The Game Archaeologist: Kesmai’s Air Warrior and Legends of Kesmai
Most studios would be overjoyed to have pioneered one significant advancement in video game history, but then again, most studios aren’t Kesmai. While it’s not a household name today, it’s reasonable to say that without the heavy lifting and backbreaking coding that this company shouldered in the ’80s and ’90s, the MMO genre would’ve turned out very different indeed.
Previously in this space, we met two enterprising designers named Kelton Flinn and John Taylor who recognized that multiplayer was the name of the future and put their careers on the line to see an idea through to completion. That idea was Island of Kesmai, an ancestor of the modern MMO that used crude ASCII graphics and CompuServe’s network to provide an interactive, cooperative online roleplaying experience. It wasn’t the first MMO, but it was the first one published commercially, and sometimes that makes all the difference.
Flinn and Taylor’s Kesmai didn’t stop with being the first to bring MMOs to the big time, however. Flush with cash and success, Kesmai turned its attention to the next big multiplayer challenge: 3-D graphics and real-time combat. Unlike the fantasy land of Island of Kesmai, this title would take to the skies in aerial dogfighting and prove even more popular than the team’s previous project.
Released in 1986, Air Warrior didn’t just wow the crowds over; it stunned them into complete and utter awe. Keep in mind that concepts like “multiplayer” and “3-D” and “online” were so rare at the time that any one of these was enough to make headlines. Yet here was a game that provided all three in a tight package that offered players the opportunity to jump into a World War II-era cockpit and duke it out with friends and strangers in completely different locations.
Now, it’s important not to oversell this game. While Air Warrior had 3-D graphics, these were primitive wireframes and certainly not easy on the eyes. As with Island of Kesmai, the studio shopped around for an online provider to host it and settled with GEnie (Kesmai would later port the product to other services such as CompuServe as well). And like Island of Kesmai, Air Warrior wasn’t cheap, costing flyboys and flygirls $6 an hour through a 1200-baud or slower modem. You’d need a 386 PC with 25Mhz of speed and 3MB of RAM to run it, which was a powerful system back then.
Unlike Island of Kesmai, however, Air Warrior wasn’t a persistent online world but rather a lobby-based PvP title. Even without the persistence, a strong community developed with fans following the franchise for well over a decade.
While it lacked many of the requirements to be considered a full MMORPG, Air Warrior is worth mentioning for its technical achievements and for the fact that it helped start the online flight sim genre. Kesmai went on to develop several sequels for Air Warrior, including an improved graphical version, an edition for Windows, and Air Warrior II. Kesmai eventually sold the property to EA, which published Air Warrior III: Millennium Version in 2000. Unfortunately, Air Warrior III was taken offline in 2001, only to see spiritual successors such as Battlefield 1942 take its place.
Legends of Kesmai
Even while Kesmai was jetting forward into the future as fast as it could, its founding game wasn’t forgotten. By the time Island of Kesmai was retired in 1995, the team was hard at work on a sequel called Legends of Kesmai. The third installment in the Kesmai legacy went into beta in 1996 and released a year later.
Legends of Kesmai used its predecessor as a template for development, offering a graphically enhanced version (bitmapped sprites that were somewhat animated) with significant tweaks to its core gameplay. It also used a GUI to make it much more accessible to late-1990s crowds and offered a faster response time between user input and game feedback.
Just as Island of Kesmai was competing with fellow MUDs at the time for being the best of the bleeding edge, so too did Legends of Kesmai have to contend with a new crop of online graphical MMOs: Meridian 59, Ultima Online, and Lineage. The reason Legends of Kesmai didn’t compete well is that it looked positively ancient in comparison to these upstarts, all of which were coded from fresh instead of rehashing a mid-1980s design.
After years of innovation in the video game, MMO, and service provider fields, Kesmai’s hot streak finally ran cold. As the industry shifted away from service providers, GameStorm’s popularity dropped. News Corp. sold Kesmai to Electonic Arts in 1999, sounding the death knell for the studio. EA held onto the studio for a brief year before gutting it and shutting it down.
At the turn of the millennium, when MMOs hit the next level of popular success with games like EverQuest, Kesmai and Legends of Kesmai were ushered off the stage unceremoniously.
It’s good not to end this column on a down note. While it’s a shame that a studio as innovative as Kesmai didn’t live to see the genre it helped birth blossom into the raging success it is today, it’s still saluted in many circles as one of the most influential companies that got MMOs going. While many players forgot Kesmai or were too young to have ever experienced its games and services, there were those who kept its memory alive.
In 2011, the Games Developers Choice Awards announced that it ws going to honor Kesmai by bestowing upon its founders, John Taylor and Kelton Flinn, the Online Game Legend Award. This award recognized “the career and achievements of a particular creator who has made an indelible impact on the craft of online game development.”
Considering just how much Kesmai gave to MMO gamers, I think it is just and fitting that we were able to give back to them this small measure of appreciation for their hard work. There are worse epitaphs for a studio than “game legend,” after all.