Adventurers Club Ltd. Member's Dossier, October, 1987 Hat

Richard Bartle's Pages

This time, rather than talk about some existing or future aspect of MUAs, I thought I'd talk about an important one from the past. For those of you who don't know much about the origins of MUAs, this will be something of a history lesson. For those who do, it may bring back some fond memories of a bygone era, now sadly gone. On September 30th, 1987, Essex University MUD passed on.

Essex MUD has always had a reputation of being the "best" MUA, not in the least because it was free to play since 1980! Although other versions of it were available, most notably on Compunet, nevertheless the atmosphere it generated at the height of its popularity was something special, which even MUD2 has yet to equal.

The game was written in 1979 by Roy Trubshaw, an undergraduate at Essex University. He used the language BCPL, which is the fore-runner of C, and, to those of us who were brought up on it, far superior. The idea was to have a multi-player adventure game with a programmable database. This, Roy achieved. However, having finished his degree he had to move on, and I took over the program. When it came into my hands, only the basic shell was extant. There were maybe 20 rooms, and about 10 commands. Many of the concepts now taken for granted in such games were not present, for example spells, snooping, and even the ability to see in a room where the only light source was carried by another player! In time, these features were added, and the database expanaded to become the 400-room standard Essex MUD which came to set the innovative standards for the future.

We had our first external players in 1980, from the USA. In those days, there were no national UK comms networks, only EPSS ("Experimental PSS"), which about 6 universities had. The Americans could get through via a gateway from ARPA, and this they did. We even managed a mention in a 1980 article on Zork in "Byte".

A while later, we started getting UK-based players. The first external wizard was Jez, who in those days was just an enthusiastic schoolkid, but now runs his own computer games company. Word spread across the bulletin boards, and we got more and more players. Machine time was coming out of the University Computing Society budget at the time, and as usaqe grew it began to deplete our resources rather seriously. Finally, I had to speak to the manager of the Computing Service at the University, and he agreed to provide a free account for external users, provided it was available only when the machine was otherwise pretty idle. This splendid gesture of goodwill from the University opened the doors wide for new players, and MUD's heyday began.

This was the time when Essex MUD really matured. The personality of the game developed, moulded by the wizzes, and the social structure among players evolved that now forms the basis of the "ideal" set-up we aim for in our other MUDs. I suppose the main architect of this was Sue the Witch, who spent hour after hour, night after night, ruling the game with a fair but firm hand.

Few suspected that "she" was actually a "he", but even when we found out (after a certain amount of detective-work by Jez!) it didn't seem to matter. Those were the days when the game was played for fun, the wizzes could be trusted, and the generation of MUA-writers who produced the next batch of such games won their spurs.

The decline started when the Computing Service was put under pressure by the rest of the University to stop giving out free computer time for people to play games. They figured that games-playing was bad for the University's image, and were incensed that more resources were spent every night playing MUD than some Departments got all year (3,000 units, cost=35p per unit, every night!). The hours of the game had to be cut so that they didn't overlap with times internal players could play, and it was this which started the rot.

What happened was that some people made it to wiz who shouldn't have been allowed to. Since this happened at time when I couldn't play, I could do little about it! Once one bad wiz is given a free hand, others get in too. I managed to delay the problem by zeroing the persona file, but by then I was working on MUD2 and couldn't spend time managing Essex MUD as much as it needed (MUD2, however, has excellent game management as a result!). The atmosphere in Essex MUD changed, and new wizzes appeared who were decent sorts, but who had never experienced the halcyon day of yore, and didn't know how they ought to behave.

The end finally came when I decided to leave the University to work on MUD2 full-time. Although I could have passed control to one of our internal arch-wizzes, the Computing Service could no longer provide free accounts for externals. While I was a member of staff, they justified it on the grounds that it was my "research", and as a favour to me personally. Now I've left, they can no longer keep the game as a freebie for outsiders, and consequently it had to go. I'm surprised they managed to hold out as long as they did.

Although it's sad to see such a long-standing institution disappear, the ideas live on. There must be about a dozen MUAs in the UK now, all based on the original Essex MUD. Some even run on computers in other Universities, for free. However, that Essex MUD would have to go eventually was inevitable. When it finally died, it was 8 years old, and MUA-writing techniques have advanced a lot since then. MUD2 can do things which were way beyond the capabilities of Essex MUD, and some of the other games are experimenting with new concepts like rolling resets and non-permanent wizzes.

Essex MUD, however, was the one which started it all. It has now become a part of history, but lives on as the archetypal MUA, the target far the others to beat. MUAs are firmly established because of it, and are here to stay. This, I hope, will be regarded as its greatest contribution for the future.

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
24th June :\webdes~1\ m.htm