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Playing Catch Up:  Habitat 's Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer
Playing Catch Up: Habitat's Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer
October 12, 2006 | By Alistair Wallis

October 12, 2006 | By Alistair Wallis
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Today's Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to the creators of Lucasfilm Games’ 1986 groundbreaking online Commodore 64 game/virtual world Habitat, Randy Farmer and Chip Morningstar.

[Those unfamiliar with the historically important Habitat can read select portions of 'The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat' before proceeding further with this column.]

Farmer began working with computers in 1974, while at school in Michigan. “I was lucky enough to live in a school district in Michigan that had a single 110-baud teletype in the Jr. High math department that rotated around the classrooms,” he says, adding that he can “still smell the warm machine oil and acrid yellow paper tape”.

“A friend of mine showed me a cool Star Trek game named STTR1 [created by Mike Mayfield in 1971/1972] and said that you could actually make your own games for it,” he continues. “I found a HP 2000c programmers reference manual in the teacher’s closet and I was hooked. I formed the first computer club for the district and we spent as many days as possible after school at that teletype, and any other terminals they would let us access.”

COMUNI-cation

By the time Farmer had begun high school in 1976, he had started writing his own games, after “initially wanting to duplicate the STTR1 game”, though he quickly became interested in the possibilities of communications tools as well. “Terminals got faster and more accessible,” he says. “I started building multi-user communications tools.”

The result was COMUNI, one of the first computer Bulletin Boards with built-in chat, if not the first. Farmer applied the same multi-user principles to a co-authored Star Trek game later in the year named SPB, which he describes as “an all-text three-dimensional combat simulator”.

“I definitely saw the future of computing as being social,” he says. “People interacting with people was way more interesting than game AI. Along the way I learned that projects that I co-authored were far superior to those produced by a single programmer.”

The Corner PDP

Morningstar’s beginnings with computers happened slightly later, when, during his first college summer break in 1977, he started working at the University of Michigan Space Physics Research Laboratory. “I went there because I wanted to work on space stuff, he notes. “Which I’m still into, by the way. I was basically just a gopher for the engineers – hey, I was a 17 year old kid who didn’t know anything. Since I wasn’t a full-time staff member, I got stuffed wherever they had some free office space.”

That office space, adds Morningstar “turned out to be in a back corner” where the university kept a PDP-11, a 16-bit microcomputer introduced in 1970 from Digital Equipment Corporation which the research laboratory wasn’t “quite ready to use yet”

“So there I was without a lot to do, in a room alone with a PDP-11 and its manuals,” muses Morningstar. “At the end of the summer I changed my major from Aerospace to Computer Engineering.”

“The first major piece of programming that I did on my own, aside from school or work projects” he continues. “Was a really, really bad D&D-style game written in FOCAL for the PDP-11.”

Morningstar’s own interest in multi-user technology was awakened from his efforts with AI on that game, something that he comments “lead directly to one of the key ideas in Habitat, which was that the actual behavior of actual human beings was much richer, more interesting, and more unpredictable than anything we could program.”

“One of the premises of Habitat was: don’t bother writing AIs, just let real people interact,” he says.

Xanadu And Macross

Following his time at the university, Morningstar began working as an independent computer consultant for law firms and accounts – he notes that his “principal advice was ‘don't buy anything from IBM’” at the time. During this time, from 1981 to 1984, he also began working with XOC, Inc., as an Executive Vice President, where he helped develop and market the Xanadu Hypertext System – the first hypertext project. While the project proved unsuccessful, Morningstar remarks that his involvement did have an effect on his later work on Habitat.

“My experience with Xanadu had quite a lot of influence,” he says. “Not so much in terms of direct technical or conceptual input, but by steeping me in a culture of extreme technical audacity, where people knew a lot of esoteric stuff and weren’t afraid to use it in the service of very aggressive goals.”

Morningstar moved from XOC to the fledgling Lucasfilm Games, where he was “the group toolsmith, among other things”.

“I wrote the programming tools, such as Macross,” he adds. “The universe’s second most powerful 6502 macro assembler - long story - that were used for essentially every 6502-based title we did. I had bits and pieces in other games – I recall that I did some monster AI for The Eidolon, for example.”

Habitat For Humanity

Morningstar later began designing Habitat, a multi-user graphical, virtual world. The world was modeled as a 2D animated display, allowing players to use avatars to interact with one another, as well as the environment itself. Habitat’s world was comprised of around 20,000 “regions” – screens that connected to up to 4 other regions through doors or passages.

Players could take part in various activities, like treasure hunting, writing, listening to lectures or even law drafting, but the emphasis was always on the social aspects of the world. The game would eventually be playable through QuantumLink, an online division of Quantum Computer Services, now AOL, but the legal and financial state of the game needed to be decided first.

“The Habitat project was in a sort of pre-production limbo state for about six months while we waited for the lawyers and finance people to put the deal together. I spent the time working on design and specification,” says Morningstar.

“A huge challenge was just communicating to people what it was,” he continues. “It was so different from anything anybody was familiar with that folks just didn’t have the vocabulary. I frequently found myself locking horns with Steve Case, who was then the head marketing guy at QuantumLink. He was stuck with the challenge of selling this thing to an audience that had never seen anything like it before. He was afraid that they’d be put off by anything that was too strange, whereas I was confident that people would get it once they experienced it.”

Meanwhile, Farmer had also begun working at Lucasfilm Games as a contractor on an Apple II port of the game Koronis Rift. He was just finishing the project, when good news came in for the Habitat team.

“All of a sudden,” says Morningstar. “We got the go ahead, and I had to staff the project. My boss, Steve Arnold, pointed me at this guy, Randy Farmer, who was a contractor just finishing up doing an Apple II port of one of our games. He’d done a really good job and when I talked to him he seemed to have a natural affinity for the project, so I hired him, after about, I think, 10 minutes consideration. My best management decision ever.”

Also involved on the project were Ron Gilbert, Charlie Kelner, and Noah Falstein who provided programming and design support, Gary Winnick and Ken Macklin as artists, and Chris Grigg, who worked on the title’s sound. Morningstar and Farmer also credit George Lucas, who they have previously noted “gave us the freedom to undertake a project that for all he knew was both impossible and insane”.

Lessons Learned

Habitat, for all its success, was also a learning experience for everyone involved; something Morningstar and Farmer have been happy to talk about over the past 20 years. The most notable example of this is the duo’s paper, The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat, which was first presented at The First International Conference on Cyberspace in May of 1990, and which Farmer proudly notes is “now cited in over 50 books”.

“We didn’t have a clue,” admits Morningstar. “What we had was supreme confidence that we were onto something that was interesting and compelling. We were wrong about a lot of stuff but we were right about that. Being right about that made up for a lot of our other mistakes, which are legion.”

“We didn’t know what we were doing,” adds Farmer. “We definitely got some things wrong. Way wrong. Fortunately, people were really interested in hearing the Lessons of Habitat

“The limitations of the platform made this project technically the most challenging that I’ve ever worked on,” he continues. “But those problems pale in comparison to the issues that arose during the multi-year extended beta test. Being the first virtual world meant that we encountered entire new classes of “bugs”, since users could now have a direct effect on other game player’s experience from day to day. Users could now lie, cheat, and steal as well as help, give gifts and trade.”

Morningstar agrees, noting that the answer to the problem was simply to take into account the effect that users would have on their world – though the actual job of working out what that effect would be was far from simple. “One lesson that we’ve carried with us, to essentially every project we’ve worked on since, is that when you are dealing with a large social system, you should count on an entire extra stage of testing beyond what the typical software product rollout plan would call for. This stage is for sociological testing, where you debug the behavioral norms, incentive strategies, reputation systems, and other social elements.”

“This stage really can’t be bypassed,” he adds. “Some products try to skip it, but just end up suffering through the inevitable shakedown after they are released, inflicting the pains of immaturity on their paying customers.”

The Problem With Pipes

The Habitat team also faced another problem in terms of bandwidth, which Farmer and Morningstar described as a “scarce resource” in The Lesson’s of Lucasfilm’s Habitat.

“The original Habitat ran on 300-baud modems – that’s about 30 characters a second – the disk held about 100,000 bytes, and the C64 had less than 40,000 bytes of RAM,” notes Farmer. “I still can’t believe we pulled it off.”

“Bandwidth was tricky then,” agrees Morningstar. “And it’s still tricky. The constraints are somewhat different now; today we are more challenged by latency – the pipes keep getting fatter but they aren’t getting any shorter. But keep in mind that “scarce” is not necessarily the same as “in short supply”. It just means that you want more than you can have. That’s as true today as it was back then; as, I recall, we predicted it would be.”

“The key strategy we used then, and one that is still ferociously effective today, is to conceive of things - like communications protocols - in behavior space rather in presentation space,” he continues. “It usually requires far fewer bytes to describe an action than to describe the way an action made the appearance of the world change. This is why, for example, I think Ajax is revolutionizing distributed applications on the Web.”

However, the most prescient lesson noted by the duo was that “a multi-user environment is central to the idea of cyberspace” – something both Morningstar and Farmer think has proven itself especially true over the past 16 years.

“We’ve said a lot about the various things we’ve learned, some of which have stood the test of time better than others,” says Morningstar. “But this one we hit out of the park.”

“This lesson is something we definitely nailed years before the Web came along,” agrees Farmer. “It just took the Web a little while to shift from static pages (brochure-ware) to community centric sites like Flickr, YouTube and MySpace.”

Habitat Lives On

Habitat’s pilot run lasted from 1986 until 1988, during which time both Morningstar and Farmer continued to work at Lucasfilm in various capacities.

“I also did the first compiler for SCUMM, the scripting engine that Ron Gilbert designed for Maniac Mansion that was then used in numerous Lucasfilm and LucasArts graphic adventure titles,” says Morningstar. “I also named a lot of things – I’m the one to blame for the name SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) and guess I can claim credit for Maniac Mansion and PHM Pegasus - the titles, not the games.”

“I made various technical, design, and story contributions to several other games including Maniac Mansion, PHM Pegasus, Secret of Monkey Island, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, and others that were never credited, completed and/or published,” says Farmer. “But honestly, I spent the bulk of my three years at Lucasfilm in crunch mode on Habitat.”

After leaving the company in 1988, Morningstar and Farmer continued to act as consultants in regards to Habitat, which was retooled and released as Club Caribe in 1989, and later in Japan as Fujitsu Habitat in 1990. In 1995, CompuServe’s WorldsAway also used the Habitat technology – and was again overseen by Farmer and Morningstar - though this was ironically shelved when the company became part of AOL. More recently, Habitat’s technology has lived on as VZones.

The State

During the late 80s and 90s, Morningstar and Farmer continued to work together, firstly at American Information Exchange Corporation, where they set up the “world's first (pre-Internet) online information marketplace”, as well as the “world's first email-based consulting system”.

Following their work with WorldsAway, the duo founded Communities.com along with Douglas Crockford, another Lucasfilm stalwart. While the company’s aims were secure – to build what Morningstar describes as a “highly secure, distributed, extensible object system to support commerce and virtual world applications” - the management brought in twisted the vision, and, in 2001, bankrupted the company in the process. Morningstar notes that this was due to the CEO “trying to create a media portal” – the end result was not marketable, in any case. The full story is recorded here by an anonymous message board poster.

Morningstar moved on to work with State Software, where he helped develop the State Application Framework, “a platform for delivering stateful [sic], real-time, interactive, single- and multi-user applications over the web”, and Avistar Communications, where he developed “a high-end desktop video conferencing and telecommunications system”.

Farmer went to work with 3DO, where he attempted to implement The Metaverse Project, a patent dealing with digital trading that was “determined to be unimplementable [sic] as described in the patent”, and was later cancelled, due to the company’s financial state. From there, he went to State Software, where he also worked on the State Application Framework, before working briefly with Maxis as Live Producer for The Sims Online, and with Linden Labs as Community Design Consultant on Second Life.

It Takes A Community

Nowadays, both Morningstar and Farmer work at Yahoo!, developing online communities.

“We’re making Yahoo! the best place for community on the web,” says Farmer. “I know it’ll take a few more years for us to accomplish this. After that… who knows?”

“One of the things we learned that we’ve been preaching for years,” he adds. “Which companies like Blizzard have, I think, only learned themselves through their own experience, is that this business is really about operations, support, and content distribution, and not so much about software development or technology. One of the things that’s great about Yahoo! is that they know this in their bones.”

“There’s no doubt that multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft and virtual worlds like Second Life are, and always have been, a form of social media but with a clearer revenue model,” notes Morningstar. “I think that Flickr has demonstrated that you can apply the lessons from gaming to build a wonderful and profitable non-game experience.”

Most impressively, in 2001, the duo was recognised for their pioneering work on Habitat when they became the recipients of the First Penguin Award at the Game Developers Choice Awards, which was “created to honor those willing to take a risk and dive into uncharted waters”.

“We got the very first of those awards,” enthuses Farmer. “It was amazing to receive it, especially now that I see the caliber of the other recipients. It represented something very special to me – recognition by my peers that all those hours pioneering online communities was worth all the commitment. It was definitely a culminating moment for me. A real treat was to have one of the original SPB players was in attendance at the award event.”

“It was awesome,” agrees Morningstar. “On a personal level, it’s deeply gratifying to have this major thing in my career acknowledged by my peers. On a professional level, it means that I have external validation I can point to when I talk to others about my accomplishments.”

But perhaps the most interesting element of Morningstar and Farmer’s story is not the ground-breaking online work, or the companies that have employed them – successful or otherwise. Rather, it’s the working relationship, and the friendship, that the two have sustained.

“Randy and I have both incredibly complementary skill sets and incredibly similar ideas of what the right things to do are,” says Morningstar. “Randy is strong on the technical side but awesome on the community side, while I’m strong on the community side and at least like to imagine that I’m reasonably awesome on the technical side. The times when I’ve been working in organizations without Randy have been like having a piece of my brain amputated.”

“It turns out that a lot of what I know is actually stored inside his head, and vice versa,” he continues. “We tend to read each others’ minds in ways that people around us find disquieting, which is of course enormously entertaining. Speaking for myself, I find it great to hang out with someone who not only provides gratifying reinforcement of my prejudices but also points out whenever I do something stupid. You can’t beat that.”

“Honestly, we have a similar vision of the future,” agrees Farmer. “‘It’s the people, stupid’ is the shortest possible summary. We’ve worked together most of the last 20 years, sometimes with me as the nominal boss and sometimes it was him, but always working together as a team that provides complementary technical and inter-personal skills. In short 1 + 1 > 2 in our case – who wouldn’t want that?”

“The Chip’n’Randy Plan For Global Domination proceeds apace,” adds Morningstar.


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