I’ve never even heard of LucasFilm’s Habitat, a Commodore 64 virtual world. It was practically an MMO before they’d been invented, letting thousands of players inhabit and govern a digital world. Now, someone’s trying to bring it back.
While various online games existed in the 70s and this isn’t the first MMO, Habitat is arguably the “first graphical character-based interactive environment,” and where most games before it had limited text and graphical interfaces, this was more or less recognisable as a modern MMO.
Players could explore, chat and change their appearance among a huge community of similarly engaged people (it was built to support 10,000 players). You could even rob and kill others. “Players immediately latched onto cosmetic items,” says Alex Handy, the founder of the Oakland Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment and the man behind the project to resurrect and preserve Habitat.
Check out this dreadful trailer:
It’s no easy task to recreate a nearly 30-year-old game, obviously. The original was exclusive to a now non-existent Commodore 64-only ISP called Q-Link, running defunct Stratus Nimbus servers and using a whole host of code and languages that simply don’t exist any more.
The original code however does still exist. Handy managed to get that from Chip Morningstar, one of the original creators. Armed with that and a donated Nimbus server, the museum team held a hackathon “in the hopes of getting the game’s server running online and accessible via the Internet using a Commodore 64 emulator.”
That got them this far:
It might not look like much, but Handy describes it as their “greatest triumph,” and it involved hacking together a new Habitat server from nothing while reverse engineering code and equipment to communicate with the emulated C64. It’s a single player (headless because of customisation options) in a single room. It’s miles away from the thousands of inhabitants wandering an equal number of locations in the original, but it’s a start.
The last part of the puzzle, according to Handy, largely relates to “server source code for the Q-Link online service.” If the team can’t find old versions of that, they’re just going to build their own versions of it.