When the virtual city of Cybertown died, its citizens rebuilt it

Coming back to your hometown can be an alienating experience, especially when all you find is a dead link to a long-abandoned website.

For nearly a decade, that was the experience of Cytonians — members of an early virtual world called Cybertown, which operated between 1995 and 2012. But since 2019, a group of former citizens have dedicated themselves to resurrecting their old house. Cybertown Revival, or CTR, successfully launched a pre-alpha version of a new Cybertown earlier this year. It’s the result of hundreds of former residents stepping up to rebuild the digital city, building on everything from former users’ blog posts to content on their hard drives.

The original Cybertown was launched at the beginning of massively multiplayer online games, a few years before Ultimate online and EverQuest have become second homes for millions of gamers. It followed a formula pioneered by Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs: primarily text-based worlds of rooms, items, and avatars, designed as much for social interaction as structured gameplay. But the city echoed real life in a way that many digital spaces of the time did not.

Cybertown was a digital metropolis that players could experience through text descriptions but also by entering a 3D world inside their web browser. Once they “immigrated” to the city, Cytonians could choose the location of a virtual house that they could fill with virtual goods. They could then spend their time browsing cafes, stores, a town square and earning digital money called CityCash by selling self-coded digital items or taking jobs like a community moderator “Block Deputy “. Higher-level mods were given tasks such as cleaning housing, deactivating abandoned houses of former residents. There was even a prison for transgressors.

The world has baffled some newcomers. A Orlando Sentinel The writer, for example, recounts being banned after going on a frustrated flying spree spurred by his fall into Cybertown’s virtual pool. But for many others, it was an incredible discovery. “Cybertown was personal,” says CTR founder Lord Rayken. (Project participants asked to be identified by their first names or aliases.) Among other things, the platform supported the import of custom avatars that looked like anything from ordinary humans to animated Christmas trees. “You chose your avatar, you chose where you hung out, you chose your house, you chose the items that decorated it, you chose the clubs you belonged to,” Rayken recalled. Signing up could feel like joining both a community and a real space in a digital world, years ago it was a daily occurrence. Cytonians could even run for office inside the city, though developer Blaxxun Interactive has retained the lion’s share of power thanks to a semi-mythical figure dubbed the Founder.

The Cybertown bank in the Cybertown Revival pre-alpha.
Image: Cybertown Rebirth

With platforms like Active Worlds and Onlive! A traveler, Cybertown helped bridge a generational gap between textual worlds and virtual 3D worlds. The city is pure 1990s cyberspace, full of bright, sharp-edged rooms with minimal decoration and low-poly graphics. Even people too young to remember Cybertown can find its influence in more recent projects like the 2019 game. Hypnospace Outlawwhich – according to designer Jay Tholen – was inspired in part by Blaxxun’s promotional spreads in Gamer on PC.

Cybertown lasted until the next decade. In the early 2000s, cyber-ethnographer Nadezhda Kaneva said that Blaxxun boasted over a million inhabitants, although only 350-500 people were online at any given time. But it never reached the prominence of later virtual worlds like second life. After being sold by Blaxxun and implementing monthly fees in 2003, the platform slowly declined in the second half of the 2000s, eventually shutting down in 2012.

Cybertown’s death never pleased some former citizens, however. “Cybertown was a place where so many people met in a virtual world for the first time,” says Rayken. “Returning several years later, I was surprised to find that no one had made a concentrated effort to revive the website.”

Rayken says he started searching the web for anyone who remembered Blaxxun or Cybertown, from small Facebook enclaves to random commenters on Twitter and Reddit. And starting with a group of five or six people, he founded a Discord server dedicated to bringing him back. Slowly, the group grew to over 300 people, including a handful of members with coding skills that allowed them to participate. Today, it operates with around five core developers and a slightly larger group that regularly provides technical support. Many other users have contributed assets such as avatars or digital objects, browsing the Internet or their old offline collections to find them.

Virtual worlds can produce memories as meaningful as physical worlds: people meet new friends, learn new skills, start businesses, even find love and get married there. Yet they are far more fragile than real-world spaces. Many are controlled by the companies that created them or depend on short-lived hardware and software standards. As players give up and the code becomes outdated, they may be lost forever.

For years, however, fans on these worlds have gone to great lengths to keep their communities alive. MMO gamers flocked to servers for an official revived version of the original World of Warcraft and created a self-identified “diaspora” migration from the defunct game Uru: Ages Beyond Mystery. Groups like the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment (MADE) have fought for legal exemptions to bypass locks on old software, backing unofficial attempts to keep games obsolete. In 2017, MADE helped relaunch Habitatone of the very first graphic virtual worlds, like Neohabitat — a project that has a lot in common with CTR.

A screenshot of the Cybertown prison

Cybertown Jail.

CTR doesn’t work with a larger initiative like MADE, but it has two things working in its favor. The first is a group, albeit a relatively small one, of residents dedicated to its revival. The second is Blaxxun’s choice to build the world with Virtual Reality Modeling Language or VRML, an early attempt at a standard that could do for 3D graphics what ubiquitous and interoperable HTML browser code had done for text. Although VRML is no longer used, objects created with it can be rendered in modern web browsers via JavaScript. So instead of rebuilding spaces manually, CTR can drop the original files directly into the world. “The fact that we’re able to do this is because of the beauty of open standards,” says Mike, the project’s lead coder.

These 3D spaces were only part of the experience, however. CTR doesn’t have access to the source code that powered some of Cybertown’s most vital features, like its chat client and CityCash. While team members had sporadic contact with Blaxxun employees, they had to rebuild the backend systems from scratch, and many of these features have yet to be added to pre-alpha – including things like personal homes and a working economy, some of the key things that made Cybertown feel like a city.

The pre-alpha CTR still has a small online footprint. Rayken says the world has about 200 members, and if you visit today, you’ll find environments that are largely empty. But thanks to a portal on your browser, you can explore many quirky areas of Cybertown. Beneath the 3D renderings, you’ll find chat messages from residents reminiscing about long-lost spaces and greeting fellow citizens they haven’t seen inside Cybertown in years.

CTR is revived during an explosion of interest in the metaverse, a term coined by author Neal Stephenson three years before Cybertown launched. (Developer Blaxxun was formerly known as Black Sun, the name of a metaverse club in Stephenson’s novel Snowfall.) And many modern platforms tread the ground that Cybertown creators and users explored decades ago, such as digital real estate and a virtual economy. “It was truly an underrated ‘first’ in the VR world,” says Rayken.

Today, the newest iteration of Cybertown doesn’t try to compete with newer virtual worlds. That said, it’s also ready to accept new residents – and the pre-alpha is open to anyone who clicks the spinning blue “IMMIGRATION” link on the Cybertown Revival login page. “The goal of the project is to preserve what was a great piece of the internet in the 90s [and] 2000”, explains David, the CTR project manager. “Obviously it’s great to see old household names back, but we’re more than happy for newcomers to experience Cybertown.”

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