Arlan R. Levitan
Games Modem People Play
When most people think about telecomputing, the first things that probably come to mind will be downloading public domain programs from electronic bulletin boards, retrieving stock quotes and financial information from commercial information services, or communicating with other hobbyists via Special Interest Groups (SIGs). Modems are often viewed as strictly utilitarian pieces of computer gear.
But there is a lighter side to telecomputing—multiple-player telegaming.
The first multiplayer telecomputing game I can recall involved a group of five or six people who were logged onto an online conferencing service playing Dungeons and Dragons. Players in California, Illinois, and New York were exploring the stygian depths of underground catacombs created by a Dungeon Master running the whole show from the keyboard of his Apple II in Austin, Texas.
The CompuServe Information Service was one of the pioneers in developing multiplayer online games. CompuServe currently offers a half-dozen or so such diversions to its subscribers. The blast-and-burn crowd can choose among multiple flavors of interstellar conflict: SpaceWars, MegaWars I, and MegaWars III. These games vary in both depth of play and the number of players who may simultaneously participate. MegaWars III is the clear heavyweight of the group. It has multiple game phases, including violent battle and economic warfare, and up to a hundred players can be pounding away at their keyboards at once.
Those with more pedestrian tastes may opt for a game of multiplayer blackjack, trading quips with the dealer and other players as electronic gambling chips trade hands.
Wheel Of Misfortune
Not all attempts at multiuser games are smash hits. CompuServe's latest creation is You Guessed It!, a TV-style quiz game in which players form teams and take turns attempting to answer questions while ignoring incredibly bad jokes delivered by an eerily obnoxious electronic master of ceremonies. The winners garner points that may be used to purchase gifts offered by sponsors, whose commercials regularly interrupt the game.
I tried You Guessed It! for about two hours, racking up what I thought was a respectable number of points. Then I eagerly issued the command that would transfer me to the "prize room" where players can trade points for their heart's desire. But the only prize I qualified for was a bumper sticker that advertised one of the You Guessed It! sponsors. To be fair, it did appear that if I played for another hour or two I could lay my hands on a baseball cap which sported (you guessed it) another advertiser's logo.
One of the more interesting experiments in telegaming that I've seen is a moderately obscure program called COMM-BAT, marketed by Adventure International. Some friends and I purchased copies of COMM-BAT for our Atari 800s back in early 1981 when 300 bits-per-second (bps) modems were still hot stuff for home use.
COMM-BAT lets two computers hook up over phone lines and presents each player with a battle-field map. The adversaries send tanks armed with rockets and lasers scurrying about in search of the enemy's base. When a player's base is destroyed, the game ends. The programs on both ends of the telecomputing link communicate with each other, updating the current battle information displayed on the screens. Players can also send insults and ultimatums to each other during the game.
A Reunion Battle
COMM-BAT does have its limitations. The character graphics are crude, but intentionally so. Versions of COMM-BAT were written for TRS-80, Apple, and Atari computers, and owners of these different systems could play COMM-BAT with each other and see identical displays on their screens. The biggest drawback was that the game progressed rather slowly due to the 300 bps modems.
Just for grins I pulled out my old copy of COMM-BAT and called one of my ex-buddies, now a resident of Denver, Colorado and a fellow user of GTE's PC Pursuit service (see "Telecomputing Today," December 1985). We cranked up our Ataris (now equipped with 1200 bps modems), linked up via PC Pursuit, and had a jolly old transcontinental time blasting the daylights out of each other. The extra speed of the 1200 bps modems and a noise-free connection transformed a mildly interesting game into good, clean Ramboesque fun. Out of curiosity, I called Adventure International and found that COMM-BAT is still available. The $49.95 price gets you all three versions of the program.
I'd like to hear about any other commercial or public domain telecomputing games that you may have encountered. I seem to recall some implementations of chess and Battleship having been done in the past. I'll compile a list and publish the results in a future issue.
Contact Levitan on The Source (TCT987), CompuServe (70675,463), or Delphi (ARLANL).