The break-through came with Fed's move to the US. Clem had been trying to crack the US market for some time, and finally he got a deal with GEnie, the consumer network owned by General Electric.

GEnie didn't have any special software; you connected to it using any old comms software. The interface was designed around text menus where you typed in the number of the option you wanted. It was pretty hard to use and understand, with a result that the users tended to be the cream of computer users... they had to be intelligent and persistent or they wouldn't ever have been able to figure out how to use the system! GEnie also had a reputation as the home of the best online games, so it naturally attracted avid games-players.

GEnie was, again, a network designed to use up spare capacity when GEIS, the information arm of General Electric, wasn't busy. Unfortunately GEnie was a victim of its own success. It proved very popular and started raking in money, but the usage slowed the system right down. GEIS took the money with delight but did not do anything to improve the system.

Once again, Fed was ported - Ken and Alan cooperated on the porting work again (the last time an outsider was used for porting). GEnie ran on Honeywell mini-computers using a proprietary operating system called Mark III.

This operating system had its problems... it had a memory limit of 1 meg! In order to make room for new features, Alan had to do some serious shoe-horning to tighten up the code and eliminate anything not strictly necessary. Eventually the game had to be split into two separate programs that talked to one another so that we could get access to more memory.

It was at this time that he was forced to remove many of the safety features and checking methods that were in the game to stop it from crashing when things went wrong.

GEnie already had several games running by the time we got there. One new game was actually due to launch around the same time. Fed's port was completed in less time than agreed but it turned out that the GEnie people had assumed that it would take us at least twice as long to do the port as we told them it would... The result was that we weren't allowed to go live because the other game had been promised it could launch first.

We launched in Spring 1990.

Fed was a success on GEnie. However, it was soon clear that work had to be done on the interface to make it compete with other games. Fed had used a fairly crude command structure, with commands simplified for ease of typing but hard to figure out and remember; the messages from the game were sometimes in computer-ese. Alan set about changing the commands and adding new interactive commands.

Fed's move to GEnie was significant for another reason - game management. On Compunet and all the other systems, there was no management at all. The game just ran with Alan programming and doing anything necessary. It was assumed the players could take care of things in the game themselves.

On GEnie, Fi Craig, formerly known as Pugwash, took on the job of dealing with players, and writing a weekly news, in return for a free GEnie account. This involved answering player mail - about 5 letters a week - keeping an eye on the Fed message boards, and organizing occasional special events. Mostly, the players continued to police themselves, and there were only two players who ever had to be locked out of the game.

After a few years, Fi changed her role - she bought a share of the action, and joined Alan and Clem to form a new company, Interactive Broadcasting. She became the CEO, and Alan the Creative and Technical Director.

We also appointed our first volunteer staff - 4 or 5 Party Hosts who were simply in the game to help make fun things happen.

Fed on GEnie generally had around 20 players max in the game. Every three months or so, we'd run free weekends in order to attract new players, and at that time we'd squeeze 50 people into the game.

At last, player planets went into the game. Unfortunately this is where GEnie's memory limit started to bite. Once we had more than a few planets in the game, there wasn't room for any more. So we had to institute a system of planetary rotation... planets took it in turns to be loaded into the game each day. Needless to say, this wasn't popular with the players!

Several other significant things happened to the structure of Fed during this time. Alan changed his mind about the final ranks of the game, realizing that his original ideas just wouldn't work. His plan had been to have a rank of Emperor, elected by the players from those at the rank of Senator, and for Dukes to wage war on each other. But before any code went in to allow the elections, players started to campaign... and the mood of the game changed completely, becoming very ugly, as the players proved unable to campaign using friendly rivalry. Instead they took it deadly seriously and used any and all means to smear their opponents, just as they would have if involved in a real-life American election. It wasn't a game any more.

So the election was scrapped, the idea of an Emperor was scrapped, Senators were scrapped, and the highest player rank was Duke. Dukes would no longer be able to attack each other. The idea of the Martian Invasion was born to give Dukes something to do.

Compared to today's prices, GEnie was expensive - $6 an hour. Later they fiddled with their pricing model and split the service into two, a basic service that was free and a premium service (including games) which was charged for. When this failed because under the all-you-can-eat parts of the service, many people were eating up all the resources, they went back to an hourly charge for everything, but this time it was $3 an hour.

Part 4 >>