First there were MUDs


As I have stated before on numerous occasions, before my wandering path led me to Caledon I spent the better part of a decade playing and creating MUDs and MOOs…that is to say, online textual worlds.

Due to that fact and my continued pitiful devotion to the written word as a role play medium, I was delighted when I came across this interview with Richard Bartle, the creator of the very first MUD called, strangely enough, MUD1. It was this first world of multi paragraph descriptions, intricate puzzles and two word commands (GET SWORD, KILL WITCH) that laid the groundwork for the vast cavalcade of online RP today.

Beyond his statements of dissatisfaction in the graphical worlds of today (my but THAT is a surprise), Mr. Bartle has many interesting views on the past, present and future of virtual worlds.

The following interview was conducted by Keith Stuart using reader submitted questions and is available on his Games blog at The Guardian.

“I’d close World of Warcraft!” MUD creator Richard Bartle on the state of virtual worlds

A couple of weeks ago I promised an interview with Richard Bartle, co-creator of the original Multi-User Dungeon (or Domain if you prefer) set up back in 1978 at the University of Essex. I asked for your questions and received several suggestions which I put to Mr Bartle earlier this week, along with some of my own queries.

Well, Richard has delivered in style. Here’s the full interview, covering everything from the limits of online communication to the future of virtual worlds…

Can interaction in a virtual setting via limited means (text only for example) be compared to real social interaction?
It can be compared, yes. Whether it comes out of the comparison well depends on what you want from your social interaction. For some people (and I’m one of them), the telephone is bad for social interaction; for others, it’s exactly what they want. So it is for virtual worlds.

What virtual worlds give you is a more limited set of channels plus some editing capacity (ie. backspace keys). They also allow for a degree of deliberate body language (I can insert commands for my character to wag its finger, or scowl, or gape open-mouthed in horror). Now for some people, the limited set of channels means they can’t convey all that they want to convey, so they aren’t going to like interacting that way; for others, the lack of fidelity in the channels gives them freedoms to communicate that they don’t have in real life. For example, if in real life you sound like Kermit the Frog when you speak, a virtual world is going to be a great release for you.

Because the channels are limited, it means you can keep several of them open at once. You can communicate with lots of people simultaneously and independently. It’s hard to do that in real life (unless you use some other real-time computerised
communication system, for example Instant Messenger).

Human beings are very adaptable. If a virtual world allows freeform communication, then its players will communicate. They will be able to express every emotion between love and hate based on the contents of that channel, even if it’s only words. Anyone who is worried about the effects of virtual worlds on social interaction should direct their concern at television long, long before they look at virtual worlds.

However, when all is said and done, reality is far more detailed than virtuality can ever be. There are some forms of social interaction you can’t get any other way. Reality always wins in the end. A kiss in a virtual world or a kiss over the phone is never going to be the same as a kiss in real life.

What did you learn from watching the way people online interacted together in the MUD days?
Everyone is different.

A Gamesblog reader said about MUD, “I remember it being exceptionally well-crafted because of the number of people who would altruistically act as quasi-NPCs, providing truly interactive keystones to quests and guilds etc. We see very little of this in the modern MMORPG, with computer-controlled NPCs being the quest norm”. Why do you think this altruism is lacking in modern online games?
I do still see altruism in them, but yes, you’re right, it doesn’t happen to the same degree as it used to in the olde days. I guess there are three main reasons for this:

1. The virtual worlds are not as sophisticated. Yes, they have the 3D graphics, but what you can do in them as a player isn’t as sophisticated as what you can do in a textual world. This means players don’t have as many tools and abilities available to them within the world to enhance the experience of others.

2. Today’s virtual worlds have many more players. Acts of altruism that prosper on a growing relationship between players are rarer, because you don’t see the same people often enough. Even if they’re within the same guild, you have to find the right guild. Most random acts of altruism are lost, meaning that players can’t easily form the trust relationship that underlies the kind of mutual understanding players need to have for the kind of directed behaviour you describe.

3. Players are so used to being able to look up walkthrough solutions to problems on the Internet that, faced with some other player offering them a quest, they’d be nonplussed. They’d be more likely to think it was some kind of trick than an enhancement to play (and they’d probably be right!).

Many users of virtual communities state that their interest goes through definite stages. For example, they start off intrigued, become passionate through discovery, often quickly ascend to a position of responsibility, and eventually ‘burnout’.
What you have just described is the “main sequence” of player development. We noticed this very early on in the life of MUD, and it took me over 25 years before I had an explanation for how and why it happens. Sadly, that explanation is a two-hour lecture…

Can virtual communities really become important, even with the dawn of 3D ‘second lives’, when they only seem to be engaging for certain people for a limited time?
Virtual worlds are places. If you go there because they’re a place, for example, to do business, well you’re not going to be turned off them any more than you’d be turned off going to any other place. Social life in London may be better than that in Leicester, but people still go to Leicester.

However, virtual worlds are not ordinary places. Game worlds in particular are places of adventure and excitement, similar to the real world but apart from it. People go there as part of a hero’s journey – a means of self-discovery (shh! don’t let the players know – they think it’s just “to have fun”). When they’ve grown as people and become the individuals they set out to become, they have no need to play any more.

This “burnout” as you put it means they end up regarding the virtual world as a place no more special than the real world. Then, they can start doing things in it that they would in any ordinary place they found agreeable.

It may be that “community” is the wrong word here, at least for the game players; perhaps “demographic” might be better in some cases? For example, we can talk about “teenagers” as an important group with related views, needs and behaviours, but would we call them a community? Just because a group isn’t a community, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

So yes, virtual communities can become important, because at heart they’re real communities. That doesn’t mean that every important collection of individuals online is a community, though.

What do you find yourself using more – MMORPGs or virtual worlds like Second Life? Why? And which do you think feels more like the experience of using MUD at the beginning?
I don’t use either of them. I visit places like Second Life to give talks and attend functions, much as I might visit somewhere in the real world to do that. I don’t spend leisure time there. I visit the game worlds (MMORPGs) to see how they’re designed. I don’t play them as a player – I’m a designer. I’ve never played them as a player, I can’t: I see the design and the machinery too clearly.

My interest is creating worlds, not living in worlds created by others. At one level, I envy those people who can play them for fun, because it must be amazing to have somewhere to go for three or four hours every night of every week of every month, where you KNOW you’re going to have fun. At another level, though, I’m content, because I do get pleasure from virtual worlds – only I get it from the beauty of the design, not from the experience of playing.

It doesn’t take a lot of playing to get a handle on the design, either, so when I do play I don’t generally do so for long. Indeed, most of my understanding of a design comes from watching other people play and from reading about it on the web.

As for which feels more like the experience of using MUD at the beginning, hmm, well it depends on how far “at the beginning” you want to go. There were three versions of MUD written between 1978 and 1980: the first was a simple test of the technology; the second was a world with no game aspect to it; the third was built as a world. The second one had much in common with social worlds; the third one had much in common with game worlds. However, both had much in common with both. It wasn’t really until about 1989 that we got the schism between game-like and social worlds that means Second Life and World of Warcraft have such different philosophies.

What do you feel makers of modern virtual worlds and MMOs could learn from going back to look at MUD?
MUD has little that today’s virtual worlds don’t, but it lacks something they do have which makes it worth looking at: baggage. In today’s virtual worlds, there are many components that are only there because they were in the worlds that the designers played. These things work, but the designers don’t know – or even consider – why they work. A designer will ask “what character classes are we going to have?” when they should first ask “are we going to have character classes?”. Only when they have decided that yes, they are going to have them, will they know why they want them, and therefore why they are important.

With MUD, we had no precedents. Therefore, a designer looking at MUD can do so in the knowledge that everything there is there for a reason, and then hypothesise what that reason might be (or, if they realise I’m not dead yet, ask me).

A designer looking back at MUD won’t learn anything new to put in their own virtual world, but, through reflecting on its design, they might learn more about themselves as a designer.

So, the obligatory, ‘What’s going to happen next?’ question. Any predictions?
In the short term, we’re going to see people create more and more virtual worlds for business or education reasons, most of which will be social in nature (and entirely unfun). On the games side, there will be more and more tools become available for people to create their own virtual worlds, and eventually anyone with a yen to construct a world will be able to do so. Most of these will be very similar and not especially interesting to designers, but they’ll be very important to the people who play them. I know this will happen because it’s what happened in the days of text.

What happens after this, well, I’m a little pessimistic. So many people will encounter virtual worlds early (when they are children) and so many compromises will have to be made to attract a mainstream audience that I can easily see virtual worlds losing much of their soul, so that in 20 years from now people will wonder what it was about these things that people ever found so compelling.

Will Web 3D take off? Or is the way we interface with the web perfectly fine at the moment?
Text is very good at conveying information. You don’t need a 3D environment to read text, and indeed it could get in the way. Would you want to read what I’m saying here if it were in a 3D setting? Would it help or hinder your ability to follow what was going on?

Also, in an avatar-based virtual world, you’re controlling a character. Sometimes, people don’t want to control characters, they just want to be themselves. Do I gain anything from having to direct my character to read something I want to read? Or is it an unnecessary level of indirection?

Do you think MMOs and virtual worlds are going to be consumed by the social networking revolution, so that they operate merely as extensions of Facebook, et al?
That’s my glum assessment of the future, yes. There WILL be the glorious virtual worlds we have today, only they’ll be of minority interest. Most people will use the technology but not care about the worlds as worlds. If you want the intelligent stuff, you’ll be able to find it; however, if you don’t know it’s there, you won’t know to look.

Then again, I see what’s happening in Korea with virtual worlds, and I wonder if maybe, just maybe, they do have a mass market future beyond that of the banal?

What are you up to at the moment? Do you have any more work on Virtual Worlds in the pipeline?
At the moment, I’m splitting my time between consultancy work and teaching (game design, at Essex University). I don’t have any more work creating virtual worlds for myself in the pipeline, as they cost too much to make and I’m hopeless at asking for money. I see my role as being a kind of guardian (er, not this newspaper) for virtual
worlds, promoting them when I can and protecting them from ignorance.

That said, if someone gave me $50m and a remit to design and develop a virtual world, all visions of being some kind of elder statesman would disappear in an instant. I’m still a designer, and always will be: I want to design worlds, because that’s who I am.

If you could take over control of one major MMORPG – which would you choose and what would you do with it?
I’d take over World of Warcraft and I’d close it. I just want better virtual worlds. Sacrificing one of the best so its players have to seek out alternatives would be a sure-fire way to ensure that unknown gems got the chance they deserved, and that new games were developed to push back the boundaries.

Er, I would get to do this anonymously, wouldn’t I?


1 Comment

  1. Interesting article.

    I remember going into the computer room at university and seeing all these boys huddled over their glowing green screens (this was 1989-ish) and wondering what they were doing. I had only just got into tabletop RPGs and thought that this MUD thing looked a bit lacking (especially in the shared nibbles department).

    My how things have changed ;0)

    Having been scarred as a child by “The Hobbit” game on the ZX Spectrum (of which I possessed the single most bugged copy in existence; I mean, there’s only so long you can sit in a barrel and wait for something to happen and Gandalf has to be the least helpful wizard going – I’ll give him “Cleaves your skull in two”), I have always been very wary of text games.

    I am a visual person with the hand-eye co-ordination of a dead lemming with no opposable thumbs, so a virtual world like SL is appealing to me in a way that WoW would never be. I just hope it doesn’t turn into nothing but a glorified shopping channel, but lets us access all the thigns we enjoy including roleplaying and dancing about and being social (and shopping).

    We can only wait and see.


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