Last week we met two enterprising designers, Kelton Flinn and John Taylor, who recognized that multiplayer was the name of the future and put their careers on the line to see an idea through to completion. That idea was Island of Kesmai, an ancestor of the modern MMO that used crude ASCII graphics and CompuServe's network to provide an interactive, cooperative online roleplaying experience. It wasn't the first MMO, but it was the first one published commercially, and sometimes that makes all the difference.
Flinn and Taylor's Kesmai didn't stop with being the first to bring MMOs to the big time, however. Flush with cash and success, Kesmai turned its attention to the next big multiplayer challenge: 3-D graphics and real-time combat. Unlike the fantasy land of Island of Kesmai, this title would take to the skies in aerial dogfighting and prove even more popular than the team's previous project.
Released in 1986, Air Warrior didn't just wow the crowds over; it stunned them into complete and utter awe. Keep in mind that concepts like "multiplayer" and "3-D" and "online" were so rare at the time that any one of these was enough to make headlines. Yet here was a game that provided all three in a tight package that offered players the opportunity to jump into a World War II-era cockpit and duke it out with friends and strangers.
Now, it's important not to overstate this. While Air Warrior had 3-D graphics, they were primitive wireframes and certainly not easy on the eyes. As with Island of Kesmai, the studio shopped around for an online provider to host it and settled with GEnie (Kesmai would later port the product to other services such as CompuServe as well). And like Island of Kesmai, Air Warrior wasn't cheap, costing flyboys and flygirls $6 an hour on a 1200-baud or slower modem. You'd need a 386 PC with 25Mhz of speed and 3MB of RAM to run it, which was a powerful system back then.
Unlike Island of Kesmai, however, Air Warrior wasn't a persistent online world and instead favored set-up matches. Even without the presistence, a strong community developed with fans following the franchise for well over a decade.
While it lacked many of the requirements to be considered a full MMORPG, Air Warrior is worth mentioning for its technical achievements and for the fact that it helped start the online flight sim genre. Kesmai went on to develop several sequels for Air Warrior, including an improved graphical version, an edition for Windows, and Air Warrior II. Kesmai eventually sold the property to EA, which published Air Warrior III: Millennium Version in 2000. Unfortunately, Air Warrior III was taken offline in 2001, only to see spiritual successors such as Battlefield 1942 take its place.
Kesmai kept the ball rolling as the gnarly '80s gave way to the grungy '90s. A deal was made with the newest rising star in the online service provider arena -- AOL -- and Kesmai's future never looked so bright. After years of creating games only to see other services run them, however, Kesmai's owners figured that it was time to get a piece of the service provider pie. This became even more important as Kesmai entered into legal tangles with AOL over latter's monopolization of the industry. Kesmai eventually disentangled itself from AOL in 1997.
GameStorm CEO Chris Holden recalled the writing on the wall: "It became clear that we were in a position of being overly dependent on a single huge distribution partner and that's where most of the business was coming from. When we looked at the situation with AOL and compared the revenues coming from AOL with the revenues coming from all our other wholesale partners, we realized there really was no other option, if we were going to try to get healthy again, but to say 'OK, we're now going to look to the web, we're going to try to do what no one has succeeded in doing before, and that is to build the first viable web-based game service.'"
To separate itself from the online service provider pack, Kesmai knew it needed a better approach for handling online gaming. Its new service, GameStorm, incorporated two radical concepts. First, it would throw out the expensive -- and exclusive -- per-hour cost, opting instead for a flat $10/month fee. Second, it would gather together multiple developers in-house to provide one of the largest selections of online games the world had ever seen.
From Air Warrior to Multiplayer Battletech and Aliens Online to Harpoon Online, GameStorm offered something for everyone. The service even supported most networkable CD-ROM titles not in its library and offered a matchmaking feature, which was important in the early days of the world wide web. The studio knew that it needed over 150,000 customers paying the monthly fee just to recoup the cost of setting up and running the service and games. While we don't know what kind of numbers GameStorm actually did see, reviews were positive, and a cross-promotional deal with GameSpot only helped increase the provider's profile.
It's interesting to discover that one of the studios developing for GameStorm was the then-fledgling Mythic Entertainment. Following its involvement with GameStorm, Mythic would go on to be a major player in the MMO industry with Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online. In fact, Mark Jacobs credited Air Warrior with the inspiration behind the three-realm RvR system that came to be in DAoC.
Even while Kesmai was jetting forward into the future as fast as it could, its founding game wasn't forgotten. By the time Island of Kesmai was retired in 1995, the team was hard at work on a sequel called Legends of Kesmai. The third installment in the Kesmai legacy went into beta in 1996 and released a year later.
Legends of Kesmai used its predecessor as a template for devleopment, offering a graphically enhanced version (bitmapped sprites that were somewhat animated) with significant tweaks to its core gameplay. It also used a GUI to make it much more accessible to late-'90s crowds and offered a faster response time between user input and game feedback.
Just as Island of Kesmai was competing with fellow MUDs at the time for being the best of the bleeding edge, so too did Legends of Kesmai have to contend with a new crop of online graphical MMOs: Meridian 59, Ultima Online, and Lineage. The reason Legends of Kesmai doesn't linger in today's gamer vocabulary is that it looked positively ancient in comparison to these upstarts, all of which were coded from fresh instead of rehashing a mid-'80s design.
After years of innovation in the video game, MMO, and service provider fields, Kesmai's hot streak finally ran cold. As the industry shifted away from service providers, GameStorm's popularity dropped. News Corp. sold Kesmai to Electonic Arts in 1999, sounding the death knell for the studio. EA held onto the studio for a brief year before gutting it and shutting it down.
At the turn of the millennium, when MMOs hit the next level of popular success with games like EverQuest, Kesmai and Legends of Kesmai were ushered off the stage unceremoniously.
It's good not to end on a down note, I think. While it's a shame that a studio as innovative as Kesmai didn't live to see the genre it helped birth blossom into the raging success it is today, it's still saluted in many circles as one of the most influential companies that got MMOs going. While many players forgot Kesmai or were too young to have ever experienced its games and services, there were those who kept its memory alive.
In 2011, the Games Developers Choice Awards announced that it ws going to honor Kesmai by bestowing upon its founders, John Taylor and Kelton Flinn, the Online Game Legend Award. This award recognized "the career and achievements of a particular creator who has made an indelible impact on the craft of online game development."
Considering just how much Kesmai gave to MMO gamers, I think it is just and fitting that we were able to give back to them this small measure of appreciation for their hard work. There are worse epitaphs for a studio than "game legend," after all.
Special note: I'm going to be taking a brief sabbatical from The Game Archaeologist as I go through the current Choose My Adventure series here on Massively. You can follow my exploits in Dark Age of Camelot there -- which is certainly fitting for a TGA vet such as myself -- and then join me as I resume this column in April!
When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.