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

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

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 remanant 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 accross 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 accross 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 enviroment, 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: