“You’re in the middle of a vast hall stretching out of sight to the east and west. Strange shadows play across the high vaulted ceiling. The floor is set with smooth rectangular stones. The walls feel slightly cold to the touch, and damp with condensation. A copper plaque, slightly green with age, is set into one wall.”
Old-school gamers are probably quite familiar with text adventure paragraphs such as the one above. Emerging from the ’70s, text adventure games offered computer players a way to explore detailed virtual worlds before technology advanced enough to substitute words with graphics. Searching locations, picking up items, solving puzzles, discovering mysteries, and advancing to new areas kept many adventure gamers playing long into the night.
While most adventure games were static and home to only one player at a time, one college student in 1988 decided to change the rules and make a title that would be a living, breathing beast. He called it Monster.
The prank that ushered in the age of viruses
Before he was an amateur game designer, Richard Skrenta was a geeky high school kid who loved to play pranks on his friends. If at all possible, he would get his hands on their gaming floppy disks and mess around with them, giving his friends a nasty surprise when they booted them up. These idle jokes led him to think of a way to perpetuate a prank that wouldn’t require him to physically touch someone’s computer or media.
Skrenta, then a ninth grader, took two weeks to program what would become known as a boot sector virus for the Apple II in 1982. Once on a computer, the virus would infect floppy disks, which would in turn show a silly poem every 50th time they booted up. The program was called Elk Cloner, and would later land Skrenta into computer history as the first person to create and spread a true computer virus. In fact, Elk Cloner was still popping up over a decade later among people using old Apple IIs.
“It was some dumb little practical joke,” said Skrenta in an interview. “I guess if you had to pick between being known for this and not being known for anything, I’d rather be known for this. But it’s an odd placeholder for (all that) I’ve done.”
Making a Monster
Skrenta wouldn’t go down in computer history for Elk Cloner, however. Years later, the computer prodigy went off to Northwestern University, where he started making programs for the VAX VMS system on campus. His brainchild was to create a new type of MUD (multi-user dungeon) that allowed players to adventure together and create puzzles for each other.
“I wrote Monster in about three months, during NU’s winter quarter,” Skrenta recalled. “I was totally obsessed with coding it. Project obsession was normal with me (really boosts the productivity, but Monster Madness as I called it then really got out of hand. I was spending all night in the comp center, leaving at 7:00 a.m., skipping classes, skipping everything. (My 10,000 line VMS Pascal wonder would compile faster when no one was around, which encouraged the nocturnal work.) I went on spring break, and when I got back I forced myself to not continue working on Monster. I was afraid I’d fail out of school if I did. I left it alone until November of that year, when I started sending it out on the Bitnet.”
The initial version of Monster came out in 1988 and was soon followed by an improved second version that was four times the size of the original. Local popularity of the title picked up, creating an awkward situation when Skrenta wanted to do a second world wipe in order to fix database issues.
“Players had put much work into creating over 100 rooms, and became quite angry when I suggested that I might throw away the current world to make a new one,” he said. Without an easy solution that would both keep his fans happy while correcting storage issues, Skrenta eventually stopped working on the project.
What he did do, however, was to release the code and source documents to the public in November 1988, allowing others to pick up and run with Monster if so desired. The game did spread globally, with one such variant popping up at the University of Helsinki in the early 1990s.
Bold ideas for a new world
So what made Monster so compelling? First of all, it was the novelty of a multiplayer adventure game that drove many players into its arms. But even more importantly, the ability to create and expand content for the game kept players there.
Monster empowered its users to come up with their own puzzles, NPCs, objects, and rooms. While each player ran his or her own copy of the game on a local computer, these copies would all access the same central database that contained the adjustments that the playerbase made. Through this setup, players could “see” and interact with each other online as they adventured through the world.
One problem that sprung up was when players disconnected or died in-game, leaving behind “zombie” players that weren’t being controlled by anyone but were littering up the world.
While Monster never became a big name, even for MUD standards, it is notable for what it influenced. Even as MUDs were starting to skew in the direction of combat-focused titles, Monster’s player created content approach showed developers that there was an alternative path.
Richard Bartle recalled how Monster helped to spur on similar projects: “Written by James Aspnes in 1989, TinyMUD was, as its name suggests, a MUD; however it also drew from another game, Rich Skrenta’s Monster. Monster had gameplay, but it also allowed player-created content. The second version of MUD had featured this (if you remember, I added an ox to it that way), and so had some Second Age MUDs (MirrorWorld founder Pip Cordrey pushed the idea hard). However, AberMUD didn’t have it, therefore the idea didn’t propagate to the Third Age. The reason that virtual worlds such as Second Life have user-generated content is because Monster had it, not because MUD or the games on Pip Cordrey’s IOWA system had it.”
As for Skrenta, the college programmer became a Silicon Valley entrepreneur following his graduation. He worked on a play by email title called Olympia in the mid-90s and developed a search engine, among other things.
Monster is still playable today, if you want to enjoy a blast from the past.