Timeline

Timeline and history of the development of the online multi-player game, PLATO Empire. Notes written in 2008 by John Daleske with comments by Gary Fritz.

How Empire Came To Be

The game of Empire on the PLATO computer-based education system started out as a final project for an education class I was taking at Iowa State University, Spring Quarter of 1973. It evolved over the course of many years providing the base and inspiration for many spin-offs including Xtrek, Netrek , Conquest (PLATO), and Galactic Attack.

"PLATO offers what must be two of the most baroque space-war games anywhere, empire (eight races (the Vulcanians, Klingons, etc.) seek to control the galaxy) and nova (simulated navigation among millions of different stars and solar systems, all of which may be revisited, all of which are different" -- Ted Nelson, page DM27 in Computer Lib / Dream Machines

Ted Nelson's classic "Computer Lib / Dream Machines" included coverage of PLATO and PLATO's games as of 1974. Empire may have been one of the most baroque (complex) games he had seen, but in 1974 there weren't all that many to compare it against. It would be viewed as somewhat "classic" today.

Go to PLATO Games for an overview of games on PLATO.

Innovations in Making Empire

In reviewing how other early game designers describe their firsts, the innovations they initiated, I felt it important to keep my descriptions accurate and written with humility.

First of all, I did not have a view of the efforts of others developing elsewhere on other systems. Innovation seems to fall from the skys, landing on fertile grounds, and multiplying in many places in parallel; I feel that the case in game design as much as any where else. Who innovated some feature first will need to be left to historians (not publicists) and that can only be accurately done if the reports are honest and as accurate as possible about the events and the timing.

Secondly, while I had a great time designing Empire, more so than playing it, and learned a lot, I did not do it alone. My work stands on the shoulders of the systems designers of PLATO and the TUTOR language and on top of the games that preceded it. In addition, while I programmed the first three versions by myself, there was sharing and interaction with other game designers and much feedback from playtesters. And the later versions had many developers.

Thirdly, some innovations are just plain intuitively obvious. Sure, I may have seen that obviousness and acted upon it, but I am not at all saying that I and only I could have seen it, nor implemented it.

Fourth, who gives a hoot, other than the other game designers?

Empire Innovations

Empire design from 1973 through 1977 added the following innovations:

  • Probably the single most important technical invention, developing a mask to rapidly scan for proximity detection. See Speeding It Up and Empire S.
  • movement around in a 2D space of more than one screen-full; I guess this would be called first-person 2D perspective or 2D first-person shooter.
  • multi-player, inter-terminal; multi meaning more than two.
  • simulation of an economic system (Empire 1-1973 and V-1975-6)
  • players could align on teams, letting them form a common goal
  • messaging to all players (1973) and to individuals or a team (1974)
  • monitor mode; a player could choose to watch the game rather than play. (1975) [This was problematic where a player had access to more than one terminal, they could monitor the game and gather more information than single terminal players.]
  • automated or programmable robot players; one instance was the Doomsday Machine (DDM). See Empire IV.
  • automated messaging from robot players (ELIZA-like with operator assist). Not fully implemented.
  • player as an avatar (as we call it today) operating separate from the ship or planet they are "on".
  • daemon processing of proximity checks--background processes separate from the player's process--while not a big leap on a dedicated system, it was a big step on a timesharing system that didn't support daemons (though they would have supported Matt being on)
  • planned scenarios and tournaments
  • task-sharing. The under part of the later versions looks almost like a small operating system in that it splits up the processing tasks among the available players' processes (and daemons) to get the proximity checks and other processing done.

Quite possibly we developed a game that has had the longest playable existence over multiple incarnations of platforms and networks. Empire IV was "ported" from the PLATO system with its dedicated network to X-windows in the 1980s as X-trek and later ported to the Internet in the 1990s as Netrek. On top of that, with the advent of Cyber1 which ports PLATO on top of a platform capable of working on the Internet, one can actually also play the original versions!

While not a specific innovation, it certainly was an accomplishment.

Empire Timeline

Reconstructing the timeline for each phase of development took some effort. I did not keep a log or journal of development, though I do have notes and later listings; I have even found some notes of design ideas on the back of class work. I guess we can see where my head was. In the first years there was no simple way to get listings, so the source for the game was maintained by having to write it out by hand.

The numbering of the phases was an arbitrary add-on detailed in the online HELP pages for Empire IV. Each of the early phases was called "Empire".

From 1975 on the versions overlap. I was working on Empire III in -empire- and the strategic version in -empires-. Gary Fritz was the one other person I wanted working on the game, so he maintained and added features to Empire III, that is until I over-wrote it (see that section for the details).

Timeline of PLATO Empire Versions
Version Date # players # teams Features
1 May 1973 8 8 2D Strategic simulation of economy, population, manufacturing, and trade. Renamed to Conquest and further developed by Silas Warner.
2 Sept 1973 50 8 2D Tactical simulation, one ship per player, 8x8 sector space.
3 Fall 1973 50 7+1 Redesign to optimize. 2D 64x64 sectors.
S Mar 1975 50+100 7+1 Strategic/tactical. Player moves between roles such as ships captain, planetary commander, etc. 3D 512x512x512 sectors. Unfinished.
Michelin Late 1975 25 2 -michelin- Tactical. "we miss Empire". Scenario Feds vs Klingons. 2D 32Kx32K sectors; one ship per player.
IV 1976 32 4 Tactical. Merge Michelin and Empire 3 into Empire IV. 2D 32x32 sectors; one ship per player.
V 1976 50+30 6 2D strategic and tactical merge of Empire IV and Empire 1/Conquest. Unfinished.
IV-tourn 1981 32 4 Tactical. Revise Empire IV for tournament play. Steve Peltz.

Select the Version from the table above or from the menu to learn more about it.

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