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Essex: the birthplace of the MMORPG

Essex: the county in the south-east of England that’s my home. Sadly it tends to be associated with fake tan, too-much-makeup and horrible accents thanks to a certain television program but I can promise you it’s not all like that. For example, I recently found out something about the place which may change many gamers’ views on it and hopefully do something to repair its unwarranted reputation.

After watching Dr Pete Etchells take part in a discussion about The psychology of gaming addiction at EGX Rezzed in April, I purchased his latest book. Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of time for reading and so haven’t yet finished it yet, but what I’ve read of Lost in a Good Game so far have been very interesting. I’ve learnt a lot about psychology, the problem with classifying gaming addiction and gaming in general, and that the first multiplayer online RPG was made at the University of Essex.

The future of video games was invented there almost 40 years ago, when two brilliant young students accessed the University’s lab in the evenings to work on their own project in their spare time. Computer Society members Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle programmed text-based adventure Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) in a domain-specific language called User Dungeon Definition Language (MUDDL) and the game ran on a giant DEC PDP-10 mainframe.

There had been other fantasy adventure games before MUD. Colossal Cave Adventure was developed between 1975 by Will Crowther, a programmer who helped create the technical foundation of the internet. There was also Zork in 1977 which was made by members of the Dynamic Modelling Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). These single-player programs were inspired by Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), hugely popular with students since its publication in 1974.

Trubshaw wasn’t a fan himself and had originally planned to make MUD as a virtual world rather than a game. However, Bartle had played a lot and was already a keen video-gamer when he got involved, therefore wanting MUD’s players to be able to play together in a way which replicated D&D. The first version of their project was uploaded to the university system in autumn 1978 and allowed multiple users to log into a mainframe and go on quests together.

Computer hobbyists and hackers soon found out and started dialling into the game from other locations. This caught the attention of the press and Bartle wrote a cover feature on MUD for Practical Computing, in which he said: “What I would like to see – and it’s a long, long way off – is some local or national network with good graphics, sound effects and a well-designed set of worlds of varying degrees of difficulty. In this true meritocracy, you will forever be encountering new situations, new difficulties, new solutions, and above all new people. Everyone starts off on an equal footing in this artificial world.”

Trubshaw and Bartle shared their game and technology freely. Other programmers at other universities took the basics of the code and design and evolved them, and several variations were developed through the next two decades. DikuMud, created by students from the University of Copenhagen, was written in the common programming language C and therefore spread easily. It also featured many of the RPG elements we’re now familiar with: classes, experience points, levelling up and plenty of sweet loot.

If those students from the University of Essex hadn’t started out on their journey, and then decided to not protect their project as an IP, the games we know today may never have been made. As stated by Etchells in his book: “In essence, a lineage can be traced from those early text-based games right up to modern-day massively multiplayer online RPGs such as World of Warcraft and Runescape, that sits largely in parallel with the evolution of the more action- and sport-orientated focus of home video games consoles throughout the 198s, 90s and 2000s.”

So you see, Essex has a lot more going for it than fake eyelashes and Estuary English. As written by Bartle in that Practical Computing article: “You shouldn’t have to be what the world defines you to be. You should be who you really are – you should get to become yourself. MUD was a political statement, we made a world where people could go and shed what was holding them back.”

Kim View All

Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.

11 thoughts on “Essex: the birthplace of the MMORPG Leave a comment

  1. Awesome story! MMOs are so valuable for this side of things; you really can be who you want to be and immerse yourself as much as you want. It’s nice to know that this was always the intention.

    Like

    • Who’d have thought Essex would have a part to play in the history of video games? That last quote there makes me proud to be from the county. 😀

      Like

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