Who remembers the golden days of Prestel and one of their top service provider partners, Micronet800?
For those that don’t, Prestel was actually developed in the late 1970’s by a software team at the research and development laboratories of (what was then) the Post Office, based at Martlesham in Suffolk. Prestel became a commercial service provided by the UK’s largest telephone carrier, BT (British Telecom) and utilised Videotext (viewdata) as its display medium. By today’s standards it seems archaic but the 40 column, 24 line 8 coloured ANSI/ASCII screens were very new and exciting back then, far in advance of anything available at that time.
Unlike the Ceefax and Oracle services which were read-only teletext services available on your home television (data transmitted between the visible scan lines on your television), Prestel was the first “interactive” service that was available to home users. It was accessible via a home computer such as a BBC Model B microcomputer or a Sinclair ZX Spectrum and the addition of a dialup modem (often an acoustic coupler modem). It is difficult nowadays to explain the joy that was had from using your 48K Spectrum to dial up through a Prism VT5000 modem on your telephone line and connect to Prestel at a speed of only 1200/75 baud. Once connected you were greeted by the welcome screen you see above.
Prestel was, in essence, the internet of its day but by the mid 1980’s it had been overtaken by home computers and a fledgeling internet with technology that could not have been foreseen back when Prestel was first launched.
There was a monthly subscription fee to use Prestel and Micronet800 services but in addition to that were the telephone charges themselves which, if you weren’t careful, could stack up very quickly. Most home users would attempt to connect after 6pm in the evening or at the weekends, which was commonly known as “cheap rate” time when the cost per minute was only 1p (pence: smallest UK coin denomination – equivalent to about 2 cents). Any time outside this window would result in charges as high as 7p a minute (14cents/minute). Navigation around the screens in Prestel and its service providers was done by punching in 3 digit numbers that corresponded to page numbers as well as the use of control characters # and *
There were a bunch of services and information available through Prestel itself but much of the content was provided by what were considered tier 1 service providers. For the younger generation insterested in games and chat forums etc., the principle provider was called Micronet800 (see screenshot below – Thanks to R.T.Russell for this screenshot).
British Telecom eventually purchased Micronet entirely around 1989 . Micronet’s editorial staff were originally based out of Clerkenwell in London but after they were acquired by B.T. they were moved to a new B.T. location in Apsley, Hemel Hempstead. The technical staff were originally based out of offices in Peterborough but were moved down to offices in London back in 1986.
Multiplayer Games on Micronet800: StarNet & SHADES
The reason why I wanted to write this blog entry was to mention two of the most exciting things about Micronet800’s service. The multiplayer games.
Micronet800 brought us two of the world’s first multiplayer games. The first was called SHADES, a realtime (kind of..), ascii text driven Dungeons & Dragons type role playing game where the goal was to get to immortal status. Shades was written by a guy who called himself Hazeii. I forget his real name but it was something like Ian or Neil I think. I spoke to him (in-game) a few times back in the day as he was kind enough to a) listen to player feedback in respect to modifications or additions to the game and b) would sometimes appear in the game itself as a god-like immortal character.
The second game was called StarNet (Not to be confused with a little known southern Florida BBS called “Star Net”). Not many people who played StarNet and also owned a Sinclair ZX Spectrum realized that the guy who developed the enormously successful Speccy computer games, Lords of Midnight and Doomdark’s Revenge, was the same guy that developed StarNet, Mike Singleton of Beyond Software. You can read a really old interview with Mike Singleton here.
StarNet was based very closely on a PBM (play by mail) game Mike had developed called Star Lord which he ran on a commodore PET in his home. You can read more about it here.
In brief, StarNet was a turn-based, space strategy game in which players had to make economic and military decisions. At its peak, StarNet could accommodate up to 500 players.
You played a space captain and began the game with 50 starships in a fairly safe part of the galaxy (I think it was 50 . . . it might have been 200 starships.. my memory isn’t what it used to be) . As stated, the objective was to make economic and military decisions which would eventually lead you to be in a position to defeat the emporer (another real world player who had become very powerful indeed) and take over the galaxy.
You could form alliances with other players and coordinate your turns as a group in an effort to grow, attack, and take over other players’ starships, planets and even whole sectors. The game really was an excellent concept and a wonderful experience at the time. You would enter your moves for all your ships, acquisitions and attacks and wait impatiently for the following day when all the players’ moves would be calculated and the results executed.
One of the things I loved about StarNet was that all the names were only 5 characters long and in caps so for example, my StarNet captain was called “ULCER”. It was quite a challenge to come up with original new names that were only 5 characters long. There were basically 3 factions within the game: those who formed alliances against the emporer, the emporer himself and those that allied to him, and pirates(renegades) who were basically players who chose to play solo and not ally with anyone at all.
The excitement of logging in the next day and making your way to the StarNet pages of Micronet800 to see the results of your moves from the previous day (and/or those of your allies) is not something you can explain to someone easily these days. A ‘game’ could last months. Once the emporer was finally defeated, the player who defeated him would himself become the new emporer and so the game would begin again.
I made numerous friends through that game and we initially kept in touch through the chat services provided through the Prestel service itself. Eventually we got friendly enough to actually call each other up on the phone, and, in the ultimate demonstration of geekiness, we ended up scheduling a StarNet meet at a pub in London. Good times!
If anyone remembers playing StarNet and remembers their StarNet game name or that of friends I would be very interested in hearing from you. I’ve been thinking of compiling a list of players.
Time for a Revival?
I would love to see StarNet revived in a web-based emulation , complete with blocky viewdata graphics. I’m sure someone who knows how to program in Visual Basic, Java or php could come up with something that could be hosted on an ftp site and serve pages to a user on his/her web browser perhaps tied in to a simple MySQL database to manage the players, their ship inventories and affiliations and some simple server-side code to execute the moves/turns and serve the results.
I’ve spent many an evening scouring the web for someone that might have made any efforts in this direction but sadly the only thing I’ve been able to find are genuine teletext or viewdata emulation efforts by the viewdata purists out there. Personally, I don’t think it would be necessary to actually simulate viewdata (and all that entails) only emulate it so that it looks like you’re looking at the Prestel/Micronet800 type pages, especially if those pages could easily be created with a basic text editor as opposed to created with a genuine ANSI editor and forced to abide by the teletext standard.
Where is Mike Singleton Today?
“Mike Singleton where are you?” If you read this Mike, get in touch. If someone who knows Mike knows of his whereabouts and what he’s doing these days, please let me know. Just to know he’s alive and well is sufficient. I don’t need his personal banking information and shirt collar size. I believe Mike hailed from Merseyside (Liverpool, England) so some kind Scouser must know the answers we seek.