The Origins of Modern Online Gaming

Many people are unaware of the origins of modern online gaming. We’re talking about a time prior to The Sierra Network, Meridian 59, and even MUDs. A private multi-user graphical environment which had thousands of users as far back as the late 1970’s. This system was called PLATO, which stood for Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations.

The core of PLATO was based on education and learning; but what happens when you take what could arguably be the most advanced network system in the world and put it in the hands of innovative students and teachers?

These are possibly the only PLATO Journey screenshots in existence

Games. Lots and lots of games. And not just simplistic games, but the opportunity to create (for the first time) truly in-depth multi-user games which encapsulated planning, strategy, and graphics which were (at that time) light years beyond anything else.

PLATO featured hundreds of games ranging from Airfight to Solitaire. When I was only eight years old, I was exposed to version IV of this system by my father who worked for Control Data Corporation (CDC). He would take me to work with him during the weekends and put me in the PLATO room which featured numerous terminals and printers and leave me be for hours. It was nirvana for me; a warm enclosed room with soft lighting, the slight hum of the terminals and the occasional dot matrix sound of the printers going off. During the weekend, there was usually nobody else there. I had it all to myself, and it was wonderful.

Space combat and planetary conquering awaits you!

My father would often bring the terminal home with him on weekends as well, using the built-in 300 baud modem to connect through the phone line. I remember the sheer joy of the shiny silver Hayes 1200 baud modem when they came out, completely removing the latency we had at home with the 300 baud modem.

Moria was my first exposure to a real dungeon crawl, resulting in dozens of pages of mapped levels on graph paper with a mechanical pencil. The step-based “see ahead 1 square” graphics were standard for all 3D dungeon games on Plato. In addition to Moria, I was playing a number of other games such as Wilderness, Empire, Seawar and Drygulch. I would even play Moria with my father (it had basic grouping). That ended when I ran off on my own during a “group outing” to Forest Level 6. My father’s Character got killed, and in Moria death was permanent. Even to this day, he reminds me of “killing his Moria character”. Besides Moria, I remember him playing a game called Labyrinth; another dungeon crawler. I did play it a bit, but never got into it like he did – it was his favorite. While Moria was fun, my first real love became a dungeon romp called Journey.

Empire served as the basis for future space-based games including Space War and other cult classics like Star Trek (the original space combat game). Remember Rogue, the text-based 2d dungeon exploration game? Well, it was based on PLATO’s Orthanc. How about Wizardry? It was based on PLATO games, namely Oubliette. My games – Mordor and Demise, were based on my experience with Avatar and Journey. Wizardry is the perfect example of a game franchise that helped define a generation having roots that come from PLATO. And what about MUDs? The concept for them was alive and well on PLATO (in graphical form no less) long before they became popular on Apple and PC computers. The influence of PLATO is indeed far reaching.

This was state of the art graphics in 1979

To play games on PLATO you had to think, plan, strategize, and most importantly; imagine. The education I received from playing games couldn’t compare with what I was learning in school. For example, in Empire – the space based war game, you had to fly a ship in real time, set course, fire phasers and torpedoes all using an angular and velocity-based system. As a 10 year old, I quickly learned how to shoot photon torpedoes traveling at warp 8 at an enemy off my port bow using proper real-time adjustments of angles and trajectories. While it was fun, little did I know this was priming my brain for logic and problem solving. Another factor was the handling of money. The main game I will cover herein (Avatar) dealt with currency in the billions; and I had to learn early on how to plan the use of money, ensure I didn’t run out, and multiply in denominations of hundreds of thousands and millions. This also educated me in a way school did not. All of these experiences served as the foundation for my career in computers to come; all instigated by simple graphical games where you actually had to think, research, plan, manage and problem solve to play them properly.

That is what led me to one of the finest dungeon crawlers ever made; a game which set the standard for many games to come…






Dungeon Romping Awaits you!

This is hands down the most in-depth re-playable old-school dungeon crawler ever made. To this day, it is still played by many die-hard gamers, and just as enjoyable as it was nearly thirty years ago.

Don’t let the simple graphics fool you. Avatar is a highly complex and in-depth gaming experience that rivals even today’s games in “complexity under the hood”. Featuring multiple races, guilds and dynamics relative to spells, usable items, alignments, and management of resources to ensure survival, Avatar undoubtedly set the standard for all fantasy-based dungeon games to come and probably influenced in some capacity every fantasy-based dungeon or even MMOG game today – even if they don’t know it.

This write-up of Avatar simply cannot do it justice. You really have to play it to understand how amazing it was and still is.

One thing that makes Avatar a difficult game is there is no natural regeneration. When you enter the dungeon, you’d better have potions and spells to heal and remove poisons, etc. or you will die. And when you die, only another player can rescue/resurrect you. This ensures players plan ahead and are very, very careful. New characters stay VERY close to the city as opening a poisoned or diseased chest can end in your demise.

Creating your Character is the first thing you do. There are 10 races to choose from with numerous attributes, and these races have different stat ranges, can only join certain guilds, and have numerous attributes that define the maximum age, how fast they acquire experience, how “lucky” they are, what resistances they have and other unique features including the ability to “breathe water”. All characters are a member of the Nomad guild upon creation, and while it’s normal to run a character to a level 30 nomad before switching to another guild, it’s important to research the guilds prior to building a character to make sure you have the proper stats, and both your race and alignment are accepted.

Study the races, guilds and attributes before you create!

Age is a big factor in Avatar because every time you enter town to heal; you age. There are monsters in the dungeon that can age you when they hit you. And if you’re a Human (which has the lowest age range), once you hit 100, you will regularly die of natural causes. While Humans level up very fast compared to the “older races” the age problem is a serious problem as the only items in the gaming world which lower your age are either ultra expensive or very, very rare (Potion of Youth and Dragon’s Blood). This is not to say a player cannot manage a human character; it just takes a lot more effort.

Players can have multiple characters by transferring them to fake holding accounts. Players can also transfer items between these characters, which allows for bank characters and easy transfer of items and gold. Each character has 56 item slots.

The City is the central hub of Avatar. Here you can find the Bank, Store, Guilds, Morgue, and review your Spells. The Store is the central place for commerce, and as Avatar is multi-player, the contents of the store can change regularly. Items come in 4 flavors – aligned (Good, Neutral or Evil) or unaligned. This creates some solid diversity when you find high level and important items. You can have a Good character who finds an uber sword that’s evil. Either pony up the gold to realign the sword, sell it, or trade it to somebody. If a Good character equips an Evil item, it acts as cursed and has negative effects. But there’s much more to items; when you find them in chests, they are unidentified and classified based on your character’s intelligence. So a really dumb character may find a “Weapon” they have to pay the store to Identify it into a “Dagger” which is further identified into a “Steel Dagger” which is finally identified as a “Steel Dagger (e)”. This can be quite costly and requires learned knowledge on where to spend your money as some items are ultra expensive to identify then end up selling for 1 gold because they are cursed. Some items can also have charges if they cast spells. Potions and such disappear when the charges are gone while weapons and armor can be “recharged” for a fee at the store. Players can also combine and de-combine items in the store. Have two potions with 3 charges each? Turn them into one potion of six charges! This saves item slots. Have a potion with 200 combined charges and want to break out 5 of those charges for use? Not a problem!

The Bank is very important as it is the only way to ensure the protection of gold and items from being stolen or destroyed in the dungeon. Players also use the Bank to also store root items with numerous charges for “breaking into” smaller charges for dungeon runs. For example, an Elven Potion casts resist magic and is used for nearly every dungeon run by the majority of characters (resist magic lowers the chance of being turned to stone or destroyed . Players will often stockpile  a “master” Elven Potion with say 150 charges in their bank. They will then break off 5 charges at a time to keep in their inventory for use. Imagine what would happen if a player lost their master Elven Potion of 150 charges to a slime monster!

It’s important to note that you can only permanently raise your stats by finding certain items, namely tomes and potions. Certain monsters can drain your stats as well, which means players need to “upkeep” their drained stats after a long journey in the dungeon!

The Morgue is used to resurrect dead players and companions (covered below) for a… nominal fee. Guilds are a key part of the game and define the Class which the character represents. All characters start out as a Nomad, and while they can join multiple guilds, age becomes a factor as each guild you join ages you 10-15 years (training is hard!). For this reason, character generally level up to 30 as a Nomad and then switch to their “main guild”. You can only level up in the city and at your guild… for a nominal fee. Quests can also be assigned by your guild – to kill a monster or return with an item. This can pose quite a challenge when a rare monster or item is assigned. And in the ultra rare instance, an item can be assigned (much later in the game) that is so difficult to find, players might have to abandon the character for another until it’s found. The Maximum level in Avatar is 999 and it takes on average 400-500 hours to reach max level. Also, when you’re gaining experience for your next level you can “pin” which means you have 1 experience point less than being able to make two levels and cannot gain any additional experience until you level up. This forces players to “go up for air” when they’ve maxed out the experience they can earn before they level up. This is how players can get stuck; by receiving quests for monsters that are very hard to find, resulting in “pinning” and not obtaining any experience while looking for the monster.

Monkeymen are like candy to a growing low level character; high in experience and low in risk! Rare to run into, but delicious when found!

There are numerous spells in the game, and what is available depends on your guild. Damage, healing, teleporting, resurrection, chest unlocking; there is a lot for the player to choose from. Players can also load spells into buffers so all they need to do is hit Shift-# in order to cast the spell. As a player levels up, the cost of casting spells goes down, and spells become a centerpiece for strategic fighting, even for non-spell based characters. For example, Warriors have no offensive spells, but they end up finding and using items which cast spells; and depending on the target monster, how many groups there are and the threat level, one must choose very carefully. It’s important to remember players have a finite number of spell points, and once they’re gone; they’re gone until the player either returns to the city or uses an item which can give spell points (usually in emergency circumstances). Magic users must plan the use of every spell and make sure they don’t run out of points while deep in the dungeon or they’ll be in big trouble!

The Dungeon is where the magic happens. Avatar is a grid-based maze system with 16 levels that are 30×30 in size. Within this dungeon are a number of serious dangers including chutes which drop you levels, pits, darkness squares, illusion squares, water, quicksand, stud rooms (tougher monsters) and more. You can see all of the mapped levels at this website. Think having a complete map is going to save you? Wait until you accidentally open a Teleporter chest or make a mistake and step on the wrong square. It will happen, and you will get lost. One thing that differentiated Avatar from the other dungeon crawlers that came before it was the player could move (or run) while in combat. This added a different dynamic to the strategy allowing for evasive maneuvering of hostile monsters, or easy walking through peaceful monsters. Other games locked you in combat until you or the monsters were dead.

Welcome to Level 1 of Avatar! Stay close to town!

Since there is no regeneration, trips into the dungeon can become quite the excursion, especially at the higher levels. You’d better have sufficient healing, curing and teleporting capabilities, or you can find yourself in big trouble. Most higher level characters teleport vs. running to the depths because of the amount of time it takes; but for those who do run to the bottom, there are distinct paths of transport they follow, taking advantage of static teleporters and chutes.

Planning also includes ensuring you are prepared for the well known nasties that begin starting on level 3 where monsters can paralyze, drain, and stone you. As such, players who are familiar with the game do not venture onto the 3rd level without magic resistance, draining resistance and paralysis resistance. While potions can offer these resistances, there are common items (such as a White Cloak) which players look to acquire before they set foot on level 3 because of the risk.

Within the dungeon, certain monsters appear in certain areas, and over time the player learns what spawns where. This is critically important when quests are assigned by your guild.

Players can form parties together, but most players run two accounts at once to ensure survival (if one character dies, the other can resurrect or carry the body back to town). With the system being so easy to access with two 512×512 windows, having two accounts is common. Some players even run four accounts at once (which is discussed below).

Monster Hunting becomes a very common event when one player gets a quest to kill a hard to find creature. Soon, numerous adventurers can be scouring an entire level looking for that “necessary kill” to level up. When another player finds the monster they’ll yell “Found it! X,Y,Z! Hurry!” This creates a fun dynamic where players rush from point to point in the dungeon in the hopes they can get to the creature before the room “repopulates” with something different.

Uh oh. Something went very wrong here…

Monsters & Combat are at the center of gameplay for Avatar. Combat is turned based, with each turn taking roughly 3 seconds. During this time you can fight, run or cast spells/use items. There are numerous monsters of different types; undead, water-based, elementals, giants, etc. and these types can affect how useful your weapon is, if your spells will work, and your overall ability to defeat them. And the monsters get nasty. They can steal your unequipped items and gold, turn you to stone (insta-killing you), drain your stats, paralyze you, age you, and even slime any item in your inventory (including an equipped item!). What can I say; old school is nasty. Be prepared to die. A lot.

There can be up to four groups of monsters, and if I recall a total of 12 in each group, although most monsters come in just one group of 2-3 and when there are multiple groups there’s usually 2-3 in each group. Occasionally the player will encounter “Named” monsters, so instead of running into “1 Poltergeist” they will encounter “Poltergeist” defining it as a special monster. Special monsters almost always have followers (multiple groups). Based on the followers and group 1 monster, the player may choose to kill the other groups before the first group, giving the option of “switching groups” and then taking combat action.

Weapon swings are a big deal in Avatar. When you start out, you can equip your hands, which can give you two swings (and the ability to kill two monsters at once), or use a one swing weapon (such as an iron dagger) which may hit harder, but will never do the second strike. Most players use their hands until they can get a strong 2 swing weapon like a Steel Dagger.

Spells are also critical, and ultimately kill the most monsters in a single round (save a Ninja with Hands of Destruction; but Word of Death can still outperform it).

Certain monsters require more powerful weapons to kill. For example, the player may run into a level 2 monster in a level 1 stud room which requires Iron to hit, so hands have “no effect”. The same goes for deeper monsters; soon, a Steel Dagger won’t have any effect on some creatures from level 4 or below, requiring an upgrade.

Spawning is an important issue as well. Depending on how many people are playing and going through the area, a dungeon that’s empty on the way down can be full on the way up…

Dungeon Levels 1-2 are pretty easy; most players focus on finding “Monkeymen” groups to level up as quick as possible, but it still takes days just to reach level 40. Level 3 is where the real challenge begins. This is where a player will first encounter monsters that can turn you to stone (Filaries), monsters that can drain your stats (Ximyuti) and teleporter chest traps. Common rule of thumb is don’t hit Level 3 until you have a White Cloak, which gives drain resistance. Level 4 brings Giant Leeches; massive groups of nasty critters that can lay a character down in just 1-2 rounds (unless a magic class that blast them first), and Pelagons, nasty fire breathing dragons that do a ton of damage. And Level 5 brings on the Sorcerers; monsters that are capable of “Destroying” you in a single shot (better have your Magic Resistance on!). All of these dangers require very specific preparation, resistances and planning. And that’s just the first 5 levels! The dangers compound as you venture further down…

Companions are another key part of Avatar. Players can use spells (through their guild or from items) to “charm” creatures to help them fight in combat, and as players venture deeper, companions can save your life by taking sneak attacks by 1-hit monsters. Companions can also decide to leave you, so that uber monster you charmed with a scroll a few hours ago may suddenly decide to leave your side right before a critical battle. Be careful! A character can have four companions, but can only carry one dead one, so if all four die, only one can be carried back to the city to be resurrected at the Morgue. If you pick up a dead player, the companion is dropped.

Waiting for a Guild Wars 2 Event in the background while Playing Avatar. New meets Old!

Chests & Treasure serve as the driving force for adventure. While the player can occasionally find an item drop from a non-chest monster, 99% of the time, items are found in chests. The problem is chests are often trapped, and if a character lacks the proper skills, the traps can kill you instantly. The Chest side of Avatar is a big part of things as some chests are Magically Locked. The only way to open them is with a Charm of Opening Spell, which can only be cast by four guilds: Nomad, Thief, Scavenger and Villain. There is a Ring of Opening players can find which can be recharged; it’s expensive, making sure use of the spell is for monster groups likely to have stronger treasure drops. Chests show behind monsters, and can often be identified during combat, but sometimes, if the monsters are rough and the skill isn’t high enough, a player cannot access a chest until the monsters are dead; however classes such as Thieves are adept at opening (or stealing) chests under a monster’s nose and running away with the contents. Two marks appear for a chest, what trap you think it is and what you think your chances of disarming it are; and of course I’m talking about Traps, which are really nasty. They include poison gas, disease, slime (destroys contents of chest), age, teleporter, stone, and a few others I can’t recall. Fate is an interesting one as it can adjust your hit and spell points; this can be good or bad depending on whether or not you are low on hits and spells!

Death is not pretty in Avatar. Remember, this is an old school hardcore game. Granted death is not permanent, when you die, the only way to live again is to have a player rescue you and either resurrect you or take you to the Morgue. If you are resurrected in the Morgue or died from being turned to stone, you always lose a point of constitution. Most player resurrects are 98% chance of success. That 2% failure is the most feared aspect of the game. Complications can ravage and destroy a character. You lose 5 points on Constitution and 3 points from all other stats points from each of your character’s statistics. The character also ages 15 years and loses “max” hit points. The amount of hits lost depends on the guild, but the core equation is 20% * Level * Guild HP Gain. So a level 200 character will probably use around 80 hit points. A character can recover, but if the character ages too much or loses too many hits, the character is usually abandoned.

It’s not uncommon to die after becoming lost. This creates yet another problem for players to solve. As such, another character needs to locate your body using either a spell or an item that casts the locate spell. Remember how I talked about teleporting earlier? Well, some squares of the dungeon are rock. If you put in the wrong coordinates, you can teleport into the rock. There is only one class with one spell which can “fetch essence” to pull you out and a resurrection from rock guarantees complications.

Dominator: a Warrior’s Wet Dream – yours for the bargain price of $119M!

Economy & Balance are two of the key qualities that make Avatar such an amazing game for its time. First, the economy is based on a finite amount of gold. There is a base value that all found gold is taken from and there will never be more gold in the world than the base value defines. While one may think that could allow players to hoard gold and items over time to “kill” the economy this has never happened because of the numerous gold and item “taking” methods built into the game ranging from stealing monsters to slime traps, identification of items (including cursed items which have no sell value) and the “leveling up” gold sink. This model was light years ahead of its time and while new players were blown away to see items selling for $15M to $500M or more in the store, when they found that first “uber item” they couldn’t really afford to identify but still sold for $8M they are able to build their cash reserves quickly. But drains can happen ultra quick and high level characters can find themselves running out of money due to recharging items which are very expensive but necessary to wander the depths of the game. The Alignment aspect of Avatar is a big factor too; if you’re an evil character and find an amazing item which isn’t for sale in the store (because it’s rare) and it’s good; you have to pay a ton of cash to realign it. This happens quite often.

There’s a magical balance to Avatar that can only be experienced through gameplay. And I’m not talking about just economy; I mean the game as a whole. While there are harsh consequences built into the game such as permanent item destruction (even equipped items) and death complications, these “systems” work out well. Even aging, which ultimately becomes an issue sooner or later, guarantee at one point (unless you can continually find anti-aging means) your character will be too old to play anymore. This is part of the grand design.

There are three Versions of Avatar on the PLATO network. The original (old) version of Avatar is called 2Avatar. That’s what I grew up playing. Nobody really plays it and it’s said to be “broken” in a few areas. The most popular version is zAvatar. This is the persistent “normal” difficulty game which almost always has people in it. Then we have vAvatar which is reset once a year and is much harder in difficulty, allowing for monsters from up to three levels below to appear. Many players run four characters (and accounts) at once on vAvatar because it’s necessary to survive. When vAvatar is reset, it is slammed with people trying to “lead the pack” on character development and item finds.


Avatar and numerous other games from PLATO had a monumental impact on modern gaming; the extent of which will never be known.  But more importantly, we can learn a lot from what was built back in the days of true innovation and leading edge passion and design. I’ve found it is often a good thing to pause and take a look back at where we came from; to once again revisit our roots to see if they provide some form of inspiration that we do not receive today.

The good news is we don’t just have to remember or research; we can experience these fantastic games today on the Cyber1 system. Visit this site, watch the videos, and then click on Get a Signon. I recommend selecting the izprog group (say unknown for system), and make sure you put something in the feedback stating you are creating an account to try out Avatar and other legacy games. When you get to the AUTHOR MODE page, simply type “zavatar” and hit F9. I highly recommend reading the entire helplesson before you create a character; and capture the screens with the racial and guild data so you can plan. Enjoy, and if you do have fun playing Avatar, be sure to Donate to the Cyber 1 system and the folks who run it. Also, you can find maps for zAvatar here.

  1. Great article. I’ve been playing avatar on the Cyber1 system for several years now and it’s amazing how this old game still has so much appeal today. I quit playing for a while and got sucked into World of Warcraft but eventually came back to ‘the cube’. To me, the complexity and randomness just aren’t duplicated in today’s MMOG’s despite the fact that the Avatar world is ‘just’ a 30x30x15 dungeon. Newer games seem very scripted in comparison. One correction concerning ‘complications’ during rez’s…. In the current versions on Cyber1, the penalty is 5 points of constitution and 3 of all other stats in addition to aging you 15 years.

  2. Thanks for your Plato review. I to grew up with Plato. My step-father worked at the CDC and would also bring me in on the weekends. I actually was given an old Maggie terminal when I was around 12. Did you play on Minna or cerl?
    I do not remember Journey. Drygulch was an old favorite, I hear it is lost forever.
    Would spend countless hours on empire.
    I found Demise back in the late 90’s. A Wonderful game!

  3. Thank you for the feedback, Michael! I played on PCA most of the time and occasionally PEA. It’s sad to hear Drygulch is lost forever. It was the only game I knew of where players actually carved out the maze and built the “dungeon” (on PLATO at least). It sure was fun wandering the badlands in hope of coming across those gold nuggets. Have you created a login on Cyberserv and checked out the current PLATO system?

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