Cybersphere: A Virtual Journey Through the Apocalypse and Object-Oriented Programming
Years before The Matrix came out, in the early days of the Internet’s evolution, people around the world were connecting to their own virtual online environment – Cybersphere, a text-based RPG game developed in the early 90’s by the original partners of what was then Virtual Visions (which later became Netsville). Although it did not require the consumption of a blue pill to gain admission, Cybersphere was an interesting step forward in the online gaming community and was one of the first 100 commercial websites established online.
Jonathan Baird, current CEO and co-Founder of Netsville, reflects, “We were mostly in college at the time and…we were doing object-oriented programming in a language called MOO.” MOO was a text-based, object-oriented MUD (multi-user dungeon or dimension) virtual reality online system capable of hosting multiple users at the same time. MUDs, developed in the late 70’s and early 80’s, hosted simpler games with an emphasis on in-depth storylines. MOOs, with their enhanced mutli-user capability and object database organization, tended to focus more on character interaction, laying the seeds for community growth. While MUDs were quite popular with Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts (its origins made apparent by being dubbed as “multiuser dungeons”), Baird and the rest of the original Virtual Visions team were more interested in sowing a community – something that was now possible with MOO and the team’s affinity for object-oriented programming.
“We programmed in an object-oriented language and…the concept of heredity and parents and child objects just resonated with me. It’s like when you create an object like a gun and then you create a thousand guns after it, you understand object orienting because there are certain aspects of an object that define it. Every gun has a trigger and a handle but then you go into the individualities like not every gun is a shotgun or rifle or machine gun. Not every gun has a clip or a revolver but every gun has a trigger and a handle. So you start with a parent object and then you can have a thousand different shades of guns all related to the concept of a trigger and a handle.”
At the time, Ron Straight, one of Virtual Vision/Netsville’s original partners, had gained some notoriety on LambdaMOO (the original MOO) for having programmed a popular artificial intelligence program that he called AHaBs (or “Almost Human Bastards”). “LambdaMOO was huge and you could create your own little areas in it but it didn’t have a particular theme,” explains Baird. “So Ron was (and still is) a very creative writer and he had ideas for fiction writing. We all liked the idea of creating an interactive novel. We saw the community and the fact that we can log in and communicate with people all over the world which we did routinely so there was certainly a sense of community. We weren’t caught up in the medieval past of Dungeons and Dragons. We were more into sci-fi and the concept of the matrix.”
Set in a dystopian American future, Cybersphere begins in New Carthage (a city-state formally known as San Diego):
"Past the skeletal buildings of the anarchic New Carthage outskirts, beyond its armored city wall, a vast Wasteland of post-apocalyptic Hell awaits the truly brave. Its glowing sands crawl with the horrific mutant champions of natural selection, and are stained with the blood of the weak.
"Delta-winged shuttles crisscross the scarred planet as reconstruction continues under the control of emergent superpowers in a new world order: mega-corporations and crime syndicates. Bangkok harbors shadowy black markets of cybernetic technology, while orbital colonies turn serenely on axes of money, power, and privilege.
"As the physical landscape still smolders from the ravages of global wars and environmental disasters, an alternate reality glows brightly in the worldwide matrix network. Deckers and console jockeys swim the depths of this data sea, knights rendered in chrome on battlefields formed in the cognitive non-space of a collective consciousness."
“It’s a game of survival,” Baird affirms. “We started building Cybersphere based on cyberpunk fiction. A big influence at the time was William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the whole concept of a ‘matrix’ and a virtual reality. This was way before the Matrix movies were ever made [in fact, William Gibson’s works were a primary influence on the films]. When you first log-in, you’re basically a new entity that’s created and you come to life in an area that’s safe so that you don’t get slaughtered. You’re given a series of screens that you have to read that get you geared to what you’re about to experience. You then were out in the world and you had to survive however you could.”
As you progress through the game, many interesting (and often amusing) locations and characters become available such as the Free City of Newark and Nirvana, a dangerous dark den of smugglers, drugs, and crime. “There are a lot of adventures and people to meet with lots of interaction with other users and artificial intelligence. We took extensive use of Ron’s technology with the AHaBs so a lot of the store keepers were run by artificial intelligence. Other times, the stores were run by a real life human being and the store was only open while they were online. The basis of this was all written by Ron. Ron’s technology enabled us to create an adventure like that. There are a lot of adventures and you can log into a matrix and play matrix adventures. Cybersphere is a virtual reality in and of itself and from within its virtual reality you can log into another virtual reality called the Matrix. From there you can do all kinds of supernatural things. It’s very layered and interesting. There are a lot of guns and weapons, drugs, crime, and sex.”
When asked what he thought of The Matrix which came out many years later in 1999, Baird maintains an active enthusiasm for the film. “I thought it was awesome. It’s not like we created [the concept of a matrix] and someone stole it and even if they did steal it it was a form of flattery. I give credit to William Gibson. I still watch it and I understood it the first moment I saw it on a level that I’m not sure that everyone else did at the time because of our background. I loved the movie.”
Having established Cybersphere as an interactive, virtual reality cyberpunk novel, Baird and the rest of the Virtual Visions team (whose members included Mel Stanley, Dan Buford, Ron Straight, and Micah Brandon, Netsville’s current VP of Systems) began to explore ways to develop it further. “We were all in college and [Cybersphere] became our platform for daily communication. We were all friends that lived hours apart from one another but we spent hours together every day in a virtual reality.”
Through Cybersphere and online bulletin boards, the team regularly chatted with many of the early prominent figures of the Internet age and were inspired to look towards a bigger picture. “We followed Tim Berners-Lee’s lead before anyone knew who he was. We followed Marc Andreessen before Netscape was created. We knew Marc as a fellow college student. We were all on the precursors of the world wide web which were things like Gopher, Veronica, and FTP (file transfer) which is still something that we use today.”
As such, the original five members began to devise a bold new plan that they hoped would progress bulletin board systems by applying some of the concepts of Cybersphere in a radical new way. Bulletin boards systems (or BBS) were popular at the time commercially (as the Internet was not yet available to the general public), allowing users to connect to computer servers via dial-up modems to post simple messages, exchange email, upload and download files, and chat, usually in association with a particular subject or interest.
“We had this BBS experience and we had this Internet experience,” Baird explains. “We wanted to take BBS’s to a level where they were like virtual realities and we wanted to tie multiple geographic areas and communities together like the Internet (because back then the Internet was for military and education and the only reason we were on it was because we were in education). Instead of being a regular BBS, it would be a virtual reality…and not just message boards, chat, and file downloads. [It would be a place where] you could still email and chat but it was within a premise of a virtual reality like you were stepping into the matrix. When you’re in the matrix, you’re walking, driving, working, eating, you’re doing normal things. You’re receiving email but an email might be in the form of an actual letter that somebody typed. It’s not physically real because you’re in the matrix.”
Having created early websites for Virtual Visions and Cybersphere, the team slowly began to outline how to turn their plan into an applicable business yet despite making some headway, what they didn’t expect was that the online landscape was soon destined to change forever. “In December of 1994, they passed a law that allowed for the commercialization of the Internet and it instantaneously led to the creation of the ISP business which was allowing people to use their dial up modems (which they had been using originally to connect to BBS’s) to dial up and get access to the Internet to visit websites which were in their infancy. Our original business idea was crushed but now people wanted websites and we knew how to do that and had experience doing it. There was now this national dialogue about this new thing called the Internet and everyone that knew us…all came rushing to ask us to explain it to them. So we ended up starting a web design business [Netsville] and Cybersphere got put on the back burner at that point.”
With a change in direction and a new name, the team at Netsville would go on to create many of the world’s first websites, pioneer eCommerce solutions, and innovate Internet Property Management techniques to enrich online website properties; however, as the team evolved and the Internet grew to the powerhouse that it is today, they never lost sight of their auspicious beginnings with Cybersphere, keeping the online virtual reality game alive and running. Despite being quite antiquated in comparison to today’s leaps in online gaming communities, the game has maintained a loyal following and is still currently being played actively.
Baird admits, “We kept Cybersphere going here at Netsville by basically not wanting to kill it. We’ve always expanded the hardware it’s run on. After [two decades], its original hardware couldn’t run it today because of the size that it has grown to. We have kept it going through the years and encouraged people to develop and expand it. It’s still active in the sense that hundreds of people use it but it never expanded into thousands of active users.” Pausing for a moment to reflect on roads not taken, Baird states, “Looking back, I think it would have been interesting if we would have kept that original business model and focused more on our efforts with Cybersphere but we were young and just starting business. We certainly chased the money and if we were getting hired to do something, that’s what we would do.”
To find out more about Cybersphere or play the game itself, please visit cybersphere.net and see if you have what it takes to survive the post-apocalyptic city of New Carthage.