I've been part of online communities since I got my first modem, a 2400 baud around 1992. My computer came with a Prodigy trial period, and I liked it so much I continued my subscription for a couple years before the service restructured and ruined all the features I enjoyed. I discovered a whole new world of information and like minded people through the Prodigy forums. With Prodigy I was able to communicate with hundreds of people who shared many of my interests. The service ran in a simple DOS application, and was marketed primarily as a digital newspaper. However, the most popular sections of Prodigy were by far the forums. Eventually Prodigy tried to charge hourly for the forums which resulted in a mass exodus of customers from the service.
Even though I was 16 at the time, I was paying for the service out of my own pocket. Which meant I had a user id that ended in the letter 'A'. There was a great deal of prestige for having an account holders id. It was generally assumed that kids would have a 'C' or below. I believe each account was allowed 5 ids. I was most active on the gaming forums. Notably the RPG forums, where I was a regular member of a club that was named the Mature DMs.
There was a huge drama that lasted for months revolving around Street Fighter 2 for the SNES. A Prodigy member claimed to have a secret code that let you play as the bosses. Of course it ended up being a complete hoax. Nintendo eventually released the Championship edition that featured the bosses as playable characters. One could also use the Game Genie to alter the game enough to play as the bosses, although not well. What was sad was the weeks of flame wars that covered the forums. It is laughable in hindsight that this hoax was so easy to put over on the community, but at that time, most of the game industry was shrouded in mystery. Our access to it was mainly through print magazines.
Another hot topic was Ultima 8 and the use of Pagan symbols in the game. Today, games like Manhunt 2 push the bounds of mature content with graphic torture. Back in the early 90's the firestorm was over a pentagram in the game. Oddly enough couple years before U8, Ultima 7 allowed players to use corpses of babies as backpacks. Basically there is always going to be alarmist who believe video games are crossing the line of good taste. In the RIFTS forums, I remember the pseudo intellectual debate about wether laser weapons had recoil.
The Sierra Network / Imagination Network
After Prodigy implemented hourly rates, I dumped them and switched to the graphical user interface of INN. Formerly The Sierra Network, INN was primarily a game service offering premium and basic content. It cost about 15 dollars a month for 30 hours of gameplay, but I typically went over my monthly allotted time. A major problem with getting online during this era was cost, as just about every service charged hourly. I really liked INN, both the interface and services were great. I subscribed to one premium service, the RPG Shadows of Yserbeius and the sequel Twinions of Fate. It was a multiplayer dungeon romp that was addictive in it's simplicity. It was essentially a graphical mud and to this day shares many of the same characteristics of current MMOs like World of Warcraft and Everquest. Yserbius could be hacked easily though, the character data was kept client side.
The majority of INN's basic services included board and card games. Hearts was a personal favorite of mine. I was also quite active on the forums. Big debates back then were about the Atari Jaguar and 3DO. Neither system fared well in the long term, but the fanboys fought the console war as bitterly as they do today with Sony and Microsoft. One of my favorite act ivies was just chatting in the lounges. I joined a role playing group at one point. We had regular sessions for about 6 weeks before things fell apart. It was one of the most memorable times I had on INN. I still have most of the old logs from those sessions, which I might upload at some point. My time on INN lasted about a year. The cost was too much plus I couldn't afford to spend the time I wanted to playing games. So for a time I was left with just local bulletin board systems.
I began using local BBSs around the same time as INN. Although once I canceled INN I began using them exclusively. I found one local BBS called Chrysalis, that for a lifetime fee of 10 dollars I got an Internet email address. This made it easy for me to communicate with a friend who had moved away a year or two previously. Chrysalis is actually still alive on the web. I participated in the Chrysalis Community as it was one of the few places locally to find Doom players.
Doom was one of the first games that was predicated on the idea that users would create their own content for the game. BBSs were nearly the perfect medium to offer user content. The biggest drawback to a BBS was of course limited connections and long distance charges. Most of us were regulated to local services. Since I lived in Dallas, there was plenty of local sites I could download Doom Levels, known as .wads. I imagine smaller cities and towns were worse off than myself. Staying on top of the best local BBS was no easy task either, as just about all were run by regular people as a hobby similar in a way to HAM radio. Although we had a CompUSA hosted BBS that was for a time the best place to get any files. Generally if I read about a shareware product in a magazine, the CompUSA BBS would get it first. For those of you weaned on the Internet and use to having instant access to demos, there was a time when game magazines were the primary sources of information about what was going on in the game industry. Information moved slowly in those days. And we all had local heroes who somehow managed to get their hands on the hottest files and distribute them to the local community.
Many game related BBS sites had file sections devoted just to Doom .wads, there was literally an endless supply of new maps to play and challenges to face. And even though Doom was multiplayer, there were no matchmaking services. Eventually we got DWANGO that charged like 15 dollars for 30 minutes of online play, but otherwise you had to just hook up with someone through a BBS or play with the same friend every day. So the single player aspect of Doom was very appealing to most of us. Doom .wads were relatively easy to create. Just a bit of playing around with DEU could produce a competently built map. Wad quality was a factor but not near as much so today when a map takes patient, skill, and artistic aptitude to create. Basically you could get on a BBS download about 10 maps and have plenty to do the rest of the day.
I never played too many BBS games. Red Dragon and Trade Wars just didn't appeal to me at the time. I spent most of my time on BBS as a leech, someone who just downloads files and leaves. I uploaded on occasion when I was forced to by ratio restrictions. If you were lucky you found a BBS that served porn, those usually had upload/download ratio limits. I was one of the first in my community to create a Doom .wad with pornographic images. It was my most downloaded level!
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