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10:30am on Monday, 20th October, 2008:



As you may have gathered from recent QBlog postings, today is the official 30th birthday of MUD.

This anniversary has been reached without causing a ripple of interest. There are no articles in newspapers, no radio interviews, no podcasts, no blogs: the only people who have noticed are the players of MUD2 (hence yesterday's MUDmeet).

Why is this so?

Well, the mainstream media have no interest in anything but the new. That's why they call them newspapers. Computer games are new, virtual worlds are newer, and a reminder that they were invented 30 years ago doesn't sit well with the narrative. That's if they're aware of the history at all, of course; a quick trip to the Wikipedia entry for MMORPG will find one reference to MUD — a screenshot that somehow seems to have escaped deletion. You're a journalist in a hurry, you read that Wikipedia entry, and you think all today's MMORPGs descend from Mazewar and the PLATO games; you wouldn't even spot the date 1978, let alone think "ooh, 30 years ago this year!". (Aside: you'd also think that Richard Garriott invented the term "MMORPG", which he didn't — it was Clem Chambers — but spacemen make better copy than entrepreneurs).

As for the games industry, well, some old-timers know the history of MMOs and whence they came, but most of today's developers haven't a clue, nor do they feel the need to get one. They can always re-invent anything they need, and they see no reason to know why things are the way they are, just that they are the way they are. The ones coming out of college know all about Pong and Atari, but MMOs are just niche insofar as history goes. Also, they were unfashionably invented in the UK, not the USA or Japan, so don't fit well into a timeline (and when they are put into their own timeline, MUD's entry comes 50th in the list and a historian from the future would go away thinking Empire was the progenitor of MMOs).

The players? Well, I occasionally ask those I meet in-world if they know its development history. Few WoW or LotRO players are even able to cite EverQuest as an influence, although occasionally someone will have a stab at "Ultimate Online". With even the graphical worlds of 10 years ago forgotten, what hope do their textual precursors have? Older players have sometimes played MUDs, and recognise the connection between today's graphical worlds and the text worlds of yore, but that doesn't mean they know which one started it all off, either — few do.

It's easy for me, who every once in a while is lauded as the father/grandgather/great-grandfather of MMOs (which I'm not — you want Roy Trubshaw, not me), to get the impression that MMOs are a major cultural influence of the 21st Century and that I'm a minor celebrity. In truth, though, neither they nor I are anything of the sort. Virtual worlds will, I believe, finally reach their potential — but they haven't yet. As for me, well as I've said before, the idea of having a computer simulate an imaginary world is obvious — we were always going to get them. They were invented independently at least seven times (MUD, Sceptre of Goth, Avatar, Island of Kesmai, Aradath, Habitat, Monster); creating the first one was not an act of genius. (OK, so I am a genius, but co-writing MUD1 isn't evidence of it). The fact that almost all today's MMOs descend directly from MUD1 rather than the others is mere accident (the exceptions are M59 [SoG], Furcadia [SoG], DoAC/WAR [Aradath] and, should it ever appear, Hero's Journey [SoG]).

So standing back and looking at it, the answer as to why there is not a lot of fuss over this 30th anniversary is that in the great scheme of things, it isn't actually important. The mainstream isn't interested because virtual worlds haven't had much impact; developers aren't interested because the paradigm is obvious; players aren't interested because knowing doesn't add anything to their play experience; academics might be interested in the historical facts, but anniversaries don't figure in their analyses.

The only people who might be interested are those who play MUD2, because MUD is their world. And, as we saw on Saturday, they are indeed interested. Almost everyone else may be playing worlds that descend directly from MUD, but they're not playing MUD; their worlds have gone in different directions.

Which, in the end, is as it should be.

Referenced by Giving and Receiving.

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Copyright © 2008 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).