In this column, we have previously journeyed to lands where you saw not with your eyes, but with your imagination. I speak, of course, of text-based multi-user dungeons, or MUDs. These games took players to virtual worlds long before technology could handle sharing graphics, electing instead to use text as the medium in which these lands, characters, and adventures were shaped.
We’ve covered a few specific MUDs on The Game Archaeologist to date, including influential titles such as Legend of Kesmai, Sceptre of Goth, and Monster. Today, I want to venture into even more obscure territory as we look at another innovative title that is in danger of being lost to the fog of history. Today, we’re going to Mirrorworld.
When MUDs first arrived on the scene in the early 1980s, they mostly existed on university servers and were available to a limited population. The main game took place on UK’s Essex University, where Richard Bartle expanded upon MUD1 while running it on the university’s machines. Essex kept this MUD up for as long as Bartle was there (“They justified it on the grounds that it was my ‘research,'” he wrote in 1987), but once he left, the game was shut down. However, the Essex MUD codebase endured, and others took it and created their own variations to operate on their own.
One such user who took up this task was Pip “Pippin” Cordrey. Pippin was already running a bulletin board system in the mid-1980s with some friends, and the idea of being sysadmins of their own virtual world was intoxicating. So they took the code and started working on a version that would run well on an average home computer rather than a more expensive and rare mainframe.
Mirrorworld rolled out in 1986, originally running on a BBC Master 128 home computer with a 32 megabyte hard drive. The fantasy MUD became a fast hit with players, partially for its challenging world, and partially for its very user-friendly payment plan. In fact, initially you could play entirely for free (minus the cost of the actual phone call), which was practically unheard of at the time.
Due to the limitations of home computers, Mirrorworld’s code had to be as streamlined and simple as possible. Bartle later noted that the game’s programming language, Slate, was very difficult to work with and resistant to change — two factors that worked against an online, evolving title.
In the realm of Mirrorworld, adventurers would explore a Tolkein-inspired realm while solving puzzles, fleeing a murderous dragon, and contending with other players. The goal was to try to get the highest overall score possible, attaining “wizard” status and being granted all sorts of godlike abilities. Unfortunately, your score was always vulnerable to being lowered, both by the game and from other players.
“Player killing was more-or-less encouraged by the scoring system that rewarded victorious players with a fairly substantial chunk of their defeated foes score,” said a memorial site. “However, combat was not something to get into without thought, as the penalties for defeat or fleeing a combat were severe.”
In a review of Mirrorworld, Bartle said, “Although relaxing and pleasant enough to play, MirrorWorld is not a true heavyweight of [multi-user adventures]. However, it has made an immense contribution to the genre, has an experienced programming and design team behind it, and has pioneered the concept of genuine choice between different MUAs on a single system dedicated to such games.”
As MUDs were experimenting with new and better ways to operate, Mirrorworld developed one innovation that we enjoy in our games today: a persistent server.
“[Mirrorworld was] first multi-player game as far as I’m aware not to do the ‘kick everyone off and reset the world’ every hour – Essex MUD style – but featured instead what they called a ‘rolling reset’ so there was never a moment the game wasn’t up and available,” Dave Austin explained. “This seems a no-brainer now but was quite innovative back in 1986 when Mirrorworld first went online. I do think Mirrorworld deserves an honourable mention as the first game not to have total resets.”
Richard Bartle adds, “The main reason for having rolling resets is to give a seamless scenario which doesn’t have its atmosphere ruined by intrusive resets; however, Mirrorworld’s alternative is to have a little man in a white coat appear to reset puzzles, which, although a cute idea, doesn’t fit in well with the fantasy milieu.”
As Mirrorworld’s popularity grew, eventually Pippin and company used it for the foundation of a larger game service. They called it I/O World of Adventure, or IOWA for short, and brought other MUDs under its umbrella as well as an email system.
As the decade turned into the ’90s, Pippin’s team decided to start charging for access to Mirrorworld, a decision which ended up greatly hurting the population, which then fled into an ever-widening field of online games. This subscription was later dropped as a result.
While today Cordrey and Mirrorworld are largely unknown to the online gaming scene, the contributions of a highly accessible and popular text-based MMO in the late 1980s greatly helped to foster a community and show new and exciting ways that these titles could operate.