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The First Multi-User Game

Comms Plus! / November 1990
By Paola Kathuria

In early 1990 I sent an article to alt.mud on Usenet pointing out that TinyMUD was not the first ever multi-user dungeon game as some would have us believe. I quoted Essex MUD as the first. Peter da Silva replied saying "actually, the first game of this kind was called 'Public Caves'". I asked about Public Caves and was eventually passed on to another of the original players; the following is the result of our correspondence.

Public Caves was written in BASIC and was set up on a mini computer in the States at the People's Computer Company around 1979. It is a scrolling text game and is still running (call up 0101-713-438-5018 [but be warned that this will involve a call to the States!] and select 'public caves') although I shall speak of it from now on in the past tense.

The game consisted of rooms, tunnels, messages and people. The major commands let one create and name a room, create a tunnel from one room to another in one of six numbered directions, move through a tunnel to another room in any one of these directions, write messages on the wall of a room (with a limit of six lines per message) and read messages. The tunnels were not locations in their own right but exits to rooms; that is, one could not 'stand' in a tunnel.

As Michael Chastain explains, "Pubcave was a primitive messaging system based on the user interface of a typical adventure game. The user went from room to room through the tunnel system, reading and writing messages on the walls of the rooms. ...

"The 'point' of the game was to find your way through all the rooms, which was redolent of 'Hunt the Wumpus' or 'Adventure'. Instead of objects, all you would find were messages. The messages tended to be pseudonymous or anonymous and charged with fantasy; similar to the newsgroup talk.bizarre; as well as teenage political ranting."

With these basic ingredients people could create shops, by naming a room appropriately, write messages to indicate what the shop sells, and then leave it up to the users to write messages to buy or sell objects.

Peter da Silva describes a happening concerning his shop: "I got into a 'war' with Ken Arnold: I was 'John Wellington Wells', a Victorian gentleman wizard. He was 'The Mad Mage'. We had competing magic shops (buying and selling by writing messages on the walls). We started accusing each other of cheating, and someone else created a court, and we got pulled into it (well, we could have ignored it but who wanted to be tried in absentia?). Ken Arnold being Ken Arnold (the author of rogue, looked like Zonker in Doonesbury, and a lot more popular than me) ... won. I had to sell my shop. I sold it to myself as 'Isstvan', and tried to run it under that alias but by that time everyone was busy building caves with Phil Collins/Genesis themes, so I was left out..."

Although the game was about caves, the room's descriptions created the atmosphere and one would have a sense of wandering around caves only if the room's descriptions were of caves. Talking was achieved by leaving messages, there was no way to describe yourself, no objects, no interaction other than in through the messages, no experience levels and no scoring system.

Michael said to me: "There was no real-time multi-user interaction; Unix didn't support the facilities for inter-process communication. Pubcave operated entirely through disk files. The very notion that User A could interact with User B in any way at all was radical at the time. I didn't ever see other entities in the pubcave; just the messages they left."

It has been interesting researching the Public Caves story as I can see that the handful of commands were effective at creating a fantasy atmosphere. However, I realised after reading about the game that what I was really interested in was the first multi-user adventure game. I would define such a game as one which needs more than one person playing for an action to be able to take place. This covers fighting other players, talking or whispering to them and solving puzzles which involve players co-operating, by combining their 'strength', say.

[time flies like a banana]

The original ending of this article was "Now all I have to do to satisfy my curiosity is to find out what the first multi-user adventure game was ..." but I can now yell "STOP THAT LASER PRINTER!" having just had my curiosity satisfied.

MUD, as it turns out, was possibly the first multi-user adventure game (unless anyone comes forward and tells me otherwise :-) ). A couple of articles were posted to rec.games.mud in the middle of November by Alan Cox (of AberMUD fame) and Richard Bartle, enlightening people to the history of MUAGs. A big thanks to Richard for indulging me on the phone at short notice so that I could fill in some gaps.

In Spring 1979, Roy Trubshaw, then a student at Essex University, wrote a multi-user game which consisted of inter-connected rooms into which people could move and chat. This test version was written in the DEC-10's machine code, MACRO-10. This was immediately rewritten (still in machine code) into a more sophisticated game which included a separately stored database and was named MUD. While in the game, people could add to the database by creating new objects, rooms and commands. Richard Bartle said "however, the result was that people added new rooms that were completely out of keeping with the rest of the environment, and, worse, added new commands that removed any spirit of exploration and adventure that the game may have had."

Memory being scarce and code being difficult to maintain, Roy rewrote this version with BCPL finishing around April 1980. This became later known as MUD-1 but was actually the third version. This version did not include a point-scoring system, mobiles, containers or even a clear objective although it did include 'co-operative' commands such as 'steal object from player' and 'snoop player'.

Richard explained that because Roy Trubshaw was more interested in the programming side, Richard had been involved by helping with the game-side of things by designing rooms and puzzles, for instance. When Roy left Essex in the summer of 1980, Richard took the game over, having been left the most essential 25% of the final program to work with. He spent the next few years adding features such as mobiles, combat and a point-scoring system which provided the objective to reach wizard level (originally the debugging mode) which made more commands accessible. The result of many years work, a rewrite and many extensions is the MUD run by Muse.

At the time, Roy, Richard and the others involved, believed that they were doing something original. Roy wrote MUD because he wanted to write 1) a multi-user adventure game and 2) an interpreter for a database definition language. Other games which were inspired by the first MUD and which used the same system includes Mist, which, together with MUD-1 (umm, MUD-3? :-)) are still available at Essex on Janet 0000496000001 if the DEC-10 hasn't been switched off yet.

Alan Cox now completes the history by saying that AberMUD and VaxMUD appeared in 1987. The former was written by students at Aberystwyth University in B on a Honeywell L66 under GCOS3/TSS mainly in response to the system manager claiming that it couldn't be done. In 1988 it was ported to Unix, converted to C and began to be distributed as version 3.7.14. VaxMUD was (and is still being) written at Strathclyde University to run under VMS. In the late 1980s TinyMUD, LPMUD and others appeared in the States, which have proved very popular and, to my knowledge, are available to anyone who can reach the Internet. These games have also been distributed to the UK.

Finally, multi-user versions of Zork and Colossal Cave have since appeared but it is questionable whether these could be counted as multi-user adventure games since these were originally single-user games, and accordingly included objects sufficient for a single user. I remember that I actually played the multi-user version of Colossal Cave in which all the players would make a dash to the house to grab the lamp after which there would be great carnage as players killed each other to obtain the lamp (since the game was fairly unplayable without it).

Hmmm.