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    • Nearly twenty years ago, a video game completely broken and bugged spoiled me for all other online games since. I thought it may be worth writing down what I still remember about it, so this will be its story in several posts.

      I want to try out something a little different, so this conversation will use the panel format with questions open. Feel free to ask questions at any time, I will try to answer them where appropriate.

      If you've played this game yourself (and I actually hope that I might reach some of the people who did) react with 🚀 and I will invite you to this panel.

    • The Beginning

      In early 1999, I had internet access at home for the first time in my life. I was using a university’s dial-up connection (8KB/s, yay!) to surf the early WWW and even chat with friends using ICQ. Right around that time, I saw a small article in a monthly computer magazine about a new online game called Mankind.

      According to that article, the game simulated a whole galaxy of millions of stars and their planets, all of which supposedly could be explored and settled by online players who all had shared access to the same environment. This blew my mind - sure, we had LAN parties, but online gaming was still a relatively new concept at the time. I had never even considered the idea of playing with thousands of other people on the same game map before - and here, a game was doing just that in a Sci-Fi setting.

      I rushed to the video game store, only to find out that this game wasn’t available yet. Over the next weeks, I would check all stores I came across, until I finally held a copy in my hands.

      Mankind 1.5 - Online Realtime Strategy Massively Multiplayer

      On the front of the box, an armada of spaceships and the slogan “Mankind 1.5 - new, optimized version”. On the back, some screenshots and the following statements among others:

      > “Unlimited number of players”
      > “Huge battle field of 900 million(!) different planets” [yes, the exclamation mark is part of the original marketing copy]
      > “More than 170 units available, more being published each month”
      > “no monthly fee; box contains code for 12 months of free play”

      For the standard price of a PC game at the time, this was of course an immediate buy. At home, opening the box revealed a CD-ROM and a ~60 page manual (remember the time when games still came with those?).

      While installing, I paged through the manual. It described the interface (both a mail and chat system; where and how to click to select units and move them), it hinted at being able to construct bases just like in other RTS games, to mine more than a dozen different resources, to earn money by doing missions for some “empire”, to eventually build megacities and wage war against other players and even to create guilds with other players to support each other. I was thrilled!

      Eventually, the installation process was finished. I activated my internet connection and logged in for the first time…

    • Connection issues

      ...only to be greeted by a loading screen that wouldn't go away. While trying to connect to the game's servers, some status messages would appear similar to old command line interfaces. The final message was "Loading...", with another dot being added every other second to show that the game hadn't just silently crashed.

      Several rows of dots later, I killed the game via Alt+F4 - I was paying internet access by the minute, after all! After another failed attempt later that day, I opened my Netscape Navigator to the home page of the AltaVista search engine and found a German language bulletin board system discussing the game (as an aside, this is probably the most outdated statement I've ever written! ;)).

      Apparently, this connection issue affected everyone, and not just on that day but regularly. As it turned out, the servers were unavailable quite often, and at random times. People were mostly cool about that, though, because the company running the game declared that they would let people play for free (not counting down their subscription) until these issues were fixed. In the end, I think I got around 18 months of play out of my first 1-year-subscription.

      Much later, I learned that connection issues weren't the only reason for that. Apparently, the game was rushed to market by the distributor, without the developers having much of a say in that decision. In fact, what we were playing felt more like a proof of concept of a game rather than an actual, enjoyable game. More about that later but - spoiler alert - some people continued playing Mankind for the next seventeen(!) years. I think this clearly shows that the concept itself was great and unique.

    • The game that was meant to be (pt.1)

      Time to talk about the actual idea of the game, I guess. There were tiny pieces of backstory, mostly told via the manual and the game's own website. If I recall correctly, that backstory mentioned a one-way gateway into another galaxy, and at least implied that your character - and that of every other player - was meant to be some outlaw that was given the option of either serving time or being set free to colonize that new galaxy without any hope of ever returning home.

      Not that this backstory had any effect on actual game play, but at least it existed. In any case, what it meant was that any new player started the game with a few credits and one builder unit called a Vibz - probably named after the company Vibes that created the game.

      This Vibz unit was initially located in an NPC space station that served as a shop for new basic units as well as a trading hub. Some of these "Imperial Stations" existed in different star systems, so that new players would start about evenly spread out across the galaxy. While the space environment of these systems was considered a safe area (neither building nor attacking other players allowed), players were supposed to use the planets in their starting system for a first, small base.

      The below screenshot (source: official Facebook for the game, which surprisingly still exists) shows just that: the selected unit in the center of the screen is a Vibz builder, below it are a "Small Base" and a "Small Mine" building, plus a third one that could be a "Laboratory".

      Similar to many other real-time strategy games, a base needed to be built as the central element first, before other buildings could be created and attached to it. Mines would extract resources which could in turn be used to build more buildings or units. Laboratories were used to research new technologies (better units and buildings), and some other building types existed as well: Factories to produce additional units, warehouses to store more of the resources that were continuously extracted, power plants to provide energy to all surrounding buildings, defense turrets shooting at enemy players and, last but not least, city buildings where an initial population would grow, providing both a steady income as well as personnel to man all your units and stations.

      Units had various statistics as well. In the screenshot, you can see a small window in the lower right corner, describing the selected Vibz unit. From top to bottom, there's

      > a health bar (not completely filled, so the unit must have been attacked before),
      > the energy production and consumption (I think both units and buildings used the same stat window),
      > the number of personnel that could be spent on new buildings (434 of max. 500),
      > the number of other units in the hangar of this unit (the Vibz has no hangar capacity, so this is zero),
      > the number of resources transported by this unit (0/150),
      > and, additionally some info about the unit type itself. It is manned by one personnel, it can hyperjump 100 parsecs (more about that later), it has a weapon strength of 0 and in consequence undefined range.

      Players would typically build a starting base like this, with a few more mines and warehouses, and then use transport units to shuttle resources to the Imperial Station to sell them there.

    • The game that was meant to be (pt.2)

      Once players had enough money, a typical next step was to move from the crowded starting systems into their own to build a new colony. This is where the mentioned "hyperspace" capability of some units comes into play.

      Movement between star systems actually worked in a rather strange way. Each star system was represented by a square map with the star in the middle and planets randomly scattered across. When sending a unit to a different star system, it would move to one of the map edges of the source system, then disappear while reappearing on the opposite edge of the destination system.

      There was no automation for moving units like this - so it meant that, to travel in a straight line across the galaxy, players had to watch their units move across the whole map of a star system, and then the next, and then the next, ... a cumbersome experience, considering that it took units up to several minutes to travel each system. I quickly learned that a well-known exploit for this was to move in a zig-zag pattern, alternating between a maximum distance jump in the intended direction and a small jump to a neighboring star system in the opposite direction. This removed the issue of having to watch units slowly travelling across a star system, but obviously wasn't really the intended behaviour.

      (Below image found on: https://www.igromania.ru/article/167/Rukovodstvo_i_prohozhdenie_po_Mankind.html)

    • The game that was meant to be (pt.3)

      The galaxy map of the game was divided into sectors of space, each one a cube with a side length of 100 parsec. Some of these sectors were empty, but most of them contained between 10 and 20 stars.

      With a hyperspace range of 150 parsec (for the Vibz builder), it was generally possible to find some star in a neighboring sector in reach and jump to it. After jumping a few times, one would typically reach an uninhabited system to settle in. Sometimes, though, one would randomly enter a heavily defended system with automated defenses set to kill all non-friend units entering the system. In that case, the beginner unit was most often lost and one needed to start the journey with a new one, this time making sure to avoid that star system.

      After reaching a suitable star system, the player would then start settling on one of the planets first, before eventually spreading to other planets in the system and finally space itself. It was necessary to settle on more than one planet, or even in more than one star system, because resources (about 15 different ones!) often weren't available on just a single planet. Getting all the necessary resources from mines on different planets into the space base connected to warship factories was one of the major aspects of game play.

      (Below image found on the same page as above)

    • The game that was meant to be (pt.4)

      While the game was officially considered to be of the real-time strategy genre, the developers had a whole range of other ideas as well:

      Base buildings could be opened to other players, allowing them to buy or sell certain resources for a price set by the player. In theory, this would have allowed to play as a trader character, just shuttling resources to wherever they were needed.

      City buildings came in many different forms, including city centers, housing, work places, banks and hospitals, potentially leading to a whole Sim-City-style sub-game.

      According to the manual, it was planned for units to be equipped with "modules" changing their capabilities, perhaps enabling players to focus on building stuff for others.

      Also according to the manual, players would eventually be able to define "guilds" in-game, opening up the possibility of political intrigue and whatnot.

      However, literally none of the above ever got implemented - either not at all, or at least not in any production-ready form. Modules and in-game guilds never existed, trading was never really worth it, and building cities mostly meant filling large areas of a map with the same building without ever worrying about citizen's having access to hospitals.

      That basically left one other aspect of the game, the one I really loved. It was a giant sandbox to play in, I believe before the term "Sandbox game" was even coined.

      (Below image shows a city under construction. Image found via Google search, result referencing the web site united-forces.fr)

    • Cutting corners while prototyping

      As I mentioned above, all of these ideas for a great game didn't quite translate well into the eventual product. This happened for mostly two reasons:

      First, they were obviously cutting corners. Whenever there was a choice between doing something "good" and doing something "cheap", it seemed as if they always chose the latter.

      Second, and I assume this is also the underlying reason for them doing things cheap in the first place, it often felt as if I was playing a prototype of a game instead of an actual game. The functionality was in place, but there was no balance and no rhyme or reason to some of the other decisions they made. It's as if the whole studio consisted of coders who (to some extent) new what they were doing, but that they were lacking an actual game designer. My assumption is that they never intended for this version of the game to be released as-is, and that what we were playing was just a proof of concept for a game, not the game itself.

      I want to give specific examples for these claims:

      Regarding doing things cheap vs. good, I think one mantra we've all heard in one way or another is that, in online gaming, "the client is in the hands of the enemy". What that means is that, if you want to avoid some of your players cheat and gain an unfair advantage over other players, you can't just trust their computers to perform calculations for, say, a battle between enemy units in a neutral way.

      This is exactly how battles were processed in Mankind, though: the first client that logged into an environment with an active battle became responsible for simulating that battle - and if no client at all was logged in, then no shots were fired. This was easily exploitable by simply not watching your units as they moved. If there was a heavily defended area between a player's units current position and their destination, the player could just send them to their destination and log out for a while. After returning, the units would have arrived at their destination, with enemy defenses not being able to target them at any time.

      Regarding design issues, one example is the selection and distribution across the galaxy of resources the players needed to extract. Six or seven of the fifteen different resources existed on nearly every planet, and considerable quantities of them were necessary for every type of base that player might want to build.

      This made it necessary to build a large mining operation with different warehouses every time the player tried to colonize a new planet. A boring and completely unnecessary obstacle on the way, that any decent game designer probably would have abstracted away by slightly increased build times for the remaining buildings and a limit on how many builders could be used concurrently.

      On the other hand, the remaining "rare" resources were distributed randomly, meaning that they still were available in every corner of the galaxy, players just had to look harder. There even were star systems that had all of the rare resources available. Here, a change in distribution so that at most one or two of these resources could exist in the same system, and that whole regions of the galaxy would have been void of specific resources, would have increased the need to control and defend more systems, or trade necessary resources with other players.