louden and the crew at Kesmai (the company founded by Flinn and Taylor to make Island of Kesmai) used all that raw math to refine the Megawars design into team-based space conflict and planetary building. Kesmai also became Louden’s go-to source for new game development, a decision he never regretted.
Even though it had never been released, MegaWars II laid claim to that name so Louden christened the new version MegaWars III. Released on CompuServe in 1984, Megawars III remained in continuous service for the next fifteen years and enjoyed many Kesmai upgrades, including M-class planets and graphic interfaces. One especially important aspect to Megawars III was limiting game duration to only six weeks. According to Louden, this leveled the playing field, especially for new players. “Every six weeks an emperor would be crowned and the universe would reset for a new game. This kept newbies from feeling like they had no way to catch up and were just ‘meat for the slaughter.’”
MegaWars III, The Rebirth
Following the eventual demise of MegaWars III, David Baity, CTO of Crimson Leaf LLC, began an independent project to revive the game as a graphically-driven, browser-based game. Re-titling his edition MegaWars III: The Rebirth, Baity reverse-engineered an updated version of the CompuServe experience, even allowing the player to play much of the game through command-line controls. Later iterations, MegaWars IV and a MegaWars-inspired project called Warp Plus (co-developed with Becky Mason Walker), introduced a number of experimental features that would later set the stage for the project’s current redesign.
MegaWars.net Age begins
Desiring to turn his part time hobby into a full-time business, Baity sought advice in 2013 from Neal Hallford, a veteran game designer best known for his work on AAA role-playing and real time strategy titles. Together they began a square-one reevaluation of the project with the aim of retaining the feel and flavor of the original MegaWars experience while introducing a much easier to use graphical interface. The numbering scheme for the new project was dropped, and progress began in late 2014 on a port to the Unity platform.
As the work on the client continued, a talented team formed to support the project. David Nyman created custom music, Matt Parisi worked on business plans, Jeff Remmer created the ships (including the space drydock in the image to the right), Mathew Weymouth worked on the user interface and Tom Carroll worked on the wording of the website, in game tutorials, and various backstory elements.