Mega Wars I, II and III History

This article was written by Maury Markowitz in 2000.

The original website went down in ~2010 and the content was coppied here.

This article originally started as a part of the MegaWars III history, and for a while it looked like it was going to stay there. But the story of the game and the roundabout route that led to MWIII is interesting, and MegaWars is a nice bridge from the single player Star Trek games to the multiplayer MegaWars III. So, here we are.

The story starts in the mid-70's with a game called WAR. WAR was created at the University of Texas at Austin on the CDC-6600. The CDC is arguably the first supercomputer, but it was built in the 1960's so I'm astounded it was still running when they started work on WAR.

WAR was essentially a single terminal, two player game based on the Star Trek concept. Instead of hunting down an invasion force, each player takes turns at the keyboard in an effort to hunt each other down. The primary addition to the game was a strategic portion where you take over planets, and then turn then into additional starbases[1].

During a port to a DEC-10 machine at the same university, the game was essentially rewritten and renamed DECWAR. DECWAR kept the basic concepts from WAR, but added a huge number of commands and made the game multiplayer with up to 10 players in a single game.

By using shared memory to store information about the galaxy, each player was able to run a different copy of the program (or job) and still share a single map. That allowed them to join or leave the game at any time without interrupting the rest of the players. This is a boon to gameplay, a feature that still isn't nearly well enough supported today.

They also added computer controlled Romulans who would appear in games with too few human players, in order to make the game harder. As more human players joined, the Romulans would not return after being killed off. The first version of this new game was installed on the DEC-10 in August 1978, with a 2.0 following the next July.

In 1982 Bill Louden, in charge of games at CompuServe, bought a copy of DECWAR on tape for $50 from the people at UofT and handed it off to his team to have a go at it. This seems to have pissed off the UofT people, realizing too late that the licensing says nothing about commercial uses of the code – CompuServe was going to end up making money with the game without them making a penny.

The people at Kesmai took DECWAR and made some minor changes to remove Star Trek related copywrited names (no more Romulans) and that became MegaWars. It went up on CompuServe in 1983 and ran continuously until 1998 - although it had a few near-death experiences in that interim.

Additions continued to be made throughout it's run, the biggest changes included different ship classes and goals. As time went on the game became more and more complex in comparision to DECWARS, until it looked very little like the original.

In 1985 Bill moved on from CIS, and in a herculean effort he convinces GE's Information Services division to set up a public service similar to CompuServe, using the evening hours excess capacity on GEIS's mainframe computers. Named GEnie by Bill's wife for "GE Network for Information Exchange", it's priced at $6 an hour for both 1200 and 300bps, making it half the price of CompuServe at 1200bps.

Bill also convinces GE that in order to make the service a success, GEnie will need games. So in 1986 Kesmai rewrites MegaWars I and re-launches it on GEnie as Stellar Warrior. Once again the game runs for years, dying only when GE throws in the towel and unplugs the entire GEnie service.

MegaWars II was an upgrade to the basic engine so that it could run in a client/sever mode. The client program ran only on the Radio Shack CoCo (although I'm sure other versions were planned) and supported a reasonably powerful GUI for the game. But before the version could become established, MegaWars III came along a month or so later and II was put to sleep.

The Game
Type: Action
Viewpoint: God-view
Time: Real time
Synopsis: As captain of a Federation or Klingon cruiser, your mission is to hunt down and destroy the opposing forces in the sector.

Since the origins of WAR and it's code appear to be lost to time, this description starts with DECWAR and then moves onto MegaWars I.

In DECWAR each player commands a ship for the United Federation of Planets or the Klingon Empire. You pick a ship from the available list (the ships not currently being flown), with names based on the ships in the TV show. In what seems to be a somewhat unfair simplification, all the ships were identical: they were equipped with warp engines, impulse engines, photon torpedoes, phaser banks, deflector shields, computer, life support, sub-space radio, and a tractor beam.

Other objects in the 79 by 79 sector included Federation and Empire ships, computer controlled more powerful Romulan ships, Federation and Empire bases, Federation and Empire planets and black holes. Black holes aren't always in the game, but destroy ships that run into them and add a little flavour.

Weapons in the game are modified in interesting ways. Phasers are similar to the original, but can fire through other objects, and have a chance of being damaged every time they are fired. Torpedoes can now be deflected by strong shields, so combat has to start with the use of phasers only in order to knock them down a little. This fixes one of my biggest gripes in Star Trek, where the torps were just way too powerful. Two other additions are that you can fire up to three torps at a time, and if one hits a star it will go nova – which is a great way to get a one shot kill on an unwary ship.

Shields are likewise changed. If they're on they'll make all travel twice as expensive in terms of energy, which forces you to turn them off more – in the original you just turned them on and left them on. They also have to be lowered to fire phasers, but this is done automatically for 200 points of energy.

Like the original Star Trek, the name of the game is energy maintenance. Ships started with 5000 units of energy, 2500 units of shield strength, and 0 units of damage. Also like the original, your ship can be replenished and repaired at starbases, but in DECWAR they don't "top you off", they instead just add 1000 units of energy in general, 500 to your shields, and fix you up a bit.

As a result you have to dock more than you would in the original, and that makes the bases more valuable. Combine this with real live humans running the ships, and the bases become the primary targets of the game. After all, anyone can jump into a new ship after being killed off, but if you can wipe out their starbases you put their entire fleet at risk. So while in Star Trek energy is the key to the whole game, in DECWAR it's all about getting and keeping starbases.

Each empire starts out the game with 10 starbases. They're tough, but not indestructible, so a couple of ships ganging up can take them. More importantly they only shoot at ships within 4 sectors, meaning the ships can fire torpedoes at them from longer ranges and reduce them that way.

This is where another addition to DECWARs comes into play, the capture and fortification of planets. While planets are not as poweful as bases, they can be fortified steadily (taking up realtime) and will also provide 1/2 energy and repairs as a base would. Once they're fully fortified (level 4) planets can also be turned into bases in case one is killed off.

For multiplayer control, the game also added a number of features. The most obvious is a subspace radio, which can be used to send messages to specific ships, or entire races. The radio is vital for coordinating attacks and hollering for help. The game also includes a tractor beam, which allows you to tow damaged friendlies to a safe location – provided both of you lower your shields to use it. Finally there's the obvious "users" command to see who's online.

DECWARs, like the Star Trek that spawned it, is a command line based game. Unlike Star Trek, the commands had a chance to be re-written from scratch, and as a result they're better laid out and easier to remember. The game also allows you to abbrieviate the commands to their shortest unique string, which is a feature of the TOPS-10 OS the PDP-10 ran. The commands could even be stacked on the command line, separated by a slash. As long as you could remember them all, this evened out the disadvantage to being on a slower link to the host.

For instance, the series of commands:

could be shortened and stacked into:

A similar level of abbrieviation could be applied to the output too, there were three detail levels of reporting. The following three lines show the same report in the three different formats:

Star @22-31 +4,+2 makes 301.2 unit hit on Panther displaced to 20-31 +2,+2, -72.1%
* @22-31 +4,+2 301.2 unit N P -->20-31 +2,+2, -72.1%
* 22-31 +4,+2 301N P >20-31 +2,+2, -72

I find it a bit surprising that DECWARs isn't more well known. Certainly its life on CompuServe was long and successful, but outside that limites space is pretty much unknown. It would have made an excellent BBS 'door' game for some of the larger systems, and the code was downloadable. One of those mysteries of the market I suppose.

The Decwar Homepage is a good introduction to the game, with links to the original instructions. Much of the article above is adapted from information on this page, and e-mails with the author.

LordDog's MegaWars Page, is a small page about MegaWars on CompuServe. (missing in action?)

I even managed to find a Windows GUI for MegaWars, WinStar.

Thanks to
Harris Newman for information on DECWAR and The Decwar Homepage.

Notes on Bill's move to GEIS courtesy of Jessica Mulligan at HappyPuppy, from her series Biting the Hand.

1) It's unclear to me if the strategic portion was added for WAR or DECWAR.

Created July 1, 2000
Last Revised September 1, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by Maury Markowitz.
All rights reserved.

Authors: Kelton Flinn at Kesmai. Operated online by CompuServe and (a newer version) GameStorm.
Released on: DEC machines at CompuServe, circa 1983.
Comments: MegaWars III is the first multiplayer space empire game, it's also one of the longest running online games in history.

MegaWars III is the last in a series of three MegaWars games, all of them different. As noted in the MegaWars I article, MWI started in '82 when Bill Louden gave DECWAR to his team. Later came MegaWars II, but it didn't last long. What's facinating about this story is that what was sold as a massive "upgrade" actually started first.

The history of MegaWars III is best told with some quotes from its author, who looked over an early version of this document. Take it away Kelton!

The game actually had its roots in a game I wrote when I was a student, which we rather imaginatively called "S". S was written the summer of 1979 [at the] University of Virginia, building on ideas from previous games. S was the first time John Taylor and I actively collaborated on a game: I did all the programming but John chipped in with quite a few ideas for the game design. The machine was a Hewlett-Packard 2000F timeshared BASIC system, it supported 32 simultaneous users at 2400 baud. S was the first version designed to be played on a CRT rather than a teletype.

The ship-to-ship combat in S was very similar to MegaWars III, and the galaxy and planet generation were the same, but there were far fewer stars for the small computers we had then, and the planetary economics were very much simpler.

When we wrote MegaWars III (called that because CompuServe wanted to link it with the earlier successful games) we expanded greatly on the economic aspects, and scaled the game up for 100 simultaneous from the original 8 players. The political aspects of the game were also added then. The ship customization was also something we added when expanding S into MegaWars III.

[from another letter]

Well, originally S was played largely by me and my roommates in college (4th year), and there were only 255 star systems, so competition was pretty fierce for the good planets. We were usually all in the computer room at the same time. One of the more notable events was when one person's favorite planet was taken, and he picked up a chair and stalked across the room with it to clobber the culprit. "Bob, put the chair down, it's only a game..." I guess I should have known then we had a potential hit!

There was one aspect of S that never made it into MegaWars III. In planetary space, if you could close to within like 0.1 AU of someone, you could board their ship. A top-down map of the ship came up on each person's screen and you played what we'd now call a real-time strategy game where each person had up to 10 squads of men (depending on how many troops you had on board, so traveling with no troops had a substantial risk!). The attacker brought his men on through one of two portals (think of the opening scene in Star Wars where Darth Vader and the storm troopers blast their way onto the ship) and tried to capture the opposing captain. It usually turned into a race for the defending captain to reach the engine room where the "self-destruct" switch was located before the more numerous attackers caught him. The defender could see where both his and the enemy men were located; the attacker saw only those parts of the ship where his men were located. The "men" fought automatically; the players merely gave orders for the squads to move. Note this was all done with a map drawn with text on the screen. A bit ahead of its time :) If the attacker won, he got to take any and all cargo on the opposing ship.

Very cool! Too bad that didn't make it onto the online version.

The first MWIII game started on Jan 19, 1984 and ran until the 15th of March, a much longer game than later runs. Ming was the historic first president and Avenging Force's leader Khayyam was emperor.

Sadly on November 24th '99 CompuServe pulled the plug on MegaWars III as they moved to their new (abysimal) "CompuServe 2000" web based interface. Starhawk received a plaque from the Kesmai people for being the historic last emperor, bringing to a close over fifteen years of continual play.

A modified version of MegaWars III, Stellar Emperor, was run for a time on GEnie. It used the same basic interface but attempted to make it easier to play with a few changes to the game itself. Sadly it simplified the ship design back to the "standard designs" concept which I don't like as much as the excellent system in the original. This version died when GEnie was later killed off by GE, after floundering for years due to lack of direction.

Kesmai then created their own complete (and fancy) 2D GUI interface for Stellar Emperor, and uses this client to play the game on their online gaming service, GameStorm. The game continues to embody many of the good points of the original MWIII system, and the new interface makes the game far easier for new players to pick up.

The Game
Type: Empire-building
Viewpoint: God-view and First-person (switches back and forth)
Time: Real time
Synopsis: As a baron in the remains of the former Earth empire, you captain a ship around the galaxy while developing colonies to build a tax base to improve your ship. MegaWars has a very powerful planetary economics engine, politics, teams, and a wonderful ship design system.

The lead-in story tells of the end of an ancient war where the Earth was effectively destroyed by an alien race (supposedly the topic of MegaWars I, but the link is tenuous). In the aftermath of the war, barons from Earth-originated colonies on distant planets fought for the spoils of the former empire.

In order to end the bloodshed, the remains of the original Earth empire set up a political system in which points were awarded to the barons for combat skill and economic prowess. Every "election" the baron with the highest points would become president. Alliances between barons were encouraged, and the leader of the most powerful alliance was crowned Emperor.

MegaWars III is effectively two games in one, a realtime space combat game played in the first-person, and an economic game played in god view. Both portions of the game had elements that are still reasonably unique event by today's standards, together they are even better. In both cases time flow was sped up, 8 hours of real time represents about a month of game time, and games lasted about 4 to 5 weeks of realtime.

MegaWars III is an old game in terms of its interface, but although it was text based it's still more advanced than most terminal based games. For most players MegaWars used the cursor commands of smart terminals (quite a few were supported) to draw maps and menus. For people with simpler terminals the game also included a stream-based UI, and to help with the gameplay a number of people developed GUI based front ends to this interface.

The game took place in a universe consisting of about 1000 systems, each of which contained multiple planets. The actual layout of the star map didn't change from game to game, but the number of planets at each star and their characteristics did change. This meant that you could map out the stars and they would be in the same place for the next game, but you still had to explore them to find out details about the planets. Design of the solar systems appeared to be quite well done, with the planets changing from rocky balls near the stars, to some habitable planets, to gas giants, and finally to rocky balls again.

We'll start with the space combat side, because that's where the game started. You begin in your ship, a Scout, located at one of the four remaining Imperial bases. Your ship has two modes of transport, sublight and warp which allowed you to travel in systems or between then respectively. To set out and explore the universe using your warp drives, you look at a map and pick a nearby star (they were numbered) and ask the computer to fly to it. Off you go!

While in hyperspace a character-generated map of nearby space was drawn which showed the relative locations of other stars and ships. To learn about the planets at a particular star you would fly to it, once leaving hyperspace all information about the planets would become known. In sublight a similar display was drawn, this time with the planets lettered. Since time was rather sped up, updating the display often showed that the planets did indeed move in their orbits.

Exploring could be a time consuming process, but spending that time in the early game was important as you wanted to map out all the high quality planets for later settlement. To speed up the process the ships also carried a single probe which could be sent to nearby stars, leaving you free to explore other ones.

Meeting other ships often led to combat. Your ship was armed with weapons for use in both warp space and sublight, and missiles that could operate in either. Your ship also carried shields fore and aft which could absorb a specific amount of power and then recharged slowly. For equal scouts this typically meant having to fire a number of shots at each other, the first shots depleting the enemy's shields and the later shots doing damage to the ship itself.

In sublight your main weapons were two laser cannon, fore and aft. The cannon ate up power from the ship's generators, and could be upgraded when you upgraded your ship with more powerful generators. To use them you "locked" them onto a specific target, and could then issue "fire" commands as fast as you could type. Sadly this wasn't all that easy, because such combat typically happened with one ship or the other in orbit, and the opposing ship would often disappear behind the planet requiring you to re-lock and fire, so the player with the faster typing speed or modem often won.

In warp you used torpedoes, fired from tubes which had to be reloaded "by hand" after use. Scouts started with 3 tubes (two forward, one aft), but you could upgrade your ship to carry up to 8. For some unexplained reason the interface for these weapons was completely different than for lasers. You couldn't lock onto a target and then issue a series of fire commands, instead you had to fire a particular tube in a particular direction (in gradians no less) – and the direction to fire in was not stated in the manual! Did you have to lead the targets? Did you simply fire at the enemies bearing? The manual was almost useless for this.

Finally there were the missiles. Yet another new interface to use, you simply supplied the number of the opposing ship and off it went. Again the manual talked in glowing terms about the fact that they flew fast, over long distances, and delivered a huge punch. Sadly the manual also failed to mention exactly how fast, how far, or how much of a punch they delivered. Later the game was upgraded and added the ability to load portions of your fuel into the missile to increase its explosive power, but again it was not stated how much you could load, nor what effect this had. Were they more powerful than torps? Less? Could they attack a ship that entered a dock or logged off? Could you shoot at incoming missiles to defend yourself, and if so, with what?

The problems with the manual all stemmed from it being a weird combination of half manual, half sci-fi story format. It was difficult to tell what was an instruction and what was simply part of the story. A simple example comes up when they are describing the torpedo system, where the manual discusses historical notes - the story notes that why they are called "torpedoes" and why they are fired from devices called "tubes" is lost to history. That's all nice, but maybe they should also tell you how to fire them correctly?

Recently I found the answers to many of these questions in a text file written in 1984 - close to RTFM I guess. Torps do 200 to 500 "units" of damage, and since shields can have a maximum strength of 400, they're almost sure to do some damage. They do need to be led - although they fly instantly from point to point, the current reading of your enemies position and it's position by the time you enter the fire comment is likely to be different. Missiles did slightly less damage than torps, they fly at warp 10 and gave up if the ship was 200ly away or left the game. They could also be shot at by either lasers or torps to defend yourself.

All of these UI problems are one area where a GUI helps a lot. In the new version, Stellar Emperor, combat is a point and click afair which makes the whole process much more approachable and combat is easier for people of all experience levels. In MegaWars you could be fighting the command line as much as the enemy.

Luckily the lack of clarity didn't detract from the fact that it was fun. Cruising around and looking for a scrap was what the game was all about. You might think it's hard to get a rise out of a text based game, but there were many a night where I was typing furiously into the computer trying to get off that last missile before making a run for it.

The game engine also allowed for a number of combat strategies, inadvertantly or by design I don't know. For instance one strategy to break laser locks on your ship was to warp back to the same system you were in, this would make you reappear at some other location at mwiv.RandomInt and the opposing ship would have lost sight of you. Another trick was to jump into warp and launch missiles, then jump back out again. While your enemy was fending off the missiles you had time to regain lock and start firing.

Ship design and construction was one of my favorite parts of MWIII. Unlike most games which have a number of pre-rolled designs or allow you to research better components for your ships, MegaWars had a small number of standardized parts from which to select. To make a more powerful ship, you simply bolted more of these components onto the existing hulls, or added more hulls if you ran out of room. A standard scout had three hulls and had no space left over, so expanding your ship required that you first buy another hull.

Ship design was a matter of balancing weight, power and space requirements to suit your needs. Although very flexible in theory, the game was still filled with ships of roughly the same design for any particular number of hulls. I never saw a ship consisting only of engines and troop carrying space for instance, even though such a design was both possible and potentially useful.

Upgrading your ship took place in the docks on a planet. While in theory almost any allied planet could have a dock open to you, it seems people visited only their own docks or those of the four remaining empire planets (perhaps this feature was more widely used in larger alliances). Entering the docks sent you into the second mode of the game, where one of the possible things to do was work on your ship.

This second mode was the planetary management portion of the game. In this portion of the game you attempted to fine tune your colonies in an effort to build up their population - and thus tax base - as high as possible. To do this you ran a seemingly communistic society, in which you allotted percentages of your population to various tasks, like mining or working in the shipyards. Doing so was a complex task, and once again the manual was of little use, but in this area the player community added a tremendous amount of knowledge in the form of various text files on planetary management – or PMing.

Each player could have active colonies on up to six planets at once, it's a somewhat arbitrary number but it worked well in the game. To start a colony you fly to a target planet and type ESTablish, presto. In fact you didn't actually have to bring people with you, this was assumed to happen outside of the game engine, basically you were laying claim to the planet, and then taking out a loan to pay for 5000 people to move there (which happened instantly). At this point you controlled the economy, but some of the money produced in taxes was used to pay off this loan. You guessed it, the specific details of the loan payoff or its effect on the economy were not mentioned in the manual.

The planets differed in a number of physical characteristics, and in common with many empire type games, the suitability of the planet for colonization had an effect on the colonies growth rate and cost of operation. For the most part people were primarily interested in finding planets with very high HABitibility rates, where colonies would grow powerful and prosperous. Sometimes you would start a colony on a poor planet to make some income while looking for better ones, so the game let you abandon ones you no longer wanted, but I'm not sure if this destroyed the colony or let them become independent.

One interesting twist is that money in the MegaWars world is quite literally metal. Thus one way to quickly make money was to look for a hab-poor but metal-rich planet and start a colony with lots of the people assigned to mining. Once money was no longer as important (you had other colonies with lots of people to tax) you could abandon it.

There were two main purposes to the colonies, one was to generate money, and the other to generate parts for your ship - buying them from your colonies was far less expensive than using the empire docks. The later required a high level of infrastructure on the planet before they started working (at which point you could repair your ship) and even higher before they started to build new items for the ship. As you might guess, the exact amounts of infrastructure needed for any particular upgrade to the shipyards was left completely unexplained.

Colonies also needed to be protected while off-line. The game had a number of features for this, including the ability to draft members of the population into the 'forces and build antiaircraft guns - which in later versions could shoot at ships in orbit as well. As you might expect this implies that attacking colonies is equally important, and this happened with a combination of troops on your ship, and fighter/transport aircraft.

The aircraft could be used as either fighters or transports at once, not both. An attack typically consisted of sending then in as fighters several times to soften up the defenses, and then sending them down again with troops to take over. The troops on your ship were the same ones you drafted on your colonies, or you could buy more troops at the shipyards.

One problem with the system was that you could attack a colony full out, lose everything, then run to a nearby base and reload everything and do it again. If the owner of the colony was off-line you could simply keep doing this until you took it over – you could typically fly back and forth faster than the base could rebuild itself (unlike ship movement, colonies "kept working" when you were off-line).

My only real complaint with the game is what happened to your ship when you signed off – nothing. I think the game could have been improved by allowing your ship to be assigned to a fleet, whether off-line or on, and then a fleet commander could be assigned by you alliance to take the fleet as a whole into combat.

Another nice option would have been to put your ship "on call", in this mode it would automatically fly to any colony under attack and attempt to kill the attacking ships. This could be simple to implement, as it closes on the enemy, fire missiles as soon as you are in range and then continue firing until you run out of them. When that happens attack the ship with lasers (it would have to be in normal space to attack a colony anyway). Either you'll kill the ship, drive it away, or be destroyed. If it's either of the first two, enter dock at that colony and repair, if possible.

MegaWars is an perfect example of the fact that careful tuning is required to make a game work, and they got it just right. The combination of the rich combat system and the powerful planetary management system was almost perfect.

MegaWars also illustrates the power that an online game gets you by it's very nature. Combat is a white knuckle affair and always will be because you'll never be able to "guess out" the computer's actions, and the possibility that someone might be going after your planets keeps you online longer than you'd like.

Stellar Emperor is Kesmai's home page for the new version of the MegaWars III engine.

Steet Rat's Stellar Emperor Page, a good introduction to Stellar Emperor from the player's perspective. Includes tips and a pretty complete description of the game.

MacTac, a Mac GUI for MegaWars III. Most of the GUI programs for MegaWars can be found in the CompuServe files area, this is the only one I found with it's own page.

Thanks to
Kelton Flinn for helping me with the early history of "S", and how it turned into MegaWars III.

Created sometime in 1995
Last Revised July 1, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by Maury Markowitz.
All rights reserved.