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History of online games

Online games are video games played over a computer network. The evolution of these games parallels the evolution of computers and computer networking, with new technologies improving the essential functionality needed for playing video games on a remote server.

Background of technologies

The first video and computer games, such as NIMROD (1951), OXO (1952), and Spacewar! (1961), were for one or two players sitting at a single computer which was being used only to play the game. Later in the 1960s, computers began to support time-sharing, which allowed multiple users to share use of a computer simultaneously. Systems of computer terminals were created allowing users to operate the computer from a different room than where the computer was housed. Soon after, Modem links further expanded this range so that users did not have to be in the same building as the computer; terminals could connect to their host computers via dial-up or leased telephone lines. With the increased remote access, "host based" games were created, in which users on remote systems connected to a central computer to play single-player, and soon after, multiplayer games.

Later, in the 1970s, packet-based computer networking technology began to mature. Between 1973 and 1975, Xerox PARC developed Local Area Networks based on Ethernet. Additionally, the Wide Area Network ARPANET further developed from its 1969 roots, lead to the creation of the Internet on January 1, 1983. These LANs and WANS allowed for network games, where the game created and received network packets; Systems located across LANs or the Internet could run games with each other in peer-to-peer or client–server models.


In the early 1970s, the PLATO time-sharing system, created by the University of Illinois and Control Data Corporation allowed students at several locations to use online lessons in one of the earliest systems for computer aided instruction. In 1972, PLATO IV terminals with new graphics capabilities were introduced, and students started using this system to create multiplayer games. By 1978, PLATO had multiplayer interactive graphical dungeon crawls, air combat (Airfight), tank combat, space battles (Empire and Spasim), with features such as inter-player messaging, persistent game characters, and team play for at least 32 simultaneous players.[1]

Networked host-based systems

A key goal of early network systems such as ARPANET and JANET was to allow users of "dumb" text-based terminals attached to one host computer (or, later, to terminal servers) to interactively use programs on other host computers. This meant that games on those systems were accessible to users in many different locations by use of programs such as telnet.

Most of the early host-based games were single-player, and frequently originated and were primarily played at universities. A sizable proportion were written on DEC-20 mainframes, as those had a strong presence in the university market. Games such as The Oregon Trail (1971), Colossal Cave Adventure (1976), and Star Trek (1972) were very popular, with several or many students each playing their own copy of the game at once, time-sharing the system with each other and users running other programs.

Eventually, though, multiplayer host-based games on networked computers began to be developed. One of the most important of these was MUD (1978), a program which spawned a genre and had significant input into the development of concepts of shared world design, having formative impact on the evolution of MMORPG's. In 1984, MAD debuted on BITNET; this was the first MUD fully accessible from a worldwide computer network.[2] During its two-year existence, 10% of the sites on BITNET connected to it.

In 1988, another BITNET MUD named MUDA appeared. It lasted for five years, before going off line due to the retirement of the computers it ran on.[3]

Maze War


In the summer of 1973, Maze War was first written at NASA's Ames Research Center in California by high school summer interns using Imlac PDS-1 computers. The authors added two-player capability by connecting two IMLAC computers with serial cables. Since two computers were involved, as opposed to "dumb terminals", they could use formatted protocol packets to send information to each other, so this could be considered the first peer-to-peer computer video game. It could also be called the first First person shooter


When author Greg Thompson went to college at MIT in the Fall of 1973, he brought Maze War with him. A server program was written to run on a DEC-20 mainframe allowing up to eight IMLACs to play against each other. This could be considered the first client–server computer video game.

MITTTY's DEC 1920s were connected to the ARPANET, which meant that people using Imlacs at other ARPANET sites could play against each other and people at MIT by connecting to the MIT server using the ARPANET's TIP and NCP protocols. Maze War may have been the only game ever written to use the ARPANET protocols directly.[4]


In 1977, staff at Xerox PARC wrote a version of Maze War to use Ethernet and the XNS network protocol.


In 1982, Christopher Kent (later Christopher Kantarjiev) saw Maze War at RAND.

Kent later interned at Digital Equipment Corporation's Western Research Lab (DEC WRL) in Palo Alto, California during his Ph.D. studies. Several former Xerox PARC employees worked at WRL, and one of them, Gene McDaniel, gave Kent a hardcopy of the Mesa source code listing from the Xerox version of Maze, and the bitmap file that is used for the display.

The X Window System had been newly released as a result of collaborative efforts between DEC and MIT. Kent wrote a networked version of Mazewar which he released in December 1986. This version used UDP port 1111, and could be played by Unix workstations running X across the Internet. This was probably the second game (SGI Dogfight being the first) which directly used the Internet's TCP/IP protocol suite, and the first which could be played across the Internet (which SGI Dogfight could not do at the time). Xtrek came out a few months earlier, but did not directly use the Internet protocols, instead relying on X to provide networking.

SGI Dogfight

In 1983, Gary Tarolli wrote a flight simulator demonstration program for Silicon Graphics workstation computers. In 1984, networking capabilities were added by connecting two machines using serial cables just as had been done with the IMLACs for Mazewar at NASA eleven years earlier. Next, XNS support was added, allowing multiple stations to play over an Ethernet, just as with the Xerox version of Mazewar. In 1986, UDP support was added (port 5130), making SGI Dogfight the first game to ever use the Internet protocol suite.

The packets used, though, were broadcast packets, which meant that the game was limited to a single network segment; it could not cross a router, and thus could not be played across the Internet.

Around 1989, IP Multicast capability was added, and the game became playable between any compatible hosts on the Internet, assuming that they had multicast access (which was quite uncommon). The multicast address is, making this only the third multicast application (and the first game) to receive an address assignment, with only the VMTP protocol ( and the Network Time Protocol ( having arrived earlier.

X Window System games

As mentioned above, in 1986, MIT and DEC released the X Window System. X provided two important capabilities in terms of game development. Firstly, it provided a widely deployed graphics system for workstation computers on the Internet. A number of workstation graphics systems existed, including Bell Labs' BLIT, SGI's IRIS GL, Carnegie Mellon's Andrew Project, DEC's UWS (Ultrix Workstation Software), VWS (Vax Workstation Software), and Sun's NeWS, but X managed over time to secure cross-platform dominance, becoming available for systems from nearly all workstation manufacturers, and coming from MIT, had particular strength in the academic arena. Since Internet games were being written mostly by college students, this was critical.

Secondly, X had the capability of using computers as thin clients, allowing a personal workstation to use a program which was actually being run on a much more powerful server computer exactly as if the user were sitting at the server computer. While remote control programs such as VNC allow similar capabilities, X incorporates it at the operating system level, allowing for much more tightly integrated functionality than these later solutions provide; multiple applications running on different servers can display individual windows. For example, a word processor running on one server could have two or three windows open while a mail reader running on the workstation itself, and a game running on yet another server could each display their own windows, and all applications would be using native graphics calls.

This meant that starting in the summer of 1986, a class of games began to be developed which relied on a fast host computer running the game and "throwing" X display windows, using personal workstation computers to remotely display the game and receive user input.

Since X can use multiple networking systems, games based on remote X displays are not Internet-only games; they can be played over DECnet and other non-TCP/IP network stacks.


The first of these remote display games was Xtrek. Based on a PLATO system game, Empire, Xtrek is a 2D multiplayer space battle game loosely set in the Star Trek universe. This game could be played across the Internet, probably the first graphical game that could do so, a few months ahead of the X version of Maze War.

Importantly, however, the game itself was not aware that it was using a network. In a sense it was a host-based game, because the program only ran on a single computer, and knew about the X Window System, and the window system took care of the networking: essentially one computer displaying on several screens. The X version of Maze War, on the other hand, was peer-to-peer and used the network directly, with a copy of the program running on each computer in the game, instead of only a single copy running on a server.

Other remote X display games

Other remote X display based games include xtank and XPilot (1991).[5]


Main article: Netrek

Originally called Xtrek II, Netrek is a rewrite of Xtrek as a fully network-aware client–server game. Released in 1988, it was probably the first game to use both the TCP and UDP protocols, the first Internet-aware team game, the first Internet game to use metaservers to locate open game servers, and the first to have persistent user information. It also uses public key cryptography to attempt to reduce cheating by use of modified clients with automatic aiming aids and other illicit features.

Commercial timesharing services

As time-sharing technology matured, it became practical for companies with excess capacity on their expensive computer systems to sell that capacity. Service bureaus such as Tymshare (founded 1966) dedicated to selling time on a single computer to multiple customers sprang up. The customers were typically businesses that did not have the need or money to purchase and manage their own computer systems.

In 1979, two time-sharing companies, The Source and CompuServe, began selling access to their systems to individual consumers and small business; this was the beginning of the era of online service providers. While an initial focus of service offerings was the ability for users to run their own programs, over time applications including online chat, electronic mail and BBSs and games became the dominant uses of the systems.

For many people, these, rather than the academic and commercial systems available only at universities and technical corporations, were their first exposure to online gaming.

In 1984, CompuServe debuted Islands of Kesmai, the first commercial multiplayer online role playing game. Islands of Kesmai used scrolling text (ASCII graphics) on screen to draw maps of player location, depict movement, and so on; the interface is considered Roguelike. At some point, graphical overlay interfaces could be downloaded, putting a slightly more glitzy face on the game. Playing cost was the standard CompuServe connection fee of the time, $6 per hour with a 300 baud modem, $12 for a 1200 baud modem; the game processed one command every 10 seconds, which equates to 123 cents per command.

Habitat was the first attempt at a large-scale commercial virtual community[6] that was graphically based. Habitat was not a 3D environment and did not incorporate immersion techniques. This would generally exclude it from the VR mold, and it was neither designed nor perceived as a VR environment. However, it is considered a forerunner of the modern MMORPGs, and was quite unlike other online communities (i.e. MUDs and MOOs with text-based interfaces) of the time. Habitat had a GUI and large userbase of consumer-oriented users, and those elements in particular have made it a much-cited project. When Habitat was shut down in 1988, it was succeeded by a scaled-down but more sophisticated game called Club Caribe.

In 1987, Kesmai (the company which developed Islands of Kesmai) released Air Warrior on GEnie. It was a graphical flight simulator/air combat game, initially using wire frame graphics, and could run on Apple Macintosh, Atari ST, or Commodore Amiga computers. Over time, Air Warrior was added to other online services, including Delphi, CRIS, CompuServe, America Online, Earthlink, GameStorm and CompuLink.

Over time, Kesmai produced many improved versions of the game. In 1997, a backport from Windows to the Macintosh was made available as an open beta on the Internet. In 1999, Kesmai was purchased by Electronic Arts, which started running the game servers itself. The last Air Warrior servers were shut down on December 7, 2001.

In 1988, Federation debuted on Compunet. It was a text-based online game, focused around the interstellar economy of our galaxy in the distant future. Players work their way up a series of ranks, each of which has a slightly more rewarding and interesting but difficult job attached, which culminates in the ownership of one's own "duchy", a small solar system. After some time on GEnie, in 1995 Federation moved to AOL. AOL made online games free, dropping surcharges to play, in 1996, and the resulting load caused it to drop online game offerings entirely. IBGames, creators of Federation, started offering access to the game through its own website, making it perhaps the first game to transition off of an online service provider. IBGames kept the game operational until 2005, after most of the player base transitioned to the sequel, 2003's Federation II.

In 1991, Sega introduced online multiplayer gaming to video game consoles, with its Sega Meganet service for the Mega Drive (Genesis). Sega continued to provide online gaming services for its later consoles, including the Sega NetLink service for the Sega Saturn and the SegaNet service for the Dreamcast.[7]

The 1990s saw an explosion of MMORPGs; for details, see History of massively multiplayer online games.


  1. ^ David R. Woolley (1994). "PLATO: The Emergence of Online Community". Retrieved October 12, 2013. 
  2. ^ "MAD, Multi Access Dungeon (1984–1986)". Retrieved 2010-06-21. 
  3. ^ MUDA, Multi User Dungeon Adventure (1988–1993)
  4. ^ The DigiBarn Computer Museum's Maze War 30 Year Retrospective: "The First First-person Shooter" (Contains additional text and images that include screenshots)
  5. ^ "The Story of XPilot". 2008-05-31. Archived from the original on 2008-05-31. Retrieved 2010-06-21. 
  6. ^ "Morningstar, C. and F. R. Farmer (1990) '''"The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat"''', The First International Conference on Cyberspace, Austin, TX, USA". Retrieved 2010-06-21. 
  7. ^ Sega Is Innovation, Gaming Target