In 1978, Roy Trubshaw was a computer science student at the University of Essex, London.
With too much time on his hands, and crucially, access to a PDP-10 mainframe computer, Trubshaw felt that a text-based input system would perfectly suit his vision of a multi-user environment where players could connect, share and ultimately team up to move through virtual worlds, requiring little more than a network connection, basic hardware and a healthy imagination to enjoy themselves.
"I liked the idea of multiplayer games. Wandering around the locations in an adventure-like environment and doing stuff to or with other folks in the same game as you was an unutterably cool idea", states Trubshaw in Replay: A History of Videogames, a rather fascinating novel by Tristan Donovan that covers the topic in detail.
Teamed with co-conspirator Richard Bartle, together they created an extensive, virtual, and totally open world with no real goals other than that of exploration. Called Multi-User Dungeon – MUD for short – the exercise was named for the Dungeon variant of Zork, an even earlier single player text-based forerunner that both had enjoyed playing extensively.
When Trubshaw stepped back from development to pursue his degree, Bartle took the helm and expanded MUD to more or less the form it has endured since: through the concept of "chaining of goals", Bartle allowed players to partake in puzzles with action requirements, and immediate consequences. To unlock a door, a key was required. Behind the door may be gold, or a monster. What we recognise as the fundamental tenets of all action-adventure video games today was actually first realised for a multiplayer audience in MUD, albeit with a healthy dose of inspiration from the Dungeons & Dragons pen-and-paper games that had found a popular audience around the same time.
MUD wasn't the first networked multiplayer game – that honour belongs to 1973's eight-player space combat game Empire – but its reliance on user choice and exploration paved the way for most role-playing titles since. Games such as Ultima, Everquest and World of Warcraft all owe in no small part their success to MUD. Words such as "griefing" and "newbie" were first popularised by MUD, as was the first female virtual character; called Polly, she had been created specifically by a male computer programmer to push the boundaries of sexual equality within gaming circles.
But that was then, and this is now. With no graphical candy at all, Multi-User Dungeons are clearly obsolete – a curious relic of the past, destined to be used as subjects for undergrad papers on social gaming addictions, or dragged out by statistics bores at inopportune moments during computer science class.
We've met one MUD enthusiast who disagrees with that sentiment strongly.
Doug Beall isn't your average gamer. But then, MUD isn't an average game.
Owner and operator of the largest Kiwi-created MUD server, Doug routinely manipulates software, interacts with players and generally assumes the role of caretaker to dozens of likewise afflicted users.
"I have been 'mudding' for approximately 13-14 years now, since I was about 15 years old", recalls Doug.
"I spotted a guy I was working with at the time entranced by this small telnet window on his work computer, I asked him a work-related question and he said, '...just hang on a minute, in a fight with a big dragon.' All I could see was text scrolling past really quickly. Eventually, when the fight with the Crystal Dragon was finished and they had looted the White Crystal Earring from the corpse of the dragon, he explained a few things to me. My initial reaction was of course, where are the pictures at?
"He explained to me that MUDs allow the player to create their own image of the world in their mind, much like when someone reads a book. They're given an overall perspective from the writer, but the lasting image the mind projects is completely created by the reader (player) themselves."
Doug's addiction nearly never happened. As with many new gaming experiences, MUD's notorious difficulty curve almost claimed another victim.
"When I first started mudding I played for the first couple of weeks and it was possibly the most frustrating thing I have ever tried to do. I lost all my equipment and was killed so many times I lost count. I eventually threw in the towel after a week or so of this. Then about two weeks later I just logged back in for whatever reason, and I took my time a little more and eventually got the hang of it. And from the start of round two of my illustrious mudding career, I was hooked!"
Doug isn't the only local to be up to his neck in MUD. A surprisingly large number of regular Kiwi players take to text every day, although their participation has suffered in the shadow of more alluring prospects, as Doug is quick to point out.
"The number of people mudding has definitely been declining over the years with the rise of World of Warcraft, Elder Scrolls, and especially with Diablo III due out soon. There are currently over 1200 MUDs listed on the mudconnector website. Each with around, I would say, five to 10 players each at a minimum. Some of them have several hundred players on at any time. I have even seen a couple with almost 1000 players online. A little too busy for my liking though."
Herein lies the problem. With each new generation exposed to the ever-increasing push for realism in gaming, MUD must seemingly have an expiry date. The situation isn't quite as dire as many would predict however, as when it comes to practicality, MUD has an ace up its sleeve:
"Some of the people who MUD do it from their work on the sneaky because they obviously can't take their World of Warcraft or Diablo with them to work. It's quite simple to fire up a putty or telnet session and connect to a MUD from work, some are even accommodating enough to allow people to telnet in on port 80, 23, and other well known ports that will not be blocked. A lot of the time people continue to MUD because you can do it from just about anything, including a smartphone whilst you're on the go.
"I guess the general consensus is that most people who MUD are against the whole pay-to-play thing. This said, they understand that most MUD implementers run their sites from their own pockets and are not overly phased by making small donations to the site to cover the running costs."