This article appeared in the May 1983 issue of Today, CompuServe's magazine for CIS subscribers.
It's a world of fear as well as whimsy, where a weakened shield or a misdirected phaser command can threaten survival. Players are colonists who for seven hundred years have fought to protect their galaxy from Kryons and Acherons, mastering the intricacies of warfare can mean the difference between life and death, and smart colonists learn to think fast or die. Imagination, concentration and, some say, a peculiar form of videotex courage are essential to learning the intricacies of MegaWars, one of 37 games on the CompuServe network. What makes MegaWars special is that, unlike games offered through other timesharing services, a number of players linked at different terminals to the CompuServe network play simultaneously.
As opposed to single player games where humans interact only with the computer, MegaWars offers users the challenge of pitting themselves against five-toed, two-eyed humanoids as well as the disgustingly ugly creatures that habit the galaxies of MegaWars, SPCWAR, and DECWAR, the multi-player, multi-terminal games currently offered by CompuServe. According to product manager Bill Louden, CompuServe is the only timesharing service that links players throughout the United States and Canada to one another in this manner. “Multi-player, multi-terminal games create a whole new level of complexity that most companies today can't carry,” says Louden. “It takes a very sophisticated network with fast mainframe computers to handle ten or twenty human players across the country.”
In terms of graphics, speed and color, Louden readily admits that games available through timesharing services cannot, and do not pretend to, compare with arcade games. But, he points out, particularly with the player interactive games, there's a competitive edge and a complexity that is absent from quarter-gobbling video arcade set-ups. “Arcade games, and I include the home games through Atari and the like in this category, typically have a shoot 'em up style, use three or four controls and depend more on luck than skill,” says Louden. “They tend to mesmerize players because they don't really use the thinking part of the brain — if you try to think too much, you often lose.”
On the other hand, Louden characterizes many of the games available through CompuServe as “thinking games.” Many, particularly the multi-player, multi-terminal games, have complicated rules, numerous fantasy characters and can take hours or days to master. Rather than running pink-bowed Ms. Pacman through an unvarying maze, players must, depending on the game, make quick judgments about terrain, weather, invading forces and available fuel supply. They must depend upon intelligence, recall, strategic ability and mastery of sometimes complex rules. As with any game, luck of course plays a role. However, a nimble mind plays a much greater part than a flexible wrist and quick reflexes. And it's this mental challenge that players enjoy most.
Creating that challenge is a long, often arduous process — a process that outsiders sometimes erroneously think of as “play for pay.” But competition to develop new games, improve graphics, and create more effective hardware and software keeps designers and programmers under considerable pressure. Says Larry Shelley, manager of entertainment technology: “It may appear glamorous but it's not.” Louden agrees. “We have plenty of volunteers who want to test the games once they're almost ready for marketing. That's the fun part. It's creating original games, or enhancing ones to suit our system that's the challenge.”
CompuServe presently offers four classes of games: simple textual games; screen-oriented games that use cursor positioning, for example, Concentration and Scramble; page-oriented games, which instantly send ahead screen-size sections of much larger pieces of information such as maps; and extremely sophisticated games under development in which shapes, objects, colors, perspective and velocity are predefined. In addition to these four broad categories, games are also defined in other ways depending on the complexity of the hardware and software, the number of players and whether players are pitted against the computer, one another or are competing against both.
Games are also classified as either synchronous, in which each person takes a turn in an orderly manner; or asynchronous, in which players all fire away at once. It's the asynchronous, multi-player, multi-terminal games that are the most sophisticated, the most popular — and the most challenging to develop or enhance. Adding graphics, color and sound to this last category is a top priority for CompuServe, which expects to introduce two or more games with these features within the next several months.
According to Shelley, offering games to suit the software of users is a major problem. “There are practically as many terminal programs as there are rnicros,” he says. Louden adds that users' existing hardware may also limit what can be offered. “There's a nuclear war simulation game that senior Defense Department officials play as training for World War III. It's called Janus and is very sophisticated — it cost millions of dollars to design this game. Their terminals are very high-speed, high-resolution and cost several thousand dollars. You can see the bombs go off on the screen. It's undoubtedly the most sophisticated simulation in the whole world. I'd love to offer it to our customers, but few people out there have the ten thousand dollar terminals necessary to display Janus properly.”
To address some of these issues, CompuServe is developing a device to enhance communication between lower cost micros and the mainframes. “This will allow us to do more sophisticated applications,” explains Louden, “and with color and sound effects … built in we can do more sophisticated games.”
Single player as well as multi-player and multi-terminal games will continue to be ofiered through CompuServe, says Louden, who explains that simpler, single-player games are a good way for new players to be introduced to the system. As new product manager, he is always on the lookout for a variety of good games that can be enhanced and offered to CompuServe's subscribers. Shelley and others have put together guidelines for the types of games sought, as well as the problems inherent in developing the various classifications.
In general, he says, games should be easy to understand with well-written, concise and accurate instruction. Documentation must be in the form of a tutorial that leads the player through a simulated game scenario. The “whys” and “whats” must be explained as the rules unfold. And designers should keep in mind that players enjoy talking back and forth. Razzing, it seems, is as much a part of the fun terminal-to-terminal as it is face-to-face. A brisk pace is a key element for all types of games. “Synchronous, multiple player games should be designed so that one player can't tie up the game,” explains Shelley. “The potential for boredom increases as the play slows down. The use of graphics and cursor positioning also enhances games.”
According to Shelley, the skills needed for designing games are different from those needed by programmers who ready the games for play. “Designers must have a feel for what makes good strategy,” he explains. “And programmers don't necessarily possess this type of insight. Game designers don't need to know programming. They need only keep in mind that if the game gets too complicated, they'll need an awfully big computer to implement it.”
Early games offered by CompuServe were all single-user text games. Louden recalls that when the company began acquiring games, universities were the primary source. “DECWAR came from a university and had a lot of problems when we acquired it,” he says. “In a university where kids were playing for free, they tended not to worry about efficiency. MegaWars grew out of DECWAR and required even more time and effort to enhance. It's now the most popular game on the network.”
Louden divides players into three categories: computerists, who are interested in computers and like the speed and graphics of arcade-style games such as MegaWars; traditional gamesters, the strategists who enjoy board games such as chess; and average consumers — people who enjoy games but only if they are easy to learn and understand. “Average consumers will spend ten minutes or so to master the rules, and will quit if they don't learn them within that time span,” reports Louden. “Traditional gamesters, on the other hand, love complex games with complicated rules and may have a hard time finding someone locally to play with. They use their computers as the medium to play the more sophisticated board games. Our current audience is more computerists than any other category, but the other two markets are growing and we cater to all three groups.”
Defining the reasons people play video games is a ripe topic for psychologists. One California psychologist has written, for example, that players of the arcade game, Donkey Kong, may be working out Oedipal problems. Others speculate that troubled individuals use video games to work out feelings of inferiority, hostility or — conversely — superiority. Video games have facetiously been referred to as the most popular but least physically taxing indoor sport — California game designer Allan Alcorn has said that “video games were designed as a way that someone could participate in sports while maintaining a firm grip on a can of beer.”
A recent TODAY on-line survey of CompuServe gamesters turned up some interesting revelations about players' motivations. “I feel like a different person when I'm playing,” one user reported. “I feel more aggressive. It brings out the killer instinct,” he added. Another man, who says he plays games about 40 hours each month, admits “It adds some distraction to my simple life.” A high school boy who claims to have played 500 hours on the system, says simply “I love it so much I can't explain it.” An older player describes his game-playing as “An exercise in logical problem-solving.”
Most respondents said they play by impulse rather than design and that spouses, in most instances, encouraged their interest. One man, who said he was “married with regrets” declared his wife complains about his tying up the phone for long periods while playing games. He suggested an on-line dating game for adults only. One of the few women responding to the survey said her husband bought the computer for her and encourages her to play. Most users' reading habits reflect a lively interest in print as well as videotex. They claim to read, on average, several books each month as well as numerous magazines.
All in all, there are probably as many reasons for playing video games as there are human beings who play them. As with other types of leisure activities, video games can provide release from stress and a short and soothing vacation from the mundane. It's heartening to know that the use of games to escape life's realities is perhaps as old as civilization. Exactly seven hundred years ago, in the year 1283, Alfonso X, the king of Castile, wrapped it all up in his introduction to “Libro de Juegos,” the first book of games in European literature. “God has intended men to enjoy themselves with many games,” he wrote. “For games will bring them comfort and dispel their boredom.”
To that sentiment, most video devotees would add a heartfelt, on-line “Amen.”
Carole Houze Gerber is a contributing editor to TODAY magazine.
No, he doesn't dance around like a sorcerer's apprentice, turn frogs into princes or even hum the score to Fantasia. But Russ Ranshaw, otherwise known as the “Wizard of Ten," was once compelled to conjure up an entire Adventure game over a weekend. In person, he's as human and down-to-earth as any other mortal. But beware! Place him before a terminal and he casts a mighty spell.
An old-timer at CompuServe, Ranshaw has been with the company since 1973 and helped set up the original MicroNet system. His wizard moniker springs from his first Adventure game offered on the network. Ranshaw and two other employees sent a message to users offering free game play time and signed it “Wizard of Ten” because the original mainframes were PDP 10's. The nickname stuck with Ranshaw, whose wife later made him a wizard costume to complement his professional persona. Ranshaw has solidified his wizard image by appearing in full regalia at trade shows and other computer-related events.
How he became a wizard should, by all rights, be a bizarre and magical tale. Alas, such is not the case. Instead, it's a story of hard work, an early and well-nurtured interest in electronics and a “right place–right time” introduction to computers. Keenly interested in science as a child, as a teenager he taught himself — with guidance from his father — how to repair radios. The hobby grew into a home business which later spurred his interest in electrical engineering, his major at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I cut my teeth on electronics as a youngster,” Ranshaw recalls. “Later I dabbled with ham radios. I had a passion for working with code and small transmitters. Then later in my under-graduate career we finally got an IBM 650 computer at the university. This was in the late 1950s and it was a very big deal. At that time, the experts were saying things like ‘Perhaps someday there'll be as many as 10 of these things around.’
“It did decimal arithmetic, had about 2,000 words of memory and generated enough heat to warm three houses. It was quite a monster!”
It was a monster Ranshaw wanted to tame and he immediately signed up for an elective course in the new technology. His involvement was immediate and consuming. “I fell in love with the whole idea of programming,” he says with a smile. His interest went beyond the course requirements and his abilities far outstripped all expectations. (Even wizards have an occasional stumble, however. Ranshaw almost failed his other classes during the early part of his love affair with programming.) The following summer, 1959, he was hired as an undergraduate assistant at the Computer Center, a job he held on a part-time basis until his graduation in 1960. He spent six years at the University of Pittsburgh Computer Center where he wrote a number of programs, helped develop the first comprehensive monitor system for the IBM 7070, and wrote a Fortran compiler for that same machine. He then moved to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine as an assistant research professor. There he was involved with lasers, analog work and image digitizers as well as computers. A major project was through a NASA grant to develop a method for conducting computer analysis of human blood cells, including the development of a specialized microscope. He earned his Master of Science degree in Computer Science in 1971.
During his 10 years at CompuServe Ranshaw has earned a reputation both as a generalist and an expert. His title, internal consultant, reflects his jack-and-master of all trades expertise. He has worked on the monitor system and various utility languages as well as on the games at which he is, of course, a wizard. Not surprisingly, Ranshaw says separating his professional and personal interests is difficult. “I can sit down and chase a bug in the program and see it as recreation,” he admits. A continuing hobby is his home computer system, designed and built by Ranshaw. “It keeps evolving,” he reports. “But I must say that I don't have the time to work on it I once did.”
Games, at home and at work, are his favorite activities and he enthusiastically defends their benefit to society. “We've noticed that people buying home computers have very high ideals. They plan to use them for record-keeping, education and news service — very high-sounding goals. What happens is they play games and that's not a bad thing. Games have the potential to be quite intellectually satisfying, from the simple ones that kids can play to the ones that Einstein-caliber adults would find tough.”
Ranshaw believes that games offer otherwise buttoned-down adults a much needed escape into the world of fantasy, an opportunity to rocket through space, slay fire-breathing dragons. And yes, match wits with a wizard.