The price of CompuServe

December 9th, 2019 1:45 PM
by
Filed under History, Musings;
4 comments.

I was researching the history of MUDs and MMORPGs when a comment on Jimmy Maher's blog led me to the Wikipedia page for Island of Kesmai, a CompuServe MUD. As an alumnus of that online service, I was aware of this game but had never played it myself. What I found most striking about its history was the section "Price to play":

The game was available on CompuServe for no additional charge. However, CompuServe cost $6 per hour for 300 baud or $12 per hour for 1200 baud access rates. The game processed one command every 10 seconds, which equates to 1​⅔ cents per command.

Oh, gosh. Did that take me back — back to an age where I lived wildly outside my means.

As early as 1986, my dad showed me how to use the Apple Personal Modem on our Apple IIe to connect to what he called "the New York computer" (CompuServe was in Columbus, Ohio). At first we used it only for business and educational purposes: looking up stock prices and online encyclopedia entries. I was one of only three kids in my grade school class who had a home computer, and I was envied for how much easier the computer made my homework.
CompuServe logo
But my main use for the Apple II was computer games. When my family got a Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988, I fell wholly in love with its fantasy worlds. Perhaps since the NES had no academic value, or because everyone else in my class had a NES and it was therefore commonplace, my enthusiasm for it had the opposite effect of my Apple II: it made me dramatically unpopular.

I had to look beyond the playground to find friends who enjoyed and understood video games. That led me back to CompuServe and its gaming fora.

I spent hours upon hours in the Apple II Users, Gamers, Video Gamers, and Video Game Publishers fora. I would read every message, download every new game or FAQ, attend every scheduled chat, and occasionally play MUDs like British Legends. Being nominated as Member of the Month (MOTM) in 1992, first in the Apple II Users forum and then in one of the gaming forums, reaffirmed that I'd found my tribe.

This community came with a cost — one that my parents paid. Today, since we are rarely in control of our mobile devices' connection speed, we're charged by the byte; but forty years ago, we were instead charged by the hour. Those hourly fees piled up quickly: chats occurred slowly, and file transfers took forever (a 400K game would take 40 minutes, or $8, to download). CompuServe offered "offline reader" programs like TAPCIS, which would connect to CompuServe, download all the new messages, then disconnect, allowing the user to read the text and compose responses to be sent upon the next connection, all without hogging the phone line and running up expensive connection fees. Alas, I recall no such program for the Apple II.

Also, CompuServe was founded on timesharing: an insurance company wanted its expensive computers to earn their keep in their downtime. That meant, to deter users from competing with the insurance applications, it was more expensive to use CompuServe during the day. My father had told me the wrong switchover time from daytime rates to evening — so every night, I was incurring one hour of expensive connections before nighttime took effect.

Even for those services that didn't charge their own fees, there were still phone bills to be paid. Dialing CompuServe was free; we had a local Tymnet node. But eventually my online addiction spilled over to BBSs, many of which were long-distance calls (usually to Worcester, Massachusetts). Now my father was getting dinged on both his credit card and his phone bills.

The worst month was when my dad got a $500 bill — one that he made me pay. As he drove me to the bank, he told me that he didn't want to do this, but he saw no other choice. That may have been shortsighted, as he did eventually explore alternatives. He threatened to move me from CompuServe to Prodigy, which had a flat-rate plan. This would've been like changing neighborhoods or schools, losing all my friends and having to make new ones, so my dad relented. Instead he gave me a budget of $50/month, and if I came under, I could keep the difference. I was excited by the possibility of using those funds to buy a new Nintendo game every month… yet my online communities still got the better of me, and there was never any money left over. (More likely, I was frequently over-budget.)

One tactic my parents never tried was figuring out why I spent so much time online. They might've learned that the community I had there was one I didn't have anywhere else. Disconnecting CompuServe would've saved them money, but it wouldn't've magically expanded my offline social circle.

Fortunately, my father's threats were empty: he never forced me to leave CompuServe. It helped that I eventually became a sysop, which allowed me to visit my favorite forum for as long as I wanted for free. But I resigned from that position when I moved to college: it was a more diverse environment than my previous schools, and I finally found other gamers offline. But I still wanted to be a part of the Apple II community, so I followed as it migrated to text-friendlier pastures: from CompuServe to GEnie to Delphi to Syndicomm Online. By the time that last one shuttered in 2006, I was a college graduate who was tired of moving and was ready to settle down. Tired of playing in other people's sandboxes, I set up my own site on WordPress. Twelve years later, I got a job at Automattic, the developers of WordPress.com.

I had an expensive childhood — one I'm very fortunate my parents could afford, even if they did so begrudgingly. In hindsight, my dad would call it an investment in my future career, and he'd be right. But more important, CompuServe filled a void and made this kid feel a lot less alone.