'The real world sucked': The first multiplayer computer game was invented as a political gesture
Woman playing video games (Shutterstock)

In 1979, in a computer lab at Essex University, two brilliant young students invented the future of video games. Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle were the creators of the Multi-User Dungeon – or simply MUD – a text-based adventure that ran on a giant DEC PDP-10 mainframe. They programmed the game in their spare time, accessing the computer labs in the evenings. If they hadn’t made it, massively multiplayer online adventures like EverQuest and World of Warcraft may never have happened.

There had been other fantasy adventure games before MUD, of course. Will Crowther’s Colossal Cave Adventure arrived in 1975 , while work on Zork , developed by a bunch of MIT students in the university’s dynamic modelling group, began in 1977. These single-player programs were, in turn, heavily inspired by the pencil and paper role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, which had been hugely popular in student circles since its publication in 1974. Bartle, however, wanted to capture the social element of D&D in computer form, he wanted participants to play together on emerging telecommunications networks. So he and Trubshaw made MUD, allowing multiple users to log into a mainframe and go on fantasy quests together.

Bartle had been making games and programming computers since the mid-1970s. His formative experiences in coding were courtesy of the DEC PDP-10 owned by British Petroleum’s petrochemical works in Brough, East Yorkshire, where he grew up. “In order to say sorry for filling the air with toxic fumes they let the local schools use their computer,” he told attendees at the recent GameCity festival. “We had to fill in these coding sheets, writing in letters using an actual pen. Then we’d send them off somewhere and someone typed them in.”

Later, he attended Essex University to study mathematics, but quickly changed to artificial intelligence (AI), a decision guided as much by intellectual pride as it was by interest. “There were 200 people studying maths at Essex and two of them were better than me,” he says. “But on the artificial intelligence course, there were none better than me so I switched to that. There were only three universities in Britain doing AI back then - Essex, Sussex and Edinburgh - the rest were shut down because they’d been told by a physical professor named Dr Lighthill that AI was a useless subject that would never be important”.

Before Essex, Bartle had been experimenting with internet connectivity on BP’s computer, using an ancient 110 baud modem (“it could transmit roughly 11 characters a second. You had to be very efficient with your coding”); the programs he created were stored on paper tape. But Essex had a comparatively advanced set-up. “The computer was the size of a room,” he says. “It had false floor panels under it that were filled with 29 carbon dioxide canisters. If there was a fire they’d all go off at once to put it out really quickly. It would also have put out all the operators, too, but they were cheaper than computers.”

Experimenting with this giant system, Roy Trubshaw discovered a mechanism for sharing code across separate teletype machines – an early version of the computer terminal – using an area of memory they weren’t supposed to be writing to. In short, it allowed several people to access the same program running on the mainframe at the same time. From here, the duo decided to create a fantasy adventure; Trubshaw wrote the physics, Bartle wrote the game code. The result was MUD.

They called it a multi-user dungeon, because of Zork. “The version we all played ran in [the programming language] Fortran and was just called Dungen because you could only use six character words. Back then we thought all games would be called dungeons, so ours was a multi-user dungeon. Turned out they were all going to be called adventures so we should have called it MUA.”

The duo ran the game over the university network, which was connected to British Telecom’s Experimental Packet Switching System, which could also be accessed by other UK universities. Bartle and Trubshaw used this to link in to the University of Kent, and from there establish a connection with the US-led ARPAnet, an early precursor to today’s global internet. “People had never played any sort of shared world before,” says Bartle. “You can’t imagine what it was like, you were playing a game and suddenly another real person would enter.”

MUD spreads

Very quickly, keen computer hobbyists and hackers found out about the game and started dialing in to it from outside the university. The system couldn’t cope – Essex only had six modems and these were quickly overstretched. “The gamers clubbed together to buy the university a bank of 12 modems,” says Bartle. The computing press started paying attention – Bartle wrote a cover feature on the game for Practical Computing , explaining the creation of MUD and defining his hopes for the future of the genre:

What I would like to see - and it’s a long, long way off - is some local or national network with good graphics, sound effects and a well designed set of worlds of varying degrees of difficulty. In this true meritocracy, you will forever be encountering new situations, new difficulties, new solutions, and above all new people. Everyone starts off on an equal footing in this artificial world.

He was, of course, imagining the actual future of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game; the possibilities were always there in Bartle’s mind. But there was one thing he and Trubshaw never did. They never sought to copyright their game or their technology. Instead they shared it freely.

“We encouraged people to write their own MUDs,” he says. “We made MUD because the real world sucked. We weren’t supposed to be at university - Roy was from Wolverhampton, I was from Yorkshire and sounded like I should be working on a farm. It wasn’t a great atmosphere; we were looked down on because other people were at university for intellectual subjects not mind-numbing technology. We raged against that.”

“You shouldn’t have to be what the world defines you to be. You should be who you really are - you should get to become yourself. MUD was a political statement, we made a world where people could go and shed what was holding them back.”

MUD did indeed proliferate. Other programmers at other universities took the basics of the network code and game design and evolved them. Through the 80s and 90s, several variations were developed and adopted including AberMud, TinyMud (which was more geared toward the social rather than gaming side of virtual worlds) and DikuMud.

The latter, built by a group of students at the University of Copehagen, was the most stable and easy to install – it was written in the common programming language C and could run on all Unix systems, so spread easily. It also neatly tied together all of the conventions of quest-based multiplayer role-playing games: players took on a specific class of character – fighter, wizard, thief, etc – then “leveled up” by killing enemies with a range of weapons and spells, before collecting experience points and loot.

For Bartle, this structure was, itself, a comment on the stifling class system. But in MUD, progression was based on merit, not parentage. “If you saw someone was at a certain level, it said something about them - about their skill and strength of character,” says Bartle. “It was a way for players to understand their place in the hierarchy and to see that they could always progress - there were no glass ceilings. But it wasn’t really a meritocracy either because, if you didn’t care about your leveling up your character, you didn’t need to, you could still play. It was about freedom.”

Politics aside, the raw structure of MUD would influence most subsequent graphical multiplayer online games such as Ultima Online, EverQuest, and World of Warcraft. And it was that initial decision not to protect MUD as an IP that secured its place as a key progenitor. As Bartle explains, “By the time the games companies got interested in making mutiplayer online games in the late 90s, there were 100 MUD experienced designers for every one who was experienced in one of the other multi-user games that had been invented, because it was all free.”

Bartle is still at Essex University. He’s now a professor and senior lecturer in game design; he also consults in game development. He retains that pervading belief that games are positive and empowering. While society often wonders about their negative effects, he sees in them a model for tolerance and ethical behaviour.

“The original hacker ethic was, you can do what you like as long as you don’t hurt anyone else. That fed into games and it has propagated outwards,” he says. “The more games you play the more sense you have of things like fairness - if you play an unfair game it’s no fun, it’s not a good game. I think that makes you more resistant to examples of unfairness in the real world. You may start to think, why shouldn’t gay people get married, what the hell, it doesn’t effect me?

“I hope that some of the culture that came out of games has affected the real world.”

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