Fun with PLATO

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Matt Barton's picture

Moria: Note the 3D, first-person view of the dungeon.Moria: Note the 3D, first-person view of the dungeon.No doubt, one of the great "unsung" heroes of the computer gaming industry is PLATO, a "computer assisted instruction system" originating in the 1960s that was so far ahead of its time that it gives you goosebumps to read about it. Until a few days ago, all I'd been able to do was see second or even third-hand accounts of what gaming was like on this platform, but then I learned about, an organization that simulates the PLATO system on the web. I applied for an account, received one a few days later, and have been having great fun checking out some truly classic CRPGs! Check it out (with screenshots!) below.

The first game I played was Moria, simply because that's the only listed in the online catalog (you have to know the names of the others to play them, apparently). Written in 1975 and updated in 2004, Moria reminded me very much of the game Wizardry and perhaps even Bard's Tale. I was so impressed with the game that I tracked down one of its programmers, a guy named Kevet Duncombe. It offers a tiny, first-person 3D view of the dungeons, and lots of on-screen information about your character's condition and inventory. Perhaps the best aspect of the game is the excellent documentation, which is clear and well-written. There are also some novel features I haven't seen in other games, such as the ability to tie a string around something in a room and use it to backtrack in case you get lost. However, apparently monsters can chew through it! The game also features an extensive guild system, but sadly, I don't see that being very useful since there aren't many people playing it today.

Here's a little blurb from Kevet about the game's development:

Believe it or not we hadn't even heard of D&D until after we started the project. I hadn't read Tolkien at the time. The guys doing dnd seemed to be having a good deal of trouble getting the bugs out and I was curious what made it so tough. When I thought up the notion of generating the dungeon on the fly as you walk around I couldn't resist and prototyped a 2d, top down version. That was the impetus. Before you know it Jim and I had turned it into a playable game, and we just kept adding features.

Avatar: Another classic PLATO dungeon crawler. Note the similarity to Moria.Avatar: Another classic PLATO dungeon crawler. Note the similarity to Moria.The next game I tried was Avatar (you have to type in "zavatar"), first written in 1979 and updated until 1984. It looks very similar to Moria, though it's a bit harder to get into (the documentation isn't as clear as Moria's). There are some interesting features, though, such as 10 different races (including unheard of ones like osiri, cirillian, and morlochs). It seems based more strictly on TSR's D&D rules than Moria, with standard stats like str, int, wis, con, and of course hit points. Plus, there's a simple good/neutral/evil alignment system. To be honest, I was more impressed with Moria, though Avatar appears to be more complex. It's also very difficult. I created two different characters, equipped them, and died within a few minutes after leaving the city. Definitely not a newbie-friendly game! However, apparently Avatar was the "big one" as far as CRPGs on the PLATO is concerned--at least that's what Mike told me, the guy who set up my cyber1 account.

Orthanc: Note the cool automapper at the lower right.Orthanc: Note the cool automapper at the lower right.The last game I was able to play was Orthanc, though there is no date listed for it. It's much different than the previous two games. Instead of a 3D, first person view, you get a top-down view of your character (rather like Ultima). Apparently, the dungeons are changed every so often (10 days or so) to keep it fresh. One very nice feature is an auto-mapper, which may very well be the first such tool in this type of game--I'm not sure, though. The game also claims to be "colorized," though I'm baffled about what that means (everything on PLATO is monochrome, or at least from what I've seen). I've heard that Orthanc is based on the older game "pedit5," which was a very early CRPG (if not the first ever). Sadly, pedit5 got deleted by some short-sighted administrators, and thus lost to history. In any case, it's interesting to see how much variety you had with CRPGs on the PLATO.

Dungeon: Looks great, but I can't get past this title screen...!Dungeon: Looks great, but I can't get past this title screen...!Unfortunately, I wasn't able play the "granddaddy" game, DUNGEON. Although I could load up the title screen, I couldn't figure out what to press to get past it. I tried every key combination I could think of to no avail. Argh! That was a real disappointment, let me tell you. I was also able to find some notes about the classic "dnd," though apparently the actual game isn't up yet. There was a great deal of talk about it, but I guess the plans fell through. It's a real shame, because Dungeon and dnd are two of the oldest CRPGs!

All in all, I've been having too much with my PLATO simulator, and I haven't even tapped into the many classic non-CRPG games available, such as Empire (space combat), Panzer (precursor of Battlezone), and Airfight (early 3D flight sim). This system is a goldmine for computer game historians, because very little has been written about these early yet amazingly ahead-of-their-time games. I encourage everyone here to apply for a cyber1 account and start exploring the system! Who knows, maybe we can get a group of us together to try some dogfighting or even form a guild in Moria!


Joined: 01/21/2009
cool when thee old threads

cool when thee old threads revive. I am old enouhg ( barely) to have actually played some of this on school computers. there was also a 3d (stretching the word) tank game called Panther i believe. And i think the first D&D game was called Ped5.. i was only in my early teens so getting to the collages PC was a bit hard.. and MORIA is often mentioned as the insperation for the earliest RPG.. I think Plato is also the grandady of IM too.. it had a chat system you could have 5 live people at the same time on a network, we could only use 3 as there whre only 3 terminals in the collage. and Its also considered the inovator of the modern BBS and.. this message board. it had a system to post notes and let other users add to them, and transfer it across connections. it was soon used like a BBS and .. real BBS where created based some on it. (yes that is way over simplified, its more like it was a kerneal of an idea from PLATO and maybe other systems too, but .. it was kinda first as far as I know).. I know when i went to collage they still had a few.. but htey where dying even then.. and even in the very early 90's the local collage here had 2 and hardly anybody knew how to run them, my friend run the computer lab so I was in and showed him some stuff.. but even my less then stellar knowledge was all but goneat that time.. or i like to think replaced by TI994a, C-64 and apple code. oh and some RPG and Cobol.. and a couple others i have long forgot..

composerzane (not verified)
how to play pedit5 on cyber1

here's a tip: on the lesson selection input, type in "orthanc1" if you would like to play pedit5

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