Join me now in the multi-user dungeon
In 1981 I was invited to the University of Essex to try out a revolutionary new game on the computer science department's mainframe. It was known simply as MUD. Dr Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw haw had programmed a fantasy role-playing game in the classic Dungeons & Dragons mould. What was revolutionary about MUD - and remember this was before the Internet had taken off - was that it could be played by a number of participants at the same time. MUD, you see, was an acronym for Multi-User Dungeon.
I found it compulsive. Not so much for the game itself but because, unlike other computer games at the time, you were playing with real people. By typing messages on the keyboard, you could converse with them, asking for advice, forming groups or even bartering possessions. As in real life, some game-characters were friendly, others were not. There was always an element of danger when you met someone new.
MUD wasn't really a game, it was more a way of life. You were simply spending time in the game-world, doing whatever you wanted to do. Some people were there to improve themselves. Slaying monsters and gathering treasure strengthens character. Some just enjoyed exploring - MUD was a sort of virtual holiday resort. Others made new friends and kept in touch with them by logging on at prearranged times.
Since then Bartle's idea has spread. There are dozens of MUDs on the Internet. But they have remained a minority interest. As all descriptions and communications appear as lines of text only, MUDs are a primitive form of gaming.
Last week, the first "graphical MUD" was launched. Meridian 59 is essentially similar to Bartle's original game, but dull screens of text are replaced with colour graphics. You no longer read a description of your surroundings - you can see for yourself. And if you create your game-character's image to be dashingly handsome or irresistibly seductive, this is how you appear to other players.
These games have a special appeal compared with solo adventures. There is nothing like playing games with others - particularly people you know. MUDs offer an alternative for those who don't have the time, skills or inclination for developing relationships in the real world. Although in life you may be known as "the fat bloke in accounts", in the game-world you are Conan the Barbarian, Gandalf or Red Sonja. In a graphical MUD you even look like a hero.
At an on-line gaming conference last year, Bartle was reserving judgment on the forthcoming graphical MUDs. The appeal, he claimed, lay in the interaction between on-line players. There was no need for flashy graphics. Last week I asked him what he thought of Meridian. "Very nice," he said. "The graphics will probably attract new people into the whole MUD culture." Would he consider adding graphics to his original MUD? "Sure," he said with a smile. "Just give me a £2 million budget..."
Introducer: Richard Bartle with print-outs of the original MUD program
Meridian 59 (3DO, Win 95 CD, £39.99)
MERIDIAN, the first true "graphical MUD" (see above) arrived last week. So how does it work?
You begin by connecting to the Internet via your service provider, then run Meridian. Next, your game-character ("avatar" must be created.
After selecting basic skills and abilities an "identikit" procedure lets you set your avatar's appearance - an important factor when it comes to socialising, since players are naturally drawn towards more attractive avatars.
Then your new game-life begins. What you do is entirely up to you. Movement is Doom-like, using arrow keys, and you monitor your progress on a quarter-screen window.
I began by exploring the town of Tos, politely greeting the other avatars I encountered (58 people were playing. I "waved" and "smiled" at a female warrior. "Heartnet" turned out to be one of 20,000 volunteers who have been beta-testing Meridian.
Communicating (by typing messages) with others is this game's unique appeal. Of course there are quests, magic and monsters, but Ultima Underworld is a better game. In Meridian the characters are real. Some are thugs and killers (beware those with names in red). Others couldn't be more helpful.
This social side has attracted female players; 30 per cent of testers are women. There have already been 20 on-line "weddings", two divorces and a reconciliation.
The appearance of the first graphical MUDs could be just what is needed to kick start the on-line gaming movement. Meridian's latency problems - Internet delays - were minimal. The only problem I had was connecting through CompuServe, although 3DO is apparently fixing this.
Meridian is a subscription service. The basic price includes 30 days' free time. After that it is $6.50 a month. A small priee to pay, perhaps for a brand new circle of friends...
21st January 1999: dt051096.htm