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Netrek is an Internet game for up to 16 players. It combines features of multi-directional shooters and team-based real-time strategy games. Players attempt to disable or destroy their opponents' ships in real-time combat, while taking over enemy planets by bombing them and dropping off armies they pick up on friendly planets. The goal of the game is to capture all the opposing team's planets.
Developed as a successor to 1986's Xtrek, Netrek was first played in 1988. It was the third Internet game, the first Internet team game, and as of 2010 is the oldest Internet game still actively played. It pioneered many technologies used in later games, and has been cited as prior art in patent disputes.
- The following describes Bronco Netrek, also known as Vanilla Netrek. Other variations of the game exist, such as Hockey Netrek in which players use tractor beams to manipulate a hockey puck. Paradise Netrek, which originated as a re-implementation of Netrek at Utah State University, has radically different gameplay, including a far larger number of planets, transwarp speed, new ship types, and an additional rank structure. However, Bronco is the most prevalent form.
Planets and facilities
The game galaxy consists of 40 planets distributed about the map. The map is further divided into 4 sectors of 10 planets each. Netrek divided the players into one of four teams, loosely based on the Star Trek universe; the Federation, Romulans, Klingons, and Orions (or "feds", "roms", "klis", and "oris", respectively). Each team is assigned to a single sector when the map is reset.
The planets differ from each other in terms of military or agricultural development; at the start of a game each team has several planets under their control one of which is their homeworld, usually named after an actual planet in the Star Trek Universe (such as Earth for feds, Romulus for roms, Orion for oris, Klingus for klis). Some worlds, however, have special facilities that help any friendly units in orbit of them. Repair facilities, represented by a wrench, speed up repairs made by the player as well as automatically heal any damaged vessels in orbit of the planet. Fuel depots, represented by a fuel can, speed up the recharge rate of any ships in orbit of the planet. Some worlds may have both these while others only have one. As well as facilities, some planets generate armies, which is also known as agriculture, and are needed for bombing and taking over a planet or capturing an enemy planet. The home world offers fueling, repair and agricultural services. Of the nine other planets two are agricultural and others are assigned fuel depots or repair facilities. Planets slowly generate armies, which may be beamed up by players, and then beamed back down onto enemy planets to capture them. Planets can be bombed to kill off armies, but only to a point, landing armies is always required.
Unlike Spacewar! or Empire, Netrek includes many different ship types with their own strengths and weaknesses. Some, like the scout, are faster and are useful for long range hit-and-run attacks. Others, like the battleship, are extremely powerful but slow, useful primarily for point defense.
A player obtains "kills" either by killing an enemy ship or by bombing enemy armies. The number of kills decides how many armies a player's ship can carry. The player's kill count resets back to 0 each time their ship is destroyed, requiring them to obtain more kills before they can carry armies and capture planets. Consequently, people with 2 or more kills are often targeted for ogging (a kind of kamikaze attack) just to remove the threat of them carrying armies.
Enemy ships can be destroyed using two main weapons systems: phasers and photon torpedoes. Phasers are instantaneous beam weapons which cannot be dodged, while torpedoes take time to travel to the target and thus can be dodged. Other shipboard combat systems include shields, and tractor and represser beams. When a ship is destroyed, the player chooses a new ship and reappears next to their team's homeworld.
In addition, ships also sustain damage if they are too close to an explosion, such as those created by another ship being destroyed, and ships take damage from hostile planets they are close to.
Netrek offers several different classes of ships with different features. Players may switch out their original ships for newer ones at their home planet. The ship types are:
- Cruiser (CA) – The most common ship used in the game. Normal amount of shields and fuel, more powerful weapons than the small ships and faster than the bigger ones. Called "the ship of Netrek", it is a perfect all around vessel.
- Scout (SC) – The smallest ship, the Scout is also the fastest and is commonly used during ogging and for bombing. It has the weakest shields and weapons, but is very nimble.
- Destroyer (DD) – A lighter variant of the Cruiser, destroyers are faster than a Cruiser but with weaker shields and weapons. Though widely criticized as being slower than a Scout but weaker than a Cruiser, and thus not as good as either, Destroyer do have their adherents.
- Battleship (BB) – A very powerful ship, the battleship is the heaviest ship next to the Starbase. Heavy shields, powerful weapons, and loads of fuel make this ship a formidable foe. However, its lack of speed greatly affects players and it is mostly used in planetary defense or as a supporting role in attacking.
- Assault Ship (AS) – The Assault Ship is a specialty ship designed for capturing planets. While its torpedoes travel faster than most other ships', they do less damage, and phasers are also weak. Assault Ships are also slow. However, they have enormously tough hulls that enable them to survive damage from planetary defenses, extra army carrying capacity, and are extremely fuel efficient, allowing long runs while cloaked.
- Galaxy (GA) – The Galaxy class ship is intended as a next-generation Cruiser. It's faster, with better shields and weapons. They are not part of Vanilla (Bronco) Netrek, only being enabled on a few other game variants, because they are deemed simply too powerful for balanced play.
- Starbase (SB) – Starbases are slow and powerful. They usually require a rank of Lt Cmdr or higher to pilot, and a team is only allowed to have one at a time. If destroyed, it typically takes 20 minutes to build a replacement. They have enormous fuel reserves and can refuel other ships, as well as transport armies for other ships to use. The weapons and defense systems are the most powerful in the game, but Starbases also have the least mobility. They are a frequent target for ogging.
The ultimate goal of the game is to capture all of the enemy's planets. Game play is normally between only two teams, the other two quarters of the galaxy being known as "Thirdspace". When two teams each have at least four players, the server enters "Tournament Mode", or "T-Mode", in which planets can be bombed and captured. Once one team has only two planets remaining, a twenty minute count down timer for their automatic surrender begins. Capturing a third planet will freeze the counter, while a fourth will remove the threat of automatic surrender.
If one or both teams have less than four players, the game enters "Pre-T Mode", in which a team wins by simply having 4 more planets than their opponents. In this mode, stats are not saved, and the Pre-T galaxy is erased when "T-Mode" exists. On some servers, "Pre-T Robots" fill in empty player spots to create a 4 vs. 4 game, but get replaced by players as the players log on.
Players join and leave the game as they wish. Pickup games can be as short as ten or fifteen minutes, but are normally much longer. "Clue Games" are games between experienced players, which are usually timed for an hour with a half hour of overtime, and a scoring system is used to determine victory.
Netrek is largely derived from Empire, written for the PLATO mainframe system beginning in 1973. It shares many characteristics of that game; key differences include a different planet layout and a much different pace of play, as well as evolutionary factors such as the use of mice instead of keyboard commands, TCP/IP networking, and the inclusion of color and sound.
In 1982, UC Berkeley student David Davis began writing a UNIX game called trek82, based on what he remembered of Empire when he used the PLATO system while at the University of Hawaii. This version emerged as trek82, using character graphics for display and a shared file to exchange data. Chris Guthrie joined Davis, and introduced him to Jef Poskanzer and Craig Leres, who were working on a more strategic offshoot of Empire called Conquest. They produced an updated version known as trek83.
In 1986, Guthrie began porting trek83 to the newly released X Window System, producing Xtrek. Further development took place at the XCF, with the help of Ed James. In the spring of 1988, Xtrek II was written by Scott Silvey and K. Smith, moving from a model which used X as a transport to the game having its own client–server protocol. This was key in allowing the game to be ported to other platforms, which may or may not support X. This version was later developed into Netrek by Scott Silvey, Kevin Smith and Terence Chang.
In 1989, the source code was posted to Usenet. In the fall of 1990, UCB alumnus Terence Chang set up a public Netrek server at Carnegie Mellon University where he was attending graduate school. In spring 1991, the first inter-scholastic game was played between UCB and CMU, and in January 1992, the "International Netrek League" (INL) was formed, so that teams could form and compete with one another (as opposed to pick-up play, in which games are played by whoever connects to a server, and players enter and leave as they wish during the course of the game). Netrek was very popular in the Carnegie Mellon computer clusters between for a number of years in the early 1990s.
Over time, several major types of Netrek were created as people experimented with different extensions to the game. The most popular form is known as Bronco, named for the server at CMU. Particularly noteworthy are Paradise, which is designed to be more like Star Trek: The Next Generation with a more complex game universe, and Netrek Hockey, which is designed to resemble a hybrid of Netrek and ice hockey. Paradise's lack of success has been partly attributed to the lack of a Windows client; while all other variants of Netrek can be played using the same client program, Paradise has added features which require a more complicated client program.
Netrek play peaked in the middle to late 1990s, with several leagues existing for different forms of the game as well as for different regions, and several pickup games always active, 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Between 2002 and 2006 there was a steady decline in play. As of early 2007, Netrek has seen a moderate increase in playerbase coupled with a mild renaissance in development. In late 2006 Mactrek, a new client for the Macintosh, was released, and substantial changes are being made to the Windows clients as well as various server enhancements. Currently there is a move from 10 fps to 50 fps, and the addition of voice chat is being considered.
Netrek also has similarities to Alto Trek , a game written in the late 1970s and later, a similar game ported to the Apple Macintosh by Randy Carr around 1985 called NetTrek (note the double T's). Both games ran on local area networks, typically LocalTalk or Ethernet. Unlike Netrek, or Empire, these games did not include the strategic portions of the game.
Netrek also has some similarities to DECWAR, which was developed independently of Empire but is surprisingly similar in many ways. DECWAR formed the basis of the long-running Compuserve online game, MegaWars.
In 2010, a commercial Flash game called Galactic Combat tried to simplify Netrek and make it easier for new players to play. Because it is a Flash game, no installation is required. Fewer keys were used, as the game can be played effectively with only the mouse and the spacebar button. Some elements of the game were removed, such as shields and torpedo detonation. Some new features were added to compensate, such as torpedo collision.
- Andy McFadden, "Netrek History", 1 May 1994
- Jason Ocampo, "The Greatest Star Trek Game You've Never Heard Of", GameSpotting, Gamespot.com
- Kevin Kelly, "The First Online Sports Game", Wired Magazine, Issue 1.06 (December 1993)
- Eric Bangeman, "EFF's patent busters take on broad multiplayer gaming patent", 3 February 2008