Habitat for humanity: how a classic MMO got a different life

Habitatthe world’s first MMO developed for the Commodore 64 personal computer, went offline in 1992. It came back online in 2017 through the efforts of MADE, Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment.

Founded by Alex Handy in 2011, MADE “seeks to legitimize the preservation of video games as both a historical and artistic medium within the context of our time.” To that end, MADE assembled a collection of working video game consoles and a library of old games that patrons could play.

“We do exhibitions, we do conservation activities to preserve old systems, old code and old games,” Alex Handy said. The edge via Zoom.

But what exactly is it involved in bringing an MMO back from the dead? A generous donation, a lot of luck and an absurd amount of courage.

A generous donation

Habitat was an online world that could support up to 15,000 users who could run businesses, play games, solve mysteries, find religions or just hang out. Published in 1986, Habitat led like Ultima Online and EverQuest (the games many people think of when they think of “the first MMO”) by more than a decade.

As online communities emerged from the original pre-modern Internet soup of the late ’70s and’ 80s, games that these communities could play together quickly followed. MUDs, or multi-user dungeons, were the first online multiplayer games and were entirely text-based. Habitat was inspired by MUDs and took its concept of a common online game space a step further.

“MUD was one thing,” Handy said. “But the idea of ​​a graphic world one could walk around was static and interacting with other people in it was a new concept.”

Developed by Lucasarts with the talents of video game pioneers Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer, Habitat ran on Commodore 64 personal computer and connected players online via Quantum Link, the forerunner of the America Online Internet service. Habitat launched in beta from 1986 to 1988. Budgetary considerations forced Lucasarts to cut features for a rebrand in 1988 as Caribe Club, which lasted until its completion in the early 90s.

Caribbean Club was sunset sometime between ’91 and ’92, “Handy said.” But the IP was sold to Fujitsu around that time, and they ported it to all sorts of other platforms and servers. Habitat 2is, for example, on the Sega Saturn Japan. “

Handy and his cohorts at MADE did not sit down specifically to re-emerge Habitat. It was not a long-term passion project or the result of a joint effort. “It was a great goal for opportunities,” Handy said. “And we have not been presented with a good measure of opportunity ever since.”

In 2013, Handy planned to set up a MADE exhibition at the Game Developers Conference, a video game industry event for developers to talk about their games. Chip Morningstar, a former Lucasarts developer, also planned to participate in this GDC.

Handy said, “I contacted Chip and asked, ‘Hi, do you have anything we could show for the conference? Any source code or anything like that? ‘”According to Handy, Morningstar sent him Habitat‘s source code as a kind of joke, and thought there would not be much Handy could do with 27-year-old code. Undaunted, Handy responded to Morningstar and asked the developer what it took to make the code work again as the game it once was.

“He just laughed me in the face,” Handy said.

Lots of luck

Handy earned the infidel laugh because because beyond Habitats code, which is prehistoric in video game terms, required what he described as an extremely obscure proprietary server and operating system, the Stratus VOS, for it to work.

The Stratus problem was twofold. Handy needed the software OS and a compatible piece of hardware to run it. Solving the hardware part of the equation involved a great deal of luck. Technology companies have come and gone, and if one survived to this day, it is usually not to manufacture or maintain products from nearly 30 years ago. But Stratus Technologies, the company that made the Stratus servers and operating system, was miraculously still involved. And perhaps even more miraculously, it still maintained its old hardware. So when Handy asked for a server, they sent one.

The software problem was more difficult. Any attempt to track down the Stratus VOS was met with confusion.

“When I contacted the Computer History Museum about Stratus after we got our Stratus computer,” Handy said, a representative from the museum replied, “Oh my god, we forgot Stratus!”

Unable to get a copy of the Stratus VOS, Handy decided to tap on connections and gather resources to see if it could be rebuilt from scratch.

“I got together some modern programmers, some guys who were really into Commodore 64,” he said. “We got all these guys with Chip and Randy in a room with this computer […] and we just let them go one day, and at the end of the day they got a server up. “

Handy had the source code of the game and had put together a server that could host the code. The next step was to enable this age-old game to run on a modern internet, and that was when Handy was met with its biggest obstacle yet: lawyers.

An absurd amount of courage

If you wanted to play Habitat in 1986 you needed a Commodore 64 and a subscription to the Quantum Link (or Q-link) ISP. Habitat was exclusive to this service and contained the code required for Habitat servers and Commodore 64 computers to work together. Essentially without Q-Link then or now, Habitat will not work. Q-Link renamed America Online in 1989 and fell through a series of ownership changes over the years in Verizon’s possession.

Handy, summoned the same grip it took to ask Chip Morningstar for source code and Stratus Technologies for a computer, called the head of Verizon’s legal department and asked for the old Q-link software libraries. Luck struck again: not only did Verizon still have these software libraries, but it also seemed apt to abandon them for Handy’s cause.

“We thought we would get them,” Handy said. “I literally got a guy to put these on a USB stick and was waiting for legal approval.”

But for reasons he could guess, Legal did not approve of Handy’s request. “Even though it’s 30 year old software, the company considers it to be the core of its security, I think. And then they would never open up about it. “

Handy now had two choices. Habitat would not work without Q-link, so he had to either give up his quest or find a way to get around the Q-link requirement. Bypassing Q-link was technologically simple. Handy already had a cadre of developers who were able to create a program that would insert between Habitat‘s servers and players’ computers that essentially served as the old Q-link service had. But the problem arose in the form of a complicated law that was supposed to prevent the specific kind of sidestepping. It’s the curse for Twitch streamers and YouTubers and the entertainment industry’s enforcement tool – the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or DMCA.

In general, the DMCA protects copyrighted material against unauthorized distribution. Buried within this law is Section 1201, which “makes it illegal to circumvent technological measures used to prevent unauthorized access to copyrighted works, including copyrighted books, movies, videos, video games, and computer software.”

Today, developers embed programs in video games called digital rights management or DRM to protect them from unauthorized use. Although Q-link existed before DRM as we think of it today, it is basically DRM protection for Habitat. Because section 1201 of the DMCA prohibits any attempt to circumvent a safeguard measure, it would be technically illegal to get around the Q-link roadblock.

However, the DMCA makes exceptions; Given that circumvention of a safeguard measure is in the public interest, the US Copyright Office gives 1201 exemptions to organizations. Handy asked the office for a waiver to create the program that would bypass Q-link.

“In the end, the exception they gave us was basically: ‘You can keep an MMO and you can bypass these validation mechanisms, but only if the MMO is locked inside a room and you’re sitting at a computer right next to it. of it. ‘ You can absolutely not provide internet access to the thing, ”Handy explained.

Handy finally had all the pieces he needed to bring Habitat back online, but he was prevented from doing so. Without the “O” in the MMO, the “MM” part falls apart. The game was technically alive – but functionally and spiritually worthless.

What happened? How is it that someone can play it now?

“We do not care,” Handy said with a simple laugh.

Although Handy’s exemption specifically stated so Habitat could not be hosted online, he decided to put it online anyway. He was quick to stress that playing the game itself is not an illegal act. He got the source code from its creators and got permission from the Japanese rights holder to do anything with it.

“We did not get the computer software libraries that allow the interconnection, the Q-link centerpiece, and specifically the circumvention of it is what is illegal,” Handy pointed out.

Handy did not seem at all worried about any legal consequences of his guerrilla act of preserving video games.

“If [Verizon] want to come and get bored, they can, ”he said. “We tried to talk to you about it, let’s resume the discussion.” In the end, Handy made the decision to ask for forgiveness, not permission.

The world’s first MMO

You can play Habitat online right now for free at neohabitat.org. The game’s source code is available on GitHub, and there’s a video on YouTube that provides tips and tricks on how to play. Though Habitat was at one point able to support tens of thousands of players, Handy said there are nowhere near as many who play now, but the world is alive and people are still using it.

“People just meet now, you know,” he said. “You see 2, 3, 4 people shot popping in.” He even told that a Swedish club of Commodore 64 enthusiasts once hosted a meeting in the new Habitat.

When we think of MMOs today, we think of World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV. MMOs are equipped with standard features such as custom avatars representing individual players, in-game currencies to earn and spend on virtual goods, and numerous social activities – such as quests, dungeons, and player battles. All of these MMO standards came from Habitat. Before Meta or Google or Amazon ever dreamed of a metaverse, even before any of them existed as companies, Habitat was the first metaverse.

Despite being the cultural institution, movies, books, art and music are, video games often do not get the same consideration as their cultural peers. We record works of art in libraries, archives and museums. We support art financially and dedicate entire academic fields to its preservation and study. But for the most part, video games are deprived of such support, left to the mercy of continuous technological advances that make new video game hardware and software obsolete every decade. The result is the decay of an unmanageable wealth of video game history at a speed that surpasses the gaming community’s efforts to save it.

Habitat is a game that all modern MMOs – some of the biggest, most popular games on the planet – owe tribute to. But without Handy’s passion, MADE’s resources, and developers’ foresight to stick to their source code, Habitat would be yet another of the many games lost due to time, neglect and technology.