No-one would deny that 2004 launch of World of Warcraft changed the face of the games industry. The subscriber base of Blizzard's massively multiplayer online game (MMO) may rise and fall as the company releases expansions and tweaks its subscription model (the introduction of the free 'Starter Edition' for example), but millions of players have spent many millions of hours in Azeroth.
And there's no doubt that WoW deserves its place as an important reference point when discussing MMOs. But Blizzard's game, and its immediate predecessors such as EverQuest, Meridian 59 and Ultima Online, owe a big, and these days seldom acknowledged, debt to an earlier generation of multiplayer role-playing games that were capturing the imagination of thousands of players before the terms MMO and MMORPG were even coined.
Before there were the current generations of MMOs there were MUDs – multi-user dungeons (or 'dimensions'). And before there were MUDs there was MUD: A multi-player, text-based game running off a mainframe at Essex University.
How come I can see a bunch of orcs down the corridor but when I slaughter their colleagues in front of their eyes they don't even look up? Can't they see me? Can't they hear those fireballs that are shaking my headphones?
MUD (known as MUD1 since the release of its successor, MUD2) used an interface similar to that of single player text adventure games and transplanted it to a multi-player realm where players could live virtual lives, solving puzzles, collecting treasure and killing fantastic creatures (and/or each other). The game launched in 1978, developed by Essex students Roy Trubshaw and, later, Richard Bartle.
These days Bartle lectures in game design and virtual worlds at Essex University, and is the author of the highly influential Designing Virtual Worlds, released in 2003.
Bartle says that while today's crop of MMOs may also have DNA from other games, such as Mazewar or Battlezone, when it comes to their graphics, but it is MUDs – and MUD1 – to which they owe thanks for their "virtual worldliness" and their gameplay.
"Almost all today's MMOs are direct descendants of MUD1," Bartle says.
"Most MMOs today are heavily influenced by World of Warcraft. Their designers played WoW and thought 'I can do this, only better'. WoW's designers played EverQuest. They thought, 'I can do this, only better'. EverQuest's designers thought the same about DikuMUD. DikuMUD's designers thought the same about AberMUD. AberMUD's designer thought the same about MUD1.
"There wasn't anything before MUD1, so that's where it ends."
The exceptions, Bartle says, are MMOs whose heritage draws from Sceptre of Goth, a game developed in the US by Alan Klietz. "The games developed by Simutronics and Mythic would fall into this category," Bartle says.
One of the links between MUD and contemporary MMOs can be seen in the so-called 'Bartle Test', which categorises users of multiplayer online games based on their approach to playing. The test is based on a paper published by Bartle in 1996 (expanding on an earlier article he wrote in 1990) and roughly categorises players based on their primary style of play as achievers, explorers, socialisers or killers.
These categories were (and are) relevant to the people who run MMOs: achieving a particular equilibrium of player styles will govern the 'feel of an individual world. The paper sets out ways that game administrators can influence styles of play by adjusting the features available to players in a MUD.
Although a game like Dungeons & Dragons Online may look very different to MUD1, the central conclusions of the paper still hold, Bartle says.
"It follows from the fact that MMOs – and MUDs, and social worlds such as Second Life – are all basically the same thing: virtual worlds," he says.
"People play them for the same fundamental reasons. Those reasons haven't changed. There are no modifications [to the categories] necessary for changes in technology because the model is technology-independent."
Today's multiplayer games support the four archetypes outlined by Bartle "because their designers have read the paper and have accounted for them in their designs," he says.
"In other words, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy even if it's wrong (although we'd know by now if it did have any major problems, because it's been used so much)."
"The original reason I published my model was that prior to this, people tended to design MMOs (MUDs as they were called back then) that they, personally, wanted to play. I was trying to point out that they should be writing ones that people wanted to play. People have different tastes and motivations, so they should aim to satisfy these. That was my central point.