One of the reasons I stalled for time is that I was gathering as much information on the most popular and beloved MUDs of the past few decades. From the perspective of someone who is but a mewling infant when it comes to these games, it's a considerable task akin to asking someone to sum up all of the World War II movies out there. The selection field is big -- that's all I'm saying.
So after polling a number of friends and hearing what you've had to say in the comments section, I've culled the list to six games that seem to pop up over and over again. Not only are each of these MUDs a wealth of history, but they're all going strong even in the futuristic year of 2011. If you've never played a game in this genre, then consider these a good place to start, and if you have, hopefully this will be an exciting stroll down memory lane. Watch out for the boojums and grues!
TorilMUD is one of those games that pop up again and again whenever MUDs are mentioned, not just for the fun that folks had playing it but for its direct influence on the MMO industry.
TorilMUD has its roots in an older MUD, Sojourn, which saw a team divide in 1996 into two projects. One of these became TorilMUD, which dubbed itself as the spiritual successor to Sojourn. It was set in the Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms, one of the most popular campaign settings of D&D, popularized by computer RPGs like Baldur's Gate II, Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights.
One of the most fanatical players of TorilMUD was Brad McQuaid, who took the concepts of this DikuMUD with him when he began work on EverQuest (and he wasn't the only one). In an interview with Guru 3D, McQuaid said, "Even though it was text based and free to play, I saw there the commercial potential for these games when coupled with graphics. I'd been working on single player computer RPGs for several years, and when the opportunity to combine them with MUDs came up, I jumped at the chance and began work on EverQuest." An interesting fact is that the City of Waterdeep, which existed in Sojourn and Toril, became the template for EverQuest's well-known metropolis of Freeport.
If you're interested in hearing more about this game from a long-time player, check out The Ancient Gaming Noob's recollections of Sojourn and TorilMUD!
If you haven't read Sir Terry Pratchett's humorous fantasy series, then get thee to a bookstore (or an e-reader equivalent) and get cracking! The 40 or so books that comprise the Discworld series have such a rabid following that a fan-made game was born two decades ago: Discworld MUD.
Discworld MUD is a hotbed of jokes, running gags, absurdity and revelry, which is why it's been in operation since 1991. This doesn't mean an absence of game, however; Discworld MUD is rife with leveling, roleplaying, combat, exploration, guilds, and skills. In an interesting twist, players have a limited number of lives -- which can be replenished -- and if their life counts go down to zero, their characters are permanently killed off.
For newbies, Discworld MUD has plenty of resources to give the neophyte a hand, including beginner guides and extensive wikis.
If you're looking for MUDs that have an enormous amount of corporate muscle (and finances) behind them, then look no further than DragonRealms and GemStone. Both titles were developed by the folks at Simutronics and take place in the high fantasy world of Elanthia. GemStone II came out in 1988 to GEnie, with GemStone III debuting in 1990 and GemStone IV in 2003. (The first iteration of the game was for testing and demonstration purposes only.) DragonRealms came out in 1996 and was set in a different era than GemStone.
Both titles enjoyed popularity on a variety of online services, including Compuserve, Prodigy and AOL. If you are more into level-based gameplay, then GemStone is probably for you, while DragonRealms skews much more toward a skill-based system. Because of the enormous amount of development time put into these titles, both DragonRealms and GemStone boast a rich array of features including world events and crafting.
Play.net, which is owned by Simultronics, currently offers both titles.
Realms of Despair was the first product of the SMAUG codebase, a second-generation derivative of DikuMUD. As such, it heavily featured killing, leveling and many of the MMO staples we experience today, although RoD players would be quick to tell you that it was much more than that.
One of the most interesting facets of the game was how you fit in to the game world. Depending on your class, race, and focus, you could join one of several organizations that had a specific focus. There were class guilds, thematic orders, and even PvP clans that would battle it out until there was only one left standing.
For a current MMO player, Realms of Despair offers a bizarre, retro look at our genre. Give this game a whirl and see many staples that we now take for granted back in their original -- and perhaps better -- form!
If you're tired of the same-old, same-old fantasy rehash, then 3Kingdoms beckons thee. Er, you. The Worlds of Marble are a geek's dream, creating a mash-up of science-fiction, fantasy, and chaos (which is a bizarre, sometimes humorous blend of the former two). If you don't mind a little Jedi in your fantasy world or a Vampire roaming around your spaceship, then you're bound to be pleasantly surprised by this title. It's the sort of game you simply don't see in MMORPGs these days yet was unbound by conventional restrictions back in the early '90s.
Of course, this only scratches the surface...
MUDs, MUSHes, MOOs and all the rest not only number into the hundreds but seem to foster extremely strong, loyal playerbases that remember these games with starry eyes long after they've moved to other properties. As such, I'm not going to even pretend that this list is anything but a very cursory introduction to some of the most popular titles out there, and I urge you to read the comments section and stay tuned for next week's column, in which we'll share tales from those who were in the text-filled trenches and survived to tell their stories.
When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.