Online Entertainment 95 Hat

Don't Blame Me!

        Pre-WWW, roughly 10% of the bits transmitted across the Internet belonged to MUDs. Nowadays, roughly 10% of the bits transmitted across the Internet still belong to MUDs. 10% of the Internet is a lot!
        MUDs are multi-player, text-based Adventure games. Roy Trubshaw and I are credited with writing the first one (at Essex University, 1978), although other people around the same time were experimenting with similar ideas. Our game (which we called MUD) was the only one to succeed, however, and it directly spawned the whole genre.
        MUDs were a mainly British thing until 1989. People played our MUD (now designated MUD1, to distinguish it from the generic term), liked it, and wrote their own games. In 1989, one of these second-generation MUDs, AberMUD, crossed the Atlantic on the Internet; sites were set up at several US Universities, and MUDs really took off. There are now over 700 MUDs across the globe, mainly based around one of perhaps half a dozen freeware drivers (LPMUDs, DikuMUDs, MOOs, MUSHes, MUCKs, UnterMUDs). Most of these 700 MUDs are complete rubbish, but people still play them - they need maybe 100 regular players each to survive. How many more people would play a decent MUD? Well some of the popular MUDs out there get several thousand players per day!
        Of course, this fact hasn't escaped the eyes of computer games companies. By writing quality, professional MUDs using their own drivers, they hope to tap in to this huge market. The WWW is OK, but eventually people get bored (it's the old ViewData problem: nobody wants to view data!). What people need is interaction with other people, and that's what MUDs give them.
        Would-be programmers of commercial MUDs have a problem, though: anyone can write a MUD. Why should people pay to play a commercial game when they can simply look around for a good free one? The consensus seems to be that commercial MUDs will need to offer something that the free ones can't, namely a GUI and pretty pictures. Is this a good idea or a bad idea?
        Commercially, MUD1 was launched on CompuServe in 1987. It is still running to this day, clocking up 5-6,000 hours' usage in an average month. This is for a game 15 years ago! How many other 15-year-old computer games are still played?
        The reason MUDs haven't dated is because they use text, rather than graphics. The introduction of graphics means that: a) you have to keep writing new client software for each new standard; b) your MUD is relatively fixed, because game extensions imply client software extensions. Graphics may attract people to MUDs who might otherwise have stayed away, but the people who are there already won't necessarily like the results.
        There's a parallel with single-player text adventures. Graphical versions drove them from the shelves, but strangled the market. The number of (graphical) adventures available at any one time nowadays is much smaller than used to be the case for text adventures. Will the introduction of GUI MUDs kill off the text-based ones equally ruthlessly?
        Probably not. The Internet has no shelves, so players aren't faced with the stark choice of graphics or nothing. There's a place for both types of game, to cater for the players' different expectations. Phew! So all's going to be well, then?
        I have one reservation. "Anyone can write a MUD", yes, but then anyone can write a book. Only a few are going to be good books, because writing books is a skill. Similarly, writing MUDs is a skill (and not, incidentally, one which novelists necessarily have!). If the commercial companies eschew text in favour of graphics, people who excel at writing text MUDs will not be able to get jobs doing it. Result: no professional-quality text MUDs. Eventually, this can only lead to the marginalisation of amateur MUDs, which will be labelled as the haunts of weirdoes and social inadequates, ignored by the mainstream.
        OK, so it might not happen - but it might!
        And if it does,
                don't blame me!

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: oe95.htm