With home computers being so omnipresent in our daily lives, it’s odd to realize just how recent a technology they are. It was only in the mid-70s when home computers began to appear – before that, all we had were giant machines that would weigh tons and occupy entire floors.
Yet some of these computers were way ahead of their time. The legendary “Mother of All Demos” presentation, made by Douglas Engelbart in 1968, shows him using a mouse and window-based GUI, clicking on hyperlinks and chatting with a colleague via video conference while co-editing an online text.
One of such avant-garde computer systems was the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations). Created in 1960, it was a giant mainframe with user-friendly terminals designed to teach university students via a series of virtual lessons.
The PLATO IV system, introduced in 1972, went as far as to offer vector-based graphics, a touch-screen interface and an Internet-like network, connected to thousands of other terminals across the globe.
Students soon found that all this could be used to create games as well, and titles like Empire (1973) and Spasim (1974) began to appear. Empire is particularly impressive: it is a game where up to 30 players battle in a top-down space arena, shooting each other’s ships and fighting to control the galaxy – all this in 1973!
When Dungeons & Dragons came out in 1974, it unleashed the perfect storm: powerful computers, bored programming students and a statistics-driven game that was begging for automation.
The result was the birth of Computer Role-Playing Games.
Sadly, not all of them survived. PLATO was still an educational system, so its administrators would delete unauthorized games. As such, we lost all records of m119h, the first CRPG ever made, created in 1974. But its successors escaped – hidden under nondescript names like pedit5 or saved by students, they were played by thousands and influenced many later titles.
Bellow are some of the most important RPGs from the PLATO systems:
The Dungeon / pedit5 (1975)
Created by Reginald “Rusty” Rutherford at the University of Illinois, this the oldest playable CRPG. Officially called The Dungeon, it was hidden among the PLATO files under the name pedit5 to avoid being found and deleted by the system administrators.
Despite its age, the game holds up quite well. You start by typing a name. The game then rolls your attributes – Strength, Dexterity, Constitution and Intelligence – and you’re off to the dungeon.
Visually the game resembles a roguelike, although it predates Rogue (1980). You explore a maze-like top-down dungeon, searching for treasure and battling monsters – if you die, your character is erased. Your goal is to collect 20,000 XP and return to the entrance. Succeed and your name is added to the Hall of Fame.
The dungeon layout is fixed and has only one floor, but it’s quite large and also features secret passages. Random encounters will occur as you explore, with the game prompting you to fight, cast a spell or flee.
There’s a surprising amount of depth here, with 16 spells available. These are a selection of classic D&D spells, such as Magic Missile (deals damage), Invisibility (escapes combat), Cure (heals you) and Charm (ends combat). Enemies even have different spell resistances: you can’t use Sleep on an Undead.
As such, pedit5 is not only an important historical artefact, it’s also a good game – especially for the time. It’s a short dungeon romp with enough variety in enemies and spells to sustain repeated runs in search of high scores. It would take years until home computer CRPGs could match this level of sophistication.
Despite trying to cleverly hide itself, pedit5 was eventually deleted from the PLATO system (luckily, a copy was saved by a student). In its wake came dnd, created by Ray Wood and Gary Whisenhunt. Since Wood was one of the administrators of the PLATO system, his game was openly hosted and enjoyed a long-lasting popularity, with constant updates based on player feedback.
At its core, the game is very similar to pedit5, but with more detailed character artwork, additional monsters and spells, as well as a few extra features – such as being able to re-roll your initial stats.
Initially the game only had one dungeon floor, but the creators kept expanding it. Inspired by pinball machines, they decided to add a high-score system. Since players then began to just race to collect gold and exit the dungeon, they decided to add an end goal: to retrieve the Orb, which was guarded by the Dragon – the first boss fight in a video game.
The creators later handed the reins to Dirk Pellet, who kept on improving the game. He added new magical items, potions, a bag for holding and even an auto-fight feature when encountering weak monsters. The most iconic item was the Genie Lamp, which could be used to make a wish: you would literally write a request to the game administrators, who would read it and, hopefully, grant your wish.
All this additional content makes dnd much more complex than pedit5, but also harder and longer. Later versions of dnd had as many as 15 floors, with any sense of balance thrown out of the window.
Both pedit5 and dnd followed a similar structure, but Moria was a radical departure. Possibly inspired by Maze War (1973), Moria used wire-frame graphics to display the dungeon in a first-person view.
Also, despite its name, the authors weren’t familiar with D&D or Lord of the Rings; they just played dnd and decided to make something like it. As such, it abandons D&D’s traditional stats, enemies and spells.
Moria’s four stats – Cunning, Piety, Valour and Wizardry – are based on a 0-100 scale and increase with use. Each stat is also tied to a guild, such as Valor being used by the Knights’ Guild. Instead of levelling up by earning XP, you must join a guild and pay to increase in rank, earning special bonuses as you rise.
All stats are useful in battle – Valour influences your attacks and Wizardry is used to cast spells, but Cunning is used to trick enemies into a critical attack and Piety can destroy some enemy types. Money now has a use, as stores offer dozens of weapons for sale (you can even haggle). Just don’t forget to purchase water and food rations, or you’ll die of starvation.
More importantly, Moria is actually an online multiplayer RPG. The world is shared with up to ten players, who can band together to form a party! Moria’s world is absolutely massive, with a large city and over 200 areas. The downside is that the game has no real end goal and its areas are just empty mazes filled with increasingly challenging enemies.
Extremely innovative, Moria is basically a giant sandbox for players to meet, explore and grow in power. Every MMORPG out there owes it a nod.
If dnd was the follow-up to pedit5, then Oubliette is the follow up to Moria. Still a multiplayer game, it expands upon it predecessor in almost every way.
Moria had four character classes by means of the four guilds in town, but Oubliette expands that to 15 races and 15 classes, each with its own stats requirements! You have the usual Tolkien and D&D options, a few exotic ones like Ninja and Courtesan, plus some taken from Lord Foul’s Bane, a high fantasy novel written by Stephen R. Donaldson in 1977.
Oubliette begins at a large castle town on top of a 10-level dungeon, featuring several equipment shops, a casino with gambling mini-games, a temple where fallen characters can be resurrected (if their bodies are retrieved by other players) and even a place where you can purchase charmed monsters to take into the dungeon and help you in combat.
Spellcasting was also expanded and now uses a system of magic words. For example, in order to cast the “Light” spell you have to type DUMAPIC. By now, Wizardry (1981) veterans may be thinking that a lot of that sounds familiar. Indeed, Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead were PLATO users and clearly took a lot from Oubliette, which led to many complaints of plagiarism from other PLATO users.
Oubliette would also greatly influence Mordor: Depths of Dejenol (1995) and Demise: Rise of the Ku’tan (1999). Very few games can claim to still be inspiring successors more than 20 years after its release. For those curious to try it, Oubliette had an iPhone and Android version released in 2010.
PLATO had a lot more than just fantasy RPGs. Games like Empire showed that students had a passion for spaceships, sci-fi tabletop RPGs like Traveller were starting to appear and Star Wars (1977) had just come out. Futurewar then was PLATO’s first sci-fi RPG.
The game sends players through time to the “far future” year of 2020, where nuclear war destroyed Earth and created an army of mutants. You start by choosing a team – Americans, Guerrillas, Barbarians, Martians or Cyborgs – each with its starting location and bonuses. Then, you roll your stats and can choose one of eight classes, such as Soldier, Medic, Spy and Holy Man.
Futurewar is another multiplayer RPG based on exploring dungeons, but it adds several twists such as environmental hazards: you might step on a mine, or be poisoned by a radioactive waste. It also includes a radar, which can detect nearby players and enemies.
While still based on stats, with various different weapons available, it’s also a sort of early FPS. When combat begins, your gun appears on screen and you must aim and shoot to hit. There’s a short time limit for each turn, effectively making combat feel real-time.
Thus, in a sense, Futurewar was the first FPS/RPG hybrid. Another novelty is having a soldier shooting demons in real time (ish) inside a maze, which would later appear in one of the biggest games of all time.
Of course, none of Doom’s creators had access to PLATO, and even back in the 70s Futurewar wasn’t a very popular game. But it’s interesting to see how shooting demons always had a special appeal.
Avatar would be the last of the big PLATO games, intentionally designed to surpass all previous RPGs on the platform, drawing the best they each had to offer.
The game features 10 races and 11 classes, also tied to guilds in town. Like Oubliette, you start at a castle on top of a huge 15-level dungeon, but, instead of having to walk around, the town is presented as a menu (as Wizardry later did). Another similarity is the many new hazards inside the dungeon, such as pits, zones of darkness, spinners and anti-magic areas. Enemies are also much more deadly, and able to cause status effects, such as Poison, Sleep or Paralysis.
According to Richard Bartle, Avatar soon became “the most successful PLATO game ever – it accounted for 6% of all the hours spent on the system between September 1978 and May 1985”. It was so complex it had a staff of volunteers that helped run everything, much like GMs in modern MMORPGs. This also allowed for custom quests that required players to hunt down certain monsters on a certain floor. There are even reports of players bribing admins to get powerful in-game items or resurrect their characters after a failed spell teleported them into a stone wall, as well as graduating players selling their characters before losing access to PLATO.
Avatar was constantly updated over the years and still lives on the Cyber1 servers. The latest version is from 1995 and still enjoys some popularity.
Thanks to the effort of Cyber1, a community created to preserve the PLATO legacy, these early CRPGs are still available and can be freely played. However, keep in mind that some of them have been updated since the 70s – Oubliette’s title screen even has an ad for its iPhone remake – so they aren’t the exact version people were playing back in the day, but they still give us a good idea of how things were.
If you want to learn more about PLATO, I recommend The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture by Brian Dear (2017). While somewhat light on the gaming side of things, the book is the best resource available on PLATO and its influence.