The little world we launched in our little corner of the Internet at the time wasn’t called Metaverse at first, though. It was called Multiverse, as we would announce in the third issue of Pyramid. In a single, black-backed column on the outside edge of my editorial page (“I in the Pyramid”) was a tall announcement:
Illuminati Online is the new home of the Illuminati BBS, which dates back to April 1, 1985. But instead of one or two callers at a time, we can now handle dozens. In the beginning, IO will follow the interests of our current user base…gaming, SF/fantasy, and the civil liberties of computer users. When enough users request more areas, we’ll add them.
We’ll have online games…lots of them. We’ll offer “canonical” Unix games like nethack and empire…the ones your site administrator keeps taking off your own system…at no extra charge. We will add more games as fast as we can, and will welcome suggestions. And yes, we’re creating online versions of SJ Games classics including Hacker, Illuminati, Killer (!!) and Ogre.
And there’s the Multiverse: a multiplayer text-based virtual-reality environment where people can meet, talk, and build new places and objects. It includes the city of Freegate, where businesses can erect virtual buildings, meet fans and customers, and even sell goods online. (Right now we’re offering “virtual real-estate” leases at no charge, especially to game-related businesses. For more information, contact us.)
And eventually you’ll be able to role-play online for real, as we build [our role-playing] rules into the Multiverse server.
I’ll guess that Steve wrote most of that, if for no other reason than I was apparently afraid to cut it down very much. The last third of the column is the money talk: $10 per month for 80 hours of access. Only Austin residents could call without paying long distance, but when AOL could charge a couple of bucks per hour, this was a deal — and you weren’t stuck with whatever applications and little bits of content that AOL decided to offer you. You got the actual Internet, which was a lot. At the time, it was probably too much. AOL and the couple of other services around at the time were classic walled gardens, offering no access to anything that they didn’t control utterly. With the Internet, on the other hand, you could do anything, if you knew how.
From a gaming perspective, though, these were big plans, huge. None of them ever came about, not then or in the years since, though we had fun and learned a lot before the pain began to set in.
Here’s some of what we learned.
Nerds had long been arguing about the shape of the global computer network: what form it would take, and how we would end up thinking about it. The fantasy world as a visual representation of the Internet seemed compelling when it appeared in True Names. The abstract geometric metaphors of the Net from the novel Neuromancer also seemed practical, somehow. Maybe they will be, someday.
Around 1988, at a local university I saw a big map of North America with the Internet overlain, straight lines illustrating all its connections between major colleges, across many different networks and their gateways to and from each other. At the time, that was what the Internet looked like, but even then it seemed foolish to me to think that anyone would really ever care what gateway they’re connecting through to do what they needed to do over the Internet. I actively prayed that all that complexity would soon fall away, a distant layer of abstraction upon which we would build something bright, something more easily comprehensible.
When I was in design school, this terrible thing called multimedia was taking over people’s imagination. I was horrified to see so many teachers and older students I admired getting caught up in it. I mean, I was doing interactive design with audio and video, but people would do the worst crap, label it multimedia, and expect praise. It was frustrating. Luckily, some design-minded companies, like Apple, still hoped to salvage something useful out of all the noise, and would fund little competitions between design schools to see what popped out.
While everyone in design school knew I was a big dork, no one knew how far down the rabbit hole I’d gone, so no one could’ve known how hard my heart would stop when one of our professors, in talking about how we might compete in that year’s design contest, off-handedly mentioned how the year before, the contest had been to come up with the best metaphor to describe the Internet. She began to go on, and I interrupted.
“What was it? What was the winner?”
She smiled. “There was a lot of ‘net-this’ and ‘net-that’. Some other finalist were things like ‘leaf and tree’, and ‘web’. But the winner was ‘cloud’.”
I rolled “cloud” over in my head. I liked it. I was disappointed that it took nearly 20 years to take off. In 2013, it’s our ‘multimedia’, though I hope it hangs around longer.
I’d fallen in with the crowd of editors at Steve Jackson Games who stood outside a couple of times a day, beneath the second floor’s wrap-around balcony, to drink a cup of coffee or smoke a cigarette and to take in the mostly natural sprawl of greenery around us. Mentor was the head of those sessions, along with Jeff and another guy named Andy. Andy and Jeff and a couple of other people who’d passed through the game company had all gone to high school with Mentor. They seemed to trust each other implicitly, even when it was only because they knew how far they could trust one another. They were coming to trust me, and I liked that.
We worked hard, long hours, but we spent a small chunk of time drinking and smoking and talking crap about our friends and sharing horrible news stories and speculating about things that would never, that could never be. One day we were talking about what the Net would end up looking like.
Andy was about my height, hair buzzed tight to his head, strongly built, and when he wasn’t looking absolutely serious he wore a deeply genuine smile. I liked him. “I think Neuromancer got it right,” he said. “You’ll have the Net, with geometric shapes and everything.”
“There will not be just one online world,” Mentor said.
“But you could have connections between different worlds,” said Jeff. “Like gateways between networks, you could have gateways between metaphors.”
Mentor scoffed. “You can’t translate everything. It won’t be like going from a cowboy-themed world to a science-fiction world. You’ll either lose too much, or the things will be so different that they won’t seem worth doing.”
“I think ‘Web’ sounds okay,” Jeff said.
“You seen the new program for that?” Mentor asked. Jeff nodded.
“What program?” I asked.
“I’ll show you,” Jeff said, and when we went back inside, he did. We couldn’t stay outside long, anyway. The summer was always irrationally hot. There are all kinds of places you can try to save money as an Austin business, but air-conditioning was not one of them.
He brought up a window and began clicking links, moving from one server’s listing of files to another. The program was called Mosaic. Oddly, it was software labeled beta, which I’d only ever seen released in controlled ways, not offered for free for anyone to try. That should’ve been my first clue that I’d entered a new world.
“I’ve seen that,” I said, because it’s what nerds and five-year-olds say when they’re relieved not to have been shown up.
“Oh,” Jeff said. “So you know gopher?” A discussion of gopher, an old kind of kind of file sharing, was one of the few things that the Secret Service had pointed to as evidence that Mentor was up to no good. Yes, I’d heard about gopher. “So you know how you can click from one server to another by hitting links. And you can go back with the back button and all that.”
“Okay,” he said. “So this is the same thing, but instead of gopher, it’s the Web.”
Jeff smiled. “The Web. It’s like, a bunch of pages, but they’re just text. I mean, you can put images in there. But it’s not like just a file listing or anything. It can be whatever you want it to be. You can link to files on your same server, or on some other server — anywhere in the world. They actually call it the World-Wide Web.”
I’d heard the term, but seeing something in action is every different than having someone describe it to you.
“It looks like shit,” I said, and I still stand by my critique.
“You can make your own pages,” he said. “Doug was saying that we should make some Web pages for Illuminati Online.”
In my mind, I opened and closed my mouth several times. In reality, I probably only did it once.
“I already started making a couple,” he said, pulling up a few pages. I’ve never been a competitive person, partly for being so anti-social and partly because I had a hard time seeing it as a good idea. You should compete with yourself, on your own terms, to push yourself forward down your own path. If you use other people as a guide, you might fail to do something that wasn’t in the cards for you in the first place and pull yourself away from the things that you can specially do. But there was something about Jeff that made me feel competitive. I think it was how so many things seemed to come to him so easily that he took for granted how much work it took to get to higher skill levels. Being decent at the basic level of something seemed good enough, and with many things being what they were, in a lot of cases he was right. With design, he was often wrong. But for someone with absolutely no experience, he was on the right track a shockingly great number of times. He wasn’t great at anything, except maybe writing, but he was good enough at a lot of things. It was the most irritating thing I’d encountered in years.
“How do you make Web pages?” I asked.
“Like this,” he said. “It’s called HTML — ‘Hypertext’ something, I forget.”
“Huh,” I said, and cogs began to turn deeply in my head. “Huh,” I said several hours later, after finally getting together a couple of pages that weren’t completely awful. “Huh,” I said, having realized it was well after dark and my girlfriend was probably wondering when I was going to call. I’d have to copy the files to a floppy and — no, I could just move the files to the server. That way, I could keep working on them from home.
Oh my God. This is going to change the game, isn’t it?