Muddled Times
Issue:Issue 29, March 2005

Has MUD Stalled?

Before embarking here I must first point you in the direction of Richard’s excellent summary of his book ‘Designing Virtual Worlds’ and it is from that article that I wish to draw a few discussion points here.

Much of this article centres on the use of Campbell’s anthropological “Hero’s Journey Model”, which Richard quite rightly states can be aptly applied to literary works and appears to sit well upon the shoulders of virtual worlds. From the anthropology lectures I managed to scrape through at university this seems an interesting choice of model to apply to games such as MUDs though. Why? Because it’s an inherently static model, it can be applied (albeit with varying degrees of complexity) to the modern novel as it can be to Virgil’s Aeneid or Homer’s Odyssey. Now as we can argue that the Iliad is no more complex then Star Wars, we can also argue that has the content of MUD really evolved? Or just the technology that encapsulates it?

Many of the MUDs available follow a simple hierarchical structure. One person heads the particular project as management or creative direction, either way they have the final say in where exactly everything is going. Lower down is a smaller clique of management and/or creative types (e.g. arch-wizzes). Finally as we broaden in numbers we narrow in creative control with wizzes (who, depending on the MUD, will certainly have a limited amount of control) and players, the largest in number but the ones with the least control.

Historically such a system has proven, more often then not, to be a static one and is more likely to ride the storm than make sudden changes to the way things are done. So, while the number of players and wizzes (and occasionally arch-wizzes) may swell and grow at given intervals the management structure of the game will remain relatively static in its nature. This makes it rather hard to apply usual anthropological models to such a development because in real terms so little has happened to the basic structure of the game since its very foundation.

This can be a harsh criticism for two very important reasons:

  • Anthropological theory covers far longer time periods (although the evolution of technology would dictate an accelerated rate of time).
  • The world inside a computer is not the real world. MUDs are made of 1s and 0s, changes involve time and (often high) expenses so change is not always welcome.

In a harsh light MUDs can be seen as nothing more then perfecting a series of actions (or even commands) before then repeating them a number of times until luck and chance come your way. But this is unfair. It is unfair on the players and increasingly those who go out of their way to included events and spectacles for the community as a whole.

The question remains - is the core of MUD static? In a way, yes. It appears to me that it has reached a rather comfortable stage in its existence where it’s happy to play in the safe zone, where development and design have been tweaked to such considerable degrees that they are considered balanced and stable. It is, of course, the perfect way to run a game ... but somehow loses that pioneering, imaginative and slightly daring spirit that the concept was born with.


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