Thursday, August 9, 2012

My first MMO

With the upcoming release of World of Warplanes I thought I would blog about the time I discovered online flight combat over 20 years ago and how such a revolutionary MMO has been completely overlooked and forgotten in time.

I'm talking about Kesmai Corporations Air Warrior. Kesmai started in the early 80's with the then successful MUD Islands of Kesmai, naturally the graphics were nothing to write home about but it was good for its time. Towards the end of the 80's Kesmai released Air Warrior with wireframe graphics, although it looked pretty poor it was just the beginning of many updates that would improve it dramatically until its death in 2001.

I played a few times around 1990 with a 2.4k modem but didn't seriously start playing until AW SVGA came out around 1993. At that time (living in the UK) the World Wide Web was barely starting and most people playing online games used DOS with dial up modems to Bulletin Board Systems which amounted to massive phone bills, by 1994 along with the subscription fee's I was spending up to $400 a month just to play this game which makes todays subscriptions seem tame.

Air Warrior was basically a WW2 flight sim that multiple players could fly via a single server, for the UK it was the long gone Online Entertainment in London and GEnie in the US (later many other portals/hosts emerged on CRIS, Delphie, AOL, Gamestorm, Compuserve, Earthlink etc.). Around 93-94 I regularly flew with I recall about 100-150 people on the same server, lag could be nasty at times but on the whole it worked quite well considering game server technology was still pretty new and expensive.

Squadrons (Guilds) started forming and with it a taste of MMO's to come. I flew with the UK Kraits squadron from around 94 until the end, most of the players I met in those days worked in IT and because of the huge costs mostly middle aged businessmen (and wives), there were a few conventions both sides of the pond and I got to meet some really great people. There was no "I pwnd you" or "Noob" talk in those days, everyone helped each other and winning or losing was not a cause for a tantrum.

Originally flight was almost arcade style in AW, later on realism was added and it became a whole different game with spins/stalls etc. Every time you died you had to respawn at one of your sides intact airfields, take off and start your long climb to head to the action which could be 5-10 minutes of flying.

There were 3 sides in a persistent world, blue red or green, a 3 faction war but with no political or national allegiances just like World of Tanks/Warplanes, you could fly aircraft from any nation ranging from fighters to bombers, some of the planes were multiplayer (like the POB ships in SWG and Planetside Galaxies). In a B17 for example you could fill all the gun positions with your squad/team members and have 7 of you in one plane. The original continent consisted of airfields and factories, by knocking out any of these targets you could affect fuel/ammo supplies and close airfields, you could fly a C47 and drop NPC paratroopers to capture airfields which your side could then start flying from. Players could also drive Flak Panzers to defend airbases which often led to some nice strafing runs.

Because of the strategy required to take an airfield close teamwork was required and as in RL bombers required fighter escort and airfields required CAP, many players made a name for themselves as Aces and when you saw their name approaching it was quite nerve wracking.

Around the mid to late 90's new maps were introduced covering Europe and the Pacific, along with this big server events started appearing regularly, in these events if you died you were are out of the event until it was finished and couldn't take off again. I recall one Pacific event where my Squad was tasked with bombing an enemy aircraft carrier, allied squads were given the task of taking airfields and providing cap for our bases. I was flying a Torpedo bomber in this event along with around 6 other TB's and around 5 fighter escort. It took about 10 minutes to gain altitude to the max height and another 10 minutes of flying over the ocean until we spotted the target. Enemy cap was by this time at the same altitude and soon homed in on us, I managed to Dive and possibly get a hit on the carrier before I died, I can't remember how many of my squad survived but I had to sit out the rest of the evening in the lobby reading the text messages typed by players still in game. There was no teamspeak in those days. I couldn't see people having the patience for this now but at the time it felt epic, I even had a bunch of friends round with a few crates of beer to watch the event :)

In the late 90's the UK host closed down and everyone joined the US servers, my memory is hazy but I seem to recall maybe 300+ people flying on the same server maps at the same time so by those standards in those days it should be recognized as an MMO, even though people still argue against it.

After playing around one day and discovering that the aircraft skins were just uncompressed bmp's I brought it up at a UK conference around 1998 and decided to proceed with writing an add-on for the game that could switch skins (Later called Scenario Aircraft Converter). Working closely with squad members to get the interface and functionality just right the first version was released around 1999 and it was well received. Once people realised how easy it was to design their own skins a load of artists started churning out historically accurate paint schemes. Shortly after I discovered you could also edit the Ground texture so added that to the add-on and some truly stunning terrains followed. At the last count I believe it was 14,000 downloads of the SAC utility, if only I had charged $1 for it lol.

After creating the SAC add-on I then managed to decode the sound files and turn them into Wav's so that new user sounds could be added, not as popular amongst players but it did help further enhance the game. Not sure if it is true but I heard a rumor years later that Kesmai had lost the original code to create the sound files so this could have proved useful if the game had survived.

In 1999 Electronic Arts bought Kesmai, there was a new version of AW around 2000, although the game was still popular and affordable EA killed it dead in 2001. I enjoyed maybe 7-8 years of AW and still miss it so the upcoming World of Warplanes is definitely on my list, whether EA could have continued to develop the game and improve its success up to the time when WOW was about to emerge will never be known, it was the time when the internet was becoming more accessible and a perfect market for subscriptions to the new genre of MMO's but EA it seems had no foresight of how popular MMO's would become.

Sadly after losing all my source code and files a long time ago I have barely any screenshots of AW at its peak, all the websites that hosted skins and terrains are also long gone even has no images from 10 years ago. All the players I knew have moved on and I rarely hear of any of them anymore, it was a good (but expensive) experience, RIP AW Dec 7th 2001.

Some of my remaining screenshots ..

AW circa 2000 with Forest Terrain and skins added

AW circa 2000 with Desert Terrain and skins added

AW circa 2000 with Winter Terrain and skins added

Scenario Aircraft Converter

SAC Lite

Other screenshots from the web

AW Circa 1993-95

AW Circa early 90's

AW 1989 (Amiga)

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