Here Comes Habitat



The MADE, a few months ago, quietly began working on reviving the game Habitat for preservation. The period we have thus far completed has mostly been focused on gathering human resources, hardware resources, and assessing the extent to which we can preserve the first Massively Multiplayer game. At this point, we are ready to announce that we feel we have a very good chance of bringing Habitat online, in its original form, for play online with Commodore 64 emulators as the client. At this point, execution is all we have left: we have just about everything we need to complete the project within the month.

What was Habitat?

hab1Habitat was the first massively multiplayer online game, even though it was never widely released, nor did it become massively popular. First beta tested in 1986, Habitat was the brainchild of Lucasfilm Games employees Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer. The game was played on Commodore 64 via the online service Q-Link, a C64-only AOL-like service. That means players dialed into Q-Link with their modem and paid by the hour to access the virtual world of Habitat. Q-Link was also only available for use, at this time, on evenings and weekends. Yes, really.

The server Habitat ran is an extremely advanced piece of computing hardware for the time. The Stratus VOS operating system and hardware was designed, originally, for military computing applications. Stratus Technologies has donated a vintage VOS Nimbus server to the MADE for this project. Habitat’s goal of supporting 10,000 concurrent connections and always-on usage case mandated this unique, but rare server architecture, for which there exists no emulator.


The game was built to support up to 10,000 players, and architecturally, it was designed with principles still used today to create scalable software. Morningstar now works heading up infrastructure at PayPal, and Farmer has consulted on large scale game worlds for many years. He also recently took up residence nearby the MADE, so Farmer has been integral in the project, of late.

The game itself featured a 2.5 dimensional view of a simply drawn, but quite large world, where-in players could chat and interact with their environment. Because players could customize the look of their on-screen character, Habitat introduced the term and idea of an online avatar. It also introduced pie menus, in-game costumes and cosmetic items, and the concept of an online graphics-based community.

Eventually, Habitat was released to the public as Club Caribe over Q-Link. The game finally ended up with Fujitsu, with whom the rights remain today. We are working with Fujitsu to preserve the game, thanks to the help of its wonderful staff both here and in Japan. Interestingly, the Club Caribe floppy disks are completely compatible with the original Habitat, as the only difference between the two games is that Club Caribe has no science-fiction items, like tentacles. Thanks to this transition being entirely based on the removal of items, Club Caribe and Habitat are functionally the same. This has helped, as we ran into a snag compiling the C64 disk images.

While it was always confined to Q-Link, Habitat inspired a great many successors.  The Habitat world allowed users to interact with objects and each other. Players could even be robbed and killed. In-game footage from this period shows that players immediately latched onto cosmetic items, just as they have today in games like Second Life, World of Warcraft and DOTA 2.



Why it is important that we get it running again?

Morningstar and Farmer created a prototype for a piece of software that has, today, become commonplace. Every modern massively multiplayer game takes some ideas, either architecturally or structurally, from Habitat’s design.

Habitat is an important part of our digital heritage. As MMO games have vastly changed the lives of people around the world, from fostering interesting experiences, to creating marriages, games like World of Warcraft, Ultima Online, and Everquest have left an indelible mark on our society. It is, therefore, important to preserve not only the history of these games, but of the games that inspired their creation. This is especially true because all of the games we just mentioned are being preserved, or still playable after years. We feel Habitat deserves this much respect, as well.

Habitat sets numerous software precedents, and has already been used to invalidate software patents around massively-multiplayer online gaming. But despite its significance and originality, Habitat is largely unknown to the world. Of those who do know about it, an even smaller segment ever had the chance to actually play the game.

Videogame history is nothing if not preserved in a playable form. Without being able to play a game, one cannot appreciate it fully. Imagine walking through an art gallery with the lights turned off.

How Did We Get Involved in This Project?

The Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment is a 501c3 Non-profit videogame museum located in downtown Oakland. It provides free programming classes to the public, and playable exhibits of significant works. The MADE was founded in 2010 with the goal of preserving gaming history, and educating the public as to how games are made.

In its work with the Game Developers’ Conference, the MADE constructed a History of Lucasfilm Games exhibit. During the research period for this exhibit, the MADE came across the source code for Habitat. It seemed only natural to try and do something with this discovery, and to try and relaunch the game for preservation purposes. We have since then been bothering Chip Morningstar, the C64 community, the Q-Link community, and the VOS community for help with this project. All have been most obliging, and thanks to their hard work, we are moving towards putting in place everything that is needed to make this project a reality.

What is needed to make that happen & where you are at in the process?

To begin with, we need to compile the C64 software and output it in a fashion we can use. This project is on its way, but compiling 16 year old C and PL/1 linked into a C64 binary are taking some time.

Once we have the C64 code, we will need a server. Paul Green and Stratus have generously decided to donate a 1989-era server with a fresh installation of the VOS operating system, and the tools needed to compile the server code. Once that server arrives, we will be hosting a party where we set it up and get it running. If we can compile the server code, we’ll be quite excited, but we hope to be able to get the server up and accessible to the Internet. That requires a lot more work, however.

The server talks to the client via Q-Link, a dial-up service from the 1980’s. We’ll have to emulate Q-Link, and the x.25 link used to connect it to the Habitat Server. We have some Q-Link experience on-board to help, though. And a few of our nerds are interested in playing with X.25. If you’re really interested in the nitty gritty, check out this document.

If all goes well, the server will be made publicly accessible via the Internet through the use of a C64 emulator on the client side. We hope to make this happen, and to keep the server up as long as possible, but it will always be an experiment, as the hardware for the server is very old, and there are no replacement parts. The ultimate goal is to use this initial period to understand how the system works so that we can port the server code to C and run it from modern hardware.

This final part will likely take a year or two.

What We Need.

At this point, we have gathered together an entire army of relevant and experienced folks to help us with this project. This includes Randy and Chip, Paul Green from Stratus, a whole chat-room full of C64 geeks, and a host of other folks who are helping us reboot the old server, recompile the old code, and bring in new users.

This is an entirely volunteer effort. We are a non-profit 501c3, run entirely by donations. All the funds we raise are spent on the museum’s operations, and in support of our free programming classes. We have no paid employees. If you would like to help us with this project, please donate to the MADE. We can give you a tax-write-off for any donations.

Donate via PayPal:

When do you expect to make the attempt?

We have chosen a date this month for this project to come to fruition. Stay tuned here to find out more about the project, and when you will finally be able to log back into Habitat and explore the world’s first graphical, virtual online space.

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