The Game Archaeologist: Raph Koster on MUDs and Privateer Online


The release of Raph Koster’s monster book of game essays, Postmortems, was of high interest to Bree and me for different reasons. For her, it was because Koster was a creative driving force behind two of her favorite games, Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. For me, it’d because Koster shares my passion for MMO history and has some unique stories touching on topics that no one has heard before.

So I combed through his collection of essays to see what I could find out on two topics of interest to me: MUDs and the elusive Privateer Online. Chances are that many of you reading have never touched a text-based multi-user dungeon, and none of us save Koster and his coworkers, ever got to even peek at Privateer Online.

Here’s a few quotes that popped out at me, and if you’re interested and have $35 to drop on a Kindle version, you can read Koster’s full collection of essays in Postmortems.

On MUDs…

  • “MUDs are the ancestral virtual worlds […] Most of today’s MMOs descend in a direct line from MUDs, and most of the early MMO developers were MUDders first.”
  • “DikuMUDs did not come out of the box with any quests, because they were not a programmable game engine. they were about combat and leveling up. There was no crafting either. They did come with good chat features, grouping, etc. […] Believe it or not, Dikus did have simple pets out of the box.”
  • LegendMUD was one of the first classless DikuMUDs; rather than choosing to be a fighter, mage, or thief, you instead chose one of the hometowns scattered across three periods of history. [These] affected a set of statistics called axioms that in turn affected what sorts of things you could learn to do.”
  • “Everything in LegendMUD was researched extensively. In fact, areas actually came with bibliographies and historical overviews accessed via help files. The maps of the areas were sometimes street-level accurate to the actual locations.”
  • “We already had an AFK command […] At the time, I thought of this as an answering machine. Now it seems like a direct message in Twitter.”
  • “Today, of course, the idea that being able to mute offensive players would make an environment less friendly sounds ludicrous. But that’s the sort of difference that scale made and a tight community.”
  • “How much of what was left after all these changes could be called a ‘virtual world’ remains as open question, to my mind. After all, quite a lot of the magical power that they afforded was sucked out of them, in the process of making them safer.”
  • “Today’s MMOs are mostly reskinned MUDs. It is very, very hard to find an MMO that doesn’t have a direct comparison to a text world. Yes, even EVE, even A Tale in the Desert.”

On Privateer Online

  • “After I moved off the UO team, I worked on several MMO concepts for Origin. The mandate was explicity ‘come up with something that we can make using the UO server and client pretty much intact, without big changes, because we need it quick.’ This limited the possible projects enormously.”
  • “There had been multiple tries at getting a Privateer Online/Wing Commander Online going by that point. All of them came from people over in the WC group. Some of them had gotten pretty far.”
  • “This ended up being a case where the Lord British Productions team actually ended up getting a different team’s IP greenlit for their own use. Needless to say, this ticked off some folks on the Wing Commander side.”
  • Privateer Online was in a design phase and early prototyping when it was cancelled in 2000. It was basically designed to be the successor title to Ultima Online. Instead, it became a rough draft of Star Wars Galaxies.”
  • “You could sit down at the prototype and enter a planet number, and it created a planet for you. Just terrains, colored textures, etc., but every planet was radically different. You could run around it in first-person 3-D. I remember that 666 was hellish, which struck us all as funny.”
  • “Time spent on adding a wedding dress to the game is more valuable than time spent on adding a new ship type. Design for player empowerment.”
  • “Space was divided into three sorts: Safe Space was truly safe and no weapons functional at all […] Tame Space was moer like a traditional PvE area […] At the fringes of it all was Wild Space. Anything was legal out there — but it was also the only place where you could find new planets to colonize.”
  • “A new player could join up to three guilds, and guilds were called ‘companies.’ A company actually declared a primary line of business […] In Privateer Online you could buy stock in someone else’s uberguild.”
  • “We’d designed a ship customization system that was more or less fractal.”
  • “We demo’ed it at an Origin all-hands meeting. People liked it […] And then Privateer Online was cancelled in favor of Earth & Beyond.”
  • “A few years later, when Origin was shut down, there was a big bonfire party. Copies of the Privateer Online DDR, along with those from many other Origin projects that never saw the light of day, were used to fuel the flames.”
Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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