Muddled Times
Issue:Issue 11, August 2001

MUD: Where It All Began

Around 1989 Infocom, one of the greatest interactive fiction companies of all time, was swallowed by Activision and the employees sent off in different directions. This effectively spelled the end of a commercial industry that began with release of Zork for the home computer. The collapse was not restricted to Infocom. Adventure International, home of Scott Adams games, existed no more by the 1990s. Attempts to revive the industry, such as Cascade Mountain Publishing, have only ended in disaster -- I believe CMP collapsed in 1999. Why bring this up? Well, does the same fate await us MUD players, or can we avoid it?

Stephen Bishop, a slave in Kentucky, successfully mapped the cave system known today as Mammoth Cave. These caves were later explored by Will and Patricia Crowther using Bishop's maps. Will Crowther thought of the idea to turn the maps into a form of computer simulation so that users could actually walk around the caves. This system, as basic as it was, was the beginning of the first interactive fiction. The program was not a game until Don Woods implemented magic words, items, monsters and other locations. With these in place, the new game was distributed into a world of players in awe. After all, nothing quite like this had ever been done before.

The game has been rewritten in numerous forms. Every Advent game follows the same basic outline:

  • PROLOGUE (The building outside the caves)
  • MIDDLE (The Caves)
  • END (The master game)

This outline was to be repeated in games for many years to come (probably best in the popular game Zork). Students banded together programming huge feats, most famously on the Phoenix system. By 1979, Arpanet connected most universities, which opened up new possibilities in the world of gaming. (Remember that at this point graphics were still very simple). Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle worked together on a new type of game known simply as multi-user Dungeon -- MUD. To quote the Inform Designers Guide, "To early phone-in networks such as BT's Prestel Gold and CompuServe, running MUDs was a (briefly) lucrative market." As the first example of a new genre of game to complement the ever-growing community of interactive fiction players, EssexMUD was to become hugely popular with nocturnal players at the university and outside. Bartle went on to develop the game further, eventually turning out the popular American game Brisish Legends, which was essentially EssexMUD with all the American traps removed). The commercial world of MUDs was about to arrive. Shades, a simple MUD clone, was designed and programmed in a matter of weeks to become on of the most popular MUDs in the world.

Also in 1979, interactive fiction was taken to new commercial levels with the first Scott Adams' Adventureland. A new period was about to appear in the world of the commercial interactive fiction game. A team working at MIT played Advent and, like many hackers at the time, began developing their own game, Zork -- The Undiscovered Underground. Zork was to sell over one million copies. At its height, Infocom employed more than a hundred people, making one of the largest profits of any computing company at the time. A hobby had been turned into a full time job. People just couldn't get enough of their games. They were once infamously quoted as saying, "We had a basement printing money!". Infocom was the model workplace. The casual look and feel of the developers led the romantic vision of the new frontier of software development, a frontier that they dominated.

Next Issue: The rise and fall of Infocom. The collapse of commercial interactive fiction. The boom of MUDs.

... click here to return to the front page.