Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 41 / OCTOBER 1983 / PAGE 34


Computer Games By Phone

John Blackford

A new species of game is suddenly gaining in popularity. It's the telegame – played over the phone lines. In some versions, you play against the computer; in others, many players can join in a single game. When one player makes a move, the others see it almost instantly. Such games allow team efforts and that opens up an intriguing new set of possibilities.

In the movie WarGames, a high school student accidentally taps into NORAD's war-game computer. The computer, which is equipped with artificial intelligence programs, is prepared to play such favorites as chess, tick-tack-toe, and global thermonuclear war. After the student chooses the latter, the computer won't quit, seizing control of launch codes and missile silos in preparation for a real nuclear strike.

How did the student bring about this near disaster? Practically the same way that people around the country now call up computerized information services and use them to play games: he put his telephone receiver in a modem – a device connecting the computer to the phone lines – readying his computer to call another computer.

Many information services contain – among other things – a library of games, which people can call up and play. In some, users play against the computer, as in WarGames. In others – the multiplayer, interactive games – the computer acts as a referee, doing the housekeeping chores, accounting for players' moves, and generally running the game. At present, interactive gaming is available only from CompuServe Information Service, though The Source and Delphi are working to catch up.

Only At Lunch Hour

CompuServe got a head start in interactive games by chance. The company began as a data base for business users, offering stock market quotes, sugar futures quotes, and the like during the day. After a few years of setting up such services, Russ Ranshaw, one of the company's programmers, decided to create a simple space-war game called Space Wars (SPCWARS) for the recreational use of other employees.

"It seemed like a logical thing to do," he says. "But it got so darned popular that people were playing all the time." After looking the other way for some time, company officials eventually limited game access to lunch hour. Even that didn't do the trick, so finally, in 1976, the game was completely banned from CompuServe – and it wasn't to be found in the memory banks for several years after that.

As personal computers began reaching homes in increasing numbers, planners at CompuServe (and other information utilities) decided to make their services available to home users at reduced rates during off-hours. To make the service attractive to non-business users, some new features were added. One of the first was SPCWARS, and it proved just as popular as it had been during lunch at CompuServe. In fact, it and two other interactive space games added later are now among the most widely used parts of the system.

SPCWARS is fairly simple to play. The commands aren't hard to follow, and a help function permits you to learn the rules as you play. It's an interactive game in which everyone is gunning for any player who signs onto the system. You can hide in clouds, duck around stars, and even display the section of the galaxy your ship is probing. Since true graphics aren't possible, the display consists of various symbols and letters to designate the location and direction of your ship and the other objects in the game. As more people sign onto the game, the size of the playfield expands, and if the number of players gets unwieldy, the host computer starts a new game for the newcomers.

No Help In Sight

Two other currently available interactive games are exceedingly complex. Forget trying to learn them as you go. Before you even figure out how to move your ship, you'll see a long string of messages race across your screen. You are under attack. The help command no longer works. You may notice the coordinates of the attacking ship and attempt to direct some phaser fire his way. But suddenly it's over. As you try to figure out what happened, you'll get a message like, "Sorry, Cadet, you're dead. You didn't cut it in MegaWars."

Save yourself some embarrassment – and wasted time – and order the instruction book before trying to play this one. You can order on-line (through your computer) or by writing CompuServe direct (5000 Arlington Centre Boulevard, P.O. Box 20212, Columbus, OH 43220).

DECWARS was the first really complex interactive game. It's actually a revision of a space game that had been residing for some years on a mainframe at the University of Texas. Ranshaw got it and worked obsessively to get rid of all the bugs. The task proved more than he had bargained for, and he now thinks he could have done the whole thing from scratch in less time. Still, reaction was favorable, right from the start. Players signed on again and again to play. A special interest group (SIG) was even formed for DECWARS fans. Users would use a special area of CompuServe to exchange comments and ideas about the game.

Some of these players began suggesting improvements, and Ranshaw got in touch with them to refine the concept for an improved game. In both games, players can form teams, but the regulars thought MegaWars – the upgraded version – should also assign ranks based on past performance. This would reward ability, yet allow beginners to fly more durable ships, increasing their survival time immensely.

After a long development – marked by enthusiastic suggestions from nearly everyone – the game went on-line. Immediately, CompuServe was flooded with suggestions for improvement. People would sign on the DECWARS SIG and fill the screen with criticisms. It became a significant problem.

After that experience, Ranshaw says they all realized that while suggestions are great, there comes a time when the programmer simply must do what seems best, letting others decide whether the game's fun to play. In spite of criticism by DECWARS fans, Mega Wars went on to become highly successful. At present, it is CompuServe's second most profitable offering – behind a simulation of CB radio that permits people around the nation to sign on and chat.

Old Favorites

Although CompuServe has the only interactive games right now, traditional favorites played against the computer are popular on all systems. Other information utilities, such as The Source, Dialog, and Delphi, also offer single-player games on-line. There are adventure-type classics such as Wumpus, Star Trek, and Zork as well as computer versions of such popular games as Othello, backgammon, and even chess. Most of the companies also offer card games, roulette, and dozens of other brain teasers.

To supplement such traditional games, The Source and Delphi have their programmers working hard to complete several multiplayer games. The Source isn't saying what titles it's creating, but Delphi is finishing up two space games, Conquest and Parsec, and will introduce more fantasy-oriented fare, too: Scales of the Gods, a medieval adventure, and Timelords, a game which involves exploration of "the fourth dimension."

As Delphi tried to hammer these into shape, its own users beat it to the punch, creating several multiplayer games right on the system. One player, known as the "Dragon," served as dungeon master for a couple of adventure games. The players took advantage of the bulletin board and electronic mail services to create the games. Now Delphi has made special space available for the game devotees. Though these adventures have generated excitement, they aren't programmed games. Instead, it's the players themselves who make things happen. Users create their own story, using the dungeon master to communicate with others. That's actually part of the idea at Delphi: the service should change to reflect the needs of users. Says president Wes Kussmaul, "Delphi is almost a creation of the users – they are the ones who bring it to life."

Interactive Games

What is it that makes interactive games hard to create? According to Ranshaw – and he's built every one that's commercially available – they require tricky programming with built-in safeguards to protect the game when someone drops out. Says Ranshaw, "What if you are playing a four-card game, and one player's cat knocks his modem off the table, disconnecting the phone? Suddenly the player is gone. Do you step in with the computer and have it play for the missing person, or bomb the whole game?"

The ideal, according to Ranshaw, is to minimize computer involvement. But in a case like the example above, the program would have to take the missing hand. Delphi's Kussmaul has a different philosophy, noting that if you are playing a real game of bridge, and someone walks off, the game is over. The same should be true of interactive computer games, he thinks.

A tougher problem arises with multiplayer games such as MegaWars. If the program isn't properly done, the game can crash when one player pulls out, destroying what may be hours of effort for some of the players. To prevent this, each player is considered to be a separate "case" by the host computer. The game program controls each player's input individually. Thus, if someone drops out, his or her specific case is closed, but the game data remains intact.

Graphics To Come

All the games currently available through information utilities are done in alphanumeric characters. Whatever you see on the screen could be typed on paper with a standard computer printer. In the early days of telecommunications, a set of standard characters, called the ASCII code, was developed to improve the service beyond that available on teletype machines. ASCII permits upper- and lowercase letters plus punctuation marks and a few control codes. The graphics characters on home computers aren't standard ASCII. Since information services must be able to communicate with many different computer brands, they are limited to the ASCII character set.

That could change, however. Developers at CompuServe are trying to create telegames with movable graphics. Besides the differences between computers, the limitations of the phone lines themselves hinder graphics transmission. Although baud (bits per second) rates of 1200 or higher are possible, modems capable of such speeds are still fairly expensive. Most home users communicate with information utilities at a leisurely 300 baud, far too slow to permit movement of graphics on your screen. But the people at CompuServe are working on a way to get around this bottleneck.

They are attacking the problem in two ways: first, by creating software for each computer type, and second, by devising ways to transmit graphics information without actually having to transmit the entire picture. Most videogames consist of a background design (the playfield) and objects that move within it. CompuServe's game designers hope to define the playfields and graphics shapes and download the definitions to the user. Then, the host computer only needs to transmit enough information to move the predefined shape. Software purchased by each user will make the graphics information compatible with his or her particular computer.

New Directions

Such efforts may be only the beginning. With inexpensive modems and software now available, more and more home computerists are reaching information sources. And such organizations have found to their surprise that there's a healthy profit in home-oriented services. A company by the name of Gameline even has a plan to sell plug-in cartridges to allow Atari VCS game machines (11 million are presently in use) to download game software. And parents will have a special code enabling them to limit their children's use of the device.

In fact, activity could become so widespread that phone lines might be filled up with people using personal computers plugged into various data bases, including teletex, on-line bulletin boards, and even users chatting directly to one another. Bell telephone researchers are reportedly concerned that the entire phone network could become overloaded if market penetration of telecomputing services reaches as little as 3 1/2 percent.

To avoid these problems, alternatives such as cable TV and local communications networks may be used. The Games Network is planning to offer a cable channel dedicated to videogames. Sytek, in cooperation with General Instruments Corporation, plans to introduce a series of local, high-speed communications networks using cable TV lines. These would be cheaper than comparable ones offered by American Bell, and would be compatible with personal computers. Such a system could support extensive graphics, because of the large transmission capacity of cable lines.

Whichever specific projects eventually succeed, the prospect is for more and better computer games played over the communication lines. Just as home computers changed in only a few years from hobbies to mass-market items, telegaming is now poised to be the vanguard of a massive upsurge in computing by phone.