Avatar (PLATO system video game)

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Avatar is an early graphics-based multi-user highly interactive role-playing computer game, created on the University of Illinois' Control Data Corporation PLATO system in the late 1970s. It has graphics for navigating through a dungeon, and chat style text for player status and communication with others. It can currently be played online via Cyber1 or the NovaNET system. It can also be played online through a simulation called Javatar. What makes Avatar popular is the high level of interactivity with other players and the sense of community that develops. Development on Avatar began on the University of Illinois PLATO system around 1977; the first version was released by Bruce Maggs, Andrew Shapira, and David Sides in 1979.

History[edit]

Oubliette was written by Jim Schwaiger and published on the PLATO system in 1977. It was so difficult that one could not play it alone; in order for players to survive, they had to run in groups. Following it, also on PLATO, was a game called Moria written in 1977, copyright 1978. Avatar was written in 1979 by several students in an attempt to out-do Oubliette.[1]

There have been many different versions of Avatar over the years, which are often referred to by the year they were released (or scheduled for release). Each version is a bit different from the others. The first version of Avatar was actually called 'Avathar', and only existed for a short period of time. Next came the 'Man 60' version (in this case the 60 does not refer to a year). Later came 'Avatar 84', which included many new features, and is arguably the most popular version. This version was followed by 'Avatar 90', an ambitious departure from previous versions. The game data in this version was considerably more extensive, and death was replaced by an 'afterlife' mode. The most recent version is 'Avatar 95', which has no afterlife, but introduced other features such as an Immortal class and a rich selection of items.

Currently, classic as well as modified versions of Avatar 84 are operating on Cyber1. Novanet hosts original versions of both Avatar 95 and Avatar 90. It is also possible to play versions of Avatar 84 and Man 60 Avatar on Novanet. These last two games operate with the old game data on the Avatar 95 engine, which is not quite the same as playing through the original engine.

Basic gameplay[edit]

The user interface includes icons of monsters; statistic displays; information about the character's status; the status of the current encounter; and items being carried, worn, and used. Maps show a view of the dungeon facing in the character's current direction. The player starts the game by choosing a character, which involves choosing a race, gender, alignment, ability scores and pseudonym.

Avatar is inherently a multi-player game. A full chat interface is built into the game, allowing players to communicate. Characters often choose to team up and form parties as a safer means of exploring the dungeon. Magic spells (such as healing) can be cast on other players, or affect all members of a group, as do teleportation spells. Players can buy, sell, and trade items and gold with each other.

The movement keys in Avatar are a, w, d, and x for turn left, go forward, turn right, and turn around respectively. W (shift-w) will both go forward and go through a door (if there is one). Shifted versions of the "turning" keys (A, D, and X) will turn and move 1 step in that direction, also going through doors. f is used to fight, and s for spells. It often takes three or more hits to kill a monster. It takes from two to five seconds for a turn to finish. The O key is used to open boxes. Pressing a number key invokes the spell, potion, or scroll loaded there.

Gold is used as a currency amongst players and to buy items and weapons from the store in the city. Gold can be banked or carried.

There are several types of terrain in the dungeon. Rotators turn the character around to a random direction. TP squares teleport characters to specific or random places. Anti-magic rooms make spells and magic items ineffective, and some rooms render their occupants blind. There is also water, which the character can drown in if too much time is spent. There is quicksand, which can rob a character of items. In addition, there is an unusual type of square that shows a false image of the dungeon in front of the character, which can be quite disorienting.

Mainly because of these dangers, Avatar players have made maps, marking locations of walls and doors, and different terrain types, so as to not get lost the next time they venture to that part of the dungeon. Mapping is rather important, as getting lost can be a very bad thing—dying while lost on a lower level, for example, does not make it easy for other players to rescue you. However, many Avatar players find that creating their own maps adds a new level of challenge and enjoyment to the game.

Avatar is set up as a cooperative game, so it is not designed for pvp. There are a few exceptions to this however. One way a player can harm another is to cast a spell from the back of a large party, damaging the players in front. Alternatively, a party leader could teleport the party into solid rock, but when a party rocks, all characters involved are severely affected.

Guilds and quests[edit]

There are a number of guilds in the game, which represent the different roles or character classes that a player's character can assume. Most of these have parallels in other RPGs, such as warriors, thieves, and ninjas. A character can join a guild, presuming the character meets the minimum stat requirements, alignment strictures, and race requirements of that guild. Once a character has joined a guild, they can make levels in that guild to become more proficient at that particular role. Characters may belong to more than one guild, but they can only be "acquainted" (be playing as) one at any given time.

Players can be "quested" by their guild, setting them a mission to complete in order to achieve the next character level. One can be quested for items, to kill monsters, or for gold. Finding a monster for a quest can be simple or very difficult; a common request of other players is to, for example, "S/R Golem": the sender asks that someone who has found a Golem save and report it so that a quested character can come and kill it, satisfying his quest. Asking for items is usually seen as begging and beneath the dignity of serious players, but asking for an item to satisfy a quest is acceptable, and it is considered noble to offer such an item. As a character rises in a guild the items and monsters quested become more difficult and costly. Eventually, one may need help to satisfy a quest, and this leads to the most remarkable feature of Avatar: teams and cooperative play.

Death[edit]

There are several ways to die in Avatar, including being injured by a monster, being poisoned, diseased, suffering from a spell, being turned into stone and teleporting into solid rock. In most versions of Avatar, when a character dies, it can be resurrected by another character, either in the dungeon or at the morgue. Potions and items can be used to aid in this task, but all resurrections cost a character age and in some cases stats.

If a "raise" is successful, the cost to the raised character is fairly minimal. The alternative to a successful raise is a "comp", as the game will tell the raised player, "There were complications". Comping generally results in the loss of many stats and more age than a successful raise, plus the character's maximum hit points are often reduced. Low-level characters often find it easier to start over than to try to recover from a comp. Teleporting into solid rock (or, in most versions, above level 1) will always lead to a raise with a 0% chance of success and hence an instant comp.

In Avatar 95, the Necromancer class was able to cast a self resurrection spell.

In Avatar 90, when a character dies he or she is sent to an afterlife. In this version each level has its own afterlife and a portal somewhere within it that sends a character back to the city steps if he or she manages to survive all the undead creatures that live there. The level one afterlife is called Purgatory and the level fifteen one is called Hades. Warlocks are able to cast a spell called "silver cord" that can transfer characters to and from each Afterlife, so long as they are not dead themselves. An interesting aspect of the afterlife system is that it allows adventurous characters to effectively rescue themselves, keeping the game play going rather than waiting for a rescue.

Economy[edit]

Most versions of Avatar operate around a closed economy. Typically, when a version of Avatar is started, it is initialized in a state where all of the gold in the game belongs to the monsters in the dungeon. There is a fixed amount of gold in the Avatar economy, i.e., once a version of Avatar is initialized, the total amount of gold in the game does not change over time (unless an operator intervenes). As players start to adventure, killing monsters and opening chests, they begin to acquire some of this gold. They also acquire gold by finding items and selling them to the store. Over time, the gold shifts from the monsters over to the players, although gold may be returned to the monsters as players pay gold to make levels, buy items from the store, realign items, recharge items, raise companions, etc. Some monsters may steal a bit of gold back from players as they wander the dungeon. Players who stop playing and delete their characters also end up returning the gold to the monster pile.

Avatar's closed economy system affects game dynamics over time. Characters starting the game early have a better chance of becoming wealthy than players who start the game later. As a game matures (with lots of high level players) it is possible for the amount of gold residing with the monsters to become severely depleted. When this happens, it becomes hard for new players to acquire enough gold to make level and/or purchase items. Extremely high level characters are typically protected from autodeletion routines, allowing large amounts of gold to sit unused on characters that have been abandoned. Due to these factors, Avatar is at its best when it is actively managed by operators/game masters who can keep an eye on this sort of thing.

Another interesting aspect of the Avatar economy is the city store. The store sets prices for items based on a scale which depends on how many items are in stock. The store offers a lower buying price than its selling price, and prices for rarer items are higher than more common items.

Recent versions of Avatar have made attempts at incorporating a better store. The store in Avatar 90 is capable of keeping track of supply and demand on the items it stocks, and sets prices accordingly. Avatar 95 (and hence the Man 60 and '84 versions on NovaNET) has a trading post instead of a store. The idea was to allow players to set realistic asking prices for their items, cutting out the middleman. This idea has worked well at times, but the trading post has a finite amount of space and thus its entire stock tends to devolve to overpriced, unwanted items, prohibiting players from being able to sell new items. Another shortcoming of the trading post is that it requires a critical mass of players to function as planned.

Character parties[edit]

An important aspect of Avatar is developing a group of other players one can count on to help out. Whether for a quest, more gold or experience, or just the thrill of killing monsters you would never see otherwise, joining parties is the height of Avatar.

Parties of characters can be created by "tracking" a leader. All the characters in the party follow their selected leader wherever they travel. A party composed of Ninja, Seeker, Healer, and Sorcerer characters can successfully fight almost any monster, open almost any box, and heal its members after combat. Monsters that are immune to weapons can be overcome with spells. Other combinations can be more successful depending on the situation. Parties also allow beginners to tag along with more experienced players, sharing experience and treasure. Some objectives are impossible for a single player, making parties required. Level 15 of the dungeon is unsafe for all but a few characters when alone, and even they might be overcome by the most powerful monsters.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Bartle, Richard (2003). Designing Virtual Worlds. New Riders. p. 741. ISBN 0-13-101816-7. "Jim Schwaiger's 1977 game Oubliette (inspired by Dungeons & Dragons and Chuck Miller's earlier multiplayer game, Mines of Moria) had a first-person point of view and used line graphics to render the scene ahead. [...] In late 1979, the first ever fully functional graphical virtual world was released: Avatar. Written by a group of students to out-do Oubliette, it was to become the most successful PLATO game ever--it accounted for 6% of all the hours spent on the system between September 1978 and May 1985." 

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