The Game Archaeologist: How Sceptre of Goth shaped the MMO industry
When it comes to text-based MMOs created in the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, the sheer number of them would blot out the sky. There are certainly more multi-user dungeons (MUDs) than I’ve ever been able to get a handle on when I’ve tried creating lists of the most important to know, but I will say that there are a few that seem to pop up more than others. The original MUD1, created by Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw, was certainly a watershed moment for online roleplaying games. Learning about DikuMUD is pretty essential, considering its impact on graphical MMORPGs that we still play today.
But there’s another title that often goes unnoticed, unless you keep an eye out for it. It’s a MUD that keeps popping up when you look into the history of the MMORPG genre, one with ties to key players and design concepts that are still active today.
It’s the MUD that shaped the MMO industry, and it was called Sceptre of Goth.
The first commercial text MMO
In 1978, around the same time that Bartle and Trubshaw were hacking away at MUD1, Alan E. Klietz was working on his own multi-user RPG, originally named Milieu. Klietz coded the game in Multi-Pascal on a college CDC Cyber mainframe, which was connected via low-baud modems to high school computers around the country.
“Milieu was the most popular game on MECC, with some users logged in eight hours per day,” Bob Alberti documented. “After receiving complaints from the parents of some users, Klietz eventually had to modify the game to shut down betwee midnight until five a.m. to ensure his users got a night’s sleep.”
So which online game came first, Milieu or MUD1? Sceptre of Goth Lead Developer David Wheeler later admitted that it is “especially difficult” to determine which was first out of the gate and that both titles should share the honor.
Kleitz eventually ported his creation to an IBM XT in 1983, re-writing it in C and renaming the game as Sceptre of Goth. Up to 16 players at a time could connect to the text RPG and enjoy the city of Boldhome. As these players — really, beta testers — were paying for their game time, Sceptre of Goth can claim the title as the world’s first commercial MUD. Instead of being operated from a central location, Sceptre was set up as a franchise that local operators could license and run in their neck of the woods, charging players for hourly connection fees.
Santa Claus is logging online
Using a simple text-based cursor, players could type in commands for their characters to perform, similar to what was being used for old-fashioned text adventure games like Cave Adventure and Zork. The developers started adding in more content, including seasonal events such as a Christmas makeover in December 1983. The birth of online game holidays? Could be!
Sceptre boasted most CRPG staples, including classes, turn-based combat, magic, PvP, levels, and loot. Klietz drew obvious inspiration from Dungeons and Dragons, which was also used for other contemporary projects. “Dunjon Masters” (DMs) were expected to be at hand on each Sceptre server to keep things running smoothly, grant wishes, and basically interact with players, much like how DMs functioned in D&D.
“I think it’s worth noting that Keith Dalluhn probably holds the title of World’s First Professional DM, as we hired him to oversee the game and assist players in 1984,” Alberti noted in our comments.
Email, forums, and interactive chat were also revolutionary features built into the game. Sceptre of Goth even allowed free users to connect, although their privileges (including chat) were often highly restricted.
The titular sceptre was the overarching goal of the game. When a player finally succeeded in attaining the magical object, a cataclysm would erupt across the entire server and reset all game data. It was a MUD with an ending and reset button, and apparently it worked really well. Bob Alberti would later call it “interactive multi-user live theater.”
One interesting challenge for the game’s developers was to figure out how to allow players to group up for adventures. “This was especially challenging in a text-only format, where users are expected to type in commands; if a player moves, how does the system know which other players or monsters should also move?” David Wheeler wrote. “The solution in Scepter, which worked marvelously well, was the ‘follow’ command. A user could simply state who they would follow; that player or monster might in turn be following another. This meant that groups could fluidly join each other, or separate, without complex commands.”
A larger world
In the early ’80s, Sceptre of Goth was still relatively unknown, even in the niche world of online gaming at the time. That was, however, until Bob Alberti joined the project. According to Bartle, Alberti was instrumental in helping to develop the game world and to bring Sceptre “out into the open” following the shutdown of the primary mainframe by the State of Minnesota in 1983. Alberti formed GamBit to handle the franchise, and soon, money was pouring in.
“Along with other early innovations in online gaming such as Control Data’s PLATO games and MUD1 by Richard Bartle, Sceptre helped launch the present-day multi-billion-dollar MMORPG industry,” Alberti wrote in his excellent 2010 essay on the history of Sceptre of Goth.
GamBit and its property was eventually sold to InterPlay, which further developed and operated Sceptre. It was during this period that awareness and popularity of the online game greatly expanded, creating a genuine community that stretched across the continental US.
It wasn’t to last forever, however. InterPlay folded virtually overnight when its president, Danny Flanders, was sent to jail on tax evasion, investors pulled their funds, and the studio found itself bankrupt.
With InterPlay’s demise, Sceptre of Goth soon faded. The title was hard to port, and as other MUDs with more features and flexibility came on the scene, the game wasn’t seen as a priority for revival.
“Sceptre was mostly commercially abandoned after InterPlay folded. Some specific instances did keep running afterwards, and there were some brief efforts to update the software to newer hardware. However, its original source code was tied to very specific older hardware, which made it hard to port the software to newer hardware,” Wheeler wrote. He said that it is unclear who, if anyone, currently owns the rights to the game or if Sceptre has been released to the public domain.
The Sceptre of Goth Class of 1983
“I always say that ‘almost all’ today’s MMOs are directly descended from MUD, because if I said ‘all’ it would be untrue,” wrote Richard Bartle in his book, MMOs from the Inside Out. “A good few are direct descendants of Sceptre of Goth, and some former Sceptre players are among the most influential in the MMO industry.”
As I detailed in another column, several members of the Sceptre team and some players left to form their own company, Simutronics, in 1987 which spawned well-known MUDs such as GemStone, and worked on the sadly abandoned graphical MMO Hero’s Journey in the 1990s and early 2000s. One member of the Simultronics team was Scott Hartsman, who later went on to work on the EverQuest franchise before heading up Trion Worlds and its stable of MMOs such as RIFT, Trove, and Defiance.
Mark Jacobs was a huge fan of Sceptre and tried to land a job at InterPlay. When that didn’t pan out, he created his own game studio that eventually became Mythic. Mythic focused on PvP-centric MMOs such as Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online. After leaving Mythic, Jacobs started all over again with a new studio (City State Entertainment) and a new RvR MMO (Camelot Unchained).
J. Todd Coleman, who was a dunjon master for Sceptre, went on to help create and work on the MMOs Shadowbane, Wizard101, and Crowfall. Another fan of the game, Brett Vickers, created the MUD Quest for Mordor and eventually became lead programmer for Guild Wars 2.
Brothers Andrew and Chris Kirmse were avid Sceptre of Goth players who ended up crafting a 2.5-D graphical MMORPG during their college years. This small but important game became known as Meridian 59, a title which definitely deserves a spot in the annals of MMO history.
“Had InterPlay not gone under, we could now be calling old textual worlds Sceptres,” wrote Bartle. “I greatly dislike it when people try to take credit that is not their due, but I dislike it more when people are not given credit that is their due; credit is due to Sceptre’s pioneers.”
Even though Sceptre of Goth died an early death and is largely unknown by most modern MMO gamers, its legacy is still felt through the developers that the MUD inspired.