Who'd a thunk that text-based games would have thousands, I mean millions, of people logging on across the globe? No one really, but tune in to hear how the old school is taking over.
It's 10:12 pm and instead heading to bed for a semi-decent night's sleep, I'm up and sitting in front of my jumbo computer monitor wasting time. I can acknowledge that it is wasting time, but I still can't stop myself. I'm not surfing the Internet or playing high-tech solitaire. I'm definitely not doing something as productive as online banking. I'm stuck in the MUD.
That's Multi-User Dungeon for you lay folk out there -- although there is some debate as to what MUD really does stand for. I'll touch more on that argument later. What is a MUD? That should be your question now unless you happen to be one of the small, but growing number of people who are in the loop.
A MUD is a game. More than a game really, it's a diversion, an alternate reality, a hard core addictive online drug. It seems harmless enough at first glance. You may be playing it from your shiny, new, super-fast computer that could run NASA without breaking a sweat, but you won't see any fancy graphics or hear any heart-thumping sound effects. Indeed, you won't see any graphics or hear any sounds at all, besides the occasional beep. All that is on the screen is words and letters.
It's all text. It's all reading and writing and even a little of that third "R" arithmetic. A MUD is an anachronism in this visual heavy world of virtual reality and HDTV. It's a good, old-fashioned story book game shared by players from around the world. Players who have created their own alternate personas and use their own imaginations to get away from "rl" (real life) for a short or not-so-short period of time.
The simplest way to explain a MUD is to compare it to that most infamous of games, Dungeons and Dragons. Like D&D, MUDs are role-playing games in which people create a character to inhabit a fantasy world, a world where they might be a brawny warrior, sneaky thief or clever wizard. Unlike most paper role-playing games where you must gather at a friends house so the five of you can whittle away a few hours tossing dice and joking over pizza, MUDs can be played from nearly any computer that's hooked up to the web.
With the global impact of the Internet, players actually get a chance to move beyond the neighborhood and into the world. Your little fighter might be talking to a 43-year-old computer engineer living in Texas one minute and a Swedish high school student the next.
James Delides has been able to experience this type of world wide friendship first hand. Delides, 22, is a computer science student from Perth, Australia by day and an avid mudder by night -- and day for that matter.
"I'd been trying unsuccessfully for a long time to get a group together to play Dungeons & Dragons," said Delides. "I read a magazine article on MUDs and decided to give it a shot. I started searching the Internet for MUDs and was surprised at how many there were."
It didn't take very long before Delides settled on IntrepidMUD (telnet:\\phoenix.gil-barad.net:8400) and began to generate friendships from around the world. Although mudders may never meet in the real world, strong friendships can still be created.
"There are constantly quirky little things popping up when I'm talking to the Americans," said Delides. "[Americans] seem to think that Aussies live in the bush, with kangaroos and koalas running rampant on the streets."
Even with these cultural misunderstandings, Delides enjoys the friends he has been able to make. Sometimes there are even material benefits.
"There is no doubt in my mind that I've formed friendships through the MUD that I otherwise wouldn't have. At the moment I'm negotiating a deal with an American player to trade a couple of cartons of Aussie beer for a bottle of Presidential Select whiskey. I'm pretty sure none of my friends from around here would have access to that!"
According to The Mud Connector, the unofficial MUD gathering site, there are nearly 2,000 MUDs registered with the site. Though the number changes daily, interest in growing according to site owner Andrew Cowan.
Although hundreds of different online games may be lumped into the category of "MUD," there are a wide variety of types, from sci-fi to fantasy, Christian to Star Wars. At Cowan's site you can search the entire database of MUDs to find one that is to your liking. You'll also find a forum for administrators, reviews, and even links to an online magazine dedicated to MUDs. Cowan says The Mud Connector averages two to three million hits a month.
At first glance, a MUD might look a little bit like an Internet chat room. Though it's origins are very similar, a MUD is different in that it is a game, a living, breathing game. There are generally goals and hierarchies, politics and intrigues, places to go and people to see.
The majority of MUDs follow a typical fantasy story line with a strong reliance on hack and slash adventuring. Day to day life on the MUD generally consists of roaming the world looking for new areas and equipment while killing monsters, or "mobs" in order to gain experience. As your character grows in experience, he or she also gains in strength and skills. Occasionally, the routine of your characters life might be interrupted by a quest thrown by the gods. Perhaps a dragon to slay or town to rescue begs for a group of players help.
Although most MUDs might follow this formula, there is definitely a theme for everyone. For fans of science fiction there are MUDs based on cyberpunk, Star Trek, The X-Files, and Star Wars. For those seeking a little more meaning to their adventure there is the Ark of the Covenant MUD (telnet://ark.mudservices.com:4200) which features a Christian theme. Fans of Robert Jordans epic fantasy saga might look into the Wheel of Time (telnet://wotmud.org:2222). Some MUDs arent even games at all. The Virtual Writing Center MOO (telnet://bessie.englab.slcc.edu:777) allows college students to work on English assignments in a virtual world.
All it takes to access a MUD is an Internet connection and some sort of client program. A client is basically a computer program that lets your computer handle the information being received, much like an Internet browser. Most computers come loaded with a basic telnet program that will allow you to access a MUD. Many players aren't content with a basic program though.
Michael Potter is the owner of Zugg Software and the creator of an incredibly popular MUD client named zMUD. Potter is also one of the few, but quickly growing group of people who is able to make a living off his interest in MUDs.
"Originally I just wrote zMUD because I wanted a good MUD client for my own playing," said Potter. "I gave away zMUD for free for that first year. When someone suggested converting it to Shareware, my initial estimate was that maybe 1,000 people might buy it."
Currently, over 34,000 people have shelled out the $25 for a registered copy of zMUD, but there undoubtedly thousands more checking it out for its free trial period at any one time.
"Obviously I had no idea how popular zMUD would turn out to be," said Potter. "After zMUD was Shareware for about one year, I was able to quit my regular job and work on it full-time. That was three years ago."
MUDs have been around much longer than most would guess. Although most of the world thinks of the Internet and everything tied to it as being a fairly recent development, computer enthusiasts have been tinkering with networks and interconnectivity for years. The first MUD was actually created in 1980 by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle at Essex University in England and called MUD1. Here is where that debate over the meaning of the anagram comes from.
Do a search for MUDs on the Internet and you'll find many pages dedicated to them, thousands actually. Some will say it stands for Multi-User Dungeon, others Multi-User Dimension, still others might say something like Multi-User Destinies.
Bartle and Trubshaw designed MUD1 after a popular game of the time called "Dungeon." It was a text-based role-playing game in which you could walk around and interact with your environment. Similarly, many children of the '80s and before may remember a game from Infocom called "ZORK" where you puzzled your way through the world by typing things like "look in mailbox" and "kill troll with dagger."
As much fun as these simple text games were, Bartle and Trubshaw envisioned a game where multiple people could play at once, interacting not only with their environment, but also other people. Voila, MUD1 is born.
The game gained in popularity rapidly, swamping servers at Essex until eventually the university said that people could log on to play it, but only between the hours of 2 am and 6 am Even with these tough hours, the game was constantly full of players.
Many years have passed since MUD1, but most MUDs are still basically the same. Mainstream computer game makers have begun to cash in on the market, although with a modern twist. Video games "EverQuest" and "Ultima Online" have been huge sellers in recent years, but they have secret tie to the humble MUD.
"EverQuest is one of the most incredible games I have played," said Cowan, but he isn't worried about the competition to text-based games. "Plain and simple, [EverQuest] is a MUD. It is not text-based, but aspects of it have the same feel as MUDs."
These big dollar competitors may possess high-end graphics and sound, but they also come with a price. Not only do you have to buy the software, you also have to pay a monthly fee to play. Most text-based MUDs are free to play, but they can be quite a burden of love for those who run them.
The average MUD may have anywhere from five to 400 players online at any one time, but probably won't live to see its first birthday. It's a great deal of work to maintain and run a MUD and many fail as players drift away or administrators find the time constraints to be too much.
People called "Immortals" or "Wizards" are the people behind the curtains. They are usually average Joe (or Jane) Schmoes like the regular players (who are tagged with the humble name of "mortals") who have decided to take on the extra responsibilities of making the game both fair and fun.
Immortals spend hours of their own free time building new parts of the game for their players. They scan computer system logs puzzling out why the game "crashed" or became temporarily unavailable. They mediate disputes between players and answer questions posed by "newbies" who have just started playing.
The game can be just as addictive from a "mortals" standpoint. Some players may spend hours online nearly every day wrapped up in a fantasy world. If it is just a simple text computer game, why is it so popular?
It's a good question and I think most mudders would have trouble answering it. No MUD looks particularly interesting at first glance. It's like reading a book on your computer while people are having conversations around you that seem to make no sense. Your character at first is weak and pathetic. The commands seem foreign and bizarre. (i.e. you have to type "gossip" to talk?")
The next thing you know your statistics screen shows that you've put 35 hours of real life time into this character and you are skipping meals to play. It doesn't make any sense, but it happened. You are just a few experience points away from reaching your next level so that your character can grow stronger. You have an appointment to meet a new friend from France on the MUD. A new part of the world has just opened and you want to be the first to explore it. It has happened. You're stuck in the MUD.
"On average, I play for two to three hours a day," said Delides. "It can get addictive if you don't control yourself."
Cowan understands the addiction as well. "I do not play text-based MUDs any more." He said. "I was a hopeless MUD addict and couldn't handle it, either MUDs had to go or everything else had to go."
Players of the game EverQuest have even come up with a term to describe this addiction to online gaming. They like to call it EverCrack. It may be a tongue-in-cheek reference, but I have known people to fall one or even two years behind in school due to their inability to stop playing long enough to attend classes.
To the computer it may just be a bunch of 1s and 0s and on the screen it may just be a bunch of words and strange commands, but to mudders it is a whole other world to inhabit.
"I always loved MUDs for the escapism," said Cowan. "Whatever was happening in my real life, I was able to jump onto the MUD and take on a different persona and live a much more exciting life."