What’s the point of this entry you may be asking yourself? For those unfortunates who heard my keynote at AGDC a few years ago I spent a fair amount of time talking about some of the true pioneers in the online industry. Now that I have this little soapbox (which today may feel more like a soapdish), I thought I’d continue that train of thought. So, the Wayback Machine will be a way for me (and others I hope at some point) to share stories, anecdotes, etc. about things that happened in the early, primitive days of online games, ya’ know like a year or two before WoW came out?!? While some of the information that will be in these features may be already known and/or recorded elsewhere I’m hoping that these stories will help bring the information to a wider audience as well as fill in some other, personal details. The fact that the subject of this piece only generates a couple of hundred hits in Google is ridiculous.
So, tonight’s short story will be about GEnie and its founder/creator Bill Louden. Its history is encapsulated very nicely on the Wiki (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GEnie) but that history leaves out a lot of details and really doesn’t quite do justice to GEnie and the people who helped bring it about. So, for tonight’s tale I’ll write a little bit about Bill and the debt that every developer of online games owes to him and GEnie. I expect I’ll continue to expand this piece over time but I’ve got to try to cut down on my tendency to build AMAZING WALLS OF TEXT.
GEnie wasn’t the first online service but the fact that Bill could convince the suits at GE that they should turn over their precious computers and network so a bunch of people could interact with each other and play games online was a minor miracle in itself. At the time CompuServe (which Bill worked for previously) was the dominant player but online games were still seen as a very, very niche thing due mainly to the limited audience who could afford high hourly pricing and also put up with mostly text games. After GEnie was founded, a number of developers who would play key roles in the early days (and beyond) of online games came on board. Developers like Kesmai, Simutronics, NTN and A.U.S.I. (my company) would go on to create the games that helped pave the way for today’s online games. Bill, working with little support from GE other than the computers and the network, found a way to fund or help fund games that would help bring online games to the attention of a much wider audience (which admittedly was still pretty small). Kesmai’s Air Warrior was the first truly successful online flight simulator and Simutronic’s Gemstone went on to be one of the most successful commercial MUDs of all time. Simutronics is still running Gemstone IV and working on a MMORG and I wish Kesmai was still working on another version of Air Warrior (I loved that game). Together those two games proved you could do many things in an online game which hadn’t been done before (or done as well at least), including having great graphics, interesting long-term compelling gameplay and an ability to attract the interest of a fair number of people (especially at the cost of playing these games) in an era where online games were still very new, novel and considered the “geekiest thing in geekdom”. These games and others helped keep the idea of online games going at a time where almost nobody in the game’s industry cared one bit about online games and very few people, in the scheme of things, even knew that these games existed. Even getting coverage in computer game magazines was difficult and aside from a few supportive souls (Johnny Wilson leaps to mind), very few people cared about what was going on in the online world in the early days of GEnie. I believe that if Bill hadn’t created GEnie and gotten enough backing to get some great games online, that the online market wouldn’t be where it is today. It still would have happened but I really do believe it would have taken a lot longer than it did.
I won’t address GEnie’s forums (the Wiki does that quite well) but GEnie was a great service with people who really cared about it on both sides of the service. There wasn’t a lot of money made by GEnie or by the game developers even in the best of times but they were a great bunch of people led by a man who I believe played a pivotal role in the history of online games. Unfortunately, he is pretty much forgotten about except by those who were there or those people who really care about the history of this industry. So Bill, once again I say THANK YOU VERY MUCH! We all owe you one and in my case, if it hadn’t for those deals for Galaxy and then Dragon’s Gate, I doubt I’d be making online games today.
And thank you as well to the other people who made GEnie what it was, I really loved being part of it and getting to know the people behind it. While I don’t miss the days/nights I spent programming/debugging on that horrid OS, I do miss the fun we had and the excitement of breaking new ground on what was then the new electronic frontier.