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ascii art multi user dungeon

Technology Throwback Thursday: Video games stuck in the MUD

October 28, 2015
By Alexander Lucas

With the rise of competitive eSports like League of Legends and the enormous subscription base of games like World of Warcraft, I wondered how these user-driven games got their start.

Its name is MUD

Before the sprawling acronym MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) there was a much shorter one: MUD*. So what is MUD? It’s an acronym for a multiuser dungeon. The term MUD has been used for a wide genre of text-based adventure games, mostly modeled after the table-top role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.

In a MUD, you read descriptions of the environment around you (You are standing in a dimly lit ancient tomb) and either move a direction or interact with object in that environment (examine skull). In this way your character explored the rooms, dungeons or landscapes of the game, fought other players and computer-controlled monsters, and gathered treasures and other objects. So the earliest MUDs were not so much different from playing Skyrim, albeit without the graphics or taking an arrow to the knee.

While many MUDs can be described as hack ‘n’ slash (combat-focused games), one of their innovations was their ability to also work online chat rooms. Combat in some MUDs was disabled, meaning socializing and role-playing were the only activities. On the other hand, other MUDs featured player-versus-player combat, which would later give rise to first-person shooter and arena battle game genres.

Growing up in a Dungeons & Dragons household with a home computer in the 1980s, I vividly remember playing MUDs from our dialup CompuServe account (remember AOL predecessor CompuServe?), but the history of the genre actually started the previous decade.

You haven’t lived until you’ve died in a MUD

The first MUD was simply titled as MUD, though it would later become British Legends when it was licensed to CompuServe. Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw, two students at Essex University, coded the original MUD1 in 1978. Their idea was to create a Dungeons & Dragons-style adventure game that could also accommodate multiple users at the same time. In a huge disruption for video games, which previously had allowed only one user and basically reset to the same game every time you turned the power off, this also meant the users could affect the environment and thereby fundamentally alter the gameplay experience itself. If one user picked up a treasure from a room it would not necessarily be there once the next user entered the room.

The original MUD lasted until 1987, when Richard Bartle left Essex University. Though still technically available on CompuServe until 1999, the game was not advertised there and gradually was replaced by other entrants in the genre.

Further stuck in the MUD

I can’t talk about MUDs, however, without acknowledging the text-based adventures that preceded them, specifically Adventure and Zork.

Adventure, or Colossal Cave Adventure, was created in 1975 and can be considered the true beginning of the text-based adventure genre. This game was based on creator Will Crowther’s caving trips into the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky. Like the description above about MUD, you could explore the caves with simple text commands. If you are interested in playing Adventure, you can still do that here.

Zork, another early text-based adventure game, was coded in 1979 at MIT and has enjoyed long-lasting success. It has also been referenced repeatedly in pop culture, once recently in the film version of The Martian, and it figures significantly into the plot of the popular book, and soon to be filmed Spielberg flick, Ready Player One. If you are interested in playing Zork, you can still do that here.

Here’s MUD in your eye

Thanks for reading, and if you enjoyed this, stay tuned for a future Tech Throwback about the birth of the first-person shooter in video games. In the mean time, check out this previous Tech Throwback Thursday about the first video games. You should also see what TEKsystems has done to support video game makers in this exciting case study.

*For simplicity I refer to all games in this genre as MUDs, although there are many other self-described types such as MUSH, MUCK, MOO, etc.

A self-styled storyteller, Alexander Lucas loves to share his vast knowledge of tech, innovation and design trivia. TEKsystems’ resident video designer is also an avid history buff and writes about technology innovation through time.

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