It’s important for us, as gamers, to know our favorite medium’s past. Doing so informs us of what past developers did well, what they didn’t do well, what kinds of gaming experiences and knowledge manifest today in altered or re-interpreted forms, and which directions games might be heading both technically and conceptually. It’s especially important to learn about gaming’s past in our current era, where information is ephemeral and is especially prone to being misinterpreted due to rapid communications technologies. Institutions like the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment (and the planned Videogame History Museum in Frisco, Texas) and websites like The Cutting Room Floor help us achieve that task in various ways. Source code repositories like Github, meanwhile, archive the essential components of specific games in more literal forms.
What if we were to trace the roots of the MMORPG, which most people associate with games like World of Warcraft and Everquest? Most game historians consider LucasArts’ (then Lucasfilm Games’) Habitat as the forerunner of the modern MMORPG. Developed in 1985 by Randy Farmer and Chip Morningstar, Habitat was released in 1986 for the Commodore 64 in beta test form and was available to anyone with a Quantum Link (Q-Link) Internet connection (and to think people say that the Early Access craze is a symptom of the modern gaming industry!). It’s considered a “Graphical MUD” because it combines the elements of the then-popular MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) with brightly colored visuals that depicted a living, breathing interactive and immersive world.
Moreover, Habitat introduced gamers to the idea of avatars, or visual representations of the player that could be used to interact with the digital worlds they inhabited. Players were allowed to do almost anything they could imagine to each other. This range of actions ran the gamut of speaking, trading, establishing societies, stealing, turning into other creatures, or undergoing countless other actions that constituted “[governing] the environment and [making] the world around them” (though several unique avatars existed to prevent Habitat’s world from falling into utter chaos). The concept of an interactive, avatar-driven alternate reality would later be popularized in works of science fiction like Neal Stephensons 1992 novel, Snow Crash, but hardcore gamers of the time would remember Habitat as the precursor to such fantasies.
Many MMORPG features that we take for granted today can be traced back to Habitat. The cosmetics we hold so dear? Habitat had them. Diseases like Corrupted Blood? Habitat did it first. Ganking, griefing, player killing, quests and random acts of kindness? All of those and more unfolded within the 8-bit sanctuary of Habitat.
But Habitat’s life came to a close in 1988. Other companies, like Fujitsu, attempted to bring Habitat back to life. But their efforts ultimately failed. Habitat was essentially a ghost; gone, but not forgotten by its original players and the most dedicated game historians.
Since Habitat ran on a unique server architecture, emulating it has been impossible. In short, there has been no way to play the game for the past 28 years.
Footage of Habitat is exceedingly rare. But thanks to Farmer and Morningstar, you can view an hour and a half of Habitat footage dating from the Summer of 1988. How’s that for nostalgia?
Now, thanks to the efforts of the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment (MADE), Habitat has once more been brought to the fore of the gaming world. The organization announced on its official site yesterday that Habitat’s entire source code has been compiled and posted on Github under the MIT license (its “PL/1 sources”). The project began back in 2013 and gained steam at a hackathon MADE hosted back in 2014, where hackers got together to attempt to resurrect Habitat from the annals of gaming history. MADE also collaborated with Farmer and Morningstar on the project, which required countless hours of assembly to figure out just how one can combine the components of a long-dead game and bring it back to life.
As for why MADE decided to undertake the project of bringing Habitat back, they feel that the game is an “important part of our digital heritage.”
As MMO games have vastly changed the lives of people around the world, from fostering interesting experiences, to creating marriages, games like World of Warcraft, Ultima Online, and Everquest have left an indelible mark on our society. It is, therefore, important to preserve not only the history of these games, but of the games that inspired their creation. This is especially true because all of the games we just mentioned are being preserved, or still playable after years. We feel Habitat deserves this much respect, as well.
They also note that Habitat has had an impact on various patents that have been erected around the MMORPG industry. What exactly these patents are, MADE does not say.
Though Habitat’s source code is now available to the public, MADE’s odyssey is not over yet. Their goal is now to compile the Habitat server on Linux to ultimately bring the game back online. There are specific hols in the current code, however, that prevent MADE from doing so. They’ll need help from AOL (who was formerly Q-Link) and anyone else with connections to Q-Link to achieve that goal.
If you’d like to read more about Habitat’s history, this excellent article from 2014 on Gamasutra will catch you up to speed. And you might as well read up on Habitat’s history, too. Gaming history enlivens our gaming experiences by connecting past with present. Knowledge of the past makes us more whole as gamers, gives us firm grounding upon which we can establish gaming’s future, and ultimately proves to us that we are evolving beings when it comes to the world of interactive digital space.
We’ll close on this quote from MADE regarding the importance of preserving gaming history.
Videogame history is nothing if not preserved in a playable form. Without being able to play a game, one cannot appreciate it fully. Imagine walking through an art gallery with the lights turned off.