D&D Does Digital Part I: MUDs & MMORPGs
  • D&D Does Digital Part I: MUDs & MMORPGs


    This is the first in a series of articles about Dungeons & Dragon's expression in a variety of digital media. Our first installment begins with Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) and Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs).

    Playing With MUD

    The roots of Dungeons & Dragons have long been a part of the development of text-based online games like Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) and Multi-User Shared Hallucinations (MUSHes). Both MUDs and MUSHes have their roots in Interactive Fiction (IF), text-based object-oriented games. Wikipedia recognizes the lineage of MUDs from tabletop play:

    MUDs combine elements of role-playing games, hack and slash, player versus player, interactive fiction, and online chat. Players can read or view descriptions of rooms, objects, other players, non-player characters, and actions performed in the virtual world. Players typically interact with each other and the world by typing commands that resemble a natural language. Traditional MUDs implement a role-playing video game set in a fantasy world populated by fictional races and monsters, with players choosing classes in order to gain specific skills or powers. The objective of this sort of game is to slay monsters, explore a fantasy world, complete quests, go on adventures, create a story by roleplaying, and advance the created character. Many MUDs were fashioned around the dice-rolling rules of the Dungeons & Dragons series of games.

    With Dungeons & Dragons so popular on campus and the rules ever-evolving from the relatively niche art of miniature wargaming, it was perhaps inevitable that college students would adapt computers to handle the complex rules. For players who were not statistically inclined, these rules were necessary evils. With a computer doing all the work, the players could enjoy the less math-heavy aspects of the game.

    In the early days of IF development, personal computers were not yet ubiquitous. The only large group who did have access to computer mainframes was college students. The earliest computer role-playing games (CRPGs) and MUDs emerged from these systems. A cat-and-mouse game metagame ensued as students sought to hide their games from faculty who didn't want to see their considerable resources used for purely recreational purposes. Many of these early games have been lost to history as a result.

    The first D&D-style interactive fiction was Pedit5 by Rusty Rutherford. It was named so obscurely to prevent its deletion, as such games were frowned upon at Rutherford's school. Pedit5 included magical spells, a dungeon filled with monsters and treasure, and continuity with the ability to save the character. Sure enough, Pedit5 was deleted months after its creation.

    DND soon followed, coded in the TUTOR language for the PLATO system by Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood. Created in 1974, DND was the third dungeon crawl of its kind for PLATO. It contained custom characters, experience points and leveling, a general store, and dungeon levels. Dirk Pellett later joined the first two authors to improve the game:

    Among the unique features of the game of dnd (aside from those derived from its original development platform, PLATO), was the very first ever "boss" monster in any video game, the Golden Dragon, which guarded the Orb, which the player sought as the ultimate goal of the game. Another was the "Excelsior Transporter" which allowed an advanced powerful player to quickly descend into the dungeon without wasting play time on levels that were already mastered.

    Similar to Pedit5, Don Daglow created DNGEON (or Dungeon) for the PDP-10 mainframe. Daglow's game allowed for parties, earning experience points, and leveling:

    The gameplay of Dungeon consisted of text and “printed accurate line of sight maps”, with the player controlling the movements of six adventurers in a dungeon designed by Daglow. “That line of sight mapping system was the only innovation in the game that wasn’t just an homage to D&D traditions and rules,” he muses.

    Daglow would later apply his experience with DNGEON to the first MMORPG, as we shall see.

    TSR Notices

    Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle first discovered the single-player game known as Colossal Cave Adventure (also known as ADVENT) in 1979. ADVENT creator William Crowther drew on his experiences caving and with Dungeons & Dragons to create the game:

    I had been involved in a non-computer role-playing game called Dungeons and Dragons at the time, and also I had been actively exploring in caves - Mammoth Cave in Kentucky in particular. Suddenly, I got involved in a divorce, and that left me a bit pulled apart in various ways. In particular I was missing my kids. Also the caving had stopped, because that had become awkward, so I decided I would fool around and write a program that was a re-creation in fantasy of my caving, and also would be a game for the kids, and perhaps some aspects of the Dungeons and Dragons that I had been playing. My idea was that it would be a computer game that would not be intimidating to non-computer people, and that was one of the reasons why I made it so that the player directs the game with natural language input, instead of more standardized commands. My kids thought it was a lot of fun.

    His interest piqued, Trubshaw craved a more participatory experience similar the Dungeons & Dragons. After college, he created the first MUD. MUD, or Essex MUD or MUD1, ran on the Essex University network.

    MUD was the first adventure game to support multiple users. The name was chosen partly as a tribute to the DUNGEN variant of Zork, which Trubshaw had greatly enjoyed playing.

    After Bartle licensed MUD1 to CompuServe, Essex MUD was closed. This left only MIST, a MUD derivative, which would go on to become very popular until 1991 when it closed. The fascination with MUDs remained a chiefly British phenomenon until the 1980s when personal computers with modems became widespread. The popularity of Bartle's MUD1 soared, leading to the creation of MUD II. By 1989, MUD II had thousands of players.

    The rising popularity of MUDs was not lost on TSR. Bruce Cordell, formerly research and designer manager at Wizards of the Coast and currently senior game designer for Monte Cook's Numenera, revealed that he was originally hired by TSR (before it was acquired by Wizards of the Coast) to create a D&D-themed MUD. As Bruce explained in an interview on ENWorld:

    Fast-forward to me and my first job out of college: A technician charged with providing a research lab a huge variety of complex biomolecules. To synthesize RNA and similar molecules in the early to mid ‘90s, a lot of computer horsepower was required. Which meant my synthesis room had access to the fledgeling internet in spades. And as I discovered when the synthesis machines were idle, that was the era of MUDs and MUSHes. These text-based multi-user games totally sucked me in, so much so that I learned to code them.

    Unfortunately, the MUD didn't come to pass, as reported by Abstruse on AICN:

    I put in my name, went out for an interview, and they hired me to write a Multi-User Dungeon. But then when I got out there, they said, “Naw, we’re not going to do that.” I said, “I just f**king quit my job in biotech!” So they said “We’ll put you in print.” So first thing they put me on was GATES OF FIRESTORM PEAK.

    Several MUDs are still around to this day, including a MUD where I've been an administrator for over 20 years, RetroMUD. RetroMUD is a fantasy MUD that consists of six different worlds, over sixty races, and a dizzying variety of skills and spells. Each world has its own theme, ranging from the steaming jungles of Sosel to the creepy undead caverns of Crypt, from the whimsical Raji to the traditional fantasy of Welstar, from the chaos of Perdow to the churning seas of Wysoom. RetroMUD, like most legacy MUDs, predates Ultima Online, EverQuest, and World of Warcraft.

    D&D Gets Massive

    It would take years before there was an officially branded D&D video game. TSR released its first video game products, including a version of the Dungeon! board game for the Apple II computer system, in 1982.

    Don Daglow didn't forget the lessons he learned developing MUDs. Neverwinter Nights was launched on AOL by Daglow and Cathryn Mataga.

    In early 1989 we were doing online multi-player games for AOL and single-player Gold Box D&D adventures for SSI...One day I looked at the two projects and realized that we could combine the two initiatives and create a graphical MMORPG. I knew how to solve the AOL client-server problems, and we knew every inch of the Gold Box engine, so the project felt feasible from day one.

    Neverwinter Nights allowed up to 500 people to play together online. The game also saw the rise of player guilds. It was released in 1991 and ran through 1997. For a retrospective on the Gold Box series, see issue 4 of the DRAGON+ app.

    The Neverwinter brand would return in 2002 with the release of Neverwinter Nights (NWN) by BioWare. NWN was both a module creation tool and an adventure. It allowed players to download other adventures or make adventures and host them just like a "real" Dungeon Master. It was the closest thing to creating a graphical MUD -- and could conceivably create a game with a bigger simultaneous player base than some MUDs, with up to 64 players on simultaneously at one time.

    The adventure content included with Neverwinter Nights was compelling and massive, utilizing Third Edition rules. The campaign adventure series dealt with adult material, involving plagues, bad choices, murdered lovers, and vengeance. The combat system worked exceptionally well and even the trade system worked smoothly. Characters were more or less likely to be helpful depending on how high or low the player character's Charisma stat is. Characters with low Intelligence even talked funny ("Me am strong!"). The monsters were beautifully rendered in three dimensional form, taking the static artwork from the Monster Manual to new levels. For the spiritual successor to Neverwinter Nights, see Morrus' impressions of Sword Coast Legends.

    There would not be another official MMORPG for some time until the arrival of Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach in 2006. Created by Turbine, Inc., Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO) was set on the continent of Xen’drik in the Eberron campaign setting. The game was later renamed Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited upon switching to a hybrid free to play model, and eventually rebranded Dungeons & Dragons Online, with the introduction of Forgotten Realms-related content.

    DDO made several concessions to online play, including real-time combat. Real-time combat changed how feats worked, which changed how the spell system worked, which had reverberations throughout the game, including an increased amount of hit possibilities in a round, increased spell casting resources over rest periods, and a spell point system instead of spell slots. To handle the challenge of a player-based (rather than Dungeon Master-regulated) economy, magic items were underpriced by about an eighth of typical Dungeons & Dragons prices. The DDO Wiki elaborates on the many differences between the two games.

    DDO featured "instanced" dungeons, dungeons that were formed exclusively for the group playing it. There was no possibility of encountering another group, ensuring there was no "farming" or other means of interacting with a party outside of a town. This meant a group’s adventure experience was exclusively unique to them; they lived and died by their own fortunes.

    Another unique aspect of DDO was that it featured a party of up to six players, just like the tabletop version. Group play was supplemented by a person reading aloud, providing an overview of the game’s features that could not normally be expressed by text or graphics alone. In addition to sight and sound handled by the game engine, the game designers could express smells and feelings through a virtual Dungeon Master of sorts, with some of the dungeons even narrated by the late Gary Gygax. Until DDO, narrative voice-over structure was primarily relegated to tabletop games.

    DDO even provided its treasure according to the party, dividing up the loot in such a way so that the players receive their own shares according to their level. It’s noteworthy that killing monsters was not always central to the reward, and the completion of the adventure provided experience, not the killing in itself, just like the tabletop game.

    DDO shifted to DDO Unlimited, which introduced a new pricing model that allowed players to download and play for free, purchasing adventure packs, items, and account services a la carte from the DDO Store, or to subscribe to get unlimited access to all of the game’s content. This model wasn't new; MUDs (including RetroMUD) pioneered the model.

    Trouble in D&D Paradise

    The transition from DDO to the free-to-play DDO Unlimited model was not without some bumps. Turbine filed a lawsuit against Atari with a complaint alleging that, though Atari granted Turbine a sublicense to produce the Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG Stormreach, Atari didn't hold up its end of the bargain.

    Turbine claimed Atari failed to devote the necessary resources to Stormreach by accepting payments -- including future royalty payments -- in return for extending their relationship and paving the way for the launch of Turbine's free-to-play DDO: Unlimited service, even though Atari knew it would not perform its obligations under the agreements and knew it would "pretextually seek to declare Turbine in breach of the agreements." Turbine claimed that Atari's termination strategy was conceived prior to the May 13 agreements, with the goal of either terminating "Turbine as part of a shakedown, or proceed with termination in bad faith to benefit from its own competing product at Turbine's expense."

    In addition to threatening Turbine's past investment, Turbine felt Atari threatened the goodwill developed with the thousands of players who played DDO: Stormreach and were expected to use the DDO: Unlimited service, with their rival product. The MMORPG that triggered the lawsuit, Neverwinter, was a D&D free-to-play MMORPG for the Microsoft Windows platform developed by Cryptic Studios and released in 2013. As if things weren't complicated enough, Hasbro then filed suit against Atari in 2009:

    At issue is Hasbro and subsidiary Wizards of the Coast's allegation that Atari sub-licenced the Dungeons & Dragons digital game rights to Namco Bandai Partners without authorization. Hasbro sees Namco Bandai as a competitor, since both compete in child-focused businesses like collectible card-based games.

    The Neverwinter brand contracted and grew in different mediums across a variety of media when Wizards of the Coast settled its lawsuit with Atari over the Dungeons & Dragons brand on the same day that Heroes of Neverwinter launched in beta on Facebook. The Neverwinter launch included R.A. Salvatore's fiction, comics, tabletop role-playing, a cooperative online role-playing game (CORPG) and social media.

    Heroes of Neverwinter, created by Atari and Liquid Entertainment, was Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons' evolution of the persistent browser-based role-playing game (PBBRPG). It featured the basic Dungeons & Dragons races and classes, but unlike Dungeons & Dragons: Tiny Adventures, it went beyond the solo experience to reproduce the feel of an adventuring party. The game used tactical maps, character movement, and initiative just like its tabletop counterpart and players could recruit up to four party members to participate in the adventure with them.

    The lawsuits were evidence that Wizard of the Coast, and by proxy its parent company Hasbro, took the future of online gaming very seriously. And the tabletop gaming division was taking notes.

    The Child Becomes the Parent

    The Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons has been criticized before for sharing many traits with the massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) industry. Greg Tito's article at The Escapist quoted Andy Collins, a member of the Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons design team:

    Collins admitted that 4th edition was influenced by MMOs but was quick to point out that the design took inspiration from many contemporary sources. "As professional game designers, we look at all games for lessons," he said last year. "Certainly, the lessons we learn from online games are going to be the most obvious ones because they have a lot of people familiar with the sources, but there's also lessons about turn management from European board games, interface ideas from card games."

    As a follow-up to that article, Ryan Dancey, formerly brand manager of Dungeons & Dragons at Wizards of the Coast and former CEO of the Pathfinder MMORPG development company Goblinworks, explained on ENWorld:

    In the Escapist articles I am quoted as saying that this process will be like the evolution of the model train hobby. What I could have been more clear about was that my belief in this transformation is driven not by escalating costs (as in the case with model trains) but instead by the lack of an effective acquisition engine to drive new players into the TRPG hobby, and by the continued subtraction from the TRPG social network caused by MMOs.

    I've chatted with Dancey about MMORPGs for years. It was the only topic we discussed, actually, whenever I bumped into him at Gen Con (I think that's probably a whole two times) and his article is entirely consistent with our forecasts back then. In discussions on ENWorld Dancey gave some very interesting background to the development of Dungeons & Dragons.

    Hasbro, envious of Marvel's success in turning its superhero properties into a lucrative transmedia juggernaut, gave each of its brands the goal of $100 million annual sales. The problem was that each of Wizards of the Coast's brands were viewed in isolation, which left Dungeons & Dragons, "a $25-30 million business" according to Dancey, in dire straits. The Dungeons & Dragons team hit on the idea of using the online Dungeons & Dragons Insider (DDI) to grow the brand to $50 million and potentially beyond:

    The Wizards team produced figures showing that there were millions of people playing D&D and that if they could move a moderate fraction of those people to DDI, they would achieve their revenue goals. Then DDI could be expanded over time and if/when Hasbro recovered the video gaming rights, it could be used as a platform to launch a true D&D MMO, which could take them over $100 million/year.

    In retrospect, Dancey's comments would be prophetic, but it would be years before his vision for a D&D-style MMORPG would come to fruition, and it wouldn't be at WOTC.

    A Goblin in the Works

    Paizo Publishing, LLC licensed the MMORPG electronic gaming rights to its Pathfinder Roleplaying Game intellectual property to Goblinworks, a Redmond, Washington game developer. The plan was to create Pathfinder Online, a next-generation fantasy sandbox MMORPG.

    Founded by Paizo co-owner Lisa Stevens (Pathfinder RPG, Vampire: The Masquerade, Magic: The Gathering), experienced MMO developer Mark Kalmes (Microsoft, Cryptic Studios, CCP), and Dancey, Goblinworks was an independent company that planned to work with Paizo Publishing to bring the award-winning world and adventures of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game to the online gaming market. Dancey, then Goblinworks CEO, said:

    I've been hoping for a chance to work with Lisa and the Paizo team on a Pathfinder project for years, and now that we're joining forces to produce Pathfinder Online, I couldn't be happier or more excited. My goal is to bring the high-quality experience Paizo has delivered for Pathfinder to the MMO platform, and to give players another fantastic way to experience the world of Golarion.

    Soon after, Goblinwworks announed its first Kickstarter project for the Pathfinder Online MMORPG. The Pathfinder Online Technology Demo Kickstarter helped Goblinworks finance the creation of a Technology Demo that they could use to show investors what Pathfinder Online would look like. Successful funding of this Kickstarter also demonstrated the community's desire and excitement for Pathfinder Online. The Goblinworks team explained on their web site the "chicken and egg" problem of launching a MMO:

    Investing at this stage of a project is very much about having faith in the people working on the project—and we have some amazing folks who want to work with us, but they have careers and family obligations, so they can’t just pick up and relocate to Redmond on the hope that we’ll get the funding we need. We’ll also need to show our investors specific details about our financials, which are affected tremendously by the deal we can secure for our middleware—the engine that runs the game. Our business experience and social networks have provided us access to some awesome middleware deals that aren’t readily available to outsiders, but sealing those deals is tied to the staff and funding issues as well. In short, we need to move forward before we can move forward.

    Dancey explained the reason for going to Kickstarter:

    With the recent success of Kickstarters funding several computer game projects, our team felt that it was the ideal medium to provide funding for our Pathfinder Online Technology Demo. Through the success of this Kickstarter, we will be able to prove to the world that there is a pent-up demand for a fantasy sandbox MMO set in the Pathfinder world of Golarion. Our community is our strongest asset, and we plan to show the world just how great the Pathfinder community really is.

    It wasn't enough. Stevens explained in a post on the company's blog:

    We have always known that we would need a certain amount of money to make Pathfinder Online a reality. Some delays in getting the game to market coupled with some anticipated funding falling through have left us about 25% short of the money we need to finish the game and bring it to Open Enrollment. We knew that we could cut our burn rate (the rate at which expenses burn your cash reserves) by having folks participate in Early Enrollment and that was always the plan, though we never thought that the Early Enrollment subscribers could carry the company to Open Enrollment. We knew we needed that full investment amount to do that. We had numerous times this year where the full funding was dangling in front of us only to be snatched away at the last moment. Very frustrating, but we moved forward and kept looking for somebody to come through with the money we needed to see the game through.

    As a result of these issues, the company had to lay off the majority of the Goblinworks staff. Dancey left the company for personal reasons. But there's still hope for Pathfinder Online:

    For the past few weeks, we have been shopping Pathfinder Online to a number of other game publishers, looking for a good fit to take the game on and fund it over the finish line. There have been quite a few companies coming out of the woodwork to discuss this with us and we are in ongoing talks with a number of them about the possibilities. More companies enter the fray every day. These kinds of things take some time, though we are motivated to see them through as quickly as we can. At any moment, one of these publishers could agree to buy the game and we could quickly ramp up to full tilt again. Due to confidentiality, we can’t provide information on these negotiations. Rest assured that you will be the first people we tell when there is news we can share.

    Why is making a MMORPG so hard? There's plenty of obvious reasons addressed in the Pathfinder Online blog post, but it may simply be that the appetite for massive games has shifted:

    In this time, some hard truths were also learned about networking, that while once the prospect of a million new friends was tempting, in reality having a handful that actually meant something was always going to win. Cue a generational shift from games offering millions to those that pinned their hopes on just four, or five, or at least private worlds in World of Warcraft’s often overlooked true successor – Minecraft. Really, it serves the same purpose and audience, only with the advantage of allowing everyone to make their own world rather than simply splashing around in someone else’s fantasy.

    For a discussion of Minecraft, see the previous article, "Minecraft: The Gateway to D&D." In the next installment we'll look at WOTC's struggle to digitize the tabletop experience through virtual platforms. For more in the D&D Does Digital series, please see:


    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 4 Comments
    1. Barantor's Avatar
      Barantor -
      As an avid MMORPG and D&D and Fantasy gamer I have seen the rise of video gaming in D&D-esque settings and reveled in it. Sometimes there are games that I don't find enjoyable, just like the settings in tabletop adventures, but just as the setting books there is always one you find better.

      Official Dungeons and Dragons products in video games are always hit or miss with me. Some of the earlier games had a level of detail that TSR desired, but some of the newer games seemed to have dropped this in favor of trying to fit into the crowd. DDO is an odd bird, it was both very detailed with a robust character build system, but also not as desirable to some because of it's choice of the then 'new' setting of Eberron. Turbine made the most of this and it was one of the first F2P games from a North American company in which a lot of the industry followed suit with.

      I'm more of the mind that if Turbine had been able to create a similar game later that was more akin to their "Lord of the Rings: Online" title that they would still be the banner company for D&D online type products. The business of licensing once more keeps fans from something that could've been a better product.
    1. Benji's Avatar
      Benji -
      Man, MUD's. I remember reading all about them as a kid in GM magazine. I wanted so bad to be old enough to take part in them. I imagined my adult life to be full of MUD's and Play-by-mail games. How naive 80's me was.
    1. TerraDave's Avatar
      TerraDave -
      Thanks for the article.

      I do have some issues with it. The description of the Neverwinter MMORG and the dispute with turbine is confusing. I do see that both are mentioned on the D&D webpage (if you dig around) but Neverwinter definitely gets more love.

      Then there is Ryan Dancy. He was important for the past of the game, but has not been remotely "prophetic". He predicted a TRPG apocalypse due to WoW. We are kinda having the total opposite of that. And as for his own MMORG, well, you probably say enough.
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      How do you not include Gemstone III in this article? I had a roommate who dumped thousands of dollars into that when we were in college. IIRC, it was $6/hour to play + any dial up fees.
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