Posts filed under "History"

January 15, 2011

Requiem for Blue Mars

Another virtual world startup (Blue Mars) is dying. At The Andromeda Media Group Blog Will Burns [Aeonix Aeon] writes:

Looking Back at the Future

The really interesting part about all of this is that in order to see the future of Avatar Reality, and subsequently Blue Mars (or any virtual environment today), we need not look into the future but instead look to the past…

[many interesting insights about 1990s era worlds]

In 1990, the solution was given by two people to all of this madness. Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer, authors of Lessons Learned From Lucasfilm’s Habitat. Strangely enough I had asked Mr Farmer about Linden Lab and he informed me that he was actually called in as a consultant in the early days, and not surprisingly, ignored.

That’s a bit of a harsh summary, but more than five years ago I did write The Business of Social Avatar Virtual Worlds: Or, why I really like Second Life, even if their business is most likely doomed. Clearly I wasn’t 100% right about them – they found a business model that at least got them to cover their run-rate. But many of the things in there may to apply to Blue Mars…

November 16, 2010

Quora:What lessons of Social Web do you wish had been better integrated into Yahoo?

On Quora, an anonymous user asked me the following question:

In hindsight, what lessons have you learned from the Social Web that you wish you had been more successful at integrating into Yahoo before you were let go?

I considered this question at length when composing this reply – this is probably the most thought-provoking question I’ve been asked to publicly address in months.

If you read any of my blog posts (or my recent book), you already  know that I’ve got a lot of opinions about how the Social Web works: I rant often about identity, reputation, karma, community management, social application design, and business models.

I did these same things during my time for and at Yahoo!

We invented/improved user-status sharing (what later became known as Facebook Newsfeeds) when we created Yahoo! 360° [Despite Facebook’s recently granted patent, we have prior art in the form of an earlier patent application and the evidence of an earlier public implementation.]

But 360 was prematurely abandoned in favor of a doomed-from-the-start experiment called Yahoo!Mash. It failed out of the gate because the idea was driven not by research, but personality. But we had hope in the form of the Yahoo! Open Strategy, which promised a new profile full of social media features, deeply integrated with other social sites from the very beginning. After a year of development – Surprise! – Yahoo! flubbed that implementation as well. In four attempts (Profiles, 360, Mash, YOS) they’d only had one marginal success (360), which they sabotaged several times by telling users over and over that the service was being shut down and replaced with inferior functionality. Game over for profiles.

We created a reputation platform and deployed successful reputation models in various places on Yahoo! to decrease operational costs and to identify the best content for search results and to be featured on property home pages [See: The Building Web Reputation Systems Wiki and search for Yahoo to read more.]

The process of integrating with the reputation platform required product management support, but almost immediately after my departure the platform was shipped off to Bangalore to be sunsetted. Ironically, since then the folks at Yahoo! are thinking about building a new reputation platform – since reputation is obviously important, and everyone from the original team has either left, been laid off, or moved on to other teams. Again, this will be the fourth implementation of a reputation platform…

Are you sensing a pattern yet?

Then there’s identity. The tripartite identity model I’ve blogged about was developed while at Yahoo an attempt to explain why it is brain-dead to ask users to reveal their IM name, their email address, and half their login credentials to spammers in order to leave a review of a hotel.

Again we built a massively scalable identity service platform to allow users to be seen as their nickname, age, and location instead of their YID. And again, Yahoo! failed to deploy properly. Despite a cross-company VP-level mandate, each individual business unit silo dragged their heels in doing the (non-trivial, but important and relatively easy) work of integrating the platform. Those BUs knew the truth of Yahoo! – if you delay long enough, any platform change will lose its support when the driving folks leave or are reassigned. So – most properties on Yahoo! are still displaying YIDs and getting up to 90% fewer user contributions as a result.

That’s what I learned: Yahoo! can’t innovate in Social Media. It has a long history in this, from Yahoo! Groups, which during my tenure had three separate web 2.0 re-designs, with each tossed on the floor in favor of cheap and easy (and useless) integrations (like with Yahoo! Answers) to Flickr, Upcoming, and Delicious. I’m sad to say, Yahoo! seems incapable of reprogramming its DNA, despite regular infusions of new blood. Each attempt ends in either an immune-response (Flickr has its own offices, and a fairly well known disdain for Sunnyvale) or assimilation and decreasing relevance (HotJobs, Personals, Groups, etc.).

So, in the end, I find I can’t answer the question. I was one of many people who tried to drive home the lessons of the social web for the entire time I was there. YOS (of which I helped spec in fall 2007) was the last attempt to reshape the company to be social through and through. But, it was a lost cause – the very structure of the environment is personality driven. When those personalities leave, their projects immediately get transferred to Bangalore for end-of-life support, just as much of YOS has been…

I don’t know what Yahoo! is anymore, but I know it isn’t inventing the future of social anything.

[As I sat through this years F8 developers conference, and listen to Mark Z describe 95% of the YOS design, almost 3 years later,  I knew I’d have to write this missive one day. So thanks for the prodding , Anonymous @ Quora]

Randy Farmer
Social Media Consultant, MSB Associates
Former Community Strategy Analyst for Yahoo!

[Please direct comments to Quora]

March 30, 2010

Would a Hot Tub Time Machine in Second Life take you back to Habitat?

Seen over on New World Notes

Photo caption: OMFG, if we built a Hot Tub Time Machine in Second Life, I bet it would take us back to Habitat!

December 9, 2009

Creatures Of Habitat (

Lucasfilm's Habitat Logo Concept Art
There is a loving historical tribute to the role that Lucasfilm’s Habitat played in the history of MMOs at

Creatures of Habitat

What modern day MMORPGs borrowed from Lucasfilm’s ahead-of-its time adventure — and what they still could learn from it.

By Scott Sharkey

After another year of massively multiplayer online game crib deaths, we can’t help but be reminded of the MMOG that started the whole thing back in 1985 — well over a decade before the genre even had a name. Lucasfilm Games’ Habitat remains an unaccountable anomaly in the history of videogames, a multiplayer online world from the days long before the advent of the World Wide Web. It’s the sort of historical oddity that stands out as dramatically as, say, the discovery of a fossilized dinosaur holding a machine gun: Incredible, but pretty damn cool.

Hell Is Other People

In addition to being perhaps the earliest example of a graphical MMO, Habitat was one of the first games to embrace the concept of emergent gameplay. Habitat’s designers threw a bunch of strange people into a huge space full of a whole lot of weird toys and items and just watched to see what would happen. It was a kitchen sink approach, in line with their philosophy that “[c]entral planning is impossible. Don’t even try.”

Of course, some of the things that happened were murder, theft, bug exploitation, and runaway currency inflation. The game’s designers advocated a hands-off approach to administrating the world, encouraging players to administer themselves, but they did intervene on occasion. The solutions to those problems (and the debate over whether they even were problems) were enlightening glimpses of the kinds of things that other designers would have to wrestle with decades down the road…

The two-page article is worth the read if you’d like a great short summary of what’s possible when no one tells you that chasing your dreams is a fools errand…

[Comments disabled on this post, please leave them at]

September 29, 2009

Fujitsu Habitat footage on YouTube

Tomoko Kojima (aka Oracle Layza) found some video of very early Fujitsu Habitat interaction (on the FM-Towns) on YouTube:



I’m most struck by the whiplash discrepancy between the music and the action in the first clip. That and the way the Internet continues to cough up nuggets of wonder from the distant past.

Thanks Tomoko!

September 5, 2009

Elko I: The Life, Death, Life, Death, Life, Death, and Resurrection of The Elko Session Server

Preface: This is the first of three posts telling the story of Elko, a new old new piece of web server infrastructure that I’m releasing this week as open source software. Part I, this post, is a bit of personal history. There’s a companion technical story concerning the whats and the hows and the whys that’s fairly profound on its own. But though the technical story is intimately connected to this one, it’s got a very different narrative. The technical backstory is the subject of Part II, which I’ll be posting tomorrow, and a more detailed technical overview will presented in Part III, which will be up the day after tomorrow.

There is a significant piece of very cool software that, through circumstances largely beyond my control, I have come to write, from the ground up, three times. Consequently, it’s pretty mature even though it’s not. I will share the tale with you now.

Software incarnation #1 was done at the late lamented (no relation to whoever is sitting on that domain name today). It was a system called Passport that I created in 1999 and 2000 by transmuting the server code for The Palace into a general purpose server for stateful applications. It was actually the most financially successful thing ever produced (used as the basis for a project we did for Turner Broadcasting’s Cartoon Network, called CartoonOrbit), but wasn’t enough to save the company. crashed and burned and went off to the big IPO in the sky, ultimately filing Chapter 7 on March 5, 2001 (my 42nd birthday, Happy Birthday to me).

Unfortunately, there was not much we could salvage from the wreckage. The IP assets of ended up being taken over by one of our key investors as partial payment for a secured debt we had to them. However, they were neither prepared to do anything with the stuff themselves nor to talk business with anybody else who might want to make a deal for it. (A perfect fit to Carlo Cipolla’s classic definition of stupidity: A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.)

However, given our modest success with Turner Broadcasting, the survivors of felt there was potentially a bankable product here. Alas, as just described, we no longer had rights to the code. Consequently, this lead to software incarnation #2, which I wrote from scratch over the late spring and summer of 2001, based on some of the ideas we had in Passport and a few more we had come up with in the meantime. This was 100% original Java code (the Passport server had been written in C), that became the basis for the company that Doug Crockford and I started in 2001, State Software (which Randy also joined a few months later). The server and its accompanying client components became the State Application Framework, SAF. Whereas Passport had required the installation of a special browser plugin to do magic network communications things, SAF was entirely HTTP-capable and the client was Javascript running in an unmodified browser. This was an early instance of the kind of thing that is nowadays called Ajax, though of course nobody knew this at the time. (Basically, Crock and I can legitimately claim to be inventors of Ajax, along with people at probably 30 other companies at the same time who also invented it, though Jesse James Garrett gets the credit (and, let me hasten to add, in my opinion deserves it) because he managed to take the idea mainstream and gave it a cool name that stuck — kind of the way Columbus discovered America: lots of other people had discovered America before him, but after Columbus nobody else could discover it any more.) As it turns out, being alienated from the fruits of our labors at proved to be a blessing in disguise, since, in addition to being unencumbered from an intellectual property standpoint, the new server was vastly more capable, more flexible, more scalable, and phenomenally more robust.

State Software lasted about a year and a half before crashing at the end of the runway with insufficient fuel to take off. We were a couple of years ahead of the market and our financial backer found himself unable to sustain things. In this case, the guy was a money manager for another guy with a pile of money, but he turned out to be an amateur as a venture capitalist. Basically, he bet almost all the money guy’s money on a bunch of first round investments, embezzled the remainder, and left nothing in the tank to provide followup support for the few companies that had proved promising after the first year. State Software (and the rest of the investor’s portfolio) collapsed into a filing cabinet in some lawyer’s office somewhere. Feckless VC guy eventually went to jail. Once again, cool code that I had written vanished from my grasp.

Fastforward a few years and a number of colorful adventures later, and I find myself at Yahoo! along with Randy and Crock. Crock and I were pondering various Ajax-y things then being done at Yahoo!, waxing nostalgic, and thinking how cool it would be to have access to the State Application Framework for some of the more advanced community services we were then contemplating. After some tentative and unhelpful inquiries with the current owners of the assets about what it would cost to reacquire the rights (answer: for you, 1.5*$N, where $N is defined as the maximum you’d be willing to pay, regardless of who you are, a flagrant violation of Morningstar’s First Rule of Business if ever there was one), we got to thinking. Passport, software incarnation #1, had taken roughly two years. SAF, software incarnation #2, had taken about four months (well, plus lots of follow-on tweaking and enhancing over the life of the company, but basically four months for the central code). What if we just did it over again from scratch? We had our memories of what we’d done before, and we even had the API docs for SAF, which had been widely published. Sure, it’d be annoying to have to go through the bother, but how hard could it be, really? Well, for one thing, I didn’t have a mandate from Yahoo! to spend time on this, so it would have to be a personal time project. On the other hand, if it worked out I might be able to leverage it into some things at Yahoo! that would be way more fun than what I was working on at the time. So over the 2006 Christmas break I set to work on a project I code named Elko. (Digression: WorldsAway was initially named Reno; EC Habitats, AKA Microcosm, was initially named Lodi; the working name for the thing I’m currently doing at WeMade is Yuma. I’ve decided that my personal project namespace is seedy-western-towns-with-four-letter-two-syllable-names. I figure that with Orem, Ojai, and Moab I’ve probably got enough names to last for several years before I have to crack open an atlas.)

After two weeks of coding in what I can only describe as the most transcendent state of flow I’ve ever experienced, I produced software incarnation #3. Like the four month initial version at State, it was not the whole system (and I’d end up spending a fair bit of my free time over the next year doing the tweaking-and-enhancing thing), but it was the essential central piece. Crock and I came up with the idea of branding it the Yahoo Ajax Server (YAS). He did some client-side stuff to show it off and we set about trying to evangelize it to the company. There was some abstract interest, but planning lead times were such that projects were typically committed to a particular technical course long before hitting the problems for which this technology was the solution, at which point it was too late to reopen fundamental architectural questions. We found we needed to be talking to people at a much earlier stage in the product pipeline, and the months dragged on as we sought the ears of the right people. Then, in February 2008, a wave of cost cutting swept me (and Randy) out the door, an event that regular (such as it is) readers of these pages know all about. For the third time, I had created this piece of cool technology and then its shot at the big time had fallen to the vicissitudes of the business world before it made it into the hands of anybody who could actually do something productive with it.

Then one day a few weeks ago we were sitting around at WeMade thinking about real-time chat solutions for the community system we were developing, and I remember I’ve got this Elko thing laying around in my projects folder. We could just use that. And anyway, it’s good stuff, so I’ve decided to clean it up and make it available to everybody.

So, here it is. I’m releasing it to the world under the MIT license, in hopes it may prove useful.

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.

December 28, 2008

Interview about building Lucasfilm’s Habitat (LONG!)

Chip and Randy Talk About The Development of Habitat for QLink from Jeri Ellsworth on Vimeo

CircuitGirl/Jeri Ellsworth posted a video interview with Chip and me back in November about the making of Lucasfilm’s Habitat/Club Caribe for the QLink service during the mid-late 1980s.

Warning:– it’s and hour long, and the audio goes a little wonky a bit through. Oh yeah, and I mispeak about my first project with Lucasfilm Games – it was Koronis Rift, not Rescue on Fractalus – I was running on 5 hours sleep over two days at the time…

December 2, 2008

Mud/Moo/Virtual World Pioneers Panel

Richard Bartle, Randy Farmer, Pavel Curtis

Raph Koster, a first class pioneer himself, posted a set of pictures of Richard Bartle, Pavel Curtis, Brian Green, himself, and myself taken just before the pioneer’s panel at Living Games Worlds. First time we were all in one place. I knew them all, but Bartle and Curtis had never met!

We all missed having the real brains behind Lucasfilm’s Habitat there: Chip Morningstar. Hope you’re feeling well buddy, and I hope you like how I covered our spot. :-)

October 20, 2008

Chip and Randy @ Living Game Worlds IV 12/1-12/2

Registration is now open for

Living Game Worlds IV – Interplay: Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds

December 1-2, 2008

Georgia Tech

Technology Square Research Building

85 5th Street, Atlanta, GA

Step in to the vanguard of digital gaming at Georgia Tech’s 4th annual Living Game Worlds symposium to be held December 1-2, 2008. Raph Koster and Chris Klaus headline this year’s conference which will showcase “InterPlay,” networked online play and the rapidly-growing domains of multiplayer games and virtual worlds. The symposium will also feature a pioneers panel including luminaries Richard Bartle, Brian Green, Chip Morningstar, Randy Farmer and Pavel Curtis. Also, don’t miss the chance to see the latest demos from Georgia Tech’s Digital Media Program, EGL, and GVU. Early registration ends October 31. Register now at

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