When the virtual city of Cybertown went dark, 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-deserted 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 has dedicated itself to resurrecting their old home. 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 rallying to rebuild the digital city, drawing on everything from former users’ blog posts to the contents of their hard drives.

The original Cybertown was launched during the early days of massively multiplayer online games, a few years before Last Online and EverQuest became second homes for millions of players. It followed a formula pioneered by multi-user dungeons, or MUDs: mostly text-based worlds composed of rooms, objects, and avatars, designed as much for social interaction as structured gameplay. But the city echoed real life in a way many digital spaces of the time didn’t.

Cybertown was a digital metropolis that players could experience through text-based descriptions but also by entering a 3D world inside their web browser. Once they “immigrated” to the city, Cytonians could select the location of a virtual house that they could fill with virtual possessions. They could then spend their time zipping around cafes, shops, a town square, and earning digital money called CityCash by selling self-coded digital objects or holding jobs like a “Block Deputy” community moderator. Higher-level mods were assigned duties like housing cleanup, deactivating the abandoned homes of former residents. There was even a jailbreak for rulebreakers.

The world baffled some newcomers. One Orlando Sentinel writer, for instance, recounts getting banned after going on a frustrated robbery spree spurred by falling into Cybertown’s virtual pool. But for many others, it was an incredible discovery. “Cybertown was personal,” says CTR’s founder Lord Rayken. (Participants of the project asked to be identified by their first names or pseudonyms.) Among other things, the platform supported importing 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 home, you chose what items you decorated it, you chose what clubs you were part of,” Rayken recalls. Signing up could feel like joining both a community and a real space in a digital world, years before that was an everyday occurrence. Cytonians could even run for elected office inside the city, although developer Blaxxun Interactive maintained the lion’s share of power through a semi-mythical figure dubbed the Founder.

A screenshot of Cybertown's bank environment with text chats from users.

The Bank of Cybertown in Cybertown Revival’s pre-alpha.
Image: Cybertown Revival

Along with platforms like Active Worlds and Onlive! Traveler, Cybertown helped bridge a generational gap between text-based worlds and 3D virtual ones. The city is pure 1990s cyberspace, full of bright, sharp-angled rooms with minimal decoration and low-poly graphics. Even people who were too young to remember Cybertown can find its influence in newer projects like the 2019 game Hypnospace Outlawwhich – according to designer Jay Tholen – was inspired partly by Blaxxun’s glossy promotional spreads in PC Gamer.

Cybertown lasted well into the next decade. In the early 2000s, cyber-ethnographer Nadezhda Kaneva said Blaxxun touted over a million residents, although only 350 to 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 a monthly fee in 2003, the platform declined slowly in the latter half of the 2000s, finally going dark in 2012.

Cybertown’s death never sat right with some former citizens, though. “Cybertown was a place for so many people to meet up in a virtual world really for the first time,” says Rayken. “Coming back again many years later, I was surprised to find that no one had any concentrated efforts 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 it back. Slowly, the group grew to over 300 people, including a handful of members with coding skills that let them pitch in. Today, it operates with around five core developers and a slightly larger group that regularly contributes technical help. Many more users have contributed assets like avatars or digital objects, scouring the internet or their old offline collections to find them.

Virtual worlds can produce memories as meaningful as physical ones: people meet new friends, learn new skills, found businesses, even find love and get married in them. Yet they’re far more fragile than real-world spaces. Many are controlled by the companies that created them or dependent on fleeting hardware and software standards. As players drop off and code becomes obsolete, they can be lost forever.

For years, though, fans of these worlds have gone to tremendous lengths to keep their communities alive. MMO players flocked to servers for an official relaunched version of the original World of Warcraft and created a self-identified “diaspora” migration from the defunct game Uru: Ages Beyond Myst. Groups like the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment (MADE) have fought for legal exemptions to get around locks on old software, supporting unofficial attempts to maintain defunct games. In 2017, MADE helped relaunch Habitatone of the very first graphical virtual worlds, as Neohabited – a project that has a lot in common with CTR.

A screenshot of the Cybertown jail

The Cybertown jail.

CTR isn’t working 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 develop the world with Virtual Reality Modeling Language or VRML, an early attempt at a standard that could do for 3D graphics what ubiquitous, interoperable HTML browser code had done for text. While VRML is no longer used, objects made with it can be rendered in modern web browsers via JavaScript – so instead of rebuilding the spaces manually, CTR can drop the original files straight into the world. “The fact that we’re able to do this at all is due to the beauty of open standards,” says Mike, the project’s lead coder.

These 3D spaces were only part of the experience, though. 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 members of the team have had sporadic contact with Blaxxun employees, they had to rebuild the backend systems from scratch, and many of these features have not yet been added to the pre-alpha – including things like personal homes and a functioning economy, some of the key elements that made Cybertown feel like a town.

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

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

Today, Cybertown’s new iteration isn’t trying 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 “IMMIGRATE” link on the Cybertown Revival login page. “The whole goal of the project is to preserve what was a great piece of the internet in the ’90s [and] ’00s, ”says David, the CTR project lead. “Obviously, it’s great to see old familiar names again, but we’re more than happy for newcomers to experience Cybertown.”

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