The Game Archaeologist: A brief history of Multi-User Dungeons

    
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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 dug into the history of Multi-User Dungeons, more commonly known as MUDs.

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 a piece of vital gaming history that helped to shape the genre — and an overwhelming topic that spans decades, sub-genres, and countless games.

This week we’ll take a look at the brief history of the MUD and its many spin-offs. 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.

With something as simple as text descriptions and a simple parser, players could enter these virtual worlds and go on amazing journeys. The only problem is that they did it completely alone and could not share that experience with others.

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, named MUD1 (but 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, “Design decisions Roy and I made for MUD1 have been passed down unaltered through generations of virtual worlds, often without designers even realizing 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,” he said. “With text, I can talk to the mind. With graphics, I can only talk to the senses.”

Unfortunately, MUDs never went quite as widespread as hoped in the ’80s due to numerous technical and logistical obstacles. Still, the seeds of the genre were planted, 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 (typically 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? Future Dark Age of Camelot and Camelot Unchained creator 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 getting ready to complain about World of Warcraft.

These multiplayer RPGs 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. And some focused on puzzles, while others were obsessed with 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, the descendants of MUD 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 OP’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.

So what made MUDs so great?

One of the reasons that some 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 more passive 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 while back on 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.

For more reading on MUDs and related topics, check out these columns:

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to 2004! Every few 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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Oleg Chebeneev

I must be old knowing where screenshots are from

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Briar Grey

Bartle’s right – the immersion is way better in a MUD than a graphical MMO – one of the reasons I not only played one for the better part of 20 years, but was a senior GM for a handful of those years as well. I like my MMORPGs now, but sometimes I still miss my MUDs. I just don’t have the patience for immersing myself like that any more though. Upside – met the husband in one ;)

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Paragon Lost

I miss MUDs sometimes, for the immersion, the better role-play the sense of actually being in the world. Owning homes and shops, crafting, story lines etc.

smuggler-in-a-yt
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smuggler-in-a-yt

Speaking from a pure modernization standpoint, I’ve been pleased that projects like Evennia continue the tradition in modern code bases and languages.

You will never get a more interactive environment for storytelling in the near future. I’m sure we’ll get there eventually, first with some sort of mo-cap/hybrid larp and later with direct signaling, but until then text will always be the best way to tell stories that scale.

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PanagiotisLial1

I still play IronRealms MUDs at times, which are easier to play on their webclient too. I like how many things, even your class “headquarters”, are player-run. Aetolia is my favorite and I found people to be quite friendly but nowadays few of those keep a number of over 100 players at all times. Probably its just Achaea and 3-4 more

MurderHobo
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MurderHobo

As a teenager I would play and run AD&D on FIDOnet and local BBSes. I got into MUX/MUSH/MOO (And dabbled a bit in diku) in early 90’s after installing Yggdrisil linux and leeching open lines from college and corporate internet portals.

I stuck with MUX/MUSH because it was an ideal environment for taking tabletop roleplay to the next level.

In our corner of the MU* world the skillset was being able to write narrative in freestyle, typing at 80 words per minute in a collaborative group with minimal need for rules arbitration.

Yet we did have systems, some of them quite novel. Writing systems in that nested spaghetti-code script was a hobby of mine. I wrote a /note system for protected GM and player notes, designed character sheets and a even a system for a Vampire:TM MUX that generated prey encounters and calculated the character’s offline feeding, tied in to a police report system for the vampire hunting faction.

The comparison between reading a book and watching a movie is okay, but with regard to the roleplay MU’s it wasn’t so much reading a book as it was collaboratively typing out a narrative for everyone to read in real time. There was a skillset involved.

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Sorenthaz

Kind of wish I had been able to actually grow up with MUDs, but by the point I was using the Internet for gaming I was already playing Runescape (as in, the ancient and now defunct Runescape Classic before it became the ancient and now defunct Runescape Classic).

It kind of sucks knowing about MUDs nowadays because obviously the prime time of MUDs has long gone, but these games often have so much more depth compared to modern online games. It’s crazy to think how much can be done with text and some imagination, meanwhile big graphical MMOs struggle to figure out compelling gameplay beyond chasing after shinies and fighting all the time.

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Michael18

Fun and interesting read, as always!

I wonder how (if?) the early rogue-likes fit in, here. Rogue and Hack appeared in 1980/82, so it is possible they and the games they inspired played a role during the first 10-15 years of the MUD.

flatline4400
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flatline4400

I still have a nethack game going from 1989 that I fire up every couple of years!

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Jim Bergevin Jr

Great read from someone who grew up on those classic CRPGs of those times. But this is one old timer who will never extol the virtues of those simulated worlds without the hack and slash. For me, the MMO genre hit its stride with the likes of DikuMUD and EverQuest.

I had this debate with Bree not so long ago 😂. For my group of friends and I, it wasn’t about living in a virtual world filled with other people, but about taking our dungeon crawling and monster bashing from pencil and paper to keyboard and monitor. Most of them played that style of game during those days. I was a hold out because of costs. It wasn’t until free dial-up and the non subscription based model that Guild Wars brought along that I felt the time was right to dive into the genre head-on.

Mewmew
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Mewmew

I have an Uncle who was there at the beginning playing those text MUDs. I didn’t see them, but he has talked about them before and I’ve used him for a lot of research information on early Internet gaming.

One interesting thing is that he traveled around to meet a lot of the player groups, and the text MUDs all had numerous female players as well. That always interested me because when I first got online myself and started to hear how girls don’t play games online (obviously we don’t hear that almost ever anymore in the West, but it was said all the time years ago), I’d always think about how the first text MUDs all had a lot of female players that were there right at the early first stages of Internet text gaming before graphics even existed online. So how did that ever come to be something people would say?

Though I did learn later that a lot of these boys and men did know girls were playing and would just say that to get you to expose your gender.

That really isn’t something people in the West say anymore either other than when teasing, but I noticed players from other countries still will say it quite often.

Funny the way things change. That used to tick me off so much when I was really young, and then after years of dealing with online predators and people looking for girlfriends, I hope and pray that people assume I’m a dude when playing most online games now.

I always sort of wish my Uncle was online more sharing these early Internet experiences with others. I think he has a lot to share about that kind of stuff. People would like to hear it directly from those that were there, not passed through others. The early Internet game pioneers like him are full of firsthand experience for information that people today constantly get wrong all the time online.

The numbers of people that were there that early in comparison are pretty low. Most people didn’t even know what the Internet was, much less had access to it. It’s sort of weird to think about when so many of us have never known a world without it. I wish I could talk him into coming on these sites and sharing and correcting info, but at least I have the personal line to it still myself :D

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Michael18

Good idea to get your Uncle to these parts of the interwebs! Would be interesting to read what he thinks about the topics that are being discussed in the gaming / MMO community these days.

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Sorenthaz

Yeah my dad was into a few of the text-based games, I remember hearing about Adventure when I was really young but back then I wasn’t so much interested in reading and instead was getting spoiled by the SNES. I didn’t have the attention span to read through that stuff during my childhood years, lol.

Didn’t really get into MUDs until ~4-5 years ago? But it’s like a whole different world compared to MMOs. I’ve only dipped into two really on a more serious level (one’s a DBZ RP-enforced MUD and the other’s probably best not to name) while sort of dabbing in two others that didn’t stick with me.

I’ve also noticed MUDs seem to be fairly popular with blind folks because all they really need is a screen reader and they’re good to go. But MUD communities often seem to be quite unique compared to others in the online gaming sphere. It really feels like I sort of stumbled on this big treasure trove of gaming history and it feels criminal that MUDs are such a relatively unknown thing to this day. It really sparks imagination and creativity on levels that graphical MMOs have been trying to emulate, but often can’t.

Also it’s basically free endless hours of entertainment that practically any computer with a basic internet connection can handle.

MurderHobo
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MurderHobo

It really feels like I sort of stumbled on this big treasure trove of gaming history

You did. That’s where all of this came from. There were many influences, but MU*s are the place where it all came together in a perfect mix. You had liberal arts students and IT students and the dorky neckbeards from the gaming shops all converging together and building what they needed in this new medium.

During a time when actual tabletop went into a dark decline and nobody really had an idea of how to market the Internet and schools were clueless as to how to engage kids in learning how to code, I feel those MU*s picked up the torch. Immense wealth has been generated from that open, collaborative environment.

And all of it free-as-in-beer while blowing raspberries at IP law. I share your sentiments, and happy to see it’s still appreciated by others.

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Sorenthaz

Yeah, if I can ever get motivated again to learn programming, making a MUD /text game was one of the things I wanted to try and start with.

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PanagiotisLial1

My first contact to the internet was through school in 1994ish but by late 1997 I had my own PC with internet which was super expensive because it was dial up(that couldnt go above 28.8k) and was treated by telephone companies like making a long call to a far away city so gaming and net usage had to be limited. You even paid extra if your connection disconnected and reconnected

MurderHobo
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MurderHobo

I think I had my first dialup account in ’93. It was $60/month for 300 (later 600) minutes. Those were the days of dialing up and using a grabber to quickly pull your usenet lists and emails into local file for offline browsing. You’d make your replies and tag your warez for download and dial back in for the next transmission.

My ISP didn’t limit reconnects. That was a dirty trick some ISPs pulled.

To access MU*s I needed a dedicated line, and there was an underground transaction in phone numbers/logins that got shared around the game communities.

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PanagiotisLial1

I will give you numbers, while the monthly dialup service cost was 30 euros per month the extra telephone costs(cause it treated it also as a phonecall), if you had a family that used the net on different hours and had 8+ hours daily uptime could break 500 euros. Things changed after a long boycott of internet services that forced companies hand to slowly first lower the cost per minute and eventually to stop attaching internet to telephony in such a way. Obviously DSL was far cheaper when it came because it was not treated as making a call. My first DSL was 384k on 2003(had dial up till 2003)

MurderHobo
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MurderHobo

It seemed to me then just like it is now, only now it feels like there’s a lot more of it. It’s harder to see the trees for the forest.

Even back then I could have landed in a DIKU MUD full of the toxic shitbreathers who gave us some of the most notorious rockstar guild leaders and developers in MMORPGs.

I could have landed in FurryMUCK and… well, I thank all fortune I noped out of there like I’d hit a hot stove.

I landed in collaborative tabletop MUSH-land, where the rules lawyers knifed it out with the roleplayers, but everyone followed the cardinal rule of mutual consent within a framework limited to acceptable public standards of behavior. We were among the early mixed-PVE/PVP players.

Modern online worlds seem to present the same choices, probably in the same ratios. My time spent playing Minecraft with my family or ARK with MJ and her friends was very much like a return to those privately-hosted MU* days — only better.