ROBLOX is a MUD: The history of MUDs, virtual worlds & MMORPGs

PART I — The first virtual worlds

Back in the 60s & early 70s, we didn’t have home computers. We just had a bunch of massive computers stored inside universities and large companies. Most were controlled by inserting perforated cards and had no monitors, just a printer showing the result of the commands you inputted.

This was in 1968! Home computers wouldn’t have a mouse until the mid-80s!

PLATO (not the Greek guy)

One of such avant-garde computers was the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations). Created in 1960, it was a system with friendly terminals, designed to teach university students via virtual lessons.

University students using PLATO terminals in the mid-1970s
PLATO’s Moria, not to be confused with the popular 1988 roguelike of the same name.

What’s a MUD?

MUDs began in 1978, with Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle, two students at Essex University in the UK. They played ADVENT (also known as Colossal Cave Adventure or Adventure), a game from around 1976 where you would explore a cave (composed of multiple “rooms”), solving puzzles and collecting treasures to gain points. It’s a legendary game, that created the entire adventure game genre and inspired countless developers. The game was fully text-based, with all interactions done by typing text commands like “OPEN DOOR” or “GET KEYS”:

You can play ADVENT online at https://www.ifiction.org/games/index.php?
Some of MUD1’s spells, taken from Duncan Howard’s book ‘An Introduction to MUD’ (1985)

PART II — Turning MUD into money

Personal home computers began appearing in the mid-70s, with iconic machines like the Apple II, Commodore PET and TRS-80:

An Apple IIe, Commodore PET and a TRS-80, in an amazing photo from https://twitter.com/HutchCA/status/1250136574773170176 . They’re so cute!
No memes & cat videos, no sale, sorry.
PRESS SPACE TO OPEN THE DOOR! This is why video games have tutorials now.

The local MUD servers

In 1978 Alan E. Klietz wrote Milieu, a Colossal Cave clone with a heavier Dungeons & Dragons influence. Like MUD1, it also had multiplayer support — it’s not surprising that such a concept was “invented” multiple times by multiple people across the globe— but was initially restricted to an educational mainframe in Minnesota, severely limiting its early influence.

INFO Magazine #10, May/June 1986

The rise of Online Service Providers

If small local companies charging users for online games, you can bet that big ones were also going to do the same.

A really weird CompuServe ad about its chat rooms, and how you could meet the love of your life there.
An excerpt from 1989’s ‘A Guide to the Advanced Game v2.0’, a fan-made guide for Islands of Kesmai. Note how advanced the world already was.
Playing Island of Kesmai with Hunter, a DOS front-end from 1994. It supports player replays, if you want to watch how people played.

The legendary Habitat

Another online game made for Online Service Providers, Habitat stands out not only for having fancy graphics, a big development studio behind it (LucasArts) and being extremely influential, but also for signaling the start of a great divide in MUDs, online RPGs and virtual worlds in general — the focus on social elements above all else.

The second wave of online RPGs — now with graphics!

With home computer technology advancing and new Online Service Providers beginning to appear, new online RPGs followed, with a famous trio of graphical MUDs / online RPGs appearing in 1989–1991:

Kingdom of Drakkar (1989), Neverwinter Nights (1991) and The Shadow of Yserbius (1991)
  • Kingdom of Drakkar was based on an early local MUD from Kentucky, got a graphical front-end in 1989 and was then launched with top-down graphics to a wider audience as part of an online service provider called MPG-Net (Multiplayer Games Network) in 1992.
  • Neverwinter Nights was based on SSI’s extremely popular “Gold Box” series of official Dungeons & Dragons single-player CRPGs. Hosted by AOL with support for up to 200 players at once (later 500!), it was the biggest of the early MMOs, surviving until 1997 when an IP dispute closed it down.
  • The Shadow of Yserbius was a first-person dungeon crawler, where up to four players would form a party and explore a massive dungeon, fighting in turn-based combat and trying to solve puzzles. It later got two sequels, The Fates of Twinion (1993) and The Ruins of Cawdor (1995).

PART III — The great MUD explosion

MUD is a primitive, outdated and kinda misleading term.

Taken from ‘Designing Virtual Worlds’ by Richard Bartle (2003)

PATH A — TinyMUD and customizable virtual worlds

TinyMUD was created to be a more social MUD, with a smaller world to explore but more social interactions, like the ability to privately talk to another character (before, anyone else in the same room could hear you).

@dig <BATCAVE> 
@create <BATMOBILE>
@describe <BATMOBILE> [=<You see a super cool car>]
@create <ROBIN>
@describe <ROBIN> [=<You see an annoying kid with a yellow cape>]

PATH B — DikuMUD and the blueprint of combat-oriented MMOs

If TinyMUD was for people who wanted to socialize and create worlds, DikuMUD was for people who wanted to kill monsters or other players.

A ton of MUDs and confusing MUD acronyms

Now the stage was set for hundreds, if not thousands of MUDs to appear across the world, sporting all kinds of rules, settings and code bases. To help MUD fans differentiate them, they are commonly split into a few categories:

Also taken from ‘Designing Virtual Worlds’ by Richard Bartle (2003)
From ‘Net games: your guide to the games people play on the electronic highway’ (1994)

MUDs in 2020

From here, MUDs take a backseat in our story, but that doesn’t mean they’re dead — far from it, The MUD Connector lists 627 currently active MUDs.

The BBS has games now!

BBSes were still the main social hub for computer users to gather, so it’s not surprising that by the late 80s they would start hosting their own games as well, known as BBS ‘door games’.

Fighting a bear in the forest and then trying to seduce the Inn’s bard.
Two IMGs for Legend of the Red Dragon
Trade Wars 2002 (1986), The Pit (1990) and Arrowbridge I: Quest for the Orb (1991)

Also, HABEMUS INTERNET!

Circa 1991, a kinda important thing happened: The Internet.

PART IV — Where we make readers happy by talking about that one MMORPG they played

First, what’s an MMORPG? It means “Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game”, and was supposedly coined by Richard Garriott to show how his online RPG was cooler than the other online RPGs.

The Realm Online, Meridian 59, Legends of Kesmai and Dark Sun Online — All very distinct graphical MUDs / MMORPGs released in 1996.
  • The Realm Online followed the style of Habitat, but with a bigger focus on the RPG aspect, including turn-based combat.
  • Meridian 59 presented its fantasy world in a Doom-like fake 3D first-person view. This was considered a massive leap in quality and immersion, part of why some call it “the first MMORPG”, instead of a “graphical MUD”.
  • Legends of Kesmai was a successor to Island of Kesmai, now with graphics!
  • Dark Sun Online was based on the Dark Sun: Shattered Lands (1993) single-player RPG by SSI. Very obscure, it had several development issues and was quickly killed.
I really recommend you Google translate this article about South American mafias operating inside Tibia: https://tab.uol.com.br/noticias/redacao/2020/06/12/game-tibia-tem-logica-de-empresa-extorsoes-e-faz-brasileiro-milionario.htm
One of the first versions of Ultima Online
Taken from Next Generation magazine #48 — April 1998

UNLIMITED INTERNET! The end of hourly fees

Until now, everyone in the US who went online was paying an hourly fee. That changed in December 1996, when America Online (AOL), one of US’ biggest Internet providers, changed their service to charge flat monthly fees:

The genre standards are set

While Ultima Online was having fun experimenting with what an online world could behave like, with players making houses and role-playing as peasants, EverQuest (1999) would return to that old MUD divide and take the other route — it was game made by DikuMUD fans.

The first version of EverQuest, with its blocky UI.

World of Warcraft

And we finally get to the big guy. Released in 2004, World of Warcraft was massive. To have an idea of its size, here’s a graph of monthly subscriptions for western MMORPGs from 1997 to 2008:

Data collected from reports and press releases by Bruce Sterling Woodcock at http://pw1.netcom.com/~sirbruce/Subscriptions.html

ADDENDUM — Looting, Shooting & Surviving

Raph Koster was nice enough to read this wall of text and point out that I skipped looters-shooters. Good point, so here’s an addendum.

So many bombs, so little result…
I’ve been conditioned to get excited at purple item names
Destiny’s Tower, where the cool kids gather.

PART V — MMORPGs in Asia

Video game history in general is extremely US-centric, a bias that can lead to some pretty terrible oversights. But let’s be clear: any talk about MMOs without Asia is either poorly researched or trying to mislead you.

A screenshot of Jurassic Park / 쥬라기 공원
Lineage focused on PvP, with clans fighting each other being a core element of the game. That image on the right is a PvP raid for control of the game’s castle.
Data collected from reports and press releases by Bruce Sterling Woodcock at http://pw1.netcom.com/~sirbruce/Subscriptions.html
  • Ultima Online peaked at 240,000 monthly subscribers.
  • EverQuest at 460,000 monthly subscribers.
  • Lineage at 3,250,000 monthly users.
MU Online (2001), Ragnarök Online (2002) and MapleStory (2003) — Note that they never embraced the style of 3D third-person EverQuest/WoW clones.

Japan & The Console Modems

While Korea was booming due to a very PC-centric game culture, Japan suffered from the opposite: not only Internet was still slow and charged by the minute, but computers weren’t popular as home devices. The solution was to use consoles to play online.

A Famicom, the Japanese NES, with the Famicom modem attached.

China

Sadly, much about China is still clouded by a huge language barrier, propaganda and several political & economical reasons why their internal market is usually ignored by journalists and even academia.

2007 analysis from China Analyst: http://www.cnanalyst.com/2007/05/ranking_of_top_.html
Fantasy Westward Journey (2001)

PART V —MMORPGs aren’t the biggest virtual worlds

Since we’re talking about hype, it’s easy to be dragged into it and treat MMORPGs as this behemoth market that dominated everything, but that’s a somewhat narrow — and inaccurate — view.

WorldsAway (1995), Worlds Chat (1995), OnLive! Traveler (1997), The Palace (1995) and Microsoft V-Chat (1995)
A 1999 news segment on Worlds Chat, showing even David Bowie buying into the hype.
Habbo Hotel (2000), Gaia Online (2003) and Club Penguin (2005).

Building your own virtual world

Another evolutionary path is the virtual worlds focused on allowing players to build their own houses or worlds — spiritual descendants of TinyMUD.

A virtual lecture inside Second Life

EPILOGUE — Roblox is a MUD

First released in 2007, Roblox is absolutely mind-blowing.

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Brazilian living in Japan, Marketing dude and Gaming History enthusiast. Creator of The CRPG Book: https://crpgbook.wordpress.com/

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Felipe Pepe

Felipe Pepe

Brazilian living in Japan, Marketing dude and Gaming History enthusiast. Creator of The CRPG Book: https://crpgbook.wordpress.com/