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Old 12-02-2009, 02:49 PM   #1
J Arcane
Join Date: Sep 2008
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[RUN"HISTORY" #2] PLATO - Defining "ahead of it's time"

PLATO - Defining "ahead of it's time"

Today's topic brings us to what is probably one of my all time favorite internet finds, a veritable treasure trove of amazing firsts and great games, that basically no one but the handful of folks who were there even remember or know anything about.

PLATO was a time-shared, multi-user computer learning system, hosting an incredible array of innovations and one of the earliest networked computing and gaming communities.

The first PLATO system ran on the ILLIAC 1, an ancient vacuum tube computer from the 50s located at the University of Illinois, and was designed by Donald Bitzer to be a computer teaching system capable of replacing a real teacher for lessons. The system went through three revisions over the next decade, the most important being the PLATO III, which introduced the TUTOR programming language upon which the future of the PLATO system would be built, and moved the hardware to a CDC 1604, one of the first transistorized supercomputers, designed by none other than supercomputing legend Seymour Cray.

But it was the PLATO IV system, put online in 1972 and powered by a CDC 6400, that truly blew the doors off the barn. The new PLATO terminals sported the first ever flat-panel plasma display running at 512x512 resolution, and one of the first practical touch screens, both designed by Bitzer. It had vector drawing capability, as well as bitmap graphics by way of user customized characters. Add-on peripherals added music and speech synthesizers. And the relatively fast 1260 baud speed of the terminal meant it could even draw real time animation.

The next version of the terminal, PLATO V, even added a built in Intel 8080 CPU, allowing applications to run some code locally on the terminal itself. Later upgrades would add color support to the previously monochrome system, while the host system itself would move on to the more powerful CDC Cyber series.

The system also had real-time chat and instant messaging, as well as a message board system, creating a proper community environment across all the different schools connected to the home system.

Of course, put all this incredible power and easy access programming in the hands of a bunch of kids, and naturally, someone's going to make games for it. But these games were not the text based clones of Star Trek and Adventure and Hanoi that passed for games on most other systems at the time. PLATO soon came host to the first graphical RPG with pedit5 and dnd, whose popularity gave rise to the first graphical multi-user RPG with Moria and Avatar, the first 3d flight simulator with Airfight, the first multiplayer space shooters (both 2d and 3d!) with Spasim and Empire, a 3d multiplayer tank sim that predates Atari's Battlezone called Panther, and even the first versions of Freecell and mahjongg solitaire.

And all this in the 1970s, while the home computer revolution was still in it's infancy, flipping switches on the front of an Altair, and home gaming consoles were largely confined to a dizzying and pointless number of varieties of Pong.

But the biggest surprise of all for a modern PC gamer, is how familiar it all feels, how accessible, and how staggeringly well documented it all is. It's roots as an educational system hold through even in the gaming environment. That HELP key is always ready to spill reams of text explaining in detail just how to play each game.

But enough gushing, by now I'm sure you're raring to get cracking on some of this awesome gaming goodness. Surely I wouldn't lead you on with all this relentless hype, without showing you how you too can get your greasy mitts on some gaming classics?

Well, you're in luck. The great folks over at cyber1.org have dedicated themselves to preserving this awesome system and it's legacy, through the magic of some high dollar commercial emulation technology and a lot of donations, and then they've gone and made the whole thing open to the public.

So let's make an account, shall we?

Me, playing some orthanc


Step 1: First things first, we need to apply for an account. This is the part that's going to most disagree with our young, ADD-addled, Internet age sensibilities. On the cyber1 page, click the link in the top bar that says Join. You'll get a page with a thankfully brief TOC statement, followed by the application form.

Privacy Note: They do ask you for some personally identifiable data here, name, address, etc, mainly so they have alternate contact info in case they can't get you by email, or you somehow manage to do something illegal like using the notesfile to arrange mob hits or something. cyber1 will never share this information with anyone, unless of course you do, in fact, somehow manage to break the law on the system and they have to give it to the police. If you're the sort of person like me who's paranoid about that kind of thing, I suppose you could fill in fake information, but there's a good chance that will result in them not giving you an account.

They'll also ask you if you ever used any of the old PLATO systems, as well as what you want your signon name to be, and what group you'd like to be in. I'm in dragon, which I chose largely because it sounded cool and vaguely related to my dnd interests. There's also a box to tell them how you found the site, and give them some feedback. If you want to be nice, you can pick "Article - where?" from the drop down, and tell them that jarcane wrote an article over at Immortal Machines about them.

Once this is all done and sent, you'll get a message telling you that it may take up to 4 days for them to process your application. For my signon, it took about two. I know, I know, waiting for stuff is practically anathema to the internet, but it's worth it.

Step 2: While we wait for the application to process, we may as well download our terminal software, so we can connect to it. Back on the cyber1 main page, click on the link on the topbar for Terminal. This will jump you down the main page to a section with some links to various versions of pterm for the three major operation systems, with Windows right at the top of the list. Click the download link for pterm v4.17 installer. This will give you an executable installer, just run this, install it wherever you like, make sure to leave the desktop icon box checked, so you don't have to go rummaging through your hard drive to find it again for our next step.

Step 3: Time to configure your terminal. This is actually quite easy this time. Out of the box, pterm comes fully configured to connect to cyber1's PLATO system, in classic orange monochrome mode. Some games though, use color, and if we want to see that color, we're going to want to connect in color mode. Run the "My PLATO Terminal" shortcut from your desktop. Pterm will start up, you'll see a black screen with orange text saying "Press NEXT to begin". We're actually going to the File menu up top. Click File > Preferences.... A tabbed dialogue should open to the first tab, Profiles, if it's not on that tab, click it. You'll have a list box here, click on the option that says "Cyber1 - Color Terminal", then click the Load button below to load that profile. To make sure it keeps doing this, next we click on the Connection tab, and check the box that says Connect at startup next to it. And we're done. Click OK to close the dialog and save the options, then click File > Connect Again to reconnect (color and monochrome actually connect to the server on different ports, so you have to restart the connection whenever you change that setting). Or, if you don't have your account yet, you can just close the thing for now.

Step 4: Now lets skip a head a few days to that magical day when your email informs you that your application has gone through (be sure to reply to this email when you get it, or they'll delete your new account!). It's time to get started on your first log in to the PLATO system. Open up your Pterm once again, and you'll again see that pleasant orange "Press NEXT to begin" messsage on a black screen. But what in heck does that actually mean? Press "NEXT"? What NEXT?

It is here we must stop for a second and talk briefly about the PLATO keyboard. Like many older computer systems, the PLATO terminal has a lot of funky keys on it in strange places, keys that your shiny new USB Micrologic Extreme Gaming keyboard doesn't have. So we need to learn a few shortcut replacements for those keys.

The easiest rule of thumb for me to remember is, whenever I see the system tell me to press some key that's a word in ALL CAPS, like NEXT, or DATA, or LAB, or HELP, simply pressing Alt+, will generally work.

There are some easier shortcuts to a few of the more common ones however. NEXT for instance, can be accomplished by pressing the Enter key. HELP is F6, LAB is F7, BACK is F8, DATA is F9, and STOP is F10.

If you want a full guide to the PLATO keyboard shortcuts, you can find all of them listed under the help menu of Pterm, just click Help > Pterm keyboard.

Step 5: Alright, now that that little lesson's out of the way we can get started on your first login. Hit enter, and you'll be greeted with a friendly login screen with a nice animated clock, and a prompt (indicated at the >) asking for your CYBIS name. This is where you enter your signon name, which you should find in the email you received (always check the email, if your signon was already taken they'll have given you another one). Just punch it in and hit Enter.

Next you'll get a new screen prompting you to enter your CYBIS group name. If you followed my footsteps, this will be "dragon", otherwise, it'll be whatever you picked from the drop down box in the application form, or whatever the admins assigned you to. Type in the group name, and hit Shift-STOP (Shift-F10 in regular computer speak). Remember this key combo, it's what you'll use to quit out of games and lessons later.

Since this is your first login, it will now prompt you to create a password. This is your standard type twice to confirm sort of thing you've done a million times, with a couple odd quirks. Quirk one is that the X's it types on the screen to mask your actual letters are random, so as to keep anyone looking over from deducing the number of characters in your password. So if they don't match up, don't worry, it's probably fine. Quirk two is that it doesn't seem to like numbers. My default password for anything is usually a random alphanumeric string, but I had to stick to letters to get it to accept that both passwords were the same. Not sure why, but that's the way it went for me.

Once you've done this last part once, obviously it won't do so again, and it'll just ask for your password.

Step 6: Now you are logged into the system, and you should see a screen that says"AUTHOR MODE" at the top, and there's a prompt asking you to choose a lesson. This is the main prompt through which you'll load any programs you use on the system. Most of the games I named earlier in the history lesson portion of this article will work, just type their names in, but without any capitalization, applications always start with lower case, as upper case letters are used for special shift commands. You can push the HELP (F6) key here, followed Shift-DATA (Shift-F9), for a list of shift commands. These are how you access personal messages, as well as some other handy shortcuts to accessing notefiles (message boards) and other system features.

However, the most useful command of all to enter here is "bigjump". bigjump is a handy menu application, that will give you a complete list of all the games, lessons, and notefiles on the system. Type in "bigjump" and hit Enter at the AUTHOR MODE prompt, and it'll load straight away.

From here, you can use + and - on your numeric keypad to scroll though the list. To jump to a specific game, hit Shift-J, and a prompt will open at the bottom. Type in the number of the game or program you wish to run, and it'll run it right away. To switch between the different lists (games, misc, notefiles), hit Shift+.

Step 7: And that's pretty much all you need to know to get started. Remember, there's a HELP key (f6 on your keyboard), USE IT. Most all the games and applications are ludicrously well documented, so if you find yourself in a place where you don't know what you're doing, try that.

The big games to look out for that everyone plays the most are "empire" (multiplayer Star Trek game), "zavatar" (multiplayer RPG), and "dnd8" (graphical RPG). I'm personally a big fan of "orthanc", which is a more advanced update of "pedit5" complete with a handy automap and some early Demon's Souls-like multiplayer elements (there's not direct MP like in "zavatar" or "moria", but you can run into bot versions of other players in the dungeon). All of these names can be entered directly at the author mode prompt to run them, but also do yourself a favor and poke around in "bigjump" trying out different stuff, there's a lot of goodies here.

I hope you have as much fun with this stuff as I do!
I no longer have interest in a forum where I am routinely insulted over a period of years and then sanctioned and insulted further for defending myself.

Last edited by J Arcane; 12-03-2009 at 06:14 PM.
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Old 12-02-2009, 05:14 PM   #2
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Rad. Never heard of this. Love the history lessons.
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Old 12-02-2009, 06:06 PM   #3
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Hey J! Your link on the front page goes to the Origins episode of the podcast instead of here.

Carry on!
Like obscure games? Check out Turning The Spigot for hidden gems!
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Old 12-02-2009, 06:36 PM   #4
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Originally Posted by Spigot View Post
Hey J! Your link on the front page goes to the Origins episode of the podcast instead of here.

Carry on!
Just fixed it. Thanks!
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Old 12-03-2009, 06:13 PM   #5
J Arcane
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Oh no! I wondered what all the activity was the other day, with the site being down and all. It seems they've gone and done a slight redesign of the page.

I'll edit the OP to accommodate the changes.
I no longer have interest in a forum where I am routinely insulted over a period of years and then sanctioned and insulted further for defending myself.
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Old 12-03-2009, 09:06 PM   #6
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Firefox gave me a security warning, but my love of gaming history pushed me through.
"It's my fate to steal," pleaded the man who had been caught red-handed by Diogenes.

"Then it is also your fate to be beaten," said Diogenes, hitting him across the head with his staff.
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Old 12-03-2009, 09:23 PM   #7
J Arcane
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Originally Posted by Panthera View Post
Firefox gave me a security warning, but my love of gaming history pushed me through.
Yeah, there's some kind of issue with the certificate on the sign up form, but unless your machine is full of malware you should be fine.
I no longer have interest in a forum where I am routinely insulted over a period of years and then sanctioned and insulted further for defending myself.
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Old 12-16-2009, 10:35 AM   #8
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Hey guys... come on over an join us! Yup, I'm one of them Ancient Geeks that was (and is!) on PLATO (login: gary brown of cbe). My one gaming claim-to-fame over there was a Yahtzee knockoff called "0hifive". My biggest project was a planetarium simulator called "0zeiss". It's a hoot to see stuff I wrote 30 (!!) years ago alive and well, and used every day.

Most important of all, though, is the community. Friends I made when I was working on PLATO more than a quarter-century ago are still friends.

Last edited by fusedlight; 12-18-2009 at 12:26 PM. Reason: File Name Wrong on "0hifive"
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Old 12-17-2009, 04:31 PM   #9
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I'm totally digging this feature of CoG. You guys brought back some memories with Empire. My pops had a weird amalgamated version for a Honeywell machine he brought home with him from work. Loved that game....

I write and draw a comic. Sometimes, it's funny.

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Old 12-21-2009, 06:27 PM   #10
Joe Stanton
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Hey gamers, I am the guy who issues access to Cyber1 and I want to make sure you all get the info that I will reject bogus registrations and will kill the account if I find out later that access was gained by bogus info. We want to have you come and visit, and play these original games! But we actually have been given access to some cool historical software that we (the staff) had to sign our names in blood to get and to make available. The deal is we need real info in our database, but you can have a pseudonym that fits your personality - nobody but the registrar (and that is just me at the moment) has access to the real personal info. Make my life easier and submit valid info the first time... Thanks!
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