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The birth of MMOs: World of Warcraft's debt to MUD

Rohan Pearce | June 7, 2013
The virtual worlds of World of Warcraft and its ilk owe a lot to Richard Bartle and the game that spawned the MMO genre: MUD

No-one would deny that 2004 launch of World of Warcraft changed the face of the games industry. The subscriber base of Blizzard's massively multiplayer online game (MMO) may rise and fall as the company releases expansions and tweaks its subscription model (the introduction of the free 'Starter Edition' for example), but millions of players have spent many millions of hours in Azeroth.

And there's no doubt that WoW deserves its place as an important reference point when discussing MMOs. But Blizzard's game, and its immediate predecessors such as EverQuest, Meridian 59 and Ultima Online, owe a big, and these days seldom acknowledged, debt to an earlier generation of multiplayer role-playing games that were capturing the imagination of thousands of players before the terms MMO and MMORPG were even coined.

Before there were the current generations of MMOs there were MUDs - multi-user dungeons (or 'dimensions'). And before there were MUDs there was MUD: A multi-player, text-based game running off a mainframe at Essex University.

MUD (known as MUD1 since the release of its successor,MUD2) used an interface similar to that of single player text adventure games and transplanted it to a multi-player realm where players could live virtual lives, solving puzzles, collecting treasure and killing fantastic creatures (and/or each other). The game launched in 1978, and was created by Essex students Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle.

These days Bartle lectures in game design and virtual worlds at Essex University, and is the author of the highly influential Designing Virtual Worlds, released in 2003.

Bartle says that while today's crop of MMOs may also have DNA from other games, such as Mazewar or Battlezone, when it comes to their graphics, but it is MUDs - and MUD1 - to which they owe thanks for their "virtual worldliness" and their gameplay.

"Almost all today's MMOs are direct descendants of MUD1," Bartle says.

"Most MMOs today are heavily influenced by World of Warcraft. Their designers played WoW and thought 'I can do this, only better'. WoW's designers played EverQuest. They thought, 'I can do this, only better'. EverQuest's designers thought the same about DikuMUD. DikuMUD's designers thought the same about AberMUD. AberMUD's designer thought the same about MUD1.

"There wasn't anything before MUD1, so that's where it ends."

The exceptions, Bartle says, are MMOs whose heritage draws fromSceptre of Goth, a game developed in the US by Alan Klietz. "The games developed by Simutronics and Mythic would fall into this category," Bartle says.

One of the links between MUD and contemporary MMOs can be seen in the so-called 'Bartle Test', which categorises users of multiplayer online games based on their approach to playing. The test is based on a paper published by Bartle in 1996 (expanding on an earlier article he wrote in 1990) and roughly categorises players based on their primary style of play as achievers, explorers, socialisers or killers.


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