It seems some folks are taking an interest in my old adventures. Someone left the following comment over the weekend:
Hey Shamus, sorry for the unrelated comment but I can’t find your twitter anywhere and I’m not sure where else to put this.
I seem to recall in some of your older posts you mentioned that at one point in the late 90s you worked on an MMO called Worlds Online. I recently saw this video here about some creepy things going in that game, which is apparently still online. Just thought you might find it interesting.
The linked video is this one:
That video looks to be an internet spook story about there being some cult operating within the inexplicably still-operational Worlds.com MMO. I have nothing to say about the cult stuff, and I haven’t even watched the entire video. I skipped through and saw it saying something about pedophiles, which – shit man. That’s scary stuff and I can’t even think about that topic without getting really upset. For reasons of mental health, I can’t watch the video and I’m not going to discuss the topic.
But for the curious, I want to make it clear that I never had anything to do with Worlds.Com. I never used the software, I was never employed by the company, and I only heard about those people through second-hand gossip. I worked for a competing product called Activeworlds. Actually, I worked on AlphaWorld. Actually, I was a cub-contractor. Actually, it’s… complicated.
This is messy, so let’s rewind to the early 90s.
At the time, Worlds Dot Com was just called “WORLDS”. Maybe the software was sometimes called “Worlds Online”. It’s hard to remember. To my knowledge, the “Dot Com” branding didn’t come until later. WORLDS was run by the company Worlds Inc.
People call WORLDS an MMO, but I think it’s more accurate to say it was a chat room. Sure, you had 3D characters in a shared space, but to my knowledge there was never any gameplay. You just walked around and talked to people. Each chat room was a different world with its own scenery. It’s important to note that the word “massive” in “massively multiplayer” is probably a bit misleading here. These early virtual chat worlds were incredibly small by modern standards. The typical population for a particular world – a single chat room – would have been in the dozens.
Worlds Inc. actually owned two of these quasi-MMO chat programs. WORLDS was the original. In 1994 it was followed by AlphaWorld.
I know all these names are confusingly similar, so just to make it as clear as possible: Worlds Incorporated is the company, which owns two different chat programs, WORLDS and AlphaWorld. Got it? I hope so, because it gets more confusing from here.
In my book, Worlds Inc. is one of the great pioneers of the disastrous Dot-Com business model. I’ve described it before, but the short version of it is this:
In the early 90s, lots of people recognized that this internet thing was a big deal. This was the future. History was about to create the next Henry Ford or Walt Disney. Someone was going to position themselves in just the right spot to become a legendary billionaire. Nobody wanted to end up being remembered as the idiot who claimed that automobiles would never catch on or that commercial air travel was a pipe dream. So you end up with lots of people trying to found companies, and even more people trying to invest in them. It was a gold rush.
The business model would go like this:
- Imagine some good or service that could somehow, someday be delivered over the internet. Write up a business plan describing how this theoretical and unproven market might eventually work and how you could make money at it.
- Gather up a huge pile of venture capital from hopeful investors.
- Get some fancy prestige office space, high-end office furnishings, and top-of-the-line equipment.
- Hire a bunch of people. You’re not sure what you’ll need, so just hire a little of everything. That goes double for management.
- Stack the board with people you trust. (Which has the side-effect of stacking the leadership with your friends and family.)
- Now that you have a huge company that’s burning through cash at a terrifying rate, hire a few kids fresh out of college and ask them to design the software you’ll need to make this all work.
- Now survive long enough for your target audience to show up so you can begin making money.
That last step is the tricky one. Pets.com is the archetypal example of a company with an insane burn rate and no coherent plan for short-term survival. There were a lot of these companies by the late 90s. Hundreds of them. A lot of money vanished very quickly. While a few companies did indeed take off, for the most part everyone lost their fortunes on mismanaged companies that never had a prayer. This was the Dot-Com bubble in a nutshell.
As far as I can tell, Worlds Inc. was the first of the Dot-Coms. Maybe there were a few earlier disasters that escaped my notice, but Worlds Inc. is the first one I knew about. Worlds Inc. was a full half a decade ahead of the curve. They were going broke and flaming out long before any of the famous web companies ever took off.
WORLDS was already up and running when Worlds Inc. decided to spin up a new product that would directly compete with the old one. WORLDS was chat only, while the design for AlphaWorld allowed for users to build using prefab pieces. Imagine the Fallout 4 building interface mixed with 1994 era graphics and you get the idea.
The company needed someone to design those prefab building pieces. That was my job.
In 1994, I was working on AlphaWorld as a sub-contractor. Worlds Inc. hired my boss, and my boss hired me.
We used to joke that Worlds Inc. had more executives than employees, but then we started to suspect that this wasn’t actually a joke. It was apparently true. We heard the names of various vice presidents and managers and marketing directors and lawyers, but almost never any employees. It was weird.
Why would Worlds Inc. spin up a new project to compete with the old? My guess is that they were behaving like a gambler coming to the end of their money. You’ve already mortgaged the house and the money is nearly gone. Your only hope is to start taking the really long bets and pray you hit it big enough to get back in the gameJust to be clear, your ACTUAL only hope is to walk away and save whatever you’ve got left. But I’m describing the thinking of a gambler / entrepreneur who has already lost too much.. The idea was that AlphaWorld would hit it big and the influx of cash would save them.
This is all conjecture on my part, of course. I was getting all my corporate gossip third-hand. I can’t prove anything I’m claiming about the company.
The AlphaWorld business model would go like this:
People could create accounts for free. Worlds Inc would make money by selling virtual real estate. If you wanted a world, you had to pay them based on the size in square meters and the maximum number of concurrent users. The elevator pitch was “The 3D Web”. Like, each world was sort of its own website. In public, the software that allowed you to jump from world to world wasn’t called a “game” or a “client”. It was called the “browser”. The idea was that users would surf from one 3D space to another and companies would need to pay money to Worlds Inc if they wanted to be a part of it.
This is obviously a terrible idea.
The Apache Webserver is a free, open-source, cross-platform piece of software that allows anyone to host a website using public protocols. That’s the magic of the internet.
An AlphaWorld server was a proprietary closed-source server limited to Linux and Windows, which was designed to self-limit both area and user count according to your license. It was a server that needed to connect to a central authority server to get its license information.
These two things seem similar if you’re an executive and your only understanding of these two things is that they’re both experienced through programs that you run on your Windows 3.1 PC, but the differences under the hood are massive. This plan makes no sense.
Icing on the cake was that these licenses were expensive as hell. I don’t remember the exact prices, but I know they wanted hundreds of dollars a month for servers that could only support a few dozen concurrent users. Worlds Inc was betting everything on this venture. They weren’t looking for something sensible like financial stability or stable growth. By this point, the company needed to win big just to stay in the gameAgain, I was just a 20-something engineer with NO knowledge of the financials. This is all rumor and hearsay..
When the public release of AlphaWorld didn’t suddenly bring in millions of dollars to Worlds Inc, the company lost interest in it. It wasn’t a a gold mine, so it couldn’t save them. In the end, they sold it to our little company for a fraction of its development cost.
Our company re-branded it to Activeworlds. We didn’t have a huge executive structure to support. At our peak the company never had more than 2 officers. Activeworlds was never a smash hit, but it was able to sustain our small company for the next 8 years or so, until Second Life crushed us. We limped along for another 8 years or so after that. I left the company in the late aughts. I’m not sure where things are these days.
I am really surprised to find out that WORLDS is still running. I thought it looked obsolete in 1994, and I never understood what kept it running all these years or how the thing was funded.
I don’t know anything about the cult stuff. That sounds like a mystery for young people to chase. I just want to make it clear that I never worked for the company or even owned a WORLDS account.
So that’s my side of the story.
 Just to be clear, your ACTUAL only hope is to walk away and save whatever you’ve got left. But I’m describing the thinking of a gambler / entrepreneur who has already lost too much.
 Again, I was just a 20-something engineer with NO knowledge of the financials. This is all rumor and hearsay.
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