Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 5

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Well,” Steve said, steepling his fingers over his chest. Then he stopped for half a moment, mouth open as if about to speak, though staring blankly at the ceiling. Then he turned his sharp gaze back to me. “Do you know what a MOO is?”

“No,” I said.

Steve nodded. “There has been an idea to build a virtual world. MOO means ‘multi-object—'” He frowned, and turned to the other scraggly bearded man in the room. “Doug, I know that there are Os, but what does MOO actually stand for again?”

“It’s an object-oriented MUD,” said Doug. He looked into the air and made a kind of “rearranging things” motion with one finger. “MUD, Object-Oriented: M-O-O.”

Steve knew what my next question would be. “Multi-User Dungeon,” he said, pointing out imaginary letters in the air as he spoke the acronym.

I nodded. For the first time in years, I was having a conversation about games and computers and I had absolutely no idea what anyone was talking about. Strangely, it felt wonderful.

“Doug and I are talking about getting the Illuminati BBS back online,” Steve said, then he corrected himself, “—how to get Illuminati back online.”

“What do you mean, ‘how’?”

“Well,” Steve said, leaning back in his chair, “there are certain options available now that were not available in 1990, or ever.”

I knew what they were talking about. They were talking about the Internet.

“Put a computer at the end of a phone line,” Doug said, “and you’re sharing it one person at a time, and only to people who can afford to call.”

“Put something on the Internet,” said Steve, “and anybody can get there, from anywhere!” He frowned. “Not anybody, of course, but anybody on the Internet.” They shared a quick glance, smirks all around.

I wasn’t sure exactly what they were getting at, though I’d find out soon enough.

“Do you have an account on Wixer?” Doug asked.

“On what?” I asked.

Steve nodded. “You should get one. It’s a new online service. You of all people I’m surprised are not already signed up. They need you to show up in person to open an account. Jeff said he was going today. Maybe you can go with him.”

Early that evening, Jeff and I went together. I knew that part of town well.

What at the time had passed for the desolate northern fringes of Austin, and which 20 years later is simply a northern-ish stretch of central Austin, was thick with decrepit, one-story office parks, small warehouses and storefronts, like a red-light district of cheap hairdressers and tax accountants. I knew it well, because amongst it all were several little pockets of people like the blue, short-sleeved, collar-shirted nerds I knew from my high school days, guys flush with technology, mostly outdated, reading stacks of old science-fiction paperbacks and trying to sell what they could. Near the end of the Twentieth Century’s last American recession, vast amounts of tech passed through that north campus area — old items bought in bulk at auction, new items of dubious origin — and in addition to haggling and arguing and horse-trading, I was happy to hear that some people had decided to try and actually do something with some of it. I’d certainly spent enough time digging around there, as a poor college student.

In those days, like I said, even as someone well-off enough to own a computer, your only option to connect computers that weren’t in the same room or the same building was to have dedicated phone lines on each end. But computing power and storage capacity had not been standing still, and the kind of muscle that you only used to see in the basement of a building on a university campus could suddenly be had for only maybe many thousands of dollars. A couple of guys seriously next-leveled one of these server-class machines by connecting it not to a single phone line, but to a bank of them.

With big, beefy equipment — and with the right software, and enough money to pay to connect the machine to the Internet — that setup went from something that connected a couple of people to each another into something that connected several tens of people at a time both to each other and, well, anybody else with Internet access anywhere. In short, they had a business model. They weren’t the first people to find that model, and the idea would keep evolving, but it was the first time I’d heard of a random person being able to pay a bit of money for Internet access at home. It was an idea whose time had come, though, and in a handful of weeks it would seem like most people I knew were either online, or looking to get there.

In the narrow, low-rent, glass-fronted office, sat a guy on a tall stool in front of a couple of large computers, which sat on the stubby-carpeted floor, or on each other, at strange but stable angles. Some of them were open, exposing their delicate internals, fans whirring madly. I was delighted to have no idea what kind of machines they were, the rush of the high-tech new. A pegboard on the wall had ten or more modems tied against it, cables running in and out of each one as well as in and out of various other machines. The only guy there at the time was scruffy, overweight, his collared shirt half-unbuttoned and untucked, his eyes red. Basically, he looked like most system admins I’d meet for years to come.

“I thought only schools and the government could be on the Internet,” I said.

“I can give you an account if you want it,” he said, which made me feel less like we were doing something illegal and more like I simply didn’t want to get to know the guy. That was fine, since I wouldn’t have my account for very long — none of us would.

I’d spent the past three months creating a magazine from scratch. The launch of the first issue of Pyramid was a victory lap both for the company, having just survived and conquered the U.S. Secret Service after their illegal raid, and for me, having survived creating the first issue of Pyramid. With the deadline for the next issue about six weeks away, I took advantage of the late-Spring lull to get rather seriously back online.

It was a frustrating couple of weeks. I loved the service when it worked, though mostly it didn’t. No wonder that guy’d looked so haggard: they couldn’t keep their computers going for more than a couple of hours. One crash would kick everyone offline, and it could be fifteen minutes or more before you’d be back where you were.

“How hard could it be?” Jeff asked me one day at work. “Can’t two nerds keep a computer going?”

“You’d think,” I said, though I knew absolutely nothing about those kinds of systems.

Jeff laughed. “I think almost anyone would do a better job than those guys.”

We weren’t the only people having the same conversation. Some people, like Doug, knew quite a lot about those kinds of systems. He had loaned those guys the server-class machine they’d used to start their business, though they’d been less interested in talking about how he could help their little venture.

It was only a matter of time before Doug and Steve decided that not only could someone do a better job than those guys, but that they specifically would do a better job than those guys.

In the second issue of Pyramid, which went to print in late May or early June of 1993, is this brief note. “We’ve added a new staff member, Douglas Barnes, who is working full-bore on getting the Illuminati BBS connected to the Internet. The Internet is the world’s largest computer network — this move will give literally millions of people access to the board. Of course, there will be a lot of new features…more on that later.”

Readers only had to wait until the next issue, two months later, for us to spring our surprise on the world. Flush with cash after winning the Secret Service trial, Steve started a new company: Illuminati Online. We bought peg boards and many boxes of modems and many spools of cabling and a couple of just the right kind of big, bad-ass computers. Also — because the final straw in our relationship with those other guys was their ability to lose all kinds of data at great speed and not care that much about it — we bought a backup drive with tape enough to grow on. Because if there was one thing we did not want to lose, it was the Metaverse.

The Metaverse was our MOO, our Multi-User Dungeon, Object-Oriented. It wasn’t actually much of a dungeon; they only called it that after the kind of dungeon-crawling games from which the idea for the software originally sprang: like the text-adventure games from the 1980s, there were a bunch of “rooms” with text descriptions, with things you could do in each room, from moving “north” or “east” into another room, to picking up an object or attacking a monster. In the concept’s first major evolution, as a Multi-User Dungeon, running on a networked machine, you were not alone in your quest. There were other users there, too, slogging through the same adventures, competing for magic items or whatever the game was about. At the time, like bulletin-board systems of old, there were maybe twenty or more MUDs running at any one time (and later, there were many, many more). Because the MUD software was wildly customizable, every server’s world was different, and very few were actually set in dungeons. The more customized the experiences became, the more that players hungered for greater customization.

While I could spend a while taking a stab at what “object-oriented” meant in the context of this kind of game, let’s just say that some people got tired of walking around in other people’s dungeons, suffering the kind of impermanence you feel when playing someone else’s static game. In the new world of the 1990s, as the euphoria following the end of the Cold War good and truly settled in, and as a generation was finding their way into the world with fewer restrictions than it seemed there were before — and very bright futures, all cyber-everything — people wanted to play their own games. A few especially clever people produced a MUD that was user-hackable, with permanent, programmable objects, which could have wide-ranging effects on the virtual world. What did that mean? In part it meant that with the right permissions, you could change nearly anything about the game that you wanted to. Let me give you an example.

One of the first things I did in the Metaverse, after taking a look around, was to find out where people were. I found Mentor, chatting with friends in the base of an enormous mushroom — I’d seen a caterpillar smoking on top of the mushroom and thought I’d check it out; one leap into a small hole took me to Mentor’s secret lair. He was a wizard, so he blessed me with his magic wand and gave me the ability to change a few things in the world myself. I couldn’t make other people wizards, though I had enough rights to program objects and create a home for myself.

Back out along the edge of the small city that was being authored even as I walked through it, I remembered a rocky, oceanfront view. I started by creating a long dock, stretching away from the city, out over the ocean. At the end of the dock I made a large brass bell, with a whale etched into one side. It only took a little bit of code — and nearly as much cursing, as it’d been five years by that point since I’d last done any real programming — to make it so that when the bell was rung — literally, you would type “ring bell” — a giant whale would leap up out of the ocean, swallowing you whole. Once your eyes adjusted to the light, you could find your way down the beast’s throat to where I built a place I could call my own.

This was far in advance of anything like the graphics you’d need to show this on a screen. Everything was done through text, and in its own way it was far more rich than anything else that came along for almost ten years. In those early days, stumbling away from the keyboard as my third-story balcony began to glow with the new day’s sun, it seemed clear that we had something very interesting.

What we failed to understand was that the interesting thing was not the shared world we called the Metaverse, or any of the other services suddenly available from home or from work, or even the new business model of being an Internet Service Provider. The interesting, nearly magical thing was the Internet itself, and like any magical creature whose true name we did not know, we did not have it. It had us.

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