This Old Tech: Remembering WorldsAway’s avatars and virtual experiences

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This Old Tech: Remembering WorldsAway’s avatars and virtual experiences (PCWorld)

The year was 1995, and CompuServe’s online service cost $4.95 per hour. Yet thousands of people logged into this virtual world daily.

WorldsAway

WorldsAway was born 20 years ago, when Fujitsu Cultural Technologies, a subsidiary of Japanese electronics giant Fujitsu, released this online experiment in multiplayer communities. It debuted as part of the CompuServe online service in September, 1995. Users needed a special client to connect; once online, they could chat with others while represented onscreen as a graphical avatar.

I was already a veteran of BBSes (I even started my own), Prodigy, CompuServe, and the Internet when I saw an advertisement for WorldsAway in CompuServe magazine (one of my favorite magazines at the time). It promised a technicolor online world where you could be anything you wanted, and share a virtual city with people all over the globe. I signed up to receive the client software CD. Right after its launch in September, I was up and running in the new world. It blew my young mind.

Benj Edwards (PCWorld)

The Lost Civilization of Dial-Up Bulletin Board Systems

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

I have a vivid, recurring dream. I climb the stairs in my parents’ house to see my old bedroom. In the back corner, I hear a faint humming.

It’s my old computer, still running my 1990s-era bulletin board system (BBS, for short), “The Cave.” I thought I had shut it down ages ago, but it’s been chugging away this whole time without me realizing it—people continued calling my BBS to play games, post messages, and upload files. To my astonishment, it never shut down after all…

The author’s computer connecting to BBS in 1996 (Benj Edwards)

What Is A Door And Why Do I Care

Geeky post with little value to most people: ignore if you don’t want to learn a little about the history of the BBS, “Doors”, and the subculture around them. This post is written for folks like Ruth, who seemed interested, and others, who seemed possibly-interested.

Before about 1994, even the few of us who had been on the internet hadn’t had much exposure to the (young, at the time) world wide web, but for a decade or more before then, there stood a great remnant of what had come before. And for years to come, still, when internet access was still something for which you paid both monthly and for your call time, and probably to a “local” rather than a “national” ISP, there was another option for getting your “fix” of cyberspace.

That fix was the network of independent bulletin board systems (BBSs) that existed across pretty much every Western country. The US was full of them – pretty much every small town had a young geek somewhere with a spare computer in his parents’ basement. And here in the UK, small BBSs flourished as their members logged on and off and passed files around over now long-dead protocols.

BBSs were small, usually-local, centralised computers with one or more modems (or even acoustic couplers – primitive modems that connected to existing telephone handsets using little rubber suction cups and “spoke” analogue signals to one another across the telephone lines), often operated by hobbyists. To connect to one, you would need to know it’s phone number, and lists of these could be found wherever geeks talked. You’d simply configure your dialler software to “connect” to the specified number, and, a few pips and squeaks later, you were in. A short registration process would give you access to message board, file trading facilities (ah; all that – ah; all that porn), live chat (on the bigger, multi-line boards), and sometimes even internet access – e-mail, newsgroups, etc. Later, some of the more successful BBSs would become ISPs, and some of these maintained a BBS, too, that provided software that you could use to connect to their systems. BBSs had all the benefits of the internet at the time – albeit with a smaller user base – but frequently also had a distinct local feel and a “community” sense of belonging.

Another feature that became quite popular on BBSs were the so-called door games. These were pieces of software installed onto the BBS server computer – usually games – which could be interacted with by the BBS server software through one of several standardised interfaces (e.g. Fossil, DOOR32). It’s almost certain that the writer of Wargames had seen door games in action before he wrote his “Global Thermonuclear War” game into the film script. A majority of these games – like the one in Wargames – allowed a single player to play against the computer, online, with perhaps a shared, centralised scoreboard that all players can access. Later door games allowed a degree of interactivity, sometimes even “live” interactivity, between the players who were playing the game simultaneously.

When I ran Dice BBS (from my bedroom at my mum’s house), I had a selection of door games running on it, selected for their inter-player interactivity: P:TEOS (space trading sim), Legend Of The Red Dragon and it’s underrated sequel (all from Robinson Technologies, who still write computer games to this day), and a MOO (an object-oriented MUD [multiplayer text-based adventure] often with an emphasis on social interaction [like a MUSH]). Later, after Dice BBS’s closure (the internet had become too ubiquitous; too cool; there was no need for it any more), I hacked Legend Of The Red Dragon 2 to pieces and wrote a Pascal front-end to allow it to be played in a protected network environment, developed L2:PC, and deployed it to the Preston College network, where it became so popular that several players rarely did anything else, and one person was even thrown off their course, their grades suffered so badly.

Nowadays, door games are a bit of a forgotten breed. The MUDs and the MUSHes grew up into the MMORPGs of today (think “World Of Warcraft”, “Everquest”, “Ultima Online”, “Puzzle Pirates”). The need for the other games to be played in a centralised manner was negated by high-speed internet links and modern, multiplayer games. But there are still special places where BBSs run (usually adapted in such a way that you can reach them using the telnet protocol, over the internet), and there will always be a home for them in the hearts of those of us that lived aboard them.

Thanks for listening to a bit of nostalgia.

Further reading:

LORD II – Preston College Version

This document was shared on my college Intranet and via a hidden URL on my first website, on 11 December 1997. It was republished here on 22 March 2021. It provides instructions for players of the multiplayer DOOR game I adapted for local network play and the world I built within it for my friends to explore. The game world was an adaptation of our very own Preston College but transplanted to a fantasy realm.


LEGEND OF THE RED DRAGON II – Preston College Version

You have probably been given this sheet because you have requested a chance to take part in one of the most fast-moving and user-interactive multi user games on earth. I’ve spent a lot of time recently reprogramming Seth Able Robinson’s Bulletin Board System game, Legend Of The Red Dragon II (with his permission) to customise it and make it suitable for network play.

But – I’m sure this waffle is worthless to you; so here are the instructions you need:

To run the software:

Drop to an MS-DOS shell using the appropriate icon. Change to the ALEVEL.001 directory, if you’re not already there, by typing CD\ALEVEL.001. Type PC (abbreviation of Preston College) to start. You will be asked for your user name and password. These should be on a slip of paper attached to the foot of this sheet. Your password will be hidden from view for security.

Upon logging in for the first time you will see a menu from which you can choose to see the instructions, and other functions, or start the game. It is recommended that you read the instructions now, though do remember it is possible to get to them from the game by tapping ?.

Assuming you’ve discovered how to play, by one means or another, here is a list of some people and places in the game you might want to visit.

(Please note : The map of Preston College in the game is only representative, and not necessarily accurate. There is most definitely not a cult temple or a stone circle on campus…)

ENROLMENT

Until you have visited here you won’t have a membership card, which allows you access to much of the game. It’s one of the first places your character should visit.

STUDENT SERVICES

Right next door to enrolment, this cool office will buy junk that you don’t want any more from you.

THE BEASTMAN

Kevin Geldard, your computing teacher, lives in an office on the Ground Floor of the Main Building. Though he can be prone to rambling on and persistently saying “BEAST!” in the middle of otherwise sane-sounding sentences, he’s the key to a lot of the game world, and a valuable resource.

NETWORK SERVER

Found within the I.T. Block, this machine is the hub of all the computers in the college. With it it’s possible to really screw up somebody’s student record. However, it’s kept under lock and key.

VENDING MACHINES

Keep your eye out for these, as you can buy food and drinks from them. Different foodstuffs restore different quantities of Hit Points, so try them all (remember that some also have extra purposes beyond the obvious…)

MESSAGE BOARDS

Scattered around the college, these appear as a coloured section of wall. You can write messages on them to other players, to arrange trade, combat and other meetings.

SOUTHERN PATH AND SAVICK BROOK

This dirt path, found beyond the amphitheatre, is a dangerous land. Head to it to practice your combat skills, and earn a little money and experience while you’re at it. The brook is a barrier, protecting the campus from the Lands Of Chaos beyond. It is possible to cross the river at the bridge, but only the greatest warriors are allowed across.

TEMPLE OF NIG

The Disciples of Nig, a religious cult, have established themselves within the campus. Finding their temple will enable you to meditate there. Check the daily College Bulletin (by pressing D) to find out if the Disciples are celebrating a festival to determine if it is worth your while to go there.

STONE CIRCLE

It is believed that the black altar within this strange circle of standing stones is blessed with a power beyond that of this world.

REFECTORY

This safe haven is a land of protection from other players. Take refuge here to escape the blows of your enemies. Just remember that you need your Student ID Card to get in.

NESCAFE BAR

The place to hang out if you’re waiting for somebody. Right next to a message board, and with easy access to the main doors, you can settle down here if you don’t quite require the level of security the refectory provides.

WildCat BBS

This image was shared here in hindsight, on 22 March 2021. I didn’t actually start blogging until around August 1998; the message and text below were published on a bulletin board system to which I contributed.

The picture above illustrates the software I have just ordered