A PDP-10 computer, by DEC.

PDP-10, the type of computer used to create MUD.

MUD - Populating Dungeons

Roy Trubshaw/Richard Bartle/Essex University 1979

Tomorrow, the World!

Although online gaming only really starts to explode into the mainstream around the mid ’90s, it has its start practically at the same time as Zork. Graphical multi-user games first start appearing on the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) system running at the University of Illinois in the late 70’s. PLATO had been developed by Control Data Corporation to automate the process of educating students, offering more than 100 courses on computer for kindergarten through 12th grade. Not quite so educational (unless you happen to find yourself lost in a dungeon full of monsters or out in space surrounded by Klingons) are programs developed for the PLATO system that allow multiple users to play simultaneously. These include games such as the Star-Trek based Empire, and D&D influenced RPGs like RogueOubliette and Avatar.

Bill Cosby touts the virtues of the PLATO education system, 1983

Bill Cosby with minors sells PLATO, for the TI 99/4A Home Computer, 1983

In 1979 at Essex University in England, Roy Trubshaw writes the first MUD (Multi-User Dungeon), created on that pantheon of computer game platforms, the PDP-10. Starting out as a simple chain of connected rooms, Trubshaw refines the program until he has a working version he calls MUD. It is a text-based multi-user world into which people can login and have limited interaction with an item database and use a rudimentary chat system. 20 rooms are present, and there are 10 commands available. When Trubshaw leaves Essex, development of the program falls to Richard Bartle, who refines the gameplay on top of the MUDDL (MUD Definition Language) architecture created by his colleague. The play aspects of the game are broadened to include player objectives, point scoring and better interaction and communication between players…along with a total of 400 rooms. A weather cycle is also present, with periods of rain preventing players from accomplishing certain actions, such as sailing the sea or crossing the swollen river.

Image of a map showing the world of MUD, original online adventure game, 1984

Overview map of MUD world

In MUD you collect points, largely from picking up scattered treasures and dropping them in the swamp, thereby taking them out of the game temporarily. Users can also kill other players for a fraction of their points, or they can do various menial tasks like making beds or drinking water from a stream. There are also various ways to be dispatched, such as ingesting poisons, holding onto radioactive material too long or being killed by other player denizens in the world. Most deaths are temporary and only cost you points, but being murdered by a fellow player is being “dead dead” and another character must be created to continue. MUD also sports an RPG system, where the attributes strength, stamina and dexterity can be raised by surviving battles. Although there is no real end-game in MUD, one might consider levelling up to “wiz” mode as the ultimate goal, the top of the heap where players can SNOOP on what other gamers are doing, put the “Finger of Death” (FOD) on someone to kill them permanently, or even use the CRASH command to do just that to the game.

When Essex is connected up to the ARPAnet in 1980, ‘externals’ from the US begin to augment the local players in the environment. The University has to limit the hours that players can access the game to reduce load on the now swamped PDP-10 .

Image of a map showing the world of MUD, original online adventure game, 1984

Cross-section map of MUD world

Using the original code, new MUDs are created by other students from Essex and around the world. The concept evolves from MUDs to MOOs to MUCKs to MUSHs, each incorporating new options and abilities for the growing player base. Multi-User Dungeons become a huge attraction for students on networked educational computer systems, and prove to the world that online gaming will be a continuing and growing force in the coming years. By 1984 MUD has clocked over 20,000 hours of playing time. The program intends to go commercial when it is licensed by Century Communications in 1984, who plan to offer 30 phone lines into the service operating between the hours of 6pm to 8am, in order to maximize profits for British Telecom service slack times. Known as MUD2, Century eventually licenses the game to British dial-in subscription service Compunet in 1985, accessible for users with a Commodore 64 computer. MUD then surfaces on CompuServe in 1987, becoming a long-running fixture there until finally shut down in 1999.  logo_stop

Comments >>

  1. avatarBrian Dear

    Graphical multi-user dungeon games existed on the PLATO computer system well before Bartle’s text-based MUD. Am continually amazed that Bartle gets all this credit.

    1. avatarWilliam

      Thanks for the info. Looks like I’ll have to add some info on the PLATO games at the beginning of the article and re-word Trubshaw and Bartle’s contributions.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *