Stuck in the M.U.D.

Hardly anyone played it at the time. But few, if any, British games can boast the impact of MUD. Never heard of it? That’s not surprising, because even in its pre-internet heyday this online game was the definition of cult.

Created in 1980, MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) was an online multiplayer role-playing game that was written when only the government, military and universities could use the internet. MUD was free to play, but not many people had computers with modems back then and playing online incurred sky-high phone bills that made playing frighteningly expensive. Yet this wallet-gobbling game laid the foundations for every online RPG out today. Without it there would be no World of Warcraft, no RuneScape and no EVE Online. Without it we wouldn’t even know what a noob is. So how did this little-known British game become so influential?

The story of MUD starts in 1978 when Roy Trubshaw, a computer student at Essex University, built a virtual world that people could explore together on the university’s room-filling mainframe computer. “I liked the idea of multiplayer games,” he said. “Wandering around the locations…doing stuff to or with other folks in the same game as you was an unutterably cool idea.”

Since graphics and online play together were too demanding for the era’s computers, Trubshaw’s world was described in text and players interacted with it via text commands much like the text adventure games that were big at the time. But Trubshaw’s interactive realm wasn’t much of a game, so his pal Richard Bartle, who was also studying computing at Essex, sprinkled some role-playing pixie dust over it. The result was a multiplayer online treasure hunt set in a fantasy land filled with puzzles, spells, combat and Dungeons & Dragons stats.

As luck would have it, Essex University’s computers had just been hooked up to the pre-internet ARPANET system so Bartle and Trubshaw put their game online. While there had been a small number of online games before it, MUD was revolutionary stuff for 1980. While most people were playing primitive Chess on their ZX80s, or trying to get high scores in the arcades, the select group who played MUD got a glimpse of 21st century gaming 20 years early.

As is often the case with tight-knit groups, MUD players began inventing their own words. Words such as newbie, which described newcomers to MUD, and morphed into the internet slang ‘noob’ that’s so widespread it’s now in the Oxford English Dictionary.

And since Trubshaw and Bartle gave away the code behind MUD, fans began producing their own twists on the idea until eventually MUD became the term not for a single game but a catch all term for a style of game.

By the middle of the 90s there were hundreds of MUDs around. Some, like LambdaMOO, abandoned the game elements and inspired the online virtual world Second Life. Others emphasised the game aspects. These game-focused MUDs, particularly the DikuMUDs, set the gameplay template for massively multiplayer online role-playing games of today including World of Warcraft and RuneScape. In fact these games are so closely related to the text-based worlds of MUD that when they first appeared they were called graphical MUDs.

But while millions of people across the world play games like World of Warcraft, few know that their favourite game just wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for the often overlooked creation of two British computer students back at a time when few had heard of the internet and the ability to display 16 colours at once was the sign of a state-of-the-art home computer.



Tristan Donovan (@tristandonovan) is the author of the acclaimed Replay: The History of Video Games and writes about games for The Times, Stuff, Eurogamer and Gamasutra.

First published as part of the Games Britannia festival in 2012.



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