WAR
DECWAR
MegaWars

Multiplayer online tactical combat.

 
 

History

Authors:
Released on: CDC-6600
Comments:

This article originally started as a part of the MegaWars III history, and for a while it looked like it was going to stay there. But the story of the game and the roundabout route that led to MWIII is interesting, and MegaWars is a nice bridge from the single player Star Trek games to the multiplayer MegaWars III. So, here we are.

The story starts in the mid-70's with a game called WAR. WAR was created at the University of Texas at Austin on the CDC-6600. The CDC is arguably the first supercomputer, but it was built in the 1960's so I'm astounded it was still running when they started work on WAR.

WAR was essentially a single terminal, two player game based on the Star Trek concept. Instead of hunting down an invasion force, each player takes turns at the keyboard in an effort to hunt each other down. The primary addition to the game was a strategic portion where you take over planets, and then turn then into additional starbases[1].

During a port to a DEC-10 machine at the same university, the game was essentially rewritten and renamed DECWAR. DECWAR kept the basic concepts from WAR, but added a huge number of commands and made the game multiplayer with up to 10 players in a single game.

By using shared memory to store information about the galaxy, each player was able to run a different copy of the program (or job) and still share a single map. That allowed them to join or leave the game at any time without interrupting the rest of the players. This is a boon to gameplay, a feature that still isn't nearly well enough supported today.

They also added computer controlled Romulans who would appear in games with too few human players, in order to make the game harder. As more human players joined, the Romulans would not return after being killed off. The first version of this new game was installed on the DEC-10 in August 1978, with a 2.0 following the next July.

In 1982 Bill Louden, in charge of games at CompuServe, bought a copy of DECWAR on tape for $50 from the people at UofT and handed it off to Kesmai to have a go at it. This seems to have pissed off the UofT people, realizing too late that the licensing says nothing about commercial uses of the code – CompuServe was going to end up making money with the game without them making a penny.

The people at Kesmai took DECWAR and made some minor changes to remove Star Trek related copywrited names (no more Romulans) and that became MegaWars. It went up on CompuServe in 1983 and ran continuously until 1998 - although it had a few near-death experiences in that interim.

Additions continued to be made throughout it's run, the biggest changes included different ship classes and goals. As time went on the game became more and more complex in comparision to DECWARS, until it looked very little like the original.

In 1985 Bill moved on from CIS, and in a herculean effort he convinces GE's Information Services division to set up a public service similar to CompuServe, using the evening hours excess capacity on GEIS's mainframe computers. Named GEnie by Bill's wife for "GE Network for Information Exchange", it's priced at $6 an hour for both 1200 and 300bps, making it half the price of CompuServe at 1200bps.

Bill also convinces GE that in order to make the service a success, GEnie will need games. So in 1986 Kesmai rewrites MegaWars I and re-launches it on GEnie as Stellar Warrior. Once again the game runs for years, dying only when GE throws in the towel and unplugs the entire GEnie service.

MegaWars II was an upgrade to the basic engine so that it could run in a client/sever mode. The client program ran only on the Radio Shack CoCo (although I'm sure other versions were planned) and supported a reasonably powerful GUI for the game. But before the version could become established, MegaWars III came along a month or so later and II was put to sleep.


The Game

Type: Action
Viewpoint: God-view
Time: Real time
Synopsis: As captain of a Federation or Klingon cruiser, your mission is to hunt down and destroy the opposing forces in the sector.

Since the origins of WAR and it's code appear to be lost to time, this description starts with DECWAR and then moves onto MegaWars I.

In DECWAR each player commands a ship for the United Federation of Planets or the Klingon Empire. You pick a ship from the available list (the ships not currently being flown), with names based on the ships in the TV show. In what seems to be a somewhat unfair simplification, all the ships were identical: they were equipped with warp engines, impulse engines, photon torpedoes, phaser banks, deflector shields, computer, life support, sub-space radio, and a tractor beam.

Other objects in the 79 by 79 sector included Federation and Empire ships, computer controlled more powerful Romulan ships, Federation and Empire bases, Federation and Empire planets and black holes. Black holes aren't always in the game, but destroy ships that run into them and add a little flavour.

Weapons in the game are modified in interesting ways. Phasers are similar to the original, but can fire through other objects, and have a chance of being damaged every time they are fired. Torpedoes can now be deflected by strong shields, so combat has to start with the use of phasers only in order to knock them down a little. This fixes one of my biggest gripes in Star Trek, where the torps were just way too powerful. Two other additions are that you can fire up to three torps at a time, and if one hits a star it will go nova – which is a great way to get a one shot kill on an unwary ship.

Shields are likewise changed. If they're on they'll make all travel twice as expensive in terms of energy, which forces you to turn them off more – in the original you just turned them on and left them on. They also have to be lowered to fire phasers, but this is done automatically for 200 points of energy.

Like the original Star Trek, the name of the game is energy maintenance. Ships started with 5000 units of energy, 2500 units of shield strength, and 0 units of damage. Also like the original, your ship can be replenished and repaired at starbases, but in DECWAR they don't "top you off", they instead just add 1000 units of energy in general, 500 to your shields, and fix you up a bit.

As a result you have to dock more than you would in the original, and that makes the bases more valuable. Combine this with real live humans running the ships, and the bases become the primary targets of the game. After all, anyone can jump into a new ship after being killed off, but if you can wipe out their starbases you put their entire fleet at risk. So while in Star Trek energy is the key to the whole game, in DECWAR it's all about getting and keeping starbases.

Each empire starts out the game with 10 starbases. They're tough, but not indestructible, so a couple of ships ganging up can take them. More importantly they only shoot at ships within 4 sectors, meaning the ships can fire torpedoes at them from longer ranges and reduce them that way.

This is where another addition to DECWARs comes into play, the capture and fortification of planets. While planets are not as poweful as bases, they can be fortified steadily (taking up realtime) and will also provide 1/2 energy and repairs as a base would. Once they're fully fortified (level 4) planets can also be turned into bases in case one is killed off.

For multiplayer control, the game also added a number of features. The most obvious is a subspace radio, which can be used to send messages to specific ships, or entire races. The radio is vital for coordinating attacks and hollering for help. The game also includes a tractor beam, which allows you to tow damaged friendlies to a safe location – provided both of you lower your shields to use it. Finally there's the obvious "users" command to see who's online.

DECWARs, like the Star Trek that spawned it, is a command line based game. Unlike Star Trek, the commands had a chance to be re-written from scratch, and as a result they're better laid out and easier to remember. The game also allows you to abbrieviate the commands to their shortest unique string, which is a feature of the TOPS-10 OS the PDP-10 ran. The commands could even be stacked on the command line, separated by a slash. As long as you could remember them all, this evened out the disadvantage to being on a slower link to the host.

For instance, the series of commands:

MOVE RELATIVE 5 4
TORPEDO COMPUTED 3 ROMULAN
PHASERS COMPUTED ENEMY
could be shortened and stacked into:
MO RE 5 4/TO CO 3 R/PH CO EN

A similar level of abbrieviation could be applied to the output too, there were three detail levels of reporting. The following three lines show the same report in the three different formats:

Star @22-31 +4,+2 makes 301.2 unit hit on Panther displaced to 20-31 +2,+2, -72.1%
* @22-31 +4,+2 301.2 unit N P -->20-31 +2,+2, -72.1%
* 22-31 +4,+2 301N P >20-31 +2,+2, -72

Conclusions

I find it a bit surprising that DECWARs isn't more well known. Certainly its life on CompuServe was long and successful, but outside that limites space is pretty much unknown. It would have made an excellent BBS 'door' game for some of the larger systems, and the code was downloadable. One of those mysteries of the market I suppose.


Links

The Decwar Homepage is a good introduction to the game, with links to the original instructions. Much of the article above is adapted from information on this page, and e-mails with the author.

LordDog's MegaWars Page, is a small page about MegaWars on CompuServe. (missing in action?)

I even managed to find a Windows GUI for MegaWars, WinStar.


Thanks to

Harris Newman for information on DECWAR and The Decwar Homepage.

Notes on Bill's move to GEIS courtesy of Jessica Mulligan at HappyPuppy, from her series Biting the Hand.


Notes

1) It's unclear to me if the strategic portion was added for WAR or DECWAR.


Created July 1, 2000
Last Revised September 1, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by Maury Markowitz.
All rights reserved.