An Introduction to Muds
The acronym "MUD" stands for Multi-User Dungeon, although it's meaning has changed somewhat over the years. It once represented a specific multi-player text-based game, whilst today it represents an entire genre of online games, both text-based and graphical.
In 1978 Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw began working on the first multi-player text-based adventure game. There was not yet any generic name for the genre, but out of all the text-based adventure games then available, Dungeon (a hacked up version of Zork) appeared to be the most popular, thus Roy decided to call the game "Multi-User Dungeon" (although Richard later revealed his suspicion that Roy simply liked the acronym "MUD"!).
Over the years, many similar games sprang into existence. One such game called Scepter of Goth was actually developed at around the same time as (yet completely independently from) MUD, and it's descendants - most notably the Mordor codebase - are still around today. By 1984 the first commercial version of MUD was available, although it didn't become British Legends until 3 years later. In 1988 Simutronics had it's own pay-to-play game called Gemstone II, a couple of years before Avalon would open to the public. Other pay-to-play MUDs would follow over the years, with the first of the graphical variety making an appearance around 1992, a good few years before such games would start picking up real popularity.
The really important date from a hobbyist-MUD point of view, however, was the release of AberMUD by Alan Cox in 1987. This MUD inspired many others to go on and create their own text-based adventure games, including three of the most well-known codebases - DikuMUD, LPmud and TinyMUD - all of which had been released to the public by 1990.
These MUDs in turn then inspired the creation and public release of many new codebases. The advocates of TinyMUD claimed that it's new social (rather than combat) approach placed it in a genre of it's own, giving it's descendants names like MUSH, MUCK or MOO to replace the "MUD" acronym. The Diku fans spawned numerous new codebases derived from the Diku code, such as Circle and Merc - the latter of which was then taken a step further to create ROM, Smaug, Envy and many others. LPmud supporters created various mudlibs, although LP had much less of an "out-of-the-box" approach than it's sisters, requiring more initial effort to set up and having it's own internal coding language. Each of the three major factions considered their variant to be superior to the others, so much so that some people today even deny that any relation exists between their branch of the family tree and the others.
As the number of MUDs increased into the hundreds and then thousands, it became a constant effort by MUD owners to try and distinguish their games from each other. Some took the approach used by the TinyMUD fans, rejecting the "MUD" acronym and replacing it with something else ("Multi-User Role-Playing Environment" or "MURPE" being one of the most common). To try and conglomerate the MUDs back under one particular title, some of the younger generation invented new acronyms such as "MU*" or "MU**". Older members of the MUD community scorned what was perceived as yet more useless acronyms which served only to confuse newcomers - and which would themselves become redundant as soon as someone created a game not beginning with "MU" - preferring instead to refer to all such games as "muds" (all lower-case, thus distinguishing them from "MUDs", which represent a specific type of mud).
Today there are many thousands of muds, each trying to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Some mud developers take radical new approaches resulting in unique yet unpopular games. Other developers prefer to cater purely to the players, usually resulting in a horrible clash of features - such muds do not generally last long. In recent times a number of less-talented mud owners have decided to follow a deplorable trend of stripping the credits from an existing codebase and claiming it as "all original" in the hope of standing out from the competition. This sort of attitude has unfortunately resulted in the decline of contributions to the mudding community - with more people taking and less people giving, the evolution of muds in general appears to be slowing down considerably. While there are still a few dozens muds which truly stand out from the rest, they are so small in number that only the most persistent of player is likely to find them.
While I don't believe that muds will ever die out completely, I feel that their days as pure-hobbyist games are in decline. The Internet has changed from the academic to the commercial, and muds are starting to follow suit. The next few years will prove interesting.
Richard Woolcock is better known within the mudding community as KaVir, author of the GodWars codebase, although he has also created a number of mud snippets and a small scratch-written codebase called "Gladiator Pits". He has been mudding since 1993 and can be found debating issues on usenet, mailing lists and various discussion boards. His website is located at www.kavir.dial.pipex.com.