The History of MUDs: Part I
The first part of our three part feature on MUDs details the foundations for the popular text-adventure multiplayer games.
By - David Cuciz


The DECSYSTEM 10 -- A MUD coding machine
Online gaming is the future of computer/video gaming. A vast majority of new releases provide a support of sorts for multi-playing through the Internet. Of course, in order to obtain effective online playing value you need a fast Pentium III -- or maybe IV -- class CPU, tons of RAM, a VERY big hard-disk, a state-of-the-art graphics card, and the fastest Internet connection money can buy because Net-based multiplayer games their cutting-edge technology need the highest-end hardware/software combination available, right?

Wrong. Dead wrong -- on every count. Multiplayer games across the Net are one of the oldest forms of electronic entertainment ever, and they don't need the latest hardware to play properly. In fact, they don't even need dedicated software to run! If you feel like it, you can write, build, and run your own online game and players may even add features to it.

These games are called MU*s (a "wildcard" term that comprises MUDs, MUSHs, MUCKs, MOOs and the like). They are text-based RPG-adventure type games set in a virtual world defined by a set of rules written by its original developer(s) and/or their followers (sometimes referred to as "wizards") and played through a network by multiple users. Let's see how they work…

Word Games

In the world of fast, photorealistic 3D games and digital sound the notion of text-based adventures is something out of the murky mists of history. Yet, the oldest adventure fans have cut their teeth on them: Infocom titles like the original Zork trilogy and the early Scott Adams' games have earned their rightful places in the Hall of Fame of computer gaming.

Text-based adventures have, by definition, no graphics. That is, they don't have graphic output since they originated on systems that didn't have the capabilities to render and display anything more complex than ASCII characters. Thus, all of the locations and the objects the player had to interact with were described -- literally -- with either long, flowing lines of prose, or short, essential words depending on the author's inclinations. The rationale being that the player's brain was the most sophisticated graphics device available (mind you, it even comes free of charge) and could conjure up imagery far more impressive than anything the computers available at the time (and even now one could say) could produce. The reasoning is valid enough -- books have been working on the same principle for centuries.

An adventure game, though, is not a book -- it needs input as well as output, and, of course, text-adventures use text-based commands. You had to type in what you wanted to do, and the action (if understood) would have been carried out. Clever software, called a parser, would scan the command line, sort out the keywords for actions and nouns and translate it into something to feed into the game engine. Some parsers (such as those in Scott Adams' early productions) could only understand two-words commands like "GET SWORD" or "OPEN DOOR," while the much more advanced Infocom parser could understand far more complex sentences such as "TAKE ALL BUT THE RED KEY AND PUT IT INTO THE SACK" or" SLIDE THE NEWSPAPER UNDER THE DOOR AND PUT THE OPENER INTO THE KEYHOLE." It had its limits, but bear in mind that the complexity of the parser was often directly proportional to the difficulty of the puzzles the player would be confronted with.

Next: Operating principles...

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