MegaWars III

The first multi-player strategic empire building space game.

History

Authors: Kelton Flinn at Kesmai. Operated online by CompuServe and (a newer version) GameStorm.
Released on: DEC machines at CompuServe, circa 1983.
Comments: MegaWars III is the first multiplayer space empire game, it’s also one of the longest running online games in history.

Now you would think that a MegaWars III would be newer than MegaWars I, right? Well as it turns out, no.

MWI started in ’82 when Bill Louden gave the Kesmi folks a version of an earlier game, DECWAR. DECWAR pre-dates all of this, but Megawars was a major update. Later came MegaWars II, which was a sort of client/server version of MWI, but it didn’t last long. WMIII was written before either of them, but was unreleased.

The history of MegaWars III is best told with some quotes from its author, who looked over an early version of this document. Take it away Kelton!

The game actually had its roots in a game I wrote when I was a student, which we rather imaginatively called “S”. S was written the summer of 1979 [at the] University of Virginia, building on ideas from previous games. S was the first time John Taylor and I actively collaborated on a game: I did all the programming but John chipped in with quite a few ideas for the game design. The machine was a Hewlett-Packard 2000F timeshared BASIC system, it supported 32 simultaneous users at 2400 baud. S was the first version designed to be played on a CRT rather than a teletype.

The ship-to-ship combat in S was very similar to MegaWars III, and the galaxy and planet generation were the same, but there were far fewer stars for the small computers we had then, and the planetary economics were very much simpler.

When we wrote MegaWars III (called that because CompuServe wanted to link it with the earlier successful games) we expanded greatly on the economic aspects, and scaled the game up for 100 simultaneous from the original 8 players. The political aspects of the game were also added then. The ship customization was also something we added when expanding S into MegaWars III.

[from another letter]

Well, originally S was played largely by me and my roommates in college (4th year), and there were only 255 star systems, so competition was pretty fierce for the good planets. We were usually all in the computer room at the same time. One of the more notable events was when one person’s favorite planet was taken, and he picked up a chair and stalked across the room with it to clobber the culprit. “Bob, put the chair down, it’s only a game…” I guess I should have known then we had a potential hit!

There was one aspect of S that never made it into MegaWars III. In planetary space, if you could close to within like 0.1 AU of someone, you could board their ship. A top-down map of the ship came up on each person’s screen and you played what we’d now call a real-time strategy game where each person had up to 10 squads of men (depending on how many troops you had on board, so traveling with no troops had a substantial risk!). The attacker brought his men on through one of two portals (think of the opening scene in Star Wars where Darth Vader and the storm troopers blast their way onto the ship) and tried to capture the opposing captain. It usually turned into a race for the defending captain to reach the engine room where the “self-destruct” switch was located before the more numerous attackers caught him. The defender could see where both his and the enemy men were located; the attacker saw only those parts of the ship where his men were located. The “men” fought automatically; the players merely gave orders for the squads to move. Note this was all done with a map drawn with text on the screen. A bit ahead of its time 🙂 If the attacker won, he got to take any and all cargo on the opposing ship.

Very cool! Too bad that didn’t make it onto the online version.

The first MWIII game started on Jan 19, 1984 and ran until the 15th of March, a much longer game than later runs. Ming was the historic first president and Avenging Force’s leader Khayyam was emperor.

Sadly on November 24th ’99 CompuServe pulled the plug on MegaWars III as they moved to their new (abysimal) “CompuServe 2000” web based interface. Starhawk received a plaque from the Kesmai people for being the historic last emperor, bringing to a close over fifteen years of continual play.

A modified version of MegaWars III, Stellar Emperor, was run for a time on GEnie. It used the same basic interface but attempted to make it easier to play with a few changes to the game itself. Sadly it simplified the ship design back to the “standard designs” concept which I don’t like as much as the excellent system in the original. This version died when GEnie was later killed off by GE, after floundering for years due to lack of direction.

Kesmai then created their own complete (and fancy) 2D GUI interface for Stellar Emperor, and uses this client to play the game on their online gaming service, GameStorm. The game continues to embody many of the good points of the original MWIII system, and the new interface makes the game far easier for new players to pick up.

MegaWars is an perfect example of the fact that careful tuning is required to make a game work, and they got it just right. The combination of the rich combat system and the powerful planetary management system was almost perfect.

MegaWars also illustrates the power that an online game gets you by it’s very nature. Combat is a white knuckle affair and always will be because you’ll never be able to “guess out” the computer’s actions, and the possibility that someone might be going after your planets keeps you online longer than you’d like.

The Game

Type: Empire-building
Viewpoint: God-view and First-person (switches back and forth)
Time: Real time
Synopsis: As a baron in the remains of the former Earth empire, you captain a ship around the galaxy while developing colonies to build a tax base to improve your ship. MegaWars has a very powerful planetary economics engine, politics, teams, and a wonderful ship design system.

The lead-in story tells of the end of an ancient war where the Earth was effectively destroyed by an alien race (supposedly the topic of MWI, but the link is tenuous). In the aftermath of the war, barons from Earth-originated colonies on distant planets fought for the spoils of the former empire.

In order to end the bloodshed, the remains of the original Earth empire set up a political system in which points were awarded to the barons for combat skill and economic prowess. Every “election” the baron with the highest points would become president. Alliances between barons were encouraged, and the leader of the most powerful alliance was crowned Emperor.

MegaWars III is effectively two games in one, a realtime space combat game played in the first-person, and an economic game played in god view. Both portions of the game had elements that are still reasonably unique event by today’s standards, together they are even better. In both cases time flow was sped up, 8 hours of real time represents about a month of game time, and games lasted about 4 to 5 weeks of realtime.

MegaWars III is an old game in terms of its interface, but although it was text based it’s still more advanced than most terminal based games. For most players MegaWars used the cursor commands of smart terminals (quite a few were supported) to draw maps and menus. For people with simpler terminals the game also included a stream-based UI, and to help with the gameplay a number of people developed GUI based front ends to this interface.

The game took place in a universe consisting of about 1000 systems, each of which contained multiple planets. The actual layout of the star map didn’t change from game to game, but the number of planets at each star and their characteristics did change. This meant that you could map out the stars and they would be in the same place for the next game, but you still had to explore them to find out details about the planets. Design of the solar systems appeared to be quite well done, with the planets changing from rocky balls near the stars, to some habitable planets, to gas giants, and finally to rocky balls again.

We’ll start with the space combat side, because that’s where the game started. You begin in your ship, a Scout, located at one of the four remaining Imperial bases. Your ship has two modes of transport, sublight and warp which allowed you to travel in systems or between then respectively. To set out and explore the universe using your warp drives, you look at a map and pick a nearby star (they were numbered) and ask the computer to fly to it. Off you go!

While in hyperspace a character-generated map of nearby space was drawn which showed the relative locations of other stars and ships. To learn about the planets at a particular star you would fly to it, once leaving hyperspace all information about the planets would become known. In sublight a similar display was drawn, this time with the planets lettered. Since time was rather sped up, updating the display often showed that the planets did indeed move in their orbits.

Exploring could be a time consuming process, but spending that time in the early game was important as you wanted to map out all the high quality planets for later settlement. To speed up the process the ships also carried a single probe which could be sent to nearby stars, leaving you free to explore other ones.

Meeting other ships often led to combat. Your ship was armed with weapons for use in both warp space and sublight, and missiles that could operate in either. Your ship also carried shields fore and aft which could absorb a specific amount of power and then recharged slowly. For equal scouts this typically meant having to fire a number of shots at each other, the first shots depleting the enemy’s shields and the later shots doing damage to the ship itself.

In sublight your main weapons were two laser cannon, fore and aft. The cannon ate up power from the ship’s generators, and could be upgraded when you upgraded your ship with more powerful generators. To use them you “locked” them onto a specific target, and could then issue “fire” commands as fast as you could type. Sadly this wasn’t all that easy, because such combat typically happened with one ship or the other in orbit, and the opposing ship would often disappear behind the planet requiring you to re-lock and fire, so the player with the faster typing speed or modem often won.

In warp you used torpedoes, fired from tubes which had to be reloaded “by hand” after use. Scouts started with 3 tubes (two forward, one aft), but you could upgrade your ship to carry up to 8. For some unexplained reason the interface for these weapons was completely different than for lasers. You couldn’t lock onto a target and then issue a series of fire commands, instead you had to fire a particular tube in a particular direction (in gradians no less) – and the direction to fire in was not stated in the manual! Did you have to lead the targets? Did you simply fire at the enemies bearing? The manual was almost useless for this.

Finally there were the missiles. Yet another new interface to use, you simply supplied the number of the opposing ship and off it went. Again the manual talked in glowing terms about the fact that they flew fast, over long distances, and delivered a huge punch. Sadly the manual also failed to mention exactly how fast, how far, or how much of a punch they delivered. Later the game was upgraded and added the ability to load portions of your fuel into the missile to increase its explosive power, but again it was not stated how much you could load, nor what effect this had. Were they more powerful than torps? Less? Could they attack a ship that entered a dock or logged off? Could you shoot at incoming missiles to defend yourself, and if so, with what?

The problems with the manual all stemmed from it being a weird combination of half manual, half sci-fi story format. It was difficult to tell what was an instruction and what was simply part of the story. A simple example comes up when they are describing the torpedo system, where the manual discusses historical notes – the story notes that why they are called “torpedoes” and why they are fired from devices called “tubes” is lost to history. That’s all nice, but maybe they should also tell you how to fire them correctly?

Recently I found the answers to many of these questions in a text file written in 1984 – close to RTFM I guess. Torps do 200 to 500 “units” of damage, and since shields can have a maximum strength of 400, they’re almost sure to do some damage. They do need to be led – although they fly instantly from point to point, the current reading of your enemies position and it’s position by the time you enter the fire comment is likely to be different. Missiles did slightly less damage than torps, they fly at warp 10 and gave up if the ship was 200ly away or left the game. They could also be shot at by either lasers or torps to defend yourself.

All of these UI problems are one area where a GUI helps a lot. In the new version, Stellar Emperor, combat is a point and click afair which makes the whole process much more approachable and combat is easier for people of all experience levels. In MegaWars you could be fighting the command line as much as the enemy.

Luckily the lack of clarity didn’t detract from the fact that it was fun. Cruising around and looking for a scrap was what the game was all about. You might think it’s hard to get a rise out of a text based game, but there were many a night where I was typing furiously into the computer trying to get off that last missile before making a run for it.

The game engine also allowed for a number of combat strategies, inadvertantly or by design I don’t know. For instance one strategy to break laser locks on your ship was to warp back to the same system you were in, this would make you reappear at some other location at random and the opposing ship would have lost sight of you. Another trick was to jump into warp and launch missiles, then jump back out again. While your enemy was fending off the missiles you had time to regain lock and start firing.

Ship design and construction was one of my favorite parts of MWIII. Unlike most games which have a number of pre-rolled designs or allow you to research better components for your ships, MegaWars had a small number of standardized parts from which to select. To make a more powerful ship, you simply bolted more of these components onto the existing hulls, or added more hulls if you ran out of room. A standard scout had three hulls and had no space left over, so expanding your ship required that you first buy another hull.

Ship design was a matter of balancing weight, power and space requirements to suit your needs. Although very flexible in theory, the game was still filled with ships of roughly the same design for any particular number of hulls. I never saw a ship consisting only of engines and troop carrying space for instance, even though such a design was both possible and potentially useful.

Upgrading your ship took place in the docks on a planet. While in theory almost any allied planet could have a dock open to you, it seems people visited only their own docks or those of the four remaining empire planets (perhaps this feature was more widely used in larger alliances). Entering the docks sent you into the second mode of the game, where one of the possible things to do was work on your ship.

This second mode was the planetary management portion of the game. In this portion of the game you attempted to fine tune your colonies in an effort to build up their population – and thus tax base – as high as possible. To do this you ran a seemingly communistic society, in which you allotted percentages of your population to various tasks, like mining or working in the shipyards. Doing so was a complex task, and once again the manual was of little use, but in this area the player community added a tremendous amount of knowledge in the form of various text files on planetary management – or PMing.

Each player could have active colonies on up to six planets at once, it’s a somewhat arbitrary number but it worked well in the game. To start a colony you fly to a target planet and type ESTablish, presto. In fact you didn’t actually have to bring people with you, this was assumed to happen outside of the game engine, basically you were laying claim to the planet, and then taking out a loan to pay for 5000 people to move there (which happened instantly). At this point you controlled the economy, but some of the money produced in taxes was used to pay off this loan. You guessed it, the specific details of the loan payoff or its effect on the economy were not mentioned in the manual.

The planets differed in a number of physical characteristics, and in common with many empire type games, the suitability of the planet for colonization had an effect on the colonies growth rate and cost of operation. For the most part people were primarily interested in finding planets with very high HABitibility rates, where colonies would grow powerful and prosperous. Sometimes you would start a colony on a poor planet to make some income while looking for better ones, so the game let you abandon ones you no longer wanted, but I’m not sure if this destroyed the colony or let them become independent.

One interesting twist is that money in the MegaWars world is quite literally metal. Thus one way to quickly make money was to look for a hab-poor but metal-rich planet and start a colony with lots of the people assigned to mining. Once money was no longer as important (you had other colonies with lots of people to tax) you could abandon it.

There were two main purposes to the colonies, one was to generate money, and the other to generate parts for your ship – buying them from your colonies was far less expensive than using the empire docks. The later required a high level of infrastructure on the planet before they started working (at which point you could repair your ship) and even higher before they started to build new items for the ship. As you might guess, the exact amounts of infrastructure needed for any particular upgrade to the shipyards was left completely unexplained.

Colonies also needed to be protected while off-line. The game had a number of features for this, including the ability to draft members of the population into the ‘forces and build antiaircraft guns – which in later versions could shoot at ships in orbit as well. As you might expect this implies that attacking colonies is equally important, and this happened with a combination of troops on your ship, and fighter/transport aircraft.

The aircraft could be used as either fighters or transports at once, not both. An attack typically consisted of sending then in as fighters several times to soften up the defenses, and then sending them down again with troops to take over. The troops on your ship were the same ones you drafted on your colonies, or you could buy more troops at the shipyards.

One problem with the system was that you could attack a colony full out, lose everything, then run to a nearby base and reload everything and do it again. If the owner of the colony was off-line you could simply keep doing this until you took it over – you could typically fly back and forth faster than the base could rebuild itself (unlike ship movement, colonies “kept working” when you were off-line).

My only real complaint with the game is what happened to your ship when you signed off – nothing. I think the game could have been improved by allowing your ship to be assigned to a fleet, whether off-line or on, and then a fleet commander could be assigned by you alliance to take the fleet as a whole into combat.

Another nice option would have been to put your ship “on call”, in this mode it would automatically fly to any colony under attack and attempt to kill the attacking ships. This could be simple to implement, as it closes on the enemy, fire missiles as soon as you are in range and then continue firing until you run out of them. When that happens attack the ship with lasers (it would have to be in normal space to attack a colony anyway). Either you’ll kill the ship, drive it away, or be destroyed. If it’s either of the first two, enter dock at that colony and repair, if possible.

Links

Stellar Emperor is Kesmai’s home page for the new version of the MegaWars III engine.

Steet Rat’s Stellar Emperor Page, a good introduction to Stellar Emperor from the player’s perspective. Includes tips and a pretty complete description of the game.

MacTac, a Mac GUI for MegaWars III. Most of the GUI programs for MegaWars can be found in the CompuServe files area, this is the only one I found with it’s own page.

Thanks to

Kelton Flinn for helping me with the early history of “S”, and how it turned into MegaWars III.

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