Empire (PLATO)

Empire (PLATO)

Empire is the name of a computer game written for the PLATO system in 1973. It's significant for being quite probably the first networked multiplayer arena shooter-style game. It may also be the first networked multiplayer action game (although Maze War is another possibility for this distinction).


The first version, Empire I, was written by John Daleske as project coursework for an education class in the Spring of 1973. Silas Warner helped out by providing Daleske with disk space (known as "lesson space" in the PLATO environment). The first version of the game was a strategic turn-based game for eight players. Each had ships, industry, and budgets. Players had to keep the budget up to build more ships, maintain industry to help pay for it, provide raw materials to turn into goods, and trade.

Empire II, written in the Fall of 1973, was substantially different, much more tactically oriented. Players each captained a starship and could fire torpedoes at each other. Silas Warner liked the earlier version, and with Daleske's permission resurrected it under the name Conquest. The initial versions were written in longhand, with no printouts available as Daleske was at a remote computing center.

In 1974, Daleske rewrote the game again, creating Empire III in a 36-hour programming blitz. This version of the game, with a few minor modifications (newer looping constructs replace branches, and a timing issue has been corrected) may still be played on the Cyber1 PLATO system. In this version of the game, the internal physics are greatly improved, and the player's ship is always shown in the center of the tactical screen. Up to five teams and fifty players could participate.

The game was substantially revised in 1975 by Chuck Miller and Gary Fritz; by 1978, they produced Empire IV, which allowed for live chat between players. In 1981, Steve Peltz wrote a tournament version of the game, which allowed for annual tournaments between teams. These were most often won by the Orion team.

Empire was a very popular game. Usage logs from the PLATO system at the Computer-based Education Research Laboratory (CERL) at UIUC indicate that between 1978 and 1985, users spent about 300,000 hours playing Empire. Empire was not the most popular game; twice as many hours during the same period were spent playing a dungeon adventure games called "Avatar". Empire is still played (as of 2007) on the system at [http://www.cyber1.org www.cyber1.org] .

Empire inspired many derivative games, including Trek82, Trek83, ROBOTREK, Xtrek, and Netrek.Empire was adapted for the Apple II computer by Robert Woodhead of Wizardry fame as a game called Galactic Attack.

PLATO "Conquest" (based on "Empire I") can still (as of the late 1990s) be found on the NovaNET PLATO systems. To confuse things further, in 1982 Jef Poskanzer wrote a version of the space-battle Empire game called "Conquest" for VAX/VMS computers.

Game Play

Although PLATO terminals had touch panels, they did not have mice, and all control in the game is via typing. Commands involving directions to change course and fire weapons are entered as degree headings, with 0 being to the right, 90 up, 180 left, and 270 down. The "arrow" keys, clustered around "s", could also be used (e.g. "qw" being the same as 113 degrees). PLATO terminals had 512 by 512 pixel monochrome plasma display screens, and could use downloadable character sets to display graphics.

The object of the game is to conquer the galaxy. This galaxy contains twenty-five planets and four races. The races were the Federation, Romulans, Orions, and (originally) Klingons. The fourth race was changed to Kazari, just prior to publication because the game authors were worried about copyright infringement. In 1991, the fourth race name was changed back to Klingon on the NovaNET system, but remained Kazari on the CDC systems.

Each team is given three adjacent planets as their home system. Each home system is located towards one corner of the map, which was many screens in size, and thus has two other teams relatively nearby. There are two neutral worlds between each team and its two neighbors, and five more neutral worlds in the middle of the galaxy. Each planet given to a team contains 50 armies at the start of the game, while the neutral planets start off with 25 self-ruled armies.

Up to 30 players could be in the game at once, with no more than 15 players on a team. Each player is given a starship to pilot. Players dogfight each other, destroy enemy armies by bombing them, beam up friendly armies to transport them, and beam down armies to take over planets. The ships of each race have slightly different capabilities; Orion ships have the weakest weapons but are fast, Roms have the strongest weapons, but are the slowest, and Fed and Kazari ships have medium speed and strength. (In the VAX Conquest variant, which features engine and weapons temperature statistics, Federation ships have the highest overall speed; Klingon weapons do the most damage; Orions can "cruise" at a faster speed than others without engine overheat; and Romulans can fire weapons more often without weapon systems overheating.)

Ships have two kinds of weapons: phasors and photon torpedos. Phasers fire in a cone shape and do damage immediately, while torpedoes take some time to reach their target and can be dodged. Torpedoes can also be detonated before they strike. When a player is killed, they resurrect in a new ship in their home system, or in any home system that has been conquered by their team.

Although an action game, Empire can be slow to play, and moves have to be carefully and yet quickly considered. Flying from a team's home space to engage the enemy could take one to two minutes, and bombing a planet with fifty armies could take five to ten minutes. A game might take many hours, or even days, as players come and go. Yet, in intense dogfighting conditions, players have been known to type as quickly as 20 keys per second (as fast as the system would take them).

Original PLATO terminals were connected to the host system with a 1200 baud connection, and the host computers were quite slow by current standards. Since an update of the screen could take one to two seconds with a lot of ships and torpedoes on the screen, players were allowed to decide when their screen updated, but could not delay this action more than 10 seconds, or execute more than a certain number of commands before an update was forced. The position of each ship was updated only when its player updated his screen, which permitted ships to discontinuously hop or "hyperjump". Conversely, torpedo locations updated whenever any player in the game updated their screen, so their movements were effectively continuous.

This simple game mechanic, forced upon the designers by the limitations of the terminal and the central computer, paradoxically gave Empire a great deal of tactical depth by making it a limited-information game. For example, a player, seeing torps launched towards him, could wait without replotting until they were about to be hit, then change course towards the attacker, go to maximum speed, and hyperjump over the torps, then fire his own torps. Since the players could only have a limited number of torps active at any time, the original attacker would have to detonate his torps and launch new ones in order to respond. Of course, an experienced player, knowing that this was likely to happen, would likely have already detonated his first cluster of torps and launched a new set, hoping that his opponent would hyperjump right into them -- except that the opponent, knowing this, would do something slightly different.


* [http://www.thinkofit.com/plato/dwplato.htm PLATO: The Emergence of On-Line Community]
* [http://www.ecst.csuchico.edu/~netrek/history/History.html History of Netrek]
* [http://groups.google.com/group/rec.games.netrek/browse_thread/thread/c4dc2227c69aa5de rec.games.netrek thread]
* [http://www.cyber1.org Cyber1.Org PLATO site]
* [http://www.geocities.com/jim_bowery/empire2.html Empire History by Gary Fritz]
* [http://www.classicgaming.com/features/articles/computergaminghistory/index5-2.shtml The History of Computer Gaming Part 5 - PLATO Ain't Just Greek]

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