The Game Archaeologist: Kesmai’s Air Warrior and Legends of Kesmai

    
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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.

Air Warrior

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.

Swan song

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.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.

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PlasmaJohn

Aw, no mention of Multiplayer Battletech?

The closest I came to joining the games industry proper was an interview with Kesmai. Which I totally bombed (business suit, being kinda stiff and all). I guess that was a good thing since News Corp pretty much laid everybody off about six months later. I still regret blowing it. At least I got to meet Kelton in person which was a fun conversation.

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Chosenxeno .

“Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft!”

#FAKENEWS

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Paragon Lost

Fond memories and good times.

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ThreeSpeed

I have very fond memories of LoK and have friends I play with today I met there. $4.99 per month and was worth every penny. It kept us busy till Everquest released. Good times.

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Robert Mann

I am so glad, that by the time I was first looking at online games, there was none of this hourly cost stuff. I would never have justified such an expenditure. I am in awe that people did so…

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Mark Jacobs

Air Warrior, as I always talk about whenever given the chance, is one of the most important online games of all time. It’s right up there with the first MUD and Meridian 59 (which like AW doesn’t get enough credit for its importance) and UO.

I played the hell out of it on GEnie and I have nothing but tremendous respect for John and Kelton, as well as the rest of the Kesmai crew. Without them, the online game industry would have not evolved the way it had. They never have gotten enough credit for what they did during online gaming most formative years.

They were awesome and deserve far more thanks/acknowledgment than they have gotten to date (even with the award). Kesmai was the gold standard in the earliest days of online gaming, period.

-Mark

P.S. I still miss playing AW. For those who read the article who might have played AW, I was Gunsmoke.

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Oleg Chebeneev

Was there any customization in AW for planes and cockpit? Also what was its gameplay? You sign up for PvP in lobby and then fly around map shooting at other players planes? Were there any queues in lobby?

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Mark Jacobs

Hehe, in the original game OC there wasn’t even what people now consider graphics. Over the years AW evolved from little no graphics to AW III (I think this was the last version). As to how it worked:
1) There were three countries, A, B, or C.
2) Each country had the exact same planes from WW2. They thought that by distributing all the planes over each country, and making each country the same (other than its location on the map), they would avoid the kind of stuff you’d expect if you could play as a member of the Axis (and they were right about that).
3) You picked your country and then you picked your field and off you went.
4) You could shoot at other planes only at first, and over the years they added more and more stuff to the game to play and destroy. You could solo in the air as anything from a fighter to a bomber, but the bombers worked better if you had other players join you. Though I and some of the other folks loved to take up certain bombers and use them as fighters in defending an airfield.

It was an amazing game for the time and so much damn fun. As above, I still miss it.

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Koshelkin

I’d daresay you will talk at length whenever given *any* opportunity, not just about AW. Just being snarky, no offense intended. :P

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Oleg Chebeneev

Yay, another issue of my fav. column. Nice read as always.
Also TIL a new phrase. When I’ll want to be nice to something instead of saying “looks like crap” I’ll say “looks positively ancient”

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Wilhelm Arcturus

Actually, to run Air Warrior initially you need a Macintosh. It would run on a 68000 based Mac SE, but life was better if you had a 68020 Mac II or a 68030 Mac SE/30.

Later Air Warrior was launched for the Amiga, Atari ST, and for MS-DOS, but the latter only for specific video configurations because PC video was a mess back then.

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Adri

that’s definitely something for Mark Jacobs (the CSE Jacobs) :)