The Game Archaeologist plays with MUDs: The history

You know that sinking feeling when you get into something that's way, waaaay over your head and you have no choice but to swim furiously or drown? That's exactly how I felt when I started to do research for this month's series on MUDs -- Multi-User Dungeons -- and their descendants.

At first I was thrilled, because I knew that along with Dungeons & Dragons and Bulletin Board Systems, the MUD was one of the key predecessors to the MMORPG as we know it today. It was, and still is, vital gaming history that helped to shape the genre. The only problem was that for various reasons -- mostly a lack of good internet access in college and general ignorance -- I'd missed out on MUDs back in the day.

But it's not like that stopped me from covering any of the other games in this series that I never experienced first-hand way back when; after all, there are few among us who can honestly say they did everything. So the problem wasn't the lack of first-hand knowledge but the sheer, overwhelming scope of this subject. One game alone is a manageable subject -- MUDs are an entire genre unto themselves. It's intimidating, to say the least.

It doesn't still my excitement, however, nor will it stop us from diving into this topic no matter how deep the waters get. This week we'll take a look at the brief history of the MUD/MUSH/MOO/et al. and then get into specific games later this month. So hold your breath and jump on in with me!

The pre-history: Adventure games

As home computers became more and more prevalent in the mid- to late-1970s, creative programmers struggled with the limitations of storage and graphical capabilities that this medium possessed. Fortunately, text-based games proved a simple solution to both limitations, which spurred the rise of adventure games.

While today's rare adventure game is generally a puzzle-based interactive movie, the first adventure games were fully text, created to harbor both puzzles and combat in the vein of classic D&D sessions. For the better part of a decade, gamers ate up classic titles like Adventure, Zork, Planetfall, The Hobbit and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and demanded more. In fact, one of my earliest memories as a gamer is watching an older kid playing Adventure while we were at his house for a party. We were absolutely entranced with this virtual world and kept pestering him to keep exploring so that we could find out what else was out there.

The launch of MUD1

Having fun by yourself is all well and good, but these innovative gamers wanted something more: to have their friends join in on the fun. It didn't take that long for this to happen, either. From 1978 to 1980, two college kids -- Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle -- cobbled together the very first MUD, cleverly named MUD1 and sometimes dubbed British Legends, and threw it online.

In MUD1, players could enter into a virtual fantasy world and interact via a text parser (think simple language commands like "get sword" or "go north"), much like an adventure game. Unlike adventure games, however, MUD1 allowed gamers using the same program to communicate and interact with each other over ARPANET, the precursor to the internet.

Right from the start, MUD1 had the template for many MMO staples that we take for granted today, such as levels. Bartle once said that "design decisions Roy and I made for MUD1 have been passed down unaltered through generations of virtual worlds, often without designers even realising that they had a choice in the matter."

In his opinion, Bartle thinks text-based MMOs contained advantages that graphical MMOs have yet to replicate. "Text is more expressive than graphics. It's also more descriptive -- there are no smells in EverQuest. With text, I can talk to the mind. With graphics, I can only talk to the senses."

Unfortunately, MUDs never went as widespread as hoped in the '80s due to numerous legal and logistical problems, but the seeds of the genre were planted nonetheless, and hardcore fans kept the dream alive.

Birth of an industry

It's here that our history lesson fractures and splinters under the weight of dozens of other designers and programmers who picked up on this idea of shared virtual worlds and ran with it. As Bartle was finishing MUD2 in the mid-'80s, sites such as CompuServe and GEnie started hosting several online games (often charging by the hour), while programmers created their own text-based codebases such as TinyMUD, TinyMUCK, MOO, AberMUD, and LPMUD. In 1984, one enterprising individual created both a MUD called Aradath and a commercial gaming site called Gamers World on which to play it. The man? Mark Jacobs.

With the '90s came the rise of the internet, faster modems, and a widespread acceptance of MUDs and their ilk in online gaming culture. Before Ultima Online or Meridian 59 came to be, players were already traipsing around in virtual worlds, killing mobs for loot, and complaining about World of Warcraft (OK, I made that last one up).

These games covered the gamut of popular franchises (such as Lord of the Rings) to political intrigue to interstellar exploration to, erm, adult content. Some were huge, others tiny; some required payments, others were free; some lacked stats, others reveled in them; some focused on puzzles, others on worldwide domination.

Attack of the clever acronyms

Not every MUD or MUD-alike existed to be a D&D-style game; several were used as virtual roleplay environments (think Second Life) or for educational purposes. And just like we see in today's increasingly diverse MMO market, MUDs' descendants showed a huge amount of variety and focus, which makes exact definitions difficult.

For example, you had the MOO (MUD, object oriented), MUSHes (multi-user shared hallucination), the MUCK (multi-user chat kingdom), and the MUSE (multi-user simulated environment). Each was utilized in different ways, but most all of them were adopted by the RPG community for gaming and roleplaying.

Probably the most significant offspring of the MUD was 1990's DikuMUD, which should seem familiar if you've ever read a gripe on an MMO forum or in Massively's comment section by an "old-timer." DikuMUD was created to feature more of a hack-and-slash style of gameplay and ended up becoming a huge influence on up-and-coming graphical MUDs such as EverQuest.

Trying to keep all of these different codebases straight is a headache and not as important for the purpose of our series, but if you're curious as to how they relate, Wikipedia has a family tree for your viewing pleasure.

So what made MUDs so great?

One of the reasons that long-time MMO players extol the virtues of MUDs with a fanaticism rarely seen outside sporting events is that there's a genuine, real concern that some of the unique qualities of these games will be or have already been lost due to the progression of the MMORPG industry.

For one thing, MUDs and their brethren relied much more on imagination and player-created content than many of our current MMOs. It's sort of like the difference between reading a book and watching a movie based on that book: The former employs far more imagination and makes the reader a participant while the latter transforms a person into a mere observer.

So if you've ever found yourself frustrated by the non-stop kill-a-thon that's present in MMOs, these MUD veterans share your pain -- and they want you to know that it wasn't always like this. We may see vestiges of this attitude in roleplaying guilds and on RP servers, but for many it's but a pale imitation of the glory days of yore.

I know this not because I was there but because when I put a call out a week or so ago on my blog and Twitter about this subject, I was deluged with responses and awed by the passion that these games evoked. One really wonders if we'll be gushing in the same way over our MMOs a couple of decades from now.

Share your MUDdy stories!

Speaking of gushing, let 'er rip! Send me your favorite memory or experience in a MUD, MUSH, MOO, etc. by emailing me at justin@massively.com with the subject line "MUD Memories"! I'll pick the very best (or at least the ones with a majority of their words spelled correctly) to post in an upcoming column.

Further reading

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
This article was originally published on Massively.