Interview with David Whatley of Simutronics' Gemstone

Matt Barton's picture

Gemstone: Entertaining and captivating players for 20 years with no sign of slowing down!Gemstone: Entertaining and captivating players for 20 years with no sign of slowing down!I was recently given the chance to sit back with David Whatley, one of the many folks responsible for the famous GemStone online role-playing game, which got its start way back in 1988 on GEnie, one of the big commercial networks that thrived before the rise of the web. GemStone is one of the best known of the text-based online role-playing games (or, MUDs), and is still going strong today. David turned out to be extremely friendly and articulate, and I daresay you'll enjoy reading the great responses he had to my questions. If you ever wanted to learn more about the world of commercial text-based online role-playing, he's the man to talk to.

First off, I need to get a better idea of the "big picture" behind the game's development. Were you aware of other commercial projects similar to what you had in mind for Gemstone? I have some sketchy information about a network called "TheSource" that was running some "play-by-mail" campaigns from Flying Buffalo. I'm also curious if you had played MUD and other games of that type.

I had played several multiplayer games before working on GemStone, mostly by Kesmai. MegaWars III, Island of Kesmai and so forth. Those guys did great work back in the day. Even earlier I had developed some BBS software for gaming, such as FRPBBS (a Commodore 64 BBS program for play-by-email like gaming).

I think I've finally figured out why the game was called Gemstone III (the first two weren't really released officially), but any clarification you can thrown on the game's early development and publication on GEnie would be very helpful. I'd like juicy "behind the scenes" stuff if it's possible. ;-)

The original GemStone was a prototype that I developed on an Amiga. The Amiga was well suited for multiuser game development because of the nature of its multitasking operating system (which was unique for the day). I could have the game running and test as separate users in multiple windows all from one machine.

The GemStone prototype was unique because it was data and script driven. It was more of an engine for making a game, than a game itself. And you could simultaneously work on the game and play the game. This let us develop some rough game play which we showed to GEnie. They bit, and we got a contract.

But porting my C code to GEnie's mainframes was just not going to work. The enviroments were radically different and I had to start over fresh. This is what would become GemStone ][ and was the first commercial release of GemStone. So actually it was "two" not "three" that was first.

GEnie ran on GE Information Services spare mainframe resources. Their mainframes were horribly expensive big-iron, but horrendously underpowered by any standards I could conceive of. I guess they were just made for different types of utilization than a game. Never-the-less, I got the code to work. It wasn't easy, though, as I had to write code locally and upload them (at 300 baud!) to their mainframe and compile it there. And, oh by the way, their C compiler was brand new and had bugs of it's own. When something went wrong, I never knew if it was my fault or their compiler!

I'd also like to know more about GEnie and the commercial networks in general. How many people were playing the game back in 1990? What was the profile of the typical player?

Eventually I decided a fresh restart was necessary and set out to build GemStone III. This was a total redesign of the underlying technology. Again, I stressed the idea of collaborative, real-time game development as a fundamental tool paradigm. This allowed not only for rapid development, but being interactive and highly reactive to the player base. We called this technology the Interactive Fiction Engine, or IFE for short. It should be noted that many games were developed on the IFE, including DragonRealms, Modus Operandi, Hercules & Xena: Alliance of Heros and others..

GemStone III was released with a strong marketing effort by GEnie. We quickly exceeded a hundred simultaneous users at launch (which was huge in those days). That stressed not only my software, and it's weak links, but GEnie's mainframes as well. We became GEnie's number one revenue generator. And consumer of their computing resources.

Recall that back in those days it was terribly expensive to play online games. GEnie charged around $12/hour, with upwards of $36/hour during the day. Eventually the prices fell, but it wasn't until we were also AOL's main 3rd party revenue generator that everything went flat-rate. That, of course, is another story.

A story you might be willing to tell? :-) I've heard other people argue that the flat-rate was a very bad idea, that caused several online games to collapse. Can you elaborate just a bit on this issue? How should these games charge for access? What have you found works best, and why?

GemStone, DragonRealms, and so forth "grew up" in a world where you payed by the hour. One thing that made them successful from a business perspective was that they were very engaging and, as a result, keep players online for many hours. In essence, that was their function. We looked at success not by the number of users, but the number of connection hours per month. And, because that's how we were judged, we designed our games to optimize for that.

When AOL went flat rate, the business proposition changed dramatically. One day, keeping users online for long periods of time was a tremendous revenue generator for AOL (and us). The next day, after going flat rate, it was nothing but big giant cost-center for AOL. It was still profitable for us, however, because our contract with AOL still had us being paid per hour event hough they were not charging the users that way. And even if the contract was different, the fundamental design of theses games were for a different business model. It didn't make sense anymore. Let's face it, flat rate works best when you can sell it to a lot of people and hope most of them use it little or never. So our games were, with this changed, optimized to do exactly what AOL didn't want.

But flat-rate isn't bad. It was just the sudden, jarring switch from per-hour to flat-rate that shook up everything. We moved our titles to the web since our AOL contract was going to expire soon (and they certainly didn't need what we did anymore). We also adopted a flat-rate, which became the standard way online games were priced everywhere. Some didn't survive the transition, that's true. But, in business, you have to be nimble. Either you are the one who is going to shake up the status-quo or someone else is. Which would you rather? :)

These days, the costs of servers, bandwidth and so forth are so low that flat rate works amazingly well. WoW is probably profitable by now. (grin) And we still design our games to be just as compelling. Because these days, it's about getting people to bring their friends along!

What was it like to play Gemstone back in the 90s? Was it mostly social, chatting and so on, or did players really get invested in leveling up and what not? The reason I'm asking is that Richard Bartle and others suggest a shift in players as they spend time in the game; they eventually get more interested in the social element than the game itself.

GemStone III is a highly social environment. A lot of it is due many subtleties in the game design. For example, different character classes would provide services to each other. Such as healing, picking the locks of treasure chests, and so forth. But, more than that, the game mechanics had a natural flow where players would return to town to "rest" and absorb the experience they had earned in the field. In this way, players would hang out and socialize while all of this meta-game stuff was going on.

I'm also curious about what happened between Simutronics and ICE with the Shadow World business. I haven't been able to locate much detail about the conflict, though I'd love to know more about it.

I wish I knew. We were weeks away from launching GemStone III on AOL and suddenly we found out that ICE went "a different direction" with their Shadow World brand. They had made a deal with someone else, and since our existing contract was limited to GEnie, that was within their rights. It was nutts, because we were about to roll-out on the rising star of AOL and make them a whole lot of money.... for nothing!

In the end, we had to redesign GemStone III such that it had no ShadowWorld in it. Now ICE intellectual property at all. And still be 100% backwards compatible for all of our existing players! It was a marathon effort, but in the end, we managed to make it happen.

The good news is we had our own IP (developed litterally in weeks), didn't have to didn't have to split any of the profit with ICE. How this made sense for them, though, remains a mystery.

Finally, I'm curious about how you feel about Everquest, World of Warcraft, and other MMORPGs. Do you see them as competing with you, an entirely different project, or what? What role do graphics play? Are the people playing Gemstone gamers who grew up with it, or are you regularly recruiting new gamers?

It is important to note that GemStone is still going strong, now in it's fourth incarnation. GemStone IV still generates millions in revenue, and is frankly the only text-based game to claim anything like that other than our own (such as DragonRealms). The game play is incredibly deep because we continue to utilize our huge pool of GameMaster talent to constantly expand and enhance the experience. Combined with a solid and loyal player base, it seems to be an ever-green business. This year will mark 20 years!

But, of course, it is a boutique business when compared to the accomplishments of titles like EQ or WoW. None of these graphical games compare in terms of depth to GemStone IV or DragonRealms, but they are much more accessible and (of course) visually visceral.

It was important to us, that when we dove into the graphical-end of MMORPGs, that we were able to bring the same sort of highly-collaborative GameMaster tools to the party that we did with text. But paradigm-changing tools are very complex and expensive to build. Fortunately, we were able to put nose to the grind-stone and build just that with our HeroEngine technology platform.

These days, we're not involved in just one graphical MMO, but many. We have our own Hero's Journey game in development, but we are also involved with many other licensees (such as BioWare and their top-secret MMO project) titles. When I come into work, I get to see all sorts of next-generation MMOs in their early stages. And that's really exciting!

For the player, though, it means that many games will have the technical advantages of HeroEngine. The processes that our IFE technology made possible for text-based games will be the underpinnings of many of the next-generation graphical MMOs. And that's a great thing!

Thanks again to David Whatley of Simutronics for providing such thoughtful and in-depth responses.