Lucasfilm's Habitat was an early and technologically influential online role-playing game developed by Lucasfilm Games and made available as a beta test in 1986 by Quantum Link, an online service for the Commodore 64 computer and the corporate progenitor to America Online. It was initially created in 1985 by Randy Farmer and Chip Morningstar, who were given a "First Penguin Award" at the 2001 Game Developers Choice Awards for this innovative work, and was the first attempt at a large-scale commercial virtual community (Morningstar and Farmer 1990; Robinett 1994) that was graphically based. Habitat was not a 3D environment and did not incorporate immersion techniques. While not VR (virtual reality), as a "graphical MUD" it is considered a forerunner of the modern MMORPGs, which are more similar to VR-style applications, and it was quite unlike other online communities of the time (i.e. MUDs and MOOs with text-based interfaces). The Habitat had a GUI and large userbase of consumer-oriented users, and those elements in particular have made the Habitat a much-cited project and acknowledged benchmark for the design of today's online communities that incorporate accelerated 3D computer graphics and immersive elements into their environments.
- Habitat is "a multi-participant online virtual environment," a cyberspace. Each participant ("player") uses a home computer (Commodore 64) as an intelligent, interactive client, communicating via modem and telephone over a commercial packet-switching network to a centralized, mainframe host system. The client software provides the user interface, generating a real-time animated display of what is going on and translating input from the player into messages to the host. The host maintains the system's world model enforcing the rules and keeping each player's client informed about the constantly changing state of the universe. (Farmer 1993)
Users in the virtual world were represented by onscreen avatars, meaning that individual users had a third-person perspective of themselves, thus making the environment rather videogame-like in nature. The players in the same region (denoted by all objects and elements shown on a particular screen) could see, speak (through onscreen text output from the users), and interact with one another. Interesting notes about Habitat was that it was self-governed by its citizenry. The only off-limits portions were those concerning the underlying software constructs and physical components of the system. The users were responsible for laws and acceptable behavior within the Habitat. The authors of Habitat were greatly concerned with allowing the broadest range of interaction possible, since they felt that interaction, not technology or information, truly drove cyberspace. Avatars had to barter for resources within the Habitat, and could even be robbed or "killed" by other avatars. Initially, this led to chaos within the Habitat, which led to rules and regulations (and authority avatars) to maintain order.
Lucasfilm's Habitat ran from 1986 to 1988, after which it was closed down at the end of the pilot run. A sized-down incarnation but with vastly improved graphics (avatars became equipped with facial expressions, for example) was launched for general release as Club Caribe on Quantum Link in January 1988. Lucasfilm licensed the technology underlying Habitat and Club Caribe to Fujitsu in 1989, and an elaborated and evolved version launched in Japan as Fujitsu Habitat in 1990. Fujitsu later bought the technology outright, and an even more sophisticated system was relaunched on CompuServe in 1995 as WorldsAway. As CompuServe morphed into AOL's "value brand," Fujitsu sought to sell off its product as they were making a loss. Inworlds.com (who later became Avaterra, Inc) stepped up and bought the licensing rights and took over the reigns. As of 2010 WorldsAway's flagship world known as the Dreamscape has survived independently as one of the VZones.com worlds - owned by Stratagem Corporation. Other WorldsAway worlds using the same client/server software have since been launched by Stratagem: newHorizone, Seducity and Datylus.
One challenge in producing games is to resist the "conceit that all things may be planned in advance and the directly implemented according to the plan's detailed specification". Morningstar and Farmer argues that this mentality only leads to failure as the potential capabilities and imagination of a game would remain confined within the small niche of developers. They generalized this well by pointing out that "even [the most] imaginative people are limited in the range of variation that they can produce, especially if they are working in a virgin environment uninfluenced by the works and reactions of other designers".
With this outlook Morningstar and Farmer stated that a developer should consider providing a variety of possible experiences within the cyberspace, ranging from events with established rules and goals (i.e. hunts) to activities propelled by the user's own motivations (entrepreneur) to completely free-form, purely existential activities (socializing with other members). The best method to manage and maintain such an immense project, they've discovered, was to simply to let the people drive the direction of design and aid them in achieving their desires. In summary, the owners became the facilitators as much as designers and implementers
Regardless, the authors note the importance of separation between the access levels of the designer and the operator. They classify the two coexisting virtuality as the "infrastructure level" (implementation of the cyberspace, or the "reality" of the world), which the creators should only control, and the "experiential level" (visual and interactive feature for users), which the operators are free to explore. The user not need to be aware of how data are encoded in the application. This naturally follows from the good programming practice of encapsulation. (Wardrip-Fruin, 670-672)
- Robert Rossney (June 1996). Metaworlds. Wired. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.06/avatar.html?pg=3. Retrieved 2008-02-26.
- Castronova, Edward (2006). Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. University Of Chicago Press. pp. 291. ISBN 0226096270. "[...] established Habitat as a result. This is described as a 2D graphical MUD [...]"
- Lytel, David (Winter 1986). "Between Here and Interactivity". Hispanic Engineer & IT (Career Communications Group) 2 (5): 50–54. ISSN 1088-3452.
- Morningstar, C. and F. R. Farmer (1990) "The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat", The First International Conference on Cyberspace, Austin, TX, USA
- Robinett, W. (1994). “Interactivity and Individual Viewpoint in Shard Virtual Worlds: The Big Screen vs. Networked Personal Displays.” Computer Graphics, 28(2), 127
- Alternate Reality: The history of massively multiplayer online games.
- Farmer, F. R. (1993). “Social Dimensions of Habitat's Citizenry.” Virtual Realities: An Anthology of Industry and Culture, C. Loeffler, ed., Gijutsu Hyoron Sha, Tokyo, Japan
- “Habitat Anecdotes and other boastings” by F. Randall Farmer (Fall 1988), Electric Communities
- Habitat Chronicles
- Habitat Chronicles: The Avatar is Legal Voting Age
- History and screen shots of the original Habitat
- Playing Catch Up: Habitat's Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer
- VZN's guide to Club Caribe Screenshots and comparisons to the modern version of habitat, Vzones
- Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Nick Montfort, eds. The New Media Reader. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003. ISBN 0-262-23227-8. "Lucasfilm's Habitat" pp. 663–677.
- COMPUTE! magazine article about Habitat from COMPUTE! ISSUE 77 / OCTOBER 1986 / PAGE 32