Welcome to Raph Koster's personal website: MMOs, gaming, writing, art, music, books.
Welcome to Raph Koster's personal website: MMOs, gaming, writing, art, music, books.


Text versus graphics

The vast majority of muds made thus far are text-based, not graphical. This has served as a stigma, preventing many from seeing the graphical muds as muds, and instead, leading to the coinage of many of the above-mentioned pointless and difficult acronyms. However, both are still concerned with the portrayal of virtual spaces. In examining design issues, it’s best not to get caught up in the past stereotypes of what the word “mud” means. When many think of a mud, they think along the lines of the following quote from a typical Usenet post responding to my assertion that Ultima Online was a mud:

When I think of a mud, I think of text based descriptions with at best a static graphic backdrop to provide some atmosphere

There had certainly been commercial graphical muds with scrolling backgrounds prior to Ultima Online. Habitat (launched in 1985, designed by Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer), Neverwinter Nights (on America Online), Legends of Kesmai (likewise, and a descendant of the original Island of Kesmai which was text-based), and Dark Sun Online are examples. Meridian 59 and The Realm also beat Ultima Online  to market in either final form or open beta. Most of these commercial efforts relied on graphics stored on the client side to minimize network traffic. All that was sent across the wire was an identifier for the client-side graphics to be used. In the non-gaming realm, notable examples  of graphical mud systems have included The Palace, which is a room-based chat system; AlphaWorld, a collaborative architectural building environment with a 3d display; and WorldsChat, a 3d environment for chatting. All three also predated Ultima Online.

There have also been text-based muds with continuous, grid-based maps (as opposed to room-based, which is the common stereotype of a mud). Many text muds, perhaps the most prominent of which was Medievia, offered grid-based wilderness areas displayed as overhead ASCII maps. DartMUD actually offered a wilderness area that used a hex grid similar to that used by miniatures war gaming. Muds designed and programmed by Owen Emlen gave split-screen displays using ASCII to give both a room description and an overhead map via an ANSI-compliant Telnet connection.

BSX muds are a particular and largely forgotten breed of muds that use Bram Stolk’s X-Windows protocol added to an LPMud codebase, to give a graphical display using polygon primitives in a side view. The engine supports parallax and 16 colors using a dedicated client available for PC, Amiga, and X-Windows platforms—it looks remarkably similar to The Realm, in fact, except that it’s somewhat lacking in the artwork department.  A snippet of the markup language used looks like this:

@DFS house.02040400000A000A0A000A0503000A0A0A0515

Since the underlying code base was a standard mud code base, the scenes represented rooms just as in a regular LPMud.

One of the most interesting takes on adding graphics to text muds was the now-unmaintained Pueblo mud client developed by Chaco Inc., which supported embedded HTML and VRML within a standard text mud. As far as most muds got was adding basic HTML support—the full potential of the system was never realized, perhaps due to the cumbersome nature of VRML. There was a similar attempt at mixing WWW protocols and Telnet done with htMUD, which opened a browser window and a Telnet connection simultaneously. Alas, the site for this mud appears to be off the Internet now.

The single most ambitious attempt to integrate graphics into a text-based server was the WOO project. The most use it has been put to is on ChibaMOO - The Sprawl, which terms itself a “collaborative hypermedia.” Over a half-million people have visited this graphical environment based on the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson, but it averages under 100 users a day, pointing up the fact that web-and-mud hybrids have never gathered the audience that client-side graphics systems have. WOO (also known as WOODS, for Web Object Oriented Distributed Server) was created by Samuel Latt Epstein in 1994. Shortly after, work began on MOOniverse, which created a distributed server system intended to combat the key problems of scalability and latency in a large-size collaborative building environment. To my knowledge, the project, despite having functional code that accomplishes some things that the commercial servers today do not, has not met its objectives in terms of audience in the way that advanced commercial servers such as Asheron’s Call have.

So, where are we? In common usage, yes, text muds seem to be called muds in preference to other terms. However, in the design community, there should be no hesitation whatsoever in calling typical text muds from any code family, BSX muds, Ultima Online, The Realm, Gemstone III, the original Neverwinter Nights, Kingdoms of Drakkar, Legends of Kesmai, Meridian 59, EverQuest, Habitat aka WorldsAway, WorldsChat, or AlphaWorld all muds. They are all about representing virtual space—the interfaces for doing so are radically different, be it text or graphics, but they nonetheless have that one element in common.


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