Thanks to the wonders of Usenet and Google groups backups, I recently came across a computer game I created with some high school buddies back in 1997. The team: Palazzi, Grendor, and Tenecuklas. The game: ScurvyMUD.
What is a MUD?
MUD stands for Multi-User Dungeon, and was a precursor to today’s MMORPG (think World of Warcraft, Ultima Online). There are no graphics, just a whole lot of text and typing (‘w’ to move west, ‘kill goblin’ to attack the goblin in the room). Most were hack and slash adventures where you built up the strength of your character by exploring the world and slaying the monsters.
The worlds were very detailed, but the real strength was the multi-user component. Running around with hundreds of other real players to team up with or compete against brought it alive, just like MMORPGs today. But without graphics you relied on your imagination to visualize, much like when you read a novel.
Roll Your Own
Two things allowed people to start their own MUDs. First, source code for generic base versions were freely available so you didn’t have to start from scratch. For example, if you wanted the same gameplay but set in the 1950s Chicago, you could update the text files describing the world without any programming at all. Sword => gun, dragon => mob boss.
Second, no graphics. Graphics are expensive to create, and require programmers and artists collaborating to make the final result. Without graphics, you only need programmers and story tellers, and there is a little story teller in all of us So the three of us took our fledgling hacker skills and started our very own MUD.
We started with the C source code of CircleMUD and the world map files of a different MUD, and started building upward and outward from there. Here is a hilariously old Usenet post to alt.mud describing our game and some of the unique changes we made.
The “server” (really shouldn’t be in quotes because it was the server) was a Pentium 90 in my bedroom connected over a land line via a 28k modem. This PC was also our main development machine. I kept it on 24/7 and stuffed couch pillows around it at night so I could sleep through the hum. Our players depended on us! It cost us about $24/month for the telephone line. Even split three ways, it seemed pretty spendy at the time.
While the Pentium was our Secretariat, there was another workhorse at ScurvyHQ: an old 8088, my family’s first desktop. It had 8 colors, and belonged in a 70’s NASA photo. I was convinced the 14k modem could download text faster than the screen could scroll it. However, it was good for more than playing Rampage. It had a BASIC interpreter.
Just like how it’s easier to describe monster AI in Lua than C++, it was easier to make maps in BASIC than in C.
Using BASIC, I wrote programs that generated new maps for our game world. They would add some random elements to structured text files the game engine understood. No, they weren’t our best maps, but they were fun. My favorite was a jungle with a winding river that had room descriptions relevant to the water’s movement near your character. E.g. ‘The river bends to the left as you gaze north.’
What did we learn?
Even though this wasn’t meant to be an educational experience, I did end up learning a thing or two anyway
From a programming perspective, we covered several computing concepts: networking, threading, resource management.
Getting more players was an ongoing effort from the start. We started with word of mouth, coaxing our friends to play. We used online discussion boards and website MUD directories (e.g. mudconnect.com) to advertise. We found there were differences in expectation between the early devoted user who wants to experience the big feature changes along the way, and one that is looking to join a polished game with critical mass.
And then they lived happily ever after?
They did indeed. After about a year one founder and I moved on to other projects. The remaining founder continued to work on the game with a new partner before parting ways. Two of us ended up in the software industry, and the other a chemist with a healthy dose of programming.
I didn’t realize it then, but it was pretty ambitious for three friends with high school-levels of free time on their hands.
Old Usenet Links