Crawling Out of the MUDs

From their start on mainframe computers in the late 1970s to the games running on your PC or console today, MMOs have evolved in ways few people could have predicted.

by Adam Fleet

In December of 2005, Blizzard announced that World of WarCraft had surpassed the 5 million–subscriber mark. That’s a lot of half-naked Night Elf females dancing in front of the auction house in Ironforge; it’s also a whole lot of paying customers around the world. When you factor in “businesses” like virtual goods sales, virtual money exchanges, and leveling services, it leaves little doubt that massively multiplayer games are an economic force to be reckoned with.

Socially the impact is no less profound, though far more difficult to quantify. But the fact that Leroy Jenkins was part of a question on “Jeopardy” should be proof enough that online gaming culture is seeping into the mainstream psyche.

“In 1997, Electronic Arts released Ultima Online. Though other MMOs have tried to copy its model of brutal lag, frequent server crashes, and lost character information, Ultima Online did it first, did it best, and lived to tell the tale.”

Reading is hard. You’ve got all those silly little letters, and let’s not even talk about punctuation. That’s where this whole crazy Internet gaming thing started, with a whole lot of words. Back in 1978, long before there was a World of WarCraft, Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle created MUD at Essex University in the U.K.

“MUD stands for Multi-User Dungeon,” explains Bartle, in an effort to set the record straight. “It always did, it always will. The ‘Dungeon’ in question is nothing to do with Dungeons & Dragons, and MUD didn’t actually have a dungeon itself. It was named that way for two reasons. First, because we hoped that the text games we now know as adventures would be generically called Dungeons, after the Fortran version of Zork (called DUNGEN) that was doing the rounds. Second, because Roy wanted something to go after the ‘MU’ for ‘Multi-User,’ and he liked the idea of it being a D, so he looked for something that would fit.”

The original MUD had more in common with text-based adventure games than modern MMOs, with more puzzles to solve than enemies to hack and slash. That’s not to say there wasn’t any combat, though. “[The first players] started by killing each other,” says Bartle. “They rapidly realized they wouldn’t get far doing that, so they started exploring. Once they had a feel for where most things were and what they could do, they began to rack up points until eventually they made it to the top level and spent their time sitting around chatting with their friends.”

MUDs spread throughout the university system, earning themselves the faux-appellation “Multi-Undergrad Destroyers” for the ruination of GPAs left in their wake. Meanwhile, they were joined in the early ’80s by another form of online gaming, the BBS door game. Similar to MUDs in that they were all text, but for the occasional lovingly crafted masterpieces of ASCII art, BBS games like Legend of the Red Dragon allowed multiple players to dial in, power up their characters, and eventually challenge the dragon itself. Other games, like Tradewars and its many variations, pitted players against one another in battles of intergalactic capitalism, so very appropriate to the height of the Cold War.

 

While hobbyists and academics were enjoying free MUDs and BBS door games, others saw there was money to be made. By the mid-’80s, online services offered numerous text-based MUD variations to their subscribers, at the not-so-modest price of between $5 and $12 in connection fees. Per hour.

One of the earliest of these games, and arguably the most popular MUD of all time, was GemStone, which got its start on GEnie. Over time it spread to CompuServe, AOL, and Prodigy, and it survives still as GemStone IV on play.net. In these early days of online gaming, everything was something of an adventure, as David Whatley, GemStone’s main man, can personally attest. “When GemStone III made its debut on America Online, AOL had a fairly basic marking mechanism,” he says. “When you logged in, there was a ‘hello’ splash page that had three featured icons on it, and the Holy Grail was to rank one of these icons. There was no established way to get one; you just had to beg and hope the AOL gods smiled on you eventually. One day, without notice, one of the three icons on that page was for GemStone III. We knew almost instantly because there was a massive influx of new characters, followed by a sizzling sound coming from the servers.”

In 1991, online gaming took its first quantum leap with Neverwinter Nights. Offered by AOL, it combined the soul of a MUD with the graphical capability of SSI’s famous “gold box” series of computer role-playing games based on the Dungeons & Dragons license. Birds sang, dogs and cats put their differences aside if only for a moment, and millions of people prepared to lose countless hours of productive work and restful sleep, as the stage was finally set for the first true massively multiplayer games.

 

By the mid-’90s, this crazy Internet thing was starting to catch on. Other historical accounts of this period claim the rise was due to the growing success of the World Wide Web as an information sharing and business application. But anyone who spent the first half of the decade lugging full desktop PC rigs from one LAN party to the next knows the real reason for online proliferation—exhaustion. Ready to welcome these tuckered-out throngs was the first generation of MMOs.

While people tend to remember the big three of Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Asheron’s Call, the ball really got rolling in 1996 with the release of The Realm and Meridian 59. The former came from Sierra and was—as it still is—a simple and primitive graphical MUD.

Meridian 59, by contrast, was a much more advanced game. Started as a grassroots development effort by a company called Archetype Interactive, it was eventually purchased and published by 3DO, whose marketing department claims to have coined the phrase “massively multiplayer.” Meridian’s combination of 3D graphics and role-playing sensibilities defined the genre to be, as did its monthly fee and independence from online services like AOL and CompuServe.

In 1997, Electronic Arts released Ultima Online. Though other MMOs have shamefully tried to copy its model of brutal lag, frequent server crashes, and lost character information, it should be noted that Ultima Online did it first, did it best, and lived to tell the tale. Its beta test also spawned one of gaming’s most infamous stories.

“I was playing Blackthorn alongside Lord British, played by Richard Garriott,” says Starr Long, then Ultima Online’s project director. “We were giving a tour of the land near the end of the beta test, with stops in various cities to give speeches. When we would do events like these, we would usually make ourselves invulnerable, but this state did not persist past that particular login, so you had to reset it each time you logged in. During one of the stops, the server crashed because there were so many people crowded around trying to see us, and when we logged back in Richard forgot to make Lord British invulnerable. We started giving the speech, and one of the players cast a field of fire at our feet. I was invulnerable, so I just laughed at the crowd and said something stupid like ‘Is that the best you can do?’ Richard wanted to play along as well, so he ran into the fire field and promptly died. I started summoning demons in the crowd and saying more stupid things like ‘How dare you!’ It was an amazing example of how the players were much more in control of this experience than the game’s creators.”

Not to be outdone, Microsoft jumped into the online fray with its 1999 release of Asheron’s Call. But it was Sony’s EverQuest, which had debuted earlier that year, that would change gaming forever. It didn’t take long for EverQuest to surpass Ultima Online in popularity, making it the darling of both the gaming world and the mainstream media. Overnight, online role-playing went from being the subject of hushed whispers among pale nerds to water-cooler conversation, thanks to articles in publications like Newsweek and the New York Times.

Even EverQuest was not without its little accidents. Kevin McPherson, one of EverQuest’s original team members, recalls: “Bill Trost said I could detail out a continent for EverQuest, so I wrote a lot of background, history, politics, etc. and called it Kunark. It was pretty detailed, but then those papers were shoved in a drawer somewhere and they sat there for a long time. After launch the game was a hit, and someone said, ‘Hey, we need an expansion.’ Bill rifled through some drawers and somehow dug up my document. That ended up becoming the Kunark expansion.”

If Ultima Online’s popularity wasn’t enough to convince gaming industry power players that MMOs were the wave of the future, EverQuest’s mainstream breakout and wallet-popping windfall for Sony had many of them seeing dollar signs, and the game triggered a landslide of massively multiplayer development projects. Though there’s some debate about the exact line of demarcation between second- and third-generation MMOs, the unifying theme of this period was that no one was able to take down EverQuest. Players might try something new for a while, but, like diners fleeing an all-you-can-eat buffet when the shrimp cocktail runs dry, they’d migrate right back to EverQuest when the traditional 30-day trial was up.

 

Nothing lasts forever, and EverQuest’s days of dominance were numbered the moment Blizzard announced it was working on a project of its own. The company took its sweet time, torturing anxious fans with its standard defiant “when it’s done” release date mantra. Still, the eventual release of World of WarCraft at the end of 2004 took the genre to a new level.

But, just as history didn’t end at the height of EverQuest’s success, so the current world of MMOs keeps turning despite the overwhelming dominance of World of WarCraft. Already others have had the audacity to challenge its majesty, including The Matrix Online, City of Villains, and Dungeons & Dragons Online. Guild Wars has proved that you can have some success selling content rather than time, although it remains to be seen how long it, or anyone else, can hold out against the current 800-pound gorilla of the gaming world.

What happens next is anybody’s guess, making this the point where retrospection ends and prognostication begins. Sadly, the Psychic Friends Network was busy, and the Magic Eight-Ball said, “Try again later.”

In the meantime, there’s always dancing half-naked Night Elves to pass the time. [M]