GDC2016 FlashBackward


This five minute talk was one segment of twelve in the FlashBackward keynote for the 30th anniversary of GDC. Hover over the slides to see the text along with each slide.



This is just my microtalk.

Video of full session

This video includes all twelve segments in the keynote.


It started, as many things do, in the mud.

Created by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle in 1978, it was the first of the text worlds: alternate realities simulated in computers, that hundreds of people could connect to at once.

A world where the very design was intended as a blow against class structures and rigid identity, MUD allowed people to choose their own genders, to become wizards even if their accent was from the wrong part of the country.

But virtual worlds were too powerful an idea to be invented only once.

By 1985, videogame developers had invented them on a Commodore 64, and given us the modern meaning of “avatar.”

By 1989 virtual worlds had sprung up in the thousands, a whole galaxy of children of MUD. They were run by students stealing CPU from pricey Unix workstations. They were banned in Australia.

Some few, led by pioneers at various companies such as Kesmai, Simutronics, and Mythic, had become commercial endeavors.

By 1990, virtual worlds had split into camps that live on today. We began to confront the issues of online governance: who gets a vote in how a world runs?

Who has privacy online?

Who watches the watchmen?

The famous Rape in Cyberspace case took place on LambdaMOO. Virtual conflicts moved to the real world, in the earliest forms of doxing.

By 1993 to 1995, pictures had arrived on the Web thanks to Mosaic.

And around the world, projects were initiated within a few months of one another,

caught up in the dream of bringing visuals to virtual worlds.

Some took longer to build than others,

worlds for building,

worlds for roleplay,

worlds for furries,

worlds where you walked through dreams,

with release dates scattered through the second half of the 90s.

[Meridian 59… ] And of course, the first world in a box.

And of course, what were termed the Big Three: Ultima Online,


and Asheron’s Call.

The thing to realize is that we all knew each other. We had played together. We gave each other jobs. We hung out on a mailing list called MUD-Dev and freely traded our design ideas. We were a tad too weird for GDC,

so we made our own conference that we ran out of restaurants – the second floor of Il Fornaio, amidst the sausages and sauerkraut at Teske’s Germania in San Jose. When we came to GDC, we told people we weren’t sure we were just making games.

We built bugs by the tens of thousands. We tried to simulate ecologies, and created environmental disasters.

Built economies, reading dry textbooks to master an impossible task.

Our worlds were vast experiments: Dark Age of Camelot, Eve Online, Star Wars Galaxies, Project Entropia.

Many worlds were rough, implausible, buggy and unfriendly.

In 2004 the game industry finally kicked us in the ass and brought us back to reality. Blizzard launched World of Warcraft. Polished, expert, slick, fun, it was the hack and slash game that nailed the form down, but also collapsed the possibility space. It was, in some ways, an end of history. The budgets and risk were high. The payoff stratospheric. Hundreds of MMO projects were launched. Few made it.

The social worlds continued – Second Life enabling education, virtual concerts and sexbots.

Worlds for children,

worlds for teens.

Runescape became the gateway game for a generation of MMO players.

In Asia, MMOs became the default gameplaying mode for quite some time, posting up stats that made observers incredulous.

SWTOR, Lord of the Rings, ESO, and others kept the torch alive. But in the end, MMOs moved out of the spotlight. We predicted as much. We said that someday we’d give way to AR glasses and mirror worlds.

MMOs gave you game guilds. They gave you free to play. They gave you the profession now called community manager. They birthed the farming game that became social gaming. Would there be bitcoin today without the paths first explored by gold sellers? There certainly wouldn’t be a Minecraft without MUD.

Aspects of MMOs gave you Facebook itself: a world with no world there, one that maybe hasn’t listened closely enough to the old lessons on player rights and governance. What is Twitter but public chat for the world? What is Facebook, LinkedIn, but your character sheet, reinforcing rather than challenging our notions of identity? We are all avatars now, but perhaps our worlds are a little more mundane.

Today will end with goggles and the promise of virtual being realer than ever, but today all the console games are like MMOs writ small: chat popups as you drive a car, badges earned. We weren’t wrong: MMOs did swallow everything, and now we can’t see them as clearly, from inside the belly of the beast.

As those of you working in VR charge off to build your worlds, heed the lessons from your forebears: from whence you came, so shall you be; the future is, still, muddy.