The Game Archaeologist: The history of play-by-email games

For most all of human history, people who wanted to play a game together usually had to be in physical proximity with each other. Backgammon with your next-door neighbor Bob was no problem, but trying to set up a game with your college roommate in another state meant an expensive trip with a questionable goal.

However, this limitation could be overcome in a sense by using the mail. People had been mailing each other chess moves back-and-forth through paper mail for centuries, setting up identical board in each house and making the moves dictated by the letter. However, as you might imagine, the time it took for letters to shuttle between the houses meant that a single game could stretch for months, if not years.

In 1963, a popular strategic war game from Wizards of the Coast called Diplomacy grabbed the interest of many. It was unique because instead of being just a board game, Diplomacy could and often was played long-distance via fanzines and letters. Through this somewhat tedious system, two to seven players could engage in power struggles even if they weren’t near to each other.

For the next 20 years, players continued to wage massive Diplomacy campaigns through the postal system. But there was always the desire to speed up the game, which is why taking the step to e-mail play in 1983 felt only natural. Now, games could be set up and waged easier and faster than ever through the magic of the internet. The GEnie Network handled plenty of these games — although not all — and online communities formed around different versions and rulesets. It wasn’t quite real-time, but it was far faster than putting an envelope in a mailbox or waiting for the next Diplomacy ‘zine to arrive.

While the creators of email may not have envisioned its use as a gaming tool, some visionaries started to see its potential — including one lady named Jessica Mulligan.

A lifelong gamer, Mulligan started to beta test games as a library clerk in the mid-1980s when she got hooked on Kesmai’s online game Stellar Warrior. Seeing over 80 players engage with each other thrilled her to no end and led to a personal epiphany.

“I decided to change careers overnight,” she later said. “After months of lobbying GEnie execs for a job and being turned down, I finally sat down and designed a play-by-email sci-fi game called The Rim Worlds War. GEnie contracted for it, my first professional game contract.”

Rim Worlds War would go on to become the world’s first commercially released play-by-email (PBeM) title. Yet it wasn’t enough merely to design the space strategy game; Mulligan had to get a infrastructure in place to support it. In 1986, she worked hard to set up an industry network that would offer support for online games, which at the time wasn’t in place. Her career trajectory from there took her to AOL (where she helped develop Neverwinter Nights), Ultima Online, Asheron’s Call, and Saga of Ryzom. All in all, over her multi-decade journey as an online game design consultant and director, Mulligan became involved with over a dozen MMOs.

According to MUD creator Richard Bartle, Mulligan should be considered one of the most important people in the history of virtual worlds. “She was a major force behind the acceptance of virtual worlds onto pre-Internet ‘information providers’ such as GEnie and AOL, almost single-handedly ushering in the golden age of textual worlds that ultimately persuaded developers to chance adding graphics to the mix,” Bartle said. “This alone would qualify her for this list, however I don’t regard it as her greatest achievement. Rather, it’s the way she has consistently, over the years, championed the unfashionable but critical concept of customer service.”

Another gaming pioneer who realized the potential for online gaming through email was an industry stalwart named Don Daglow. Daglow had his hands in game creation starting in 1971 with the world’s very first interactive baseball video game. Other great feathers in his cap was the first computer role-playing game (1976’s Dungeon) and the first god sim game (1982’s Utopia).

Daglow worked his way through the industry in the 1970s and 1980s before founding Stormfront Studios in 1988. Stormfront originally produced titles for the Amiga and Commodore 64 before branching out into other systems. Working with AOL, Daglow and Stormfront created their own play-by-email game called Quantum Space in 1989. Quantum Space only ran for a little less than four years, but at its peak, it was one of the highest-rated games on AOL. In the early 1990s, Daglow joined forces with Jessica Mulligan and others to pioneer online graphical RPGs with the original Neverwinter Nights (1991-1997).

As technology rapidly evolved to allow players to engage with each other online in ever-faster ways, the brief spike in the popularity of email as a game medium rapidly dropped off in favor of real-time gaming. That isn’t to say that they are gone entirely from today’s gaming landscape; such titles like Dominions 4, Civilization V, and the Age of Wonders series all contain options for turn-based remote gaming, as well as those on the board game engine Vassal.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.

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