February 17, 2009

FACT CHECK: Lucasfilm's Habitat in Rogue Leaders

Recently, GameSetWatch published an excerpt from Rogue Leaders about Lucasfilm’s Habitat which includes several new images and wonderful details.

Unfortunately, it also contains several factual and categorical errors that need to be corrected in the public record since this book’s account has already been used to incorrectly update Habitat’s Wikipedia page.

This article will block-quote the relevant sections of the book, followed by factual corrections marked as FACT CHECK: or commentary marked with either Chip: or Randy: as appropriate.

Q-Link, as it was known, undercut that price to around $3.60 an hour by renting out spare, unused server space during low-usage times.

FACT CHECK: The underused, and therefore discounted, resource was not servers, but off-peak packet-switching network bandwidth.

Through this partnership a deal was hatched to produce an online game, with Lucasfilm Games creating the front-end game — Habitat — on the Commodore 64, and Q-Link producing the back-end, server-side software.

FACT CHECK: Lucasfilm also developed a large portion of the backend. Q-Link, lead by Janet Hunter, did the stuff that had to interface with their system, but Lucasfilm did the game-specific stuff.

Designer Noah Falstein had been working with one of the team engineers, Chip Morningstar, on the game concept.

Chip: That’s a little backwards. The original concept emerged from a collaboration between Noah and me, but the design itself was mine. We were all peers with the same title, “Designer/Programmer”, with an equal emphasis on concept and implementation.

Randy: See Chip’s post on the beginnings of Habitat for a detailed account those early days.

The game debuted internally at Lucasfilm Games at a company meeting in early 1988.

It looked like Habitat was a huge hit-in-the-making, and so in the fall of 1988 the beta was taken to a New York nightclub for a launch party as Lucasfilm Games and Q-Link prepared to revolutionize gaming.

FACT CHECK: Summer and Fall 1986, after the game had first been shown to selected industry and press people at the Chicago CES in June.

Randy: Watch the Habitat Promotional Video and it’s copyright date for verification.

Essentially, if 500 users were so committed to playing Habitat that they remained online long enough to eat up 1 percent of the network’s entire system bandwidth, a full-run production that could attract Rabbit Jack’s Casino numbers could boost that bandwidth number to 30 percent. “The way the system was built, the server software wasn’t capable of hosting that population while still being successful,” recalls Arnold.

Ultimately, these business challenges caused Habitat to be cancelled after the launch party, but before it had gone into full production and reached retail shelves. It would simply be too popular, and the necessary server fix would be too expensive to make the project viable. And so this massively original, inventive, and cutting-edge project was shelved for U.S. release.

From a business perspective, however, Habitat wasn’t a failure. The game was licensed to Fujitsu for use on its FM Towns PC-like platform, and the successor to Habitat was recast (with several of the original planned features now cut) as Corpe Caribe, described as an online Club Med, where it enjoyed some success.

FACT CHECK: The shipped product was Club Caribe, not “Corpe Caribe”. :: sigh ::

Chip: While there were some performance tuning issues that needed to be addressed, the cost of operations was never really the issue. Statements about performance considerations were a face saving way of covering for the what Q-Link perceived as the real problem, which was marketing risk. Basically, the product was so weird and out of the mainstream that they didn’t think they knew how to sell it. In particular, for some reason they felt that people would be put off by the fantasy and science fiction elements. We argued that this defied everything we knew from the history of computer games, but they believed their typical user was far more conventional and unimaginative than the typical game purchaser.

FACT CHECK: Club Caribe was Habitat and it was released commercially by Q-Link. It opened in January 1988 with the name change and a different marketing spin. Literally the only difference between the original Habitat client software and the Club Caribe software as shipped was the title screen image.

Chip: Basically, Q-Link reworked the world database to remove any of the objects that had any kind of fantasy or science fictional flavor. The idea was to make the world seem more ordinary, pitching it as a virtual resort. Notably, they didn’t use any avatar heads that were non-human.

Chip: Over the course of the first six months of operation, as they grew more comfortable with their users, all these pointless restrictions were eventually abandoned.

The licensing to Fujitsu for the FM Towns happened a couple years later.

Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer, the two programming gurus who had built the system infrastructure

Chip and Randy: That’s a slight mischaracterization of our role. While we certainly programmed it, we think it’s more noteworthy that Chip designed the whole thing, and Randy ran the world. Both the design itself and our operational experience with it are arguably quite a bit more important to the historical significance of Habitat than was its implementation.

Randy: Well, except that we managed to get a virtual world client shoe-horned into a 1-megahertz, 300-baud, 64k-memory computer with a 165k floppy disk! Certainly not a fact of wide ranging repercussions, but still pretty damn impressive.

5 Comments

Having had a hands on demo of Habitat back in the days, I’m still in deep awe of the paging code. Yes it was slow, but suddenly it transformed this tiny, memory starved, 8-bit processor “personal computer” into a true network node. The world as experienced [slowly] by an Avatar was enormous and unlike anything seen up till then. No wonder the network was the weakest link (sorry for the pun). 30 million Commodore 64′s would have eaten alive any network of the day, even at 300 baud.

–j

PS Randy didn’t mention that the floppy for the C64 was one of the slowest floppy drives ever made. Probably didn’t help.

Chip is right of course – technically I don’t think I was misquoted, I think the author was working off of that “LucasNet” proposal we submitted together, but I know I made it clear to him that my involvement beyond that first document was minimal. I think the factual errors like Chip being “an engineer” (true, just like Einstein was a patent clerk) came in as the author tried to put it all into a narrative form. Come to think of it, it was a bit like the First Penguin award – I touched it for a moment before handing it to you guys…

FackCheck: Commodore 64 disks can hold around 170k of information.

(Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

John H.,

You’re right, I had the drive at 100k and it was apparently 170k unformatted. Formatted it was closer to 165k, which I’ve revised the post to read.

Corrected. I only wish the book could have been peer fact checked. :-)

Thanks!

Randy

I really enjoyed reading this article. I first found your blog after reading about the worlds.com (I posted a comment on your patent trolls topic).

Its mostly interesting to me because I was a QLink customer and actually was in the Habitat beta test. Tho I mostly remember wandering onto a nude beach and somehow was lost as to how to get my clothes back.

Most of this just takes me back to “the day”. I recently found a picture of the C128D I had with a Ramlink plugged into the back. I really enjoy what I read here.

I remember paying $3.60 an hour for premium services on QLink. I think it was around $9.95 a month to be a member and you got 1 hour of premimum services a month included. Much of the service was non premium then but most of the messenger type services were later moved to being premium. (people would avoid the chat rooms and use something more like a /tell system you would find in todays MMO’s).

Their hours of operation also were in line with the reduced call hours for telephone. Everyone in the US pretty much dialed in through GTE Telenet. You could as an example call a west coast dial in from the east coast and be “online” for 3 more hours after east coast access was closed.

Sorry for the random ramble.

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