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Spasim (1974) The First First-Person-Shooter 3D Multiplayer Networked Game

By Jim Bowery
Version 20081230
Copyright 2001
The author grants the right to copy, without modification.

The Challenge

Spasim was written for the Champaign Urbana University of Illinois PLATO network which had hundreds of real-time graphics terminals across the US and some in foreign countries. If memory serves me correctly, the first release of Spasim was in March of 1974. Steve Colley may have developed a 2-player game (although not "online" in the modern sense) with 3D graphics (Mazewar) in 1973.

I’m offering $200 for any examples of a mathematical model of the global limits to growth (population vs resource availability) that includes space resources; if the model was published prior to the second version of Spasim. The second version of Spasim, released during July of 1974, had a global model that included population, resource utilization and allowance for resources from space.


What was the genesis of 3D virtual reality gaming?

Here’s a possibility:

Starting early in 1974, there is an intellectual genealogy descending from a 3D graphics game called "Spasim" (space simulation) to a bunch of other games on the PLATO network. These included Silas Warner’s "airace" which spawned "airfight" (my admittedly hazy recollection is that "airfight" was created by Kevin Gorey and taken to success by Brand Fortner of Spyglass/Mosaic web browser fame -- my apologies to Brand Fortner if my recollection is incorrect and he was the also the originator of "airfight") which spawned the US Army's Panzer tank simulator which spawned Panther by John Edo Haefeli at NW University. At one point, in the mid-1970s, there was even an attempt to create a gaming arcade using PLATO and its multi-user games.

Airfight and Panther spawned Sublogic’s Flightsimulator and Atari’s Battlezone arcade game respectively. Atari, Inc. had an account on the PLATO system, which was a regular player in PLATO’s many multi-user games. Atari produced a number of games based on PLATO games, such as Battlezone. Sublogic was, like PLATO-central, located in Champaign Urbana.

Was Spasim the first 3D game?

Well, almost certainly, it was the first multiplayer online game (MOG) with 3D.

The Game

Spasim was a 32-player 3D networked game involving 4 planetary systems with up to 8 players per planetary system, flying around a space in which the players appeared to each other as wire-frame space ships and updated their positions about every second.

At its initial release in March of 1974, the game was a simple team-based phasers-and-photon-torpedos Star Trek-type game, mixed with multi-player first-person-shooter dynamics. You had to direct your movement in polar coordinates, but calculate your positions in Cartesian coordinates. By this conceit, I was able to position Spasim as an educational game so that it would be supported on the PLATO network, which was for computer-based education.

The second version, released in July of 1974, included more strategy, including space stations and active resource management. The object of the second version of the game was to try to avoid going to war with other players and perhaps even cooperate to get to a far off planet where you could obtain enormous amounts of extraterrestrial resources. If you went to war, or you just flew around admiring the constellations, you could suffer the dread "PLANETARY PROLETARIATE REVOLT" during which you would watch, helplessly, as your planet’s population and resource-base met with disaster.

The History

I began work on "spasim" (I naively intended for it to be pronounced "space sim" but players of the game quickly christened it "spasm") while helping University of Iowa art professor Leif Brush establish that institution’s first computer art class in January of 1974. Artists found the technical details of submitting FORTRAN stacks of cards punched on 026 machines to the E. F. Lindquist Center for Measurement’s IBM 360/65, with its 24-hour turnaround time Calcomp plotters, to be more than a minor impediment to creativity.

Fortunately, professor Brush introduced us to an amazing phenomenon: A PLATO graphics terminal in the computer-based education lab on the second story of the Lindquist Center. By establishing an individual studies course with Dr. Don McClain, I was able to assist Dr. McClain’s now late colleague, Dr. Bobby Brown, professor of computer based education, who generously tolerated my obsessive, day and night, presence in front of this very much-in-demand resource within his lab.

The PLATO system had hundreds of plasma panel terminals (512*512 graphics displays) around the US with 1200bps connections into a CDC Cyber 6400 mainframe at the Computer Based Education Research Laboratory (CERL) in Urbana, Illinois: fictional birthplace of HAL in Arthur C. Clarke’s "2001: A Space Odyssey". CERL was a block from what would become the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). NCSA was where, more than 15 years later, the Mosaic web browser (basis of both the Netscape and Internet Explorer web browsers) would be written, as well as the Apache web server, the most widely used web server on the Internet. Well, here we are at the dawn of the 21st century with no HAL. AI has failed our expectations but the Internet is ample compensation, so it looks like Clarke was at least a little prophetic in picking Urbana.

The experience of PLATO was radically different from almost any other computing environment of the time. Lots of people had ideas of course, but no one had actually turned those ideas into a highly interactive graphical community. Instead of punch cards, teletypes or even video screens with virtual card decks, PLATO had a graphical program editor with single key-press execution, dynamic debugger and an adaptive automated help request system that fed into an online support staff in real time. The coupling with the real-time availability of people online to help you get going meant it was really easy to get up to speed on PLATO – indeed it was easier in many ways than getting up to speed on Internet facilities of comparable complexity today. The educational purpose of the PLATO system was successfully leveraged in bringing lots of new authors up to speed fast.

While I was learning to program PLATO, a group of guys at the birthplace of the computerIowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts in Ames, Iowa – helped me remotely via the PLATO network and showed me some of their work. John Daleske and Charles Miller were the most helpful. John Daleske had written the first version of a game called "Empire" in April of 1973, when he was joined by Silas Warner, the prolific Jolly Giant of PLATO game authors, from Indiana. Empire, which now exists as an Internet game under the name of Netrek, was a 2D second-person shooter graphical game based loosely on the Star Trek series, including 4 planetary systems and 4 teams where your goal was to conquer all the planetary systems. Although there were many two-player graphical games on PLATO at the time, and Empire wasn’t entirely functional, I was inspired by the idea of a multi-player graphical game of such scope. (Another early version of Empire was later written by some of the other guys at Ames, Gary Fritz and Mike Rodby along with Chuck Miller. Others at Ames, Kevet Duncombe and Jim Battin, would go on to create the Moria adventure game.)

Dream check #1: I had never heard of John Daleske but he grew up about 10 miles from me in the tiny town of Carlisle, of McCaughey Septuplets fame. We met through the PLATO network. John later told me that he had been inspired to write Empire in an unusual "Eureka experience... lasting about five minutes".

I was, in turn, inspired to write something like Empire. Now we have to do a quick rewind to the early 1960s and a steam tunnel running beneath the University of Iowa. That’s where Ron Resch, the son of a rural Iowan Reformed LDS family, was living when he developed a parametric 3D CAD system with some computer scientists there. Fast forward to 1974 and I was to inherit Ron’s work.

I asked around the Lindquist Center for 3D perspective programs and managed to obtain an old FORTRAN card deck. Little did I realize that one of its co-authors had left the University of Iowa for the University of Illinois, preceding my migration to PLATO by some years. At the U of Illinois, he would place a 25 cent bet with the soon-to-be legendary PLATO system programmer, Don Lee, that Don couldn’t do 3D solids rendering with full shading over one weekend. That man was Ron Resch. Ron and Don had been discussing various tricks for dividing perspective drawing problems up into quadrants, and thought they were on the verge of something. Don took Ron’s bet, produced the first 3D ray-trace image of a tetrahedron intersected with a sphere over the weekend and then and took Ron’s 25 cents. Ron also went on to the University of Utah where Evans and Sutherland had produced the world's first virtual reality system. There Ron took on such notable students as Alan Kay and Jim Blinn.

Dream check #2: While I was working with him, Leif Brush held an exhibition of computer art from two artists. One of them was a music composer from the University of Illinois whose work was quite forgettable. The other was from Utah and had shaded 3D renderings of strange abstract objects that fascinated me enough that I almost went to Utah instead of Urbana. Little did I realize these fascinating ray-traced color images were by Ron Resch, the same man who had blazed the 3D graphics trail prior to me at the University of Iowa. Nor did Leif Brush realize the three-way connection between U of U, U of IA and U of IL. Two decades years later I found myself sharing a 3-office space with Ron and the remnants of the Xanadudes, including Keith Henson of "The Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition" and L5 Society fame. We were all recruited, independently, to reengineer an insurance company having, apparently, nothing else in common to draw us together but some sort of weird history, which we discovered during our lunch conversations.

Once I had The Formulas in hand, I quickly hacked out my first 3D graphics program on PLATO.

As one might imagine, it was a very exciting time. To see a dynamic mathematical space open up in full perspective visuals for the first time was an intoxicating experience. As most authors must experience when they are possessed of their muse, it felt like I was simultaneously creating and discovering a new universe – but this was even more captivating and visceral!

At first, the space consisted of a few simple geometric wire frames but within a few days progressed to 3D representations of Empire’s 2D space ships. I then made it possible to move around them as the first person with single key strokes (the qweadzxc octa-directional keys for altitude and azimuth and + and – for acceleration and decelleration) while others looked on from their vantage points in Spasim space.

A vital aside: The, then, love of my life longed-for since our small-town Iowan adolescence together, who will remain mercifully unnamed, didn’t entirely understand my obsessive behavior. Once I "attained" her, I focused heavily on my creation and frequently came "home" to Hillcrest dormitory at dawn. As one might expect, we had problems typical of Baby Boomers in the middle of the Sexual Revolution and Women’s Liberation. Further, she saw what I was doing as playing kid games with adult tools; which was somewhat accurate as far as she could see. Finally, being an earthy sort, focused on the humanities, she was more interested in Tolstoy than in creating and discovering strange new worlds. Although we were in the Iowa City Writer’s Workshop as undergraduates together, and both shared a love of creativity, it wasn’t enough to bind us, even with our shared adolescence and early adult development. Her parting words were: "Pursue the work you love." Deprived of the joys of human love, I buried myself more obsessively in the work at hand – not that the work benefited from that sort of devotion. I was fortunate to have had enough self-esteem that I could continue on. Unfortunately, I saw many budding inventors like myself crushed by similar situations, living, as many of them did in male-saturated engineering environments where most women had too much sexual power and youthful foolishness for their own good. In retrospect, ours was a story repeated, not only by myself later in life, but throughout the U.S. untold countless times through the two decades that Baby Boomer "nerds" were creating what would become the Internet, leaving a carnage of broken relationships, and sometimes families, in its wake. The irony may be a bit thick, but it bears saying with some seriousness that zoo keepers will one-day transfer their knowledge of gibbon breeding to inventors and their mates. It certainly would help technology along because invention becomes less relevant when it is used as an emotional anesthetic rather than growing from a creative dream. Until then: Oh, the humanity!

By this time, word was getting around the PLATO network that I had developed something very interesting. One of the first people to show interest was Silas Warner. He asked if he could have the inspect code (password) for Spasim so he could show the code to a new programmer. I obliged. About 2 weeks later, the heritage of flight simulators that gave rise to Microsoft Flightsimulator was born in the form of Silas’s latest game: Air Race (spelled, "Airace" I believe). I didn't really mind Silas doing this because, after all, Empire, which he and John Daleske had shown me in its early stages, had inspired me to write Spasim.

The popularity of Silas’s Air Race caught up with Spasim’s and soon surpassed it, partly because his game was simpler to play and partly because he had an existing reputation for doing good games on PLATO. Even so, Spasim had quite a following. There was starting to be a late night cult around the game, which took enormous slices out of the 1 MIPS CDC Cyber 6400 CPUs in order to run all 32 players at competition speeds (frame rates a lot higher than 1 per second).

The New Spasim

One of the individuals who heard about this strange character sitting off by himself midst the Iowa Corn Fields with his 3D phenomenon, was George Carter who was forming the PLATO Comm Project along with Stuart Umpleby. They had obtained a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a computer-based Delphi conferencing system. They were trying to realize a man-machine cybernetic vision of this magical little gnome named Heinz von Foerster and needed an email system to go along with it. When George saw my code (which I volunteered), he hired me to write an email system for them over the summer. When the semester was over, I threw a few things into my ‘64 Chevy Impalla, and headed east on Interstate 80 across the Illinois border for Urbana and CERL. It was my first paying job as a programmer.

Arriving at the Mecca of networking and meeting the magical little gnome who founded second order cybernetics (symbolized by the Ouroboros) in his Biological Computer Laboratory was an amazing experience. I don’t know much about von Foerster’s theories, but I do know he exuded energy and humanity in such abundance that it lifted spirits and excited intellects around him. I’ve never met anyone like him since. It is understandable to me that there is a bit of a cult of personality surrounding The Cybergnome of Vienna.

When I set out to design the second version of Spasim, my apartment mate, a metallurgy student named Frank Canzolino with an excellent grasp of 3D geometry from his study of crystaline structures, helped me optimize and generalize the 3D graphics formulas quite a bit. But I wanted to do something more significant with the second version of Spasim than just optimize its graphics. The whole idea of positive-sum game playing was innately appealing to me, being from a farming family, and it was being drummed into my head by the game theoretic discussions of the second order cybernetics crowd surrounding von Foerster.

I decided to build a positive-sum aspect into the second version of Spasim based on the idea of space resource utilization.

A vital side note: Heinz von Foerster had published a paper in 1960 on global population: von Foerster, H, Mora, M. P., and Amiot, L. W., "Doomsday: Friday, 13 November, A.D." 2026, Science 132, 1291-1295 (1960). In this paper, Heinz shows that the best formula that describes population growth over known human history is one that predicts the population will go to infinity on a Friday the 13 in November of 2026. As Roger Gregory likes to say, "That's just whacko!" The problem is, after he published the paper, it kept predicting population growth better than the other models. (see section 4.1 "Systems Ecology Notes") One of Heinz's early University of Illinois colleagues was Richard Hamming of "Hamming code" fame. Once while visiting the Naval Postgraduate School, I asked Dr. Hamming what he thought of Heinz von Foerster. Professor Hamming's response was "Heinz von Foerster: Now there's a first class kook!" I suspect Heinz's publication of, what Transhumanists call, "the singularity" had really gotten to Hamming -- not that Heinz wasn't eccentric enough get Hamming's goat in any case. Well, to continue this digression so as to give the damn Transhumanists a much-deserved keyboard lashing: It's one thing to be a guy like Hamming and denounce Heinz as a "kook" for following his formulae where they lead -- it's another to turn Heinz's formulae into a virtual religion, call it "the singularity" and totally forget where the idea came from the first place. I suggest the Transhumanists cite Heinz in the future whenever they refer to "the singularity" and think about his assumptions -- the primary one being that societies´ success varies directly with population size. It might be good to see if his model fits the data subsequent to the last check of which I am aware -- 1973 -- which just happens to be right at the point high population density societies decided to abandon their forward progress toward the space frontier.

I had been further inspired to this by my adolescent membership in Zero Population Growth, and my distaste for the solutions proposed by its founder, and author of "The Population Bomb", Stanford University Professor Paul Ehrlich. Keep in mind, the first moon mission, Apollo 11 flew in 1969, the same year that Paul and Anne Ehrlich published "The Population Bomb" and began encouraging morally responsible middle class youth to cease having children. I say "cease having children" because that was the message I received as an intelligent young idealistic member of Zero Population Growth in a Des Moines Presbyterian church meeting I attended where ZPG was holding a seminar. Then, the last moon misson, Apollo 17, flew in 1972 – the same year that the Club of Rome published its landmark report, Limits to Growth based on a computer simulation of global population growth and resource limits.

Many young men of the Baby Boomer generation were, like myself, shell-shocked at the idea that the Apollo program had turned out to be merely a political contest with the Russians rather than a genuine effort to open up an appropriate outlet for the expression of humanity’s masculine character.

In a subtle and profound way, it was a very dark time to be a young man in the pioneer heritage culture of the Midwest:

  1. The souring of the Sexual Revolution into openly hostile Women’s Liberation perversely combined with the metastasizing urban wasteland of disco sexuality and incurable sexually transmitted diseases.
  2. The first big oil embargo from the Arab nations.
  3. The first loss of a war by the U.S.
  4. Skyrocketing real estate speculation anticipating Boomer demand.
  5. The start of a long era of inflation combined with economic stagnation – something the economists said couldn’t happen.
  6. A barrage of negative predictions for the future midst growing hostility toward technologists and pioneers.
  7. Closing off of positive options for humanity, as the space program revealed its political character.

I wasn’t really thinking about all of this consciously at the time, but the hideous confluence of circumstances definitely motivated me to act.

I thought up a system of differential equations similar to the Club of Rome’s upon which Ehrlich and others based their ideology of infertility, but allowed for nonterrestrial resources (collectively called "antientropy") in the equations. Another would soon do the same. J. Peter Vjak’s "Doomsday Has Been Cancelled" (Culver City, California: Peace Press, 1978) was based on a paper generalizing the Club of Rome’s "limits to growth" differential equations to include nonterrestrial resources – a paper which I believe he published as early as 1975. Still others were thinking along the same lines. Gerard K. O’Neill’s physics students in Princeton began looking for a positive role for humanity in leaving all planetary surfaces behind and establishing artificial ecosystems swarming around the stars like glowing green fireflies.

Something was definitely in the air.

Dream check #3: Almost a decade later, in 1983, I wound up working as a computer consultant in an office in La Jolla, CA which received Peter Vjak’s mail after he had moved on to another job prior to my arrival. This consulting job had nothing to do with space, limits to growth, etc.

I sat down at a PLATO terminal next to Danny Sleator and told him I was going to destroy Spasim. He thought I was joking. I went into the "lesson" in edit mode, paged through each part, marking off the blocks to be deleted. Danny’s mouth was agape, and stuttered something like "Y—you’re not really going to do this Bowery." But I was a man possessed. I hit the SHIFT-HELP key to activate the deletion. Danny sat there stunned. Then he said, "Oh, you’re going to go into the disk utility and recover everything." I then created a huge common storage that filled up the file space with zeros. Then I deleted it. Danny yelled, "You’re CRAZY!"

Over the next 3 days, "Canzo" and I barely slept as we rewrote Spasim from the ground up using his optimizations and my new game theory design. Cases of Coke and cartons of Marlboros later, it worked like a champ! I gave up drinking Cokes immediately and stopped smoking a bit later.

The audience shrank to about ½ of what it had been because it wasn’t the simple first-person-shoot-em-up theme it once was – you had to strategize more, use warfare sparingly and figure out how to keep your planet stable.

In the new Spasim, you have to find those rare others that will not betray you as you cooperate to get to the very distant and difficult to reach resources. If you find genuine cooperators, or if you can effectively enforce cooperation, you can get out of the normal conflicts and focus on reaching your destiny. And then you win!