Fieldnotes from the Metaverse — Multi-User Dungeon(s)
The term “Metaverse” is currently claimed by many groups, driven by different incentives. Some groups attach the term to specific technologies (for example VR, AR, XR, Digital Twins or Blockchains), others see it as a future vision or narrative (sometimes dystopian, sometimes utopian). Some groups talk about the coming Metaverse, others argue that it already exists.
“Fieldnotes from the Metaverse” is a series that discusses the history, visions, perspectives, and narratives of the Metaverse: Specific milestones, their immediate impact and how they shaped the discussion going forward. The goal is a holistic and inclusive view of the Metaverse space, separating visions, signals, trends, and hype.
We continue the series still 1980s, looking at the first digital massive multiplayer role-playing game with the simple, innocent name: “Multi-User Dungeon”, and how it inspired the creation of digital virtual worlds that we know today.
Setting the scene
During the 1980s computers were still firmly divided in expensive business machines like the IBM PC (1981) or the Apple Macintosh (1984) and more affordable home computers like the Commodore 64 (1982), Atari ST (1986) and Amiga 500 (1987). The home console market was recovering from the video game crash in 1983 with the appearance of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
Computers connected to the Internet via modems. Affordable speeds ranged from 110 baud (or bits per second, bps) to 1200bps. Institutions could afford 2400bps while some universities went up to 9600bps. The early rule of thumb was that you paid “One $ for one baud”. For reference, this full article is around 1.3MB = 10.9 million Bit = would take 2.5 hours to load with higher end home modems in the 1980s. Ignoring all images and transferring only the article text would still have taken around 96 seconds.
The Internet in the early 1980s was mostly message and file boards. Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) were popular servers, running on smaller, often private machines that single users could call into directly. Universities ran multi-user mainframes. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was created in 1988. Lynx, a text-based web browser, was released in 1992.
In 1983 Motorola released the first commercial mobile phone called DynaTAC 8000X for a retail price of $3995. Nokia’s launched the Mobira Cityman 900, the first commercial mobile phone to weigh under one kilo, in 1989.
Multi-User Dungeon (MUD)
Multi-User Dungeon, better known as MUD, Essex MUD or MUD1, was initially developed by Roy Trubshaw in 1978 as a test to see if and how a truly shared virtual game-world could be created and maintained.
In terms of gameplay, MUD was a tribute to Zork, which was originally just called “Dungeon”, hence the name “Multi-User Dungeon”. The player explored “the ruins of an ancient empire lying far underground”, represented as narrative descriptions of the player’s surroundings:
“The Elizabethan Tearoom: This cosy, Tudor room is where all British Legends adventures start. Its exposed oak beams and soft, velvet-covered furnishings provide it with the ideal atmosphere in which to relax before venturing out into that strange, timeless realm.” — The starting text of MUD
Players could then interact with the environment by typing commands like “go DIRECTION” or “take OBJECT”. The goal was to “become a wizard or witch” by killing monsters or finding treasure.
Trubshaw created three different versions, each adding more capabilities and flexibility, until version III became MUD. Around that time, he realized he didn’t have the time to drive MUD forward and invited fellow student Richard Bartle to take over development and maintenance, supported by the university’s computer services team.
MUD was initially only playable within the University of Essex network, but became accessible via ARPANet in 1980, making it the first Internet multiplayer online role-playing game.
The original MUD is still accessible today, making it the oldest virtual world in existence.
You have arrived at the home of the game Multi-User Dungeon, or MUD, also known to former players on CompuServe as…
The final architecture of MUD was split in two: The game engine providing the core functionality, and a language to describe the game world and mechanics called MUDDL (MUD Definition Language). This allowed others to take the game engine and create their own virtual worlds on top of it, spawning many more worlds, based on diverse settings and topics.
Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs)
In 1980, John Taylor and Dr. Kelton Flinn at the University of Virginia wrote a local multiplayer game called “Dungeons of Kesmai”. They extended and launched it as “Island of Kesmai” on CompuServe in 1985, making it the first commercially created MUD. It was also the first MUD that added roguelike aspects to the game, starting with random character classes and traits and initially permanent death.
Alan Cox was working for the University of Wales, Aberystwyth on an old Honeywell mainframe. He had played the original MUD and wanted to create an open-source version of it. This version became known as AberMUD and was first published in 1997. It was quickly picked up by the computer sciences community and subsequently ported, extended, and changed well beyond the original scope.
TinyMUD was one such game. Developed by James Aspnes at Carnegie Mellon University in 1989, it allowed players to build and create their own rooms, objects, and puzzles within the world. This led to players spending most of their time creating things and talking about their creations, making it the first “Sandbox” type of virtual world.
The Void also arrived in 1989 as a primarily social virtual world that focused on adult-only sexually orientated stories and conversations.
DikuMUD was developed by a team of computer science students at the University of Copenhagen (Datalogisk Institut Københavns Universitet — or DIKU), also released as open-source in 1990. Instead of a flexible architecture that would encourage player-creation or socializing, they designed DikuMUD to have static and hard-coded worlds. However, the codebase resulted in the greatest proliferation of virtual worlds yet, due to its generous license and being extremely easy to set up, spawning many “Theme Park” type virtual worlds.
As games like Meridian 59, EverQuest, Ultima Online and Dark Age of Camelot added graphical user interfaces on top of MUD systems in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Richard Garriott coined the term “Massively multiplayer online role-playing games”, or MMORPGs, which was used going forward.
If you want to dive deeper, Raph Koster has an excellent timeline of these online virtual worlds:
The Online World Timeline
The following is a timeline of significant events for the development of virtual worlds. I welcome more additions to…
Richard Bartle, one of the co-developers of the original MUD, eventually started wondering why people were entering these virtual worlds. After a short article in 1990, he published a paper called “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who suit MUDs” in April 1996.
The paper looked at the way players acted within a virtual world and what they interacted with. From there, he identified four reasons why players were entering virtual worlds:
These approaches may arise from the inter-relationship of two dimensions of playing style: action versus interaction, and world-oriented versus player-oriented. An account of the dynamics of player populations is given in terms of these dimensions, with particular attention to how to promote balance or equilibrium. This analysis also offers an explanation for the labelling of MUDs as being either “social” or “game-like”. — Richard Bartle
And just like that Richard Bartle created a taxonomy of virtual world citizens and condensed the “Are virtual worlds games, entertainment, or social experiences?” into “Just like reality, virtual worlds are all of that, based on the expectations of the individuals within them.”
The paper was widely used in the subsequent creation and operation of virtual worlds, becoming the de facto player taxonomy in online game design for years to come.
Bartle followed it up in 2003 with a book called “Designing Virtual Worlds” (PDF available here), where he not only extended the taxonomy to include how player types might change over time, but also went deeper into systems, mechanics, and aesthetics when designing virtual worlds.
He also started talking about deeper aspects like identity and ethics.
The celebration of identity is the fundamental, critical, absolutely core point of virtual worlds. People go into these as part of a hero’s journey — a means of self-discovery. Everything that players do ultimately concerns the development of their own identity. — Richard Bartle
He did carve out an exemption for “purely practical virtual worlds” like virtual working environments, but even in professional or work environments there is always a sub-text of identity representation and development.
With that, designers realized that by bringing our own selves into virtual worlds, we brought parts of us — and thus the real. Our characters in MUDs, MMORPGs as well as other digital representations like our Facebook, LinkedIn or even work profiles, are the same as the various aspects of our personality that we develop and present in different real-life social circles. The building up of identity is valuable and losing it is painful.
As MUDs and later MMORPGs evolved, many people looked at distinct aspects of these new “digital, but real” dimensions, creating the first wave of professional literature (not fiction), that is still relevant today. Here is a short & subjective list of my favorites from that period:
- As mentioned, “Designing Virtual Worlds” by Richard Bartle (PDF available here) was a hugely influential book as it collected many papers, articles, viewpoints into a coherent framework to talk about and design virtual worlds.
- In “A Theory of Fun” (2005), Raph Koster looked at “If virtual worlds are more than games, what even if this fun we are always talking about?”, creating the go-to text for gamification, educators, trainers, and interaction designers.
- Edward Castronova looked at economies in virtual worlds and how they interacted with real-world economies and culture in “Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games” (2005).
- “Space Time Play” (2007) by Friedrich von Borries, Steffen P. Walz and Matthias Böttger looked at how virtual worlds might extend into the real world, creating augmented environments.
- Jesse Schell deconstructed design methodologies into different lenses, providing many different viewpoints with which to dissect and analyze games and intentions in “The Art of Game Design” (2008).
All these books, papers and works are important because they shaped (and continue shape) our professional understanding of virtual worlds, and thus the Metaverse.
MUD and its successors are text-based experiences and easily dismissed as some form of computing relics from days long past. However, I personally believe that in many ways they represent a low-resolution, high immersion window into the Metaverse.
We might have added visual interfaces with ever increasing fidelity, 3D, sound and audio, as more computing power and bandwidth became available, but the principles have stayed the same along the way. People have stayed the same and thus our insights into why they engage, how to create experiences and the dangers within also stayed the same.
Richard A. Bartle (the co-author of MUD) opened his book Designing Virtual Worlds with the following definition:
- Real: That which is.
- Imaginary: That which isn’t.
- Virtual: That which isn’t, having the form or effect of that which is.
And that is the point. Virtual worlds might be imaginary and ethereal, but they touch and modify our reality. He also observed:
With social virtual worlds, we didn’t invite the virtual into reality, we stuck the whole of reality into the virtual.
In entering these worlds, we brought real identities, real relationships, and real emotions. And real value and real money followed. We sought escapism and took reality with us. And this is where the “real virtual” Metaverse first emerged.