You haven’t lived until you’ve died in a MUD


When student friends Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle created Multi-User Dungeon at Essex University in the late 70’s, not only did they create a multiplayer game, they created a parallel universe. A virtual world with all of the emotions and complexities of Earth but without the physical limitations. And with added wizards and dragons to keep it interesting.

Roy Trubshaw was a keen player of Adventure Games, the genre of computer games named after Colossal Cave Adventure, created by Will Crother in 1975. The game describes the area you are standing in and lists the nearby objects, characters and exits. The player has to fathom out what to do next, ‘take armour’, ‘attack wizard’, ‘go North’ etc. Trubshaw loved the intellectual challenge but missed the player versus player element of the offline equivalent, Dungeons & Dragons. His response was to create Multi-User Dungeon. Also known as Essex MUD and later MUD1. It was an Adventure Game with real-time, multiplayer interaction.


When Trubshaw left Essex University in 1980, his friend Richard Bartle took over development of the game, greatly expanding and improving it. In 1983, Essex University allowed remote access to its network andEssex MUD soon had a global player base.  Just as Colossal Cave Adventure had done before it, MUD1, spawned a new genre of computer game, the Multi User Dungeon. Graphical versions like Islands of Kesmai on Compuserve and Habitat on AOL, then known as Q-Link, soon followed.

With the faster connection speeds of the 90’s, MUD became MMORPG, a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. Rather then tens or perhaps hundreds of concurrent players, thousands of players could inhabit the virtual worlds of Neverwinter Nights or Ultima Online at any one time. The genre was even more popular in Asia. The South Korean game Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds, released in 1996, had over a million subscribers. EverQuest, launched in 1999, brought MMORPGs into the Western mainstream and Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft (WoW), launched in 2004, is the most played gamed in the world with over 10 million subscribers.

These massive virtual worlds provide unexpected insights. In WoW, when a player attacks Hakkar the Soulflayer, they catch an energy sapping disease known as Corrupted Blood. The disease is passed on to other players simply by being near to an infected player, killing low-level players in seconds. When it was first introduced, entire servers were infected within hours and huge numbers of players were wiped out. Eventually, the games creators had to step in to contain the disease. The spread of the virus and players reactions provided a model of how mass populations might react when faced with a real-world epidemic. MMORPGs are now being watched with interest by the scientific community.

In the virtual space, gender, age, race and physical ability recede. The story of a LegendMUD player called Karyn is revealing. After a two-month absence from the game, a letter from her parents claimed she had died in a car crash. Many of her online friends were upset and created a virtual garden of remembrance. They were no longer playing a game. Their grief was real. Later it became apparent that Karyn was probably a man and still alive but many of the players still felt the same sense of loss. Karyn was no longer with them.

As we spend more time online, the line between the real and the virtual fades. Online communities are filling the void left by the demise of the local community. We now work, play, shop and otherwise participate in society through online worlds. Whatever the shifts in our identity may be, we would do well to remember the old bulletin board expression, “You haven’t lived until you’ve died in a MUD”.

This is an extract from 100 Ideas that Changed the Web, available on Amazon UK and Amazon US.

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