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The Days Of Empire

Atari and Cryptic Studios are going to launch a MMORPG based on the Star Trek universe in early February, and reading about it has made me rather teary-eyed for the old days of Empire.
Atari and Cryptic Studios are going to launch a MMORPG based on the Star Trek universe in early February, and reading about it has made me rather teary-eyed for the old days of Empire.I remember playing a game called Empire on the PLATO computer system at the University of Illinois/Champaign-Urbana campus in the early 1970s (around the time the HAL9000 was being programmed). PLATO was a timeshare system that innovated functions like forums, message boards and chat, so it was in many ways a prototype for our modern-day Internet. The connectivity speed made sipping a milkshake through a McDonald's straw seem fast, though, and I don't think more than a handful of terminals could connect without the system pausing to pick favorites.

Empire was an online adventure that initially let 8 players fly spaceships and do battle for resources and planetary control. You entered your moves by specifying degrees of arc and speed. Then the computer coughed and sputtered and, at least in my earliest experiences, a teletype printed out a picture of where you'd just put your ship.

The imagery was about as advanced as a Neanderthal cave painting, and yet it was completely and utterly hypnotizing. It's where I first learned to choose a participatory hallucination in lieu of eating or taking a bathroom break.

The new Star Trek MMORPG is a revelation by comparison. The characters, ships, and shared space are richly detailed and customizable. The opportunities for interaction are all but immediate and infinite, at least from an individual player's perspective. It looks like the TV show and movies, only better.

Will it be any better than Empire?

This might be my age talking, but ideas like "interactivity" and "engagement" are not new, any more than the wild imaginations of today's gamedesigners are any more vivid or compelling than the fantasies of artists who wore frock coats or poets who lounged around in togas. We've learned through the recent development experiences of semi-immersive worlds like Second Life and the concurrent adoption of textual IM and online chat that people don't need a simulacra of reality to sense its truth.

The mechanism of participation is based on context of experience, expectations, and the meaning and relevance of the content thereby shared. Better pictures, whether moving or interactive, do not better experiences make, and this fact is more true now that we've found more ways to design around it.

Which makes me think of Empire. It looked like garbage, but it was the coolest game. I hope the new Star Trek is as much fun to play.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, writes the Dim Bulb blog, and is the author of Bright Lights & Dim Bulbs.