Monday, July 8, 2019

Games 79-80: Empire and the road to Wizardry

Read details on Empire at John Daleske’s website:

Before I planned out the 1981 phase of Data Driven Gamer, I had figured this entry was going to be called “Moria and the road to Wizardry.”

It’s been fairly well established that Oubliette, a game originating on PLATO, was a strong influence on Wizardry, strong enough that Oubliette’s developers have cried plagiarism. As of writing this, I haven’t played Oubliette yet, but when I do, I’ll get into whether I agree or not. Oubliette itself, according to CRPG Addict, was influenced by an earlier PLATO game called Moria.

Confusingly, there are also DOS games called Oubliette and Moria; the former is different enough from the original to count as a separate game, and the latter is totally unrelated to the PLATO game.

But a quick look at Sir-Tech’s page on Mobygames shows that Sir-Tech’s first released computer game wasn’t Wizardry, but Galactic Attack, released a year earlier on the Apple II under the publishing label “Siro-tech,” making it a notable ancestor.

Jumping ahead a bit on the whaling log, I’ll be playing Castle Wolfenstein, by Silas Warner, who had a background as a PLATO developer. While compiling an ancestor list for Castle Wolfenstein, I discovered that Galactic Attack was an adaptation of the PLATO game Empire (which also shares its title with multiple unrelated computer games), a collaboration between John Daleske and Silas Warner.

Empire underwent four major revisions, and an unknown number of minor ones. Wikipedia didn’t tell me as much as I’d like to know, but one of the best records of its history was the helpfile for Empire III on Cyber1. Empire I is a realtime strategy game of interplanetary war, Empire II and III are multiplayer space ship combat games where each player directly controls their own star ship, and Empire IV is a hybrid of the two concepts with ship-centered gameplay, and planetary conquest as a major mechanic.

After this page, the helpfile seems to be unfinished.

Empire IV’s helpfile also has some history, but it’s not as satisfying as the one in Empire III.

Empire I and II are lost, but the former was “revived” as Conquest by Silas Warner, who took over its development and made improvements from 1974-1975. Woodhead’s Galactic Attack appears to be adapted from Empire IV.

And so, I’ve constructed a roadmap to Wizardry, with a lot more Empire in it than I originally thought there would be.

To really delve into these Empire games may pose a big problem, as they are all designed for competitive multiplayer. Wikipedia paints a vivid picture of the intricacies of ship-to-ship combat, which would be lost in an environment where I control the only ship in the universe.

..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.

With Cyber1 so sparsely populated, re-creating that experience today with these old iterations may be futile, but I tried.

Game 79: Conquest

As noted before, this is Silas Warner’s offshoot of Empire I, developed from 1974-1975, and is the only extant branch of that game.

Starting the lesson, we’re dumped right into the game.

What you see here is the space of the entire universe. The planet in the upper-left is the Archon planet, which we control. Somewhere on this screen are seven hidden planets belonging to the other races.

I had no idea what to do at first, so I pressed the HELP button.

This is a good overview of what you can do, but doesn’t really help us understand the game’s goals or how to achieve them. It says you can press HELP for a help lesson, but this page is all you get. Pressing HELP a second time here does nothing. It’s too bad, because all of the PLATO helpfiles that I’ve seen have been very detailed and useful.

The DATA button pulls up a status screen.

I’m all alone in the universe and at peace with my enemies, who for some reason are inconsistent in their efforts to not infringe on CBS’s trademarks. I control one planet, the Archon planet, which has 8910 pitchforks in reserve and has invested another 1000 in research.

Normally, some of these planets would be controlled by other players, but as there are no other players, they just sit there, undefended, producing nothing. Their locations are initially unknown, and are discovered by flying ships close to them, or by investing in defense (more on that later).

Armies are used to conquer other planets and can be purchased at any time, on any planet that you control. Presumably they are also used to defend planets, but as I’m playing solo, this wouldn’t be a factor. They can be loaded into ships and unloaded onto planets.

I have no idea what spies do, but they are purchased and deployed in the same manner as armies.

There are four types of ships; three battleships classes designating combat effectiveness and expense, and transports. All are capable of transporting armies, spies, and money.

Research determines how much money your planet generates, and you increase it by investing your money into it, up to a maximum of 50,000 pitchforks worth. I don’t know if it serves any other purpose, but your money increases by a random amount every five seconds, and the more you’ve put into research, the more revenue you tend to get. It’s very random; I’ve gotten as many as 165 pitchforks with only 1000 research, and as few as 5 with nearly 15,000 research, but I think I have a reasonably approximate formula for determining the average value of research.
4 * [Research]^0.45

That’s the average amount of money I expect you’ll get every five seconds, and the curve fits my observed data points rather nicely. I believe the maximum you can get per tick is slightly more than double that, and that the minimum is either 5 or 0. I haven’t applied a lot of rigorous testing, and haven’t checked to see if factors such as your race, or your number of ships, armies, and spies make a difference, but I’m satisfied that I’m not far off from the baseline formula.

I don’t know what offense actually does, but you can invest money in the same manner as research. Increasing your defense increases the radius of the circle surrounding your planet, and reveals other planets within it. I imagine that this also represents some kind of planetary defense that shoots down hostile ships, but it’s untestable without any hostile ships.

The “ships” number indicates I have 4 ships designated #1, #2, #3, & #4, not that I have 1,234 ships.

Mobility determines your ship’s maximum velocities. At the start of the game, before you invest anything in mobility, your ships are so slow that they are nearly useless. You can always move ships at any percentage of their maximum velocity, and when sweeping the universe for planets, it’s better to slow them down.

With two helpless planets revealed by my defense circle, I built some armies and ships, loaded armies into two of the ships, and plotted their courses to the planets.

Here the game supports touch-screen input for setting your course. You can click on the Pterm window to simulate this.

The ships moved across the screen to their destinations in realtime. Sort of. The screen updates only once every five seconds, which makes for a pretty choppy experience when you are accustomed to 20fps as the bare minimum for playability.

Unloading one army onto the defenseless planet

Even with your armies on the planets, nothing happens until you declare war on them. But then they immediately fall and become yours.

Checking the status

From here I loaded the armies back into their ships and sent them sweeping through the galaxy at 20% velocity, searching for more planets to conquer, repeating the process whenever discovering one, and sometimes increasing the defense budget of conquered planets to hasten the search process.

Damn right I did.

The process continued until I conquered the last planet and won the game. I didn’t get recognition on the list of recent winners, though.

Without anyone to play against, all I’ve got to experience is a shell of a game, and a glimpse of what it might have been like. The mechanics are all there, ready to be experienced, nothing in the game logic has been lost, but without other players it’s fairly meaningless, and we can only make educated guesses about the big picture. I don’t know how space combat works, what spies do, or how quite a few of the other internal mechanics are used, and without a dedicated playerbase, there’s no way to really appreciate just how deep the strategy goes.

One other miscellaneous musing is that as far as I can tell, this game meets all of the requirements to be called a real-time strategy game. Gameplay occurs in small and discrete chunks of time which pass whether you do anything or not, you have to build and deploy ships and armies, and there’s even a resource management system.

And yet, quick Google search for “first RTS” doesn’t reveal any sources that even mention this game. Wikipedia, for instance, cites a number of claims on microcomputer games from the early 80’s, and a few that go as late as 1989’s Herzog Zwei. But Conquest is from 1974, and is based on a game from 1973!

I’ve said before that “firsts” don’t really interest me, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there had been RTS games even earlier, but I find it peculiar that this game’s existence seems to be omitted from the genre canon, when it neatly ticks off all of the boxes that define the genre, its direct progeny is notable enough to have its own Wikipedia article, and it predates the established “firsts” by nearly a decade. Perhaps it's forgotten precisely because its dissimilar progeny is formally titled Empire, rather than Empire IV, lending the wrong impression that this first incarnation is merely an early version not worth downgrading to rather than an entirely different game in its own right.

Game 80: Empire III

Empire II appears to be lost, but the helpfile of Empire III describes itself as an “optimized” version of II, so maybe it’s not a huge loss. As mentioned, it’s a ship-to-ship combat game rather than a strategy game like Empire I, and once again, I couldn’t do very much except screw around flying solo, since nobody else was playing it.

But I finally get to be Captain Ahab!

Despite the disclaimer, -HELP- is not really available. There is a helpfile, but it’s unfinished, and doesn’t give any play instructions.

Chapter 'a' is unfinished, chapters 'b' and 'c' are blank.

Before captaining my ship, I can select my name, allegiance, and ship type.

The ship selection table seems to be misaligned. I am quite certain it is meant to look like this:

Starting, we get a view of my ship in 2D space.

From here, the help button gives me this screen.

As with Conquest, action in Empire III occurs in five second increments, which makes for a very confusing experience when navigating a ship. When there aren’t any other objects on the screen to view as a bearing to your ship’s position, it’s very difficult to discern what your ship is doing! At high speeds, the map view is more useful than the most zoomed-out normal view, which honestly isn’t zoomed out enough.

Control is still somewhat indirect; for instance, setting a course does not instantly rotate your ship to the desired heading, but instead activates your rotational thrusters, which automatically reverse direction when you are close to your chosen heading, and then shut off once your rotational inertia is neutralized. Inertia also controls your forward velocity even when you throttle down. A “soft stop” engages the bow thruster to reduce your speed to zero, while a “hard stop” does a sharp 180 turn while continuing to fire the aft thruster to achieve the same thing faster.

Inertia plays an important role here, and it’s quite challenging to make slight course adjustments without coming to a complete stop first. For instance – suppose you are travelling 0 degrees (due east) at 100 velocity units, and then you change your course to 90 degrees (due north). The course setting only rotates your ship due north. It does not cancel out your westward velocity, and as a result you will cruise at 45 degrees (northeast) while facing due north.

There were some ships, some explosions frozen in space (stars or destroyed ships?) and some things that looked like planetoids, but I couldn’t figure out how to interact with them, and the ships were all unmanned. I think I managed to blow one up with a torpedo. I couldn’t get my phasers to fire at all, unless I actually did and there’s no corresponding visual for it.

Here’s 14 minutes of me faffing about the empty universe, but given the extreme low framerate, it’s going to be pretty confusing to watch without the benefit of knowing what buttons I’m pressing at any given moment. If you’re going to watch it, I’d suggest playing it back at double speed.

I didn’t put as much time into Empire III as I did conquest, as it seems that without human competition, there’s even less to do here. I couldn’t even get the hang of piloting the ship in empty space. With its Newtonian physics model and a fractional-fps framerate, maneuvering is an ordeal in itself, compared to Conquest where ships can be directed simply by tapping where you would like them to go.

My next post, on Empire IV, will be more substantial.


  1. The history of the PLATO system is very interesting and relatively unique for its time. There is a great book called "The Friendly Orange Glow" by Brian Dearman that I'd recommend if you have time.

    The lineage of the PLATO RPGs is pretty well documented and starts with The Dungeon (aka pedit5), although there was reportedly a now lost game called m199h that may have been earlier or later.

    Then dnd/Game of Dungeons followed by Oubliette and the others. It is fascinating that we still have these around and freely playable 44 years later!

    (sorry if this is all redundant and you know about it...)

    1. As prelude to Telengard he did play both pedit5 and dnd. You can find the posts starting from here:

  2. I don't get it, can't you ask some of your friends to participate?

    1. Getting them to play old Atari games with me is one thing, but these PLATO games demand a lot more patience, time, and willingness to learn unfamiliar concepts. I can't just hand them controllers and say "play." They'd need to sign up for Cyber1 accounts, download Pterm, familiarize themselves with arcane PLATO concepts and controls, get up to speed on Conquest's strange mechanics and controls, and then we'd have to coordinate several hours to get a game or two in. I don't really see that working out.

    2. So I assume you did not even ask. You can always ask your audience if you don't want to bother your friends. Maybe one of your readers is a hardcore retrogamer who would love to participate in a few of multiplayer sessions.

      One more thing regarding your video from Empire III. If you think that the video can be confusing to watch without knowing what keys/controller buttons are pressed by the Player you can always use tools that add keyboard/mouse overlay. They highlight keys/buttons pressed/clicked at the time of playing.


Most popular posts