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Back to Our Roots

Christopher Coke Posted:
Columns The Tourist 0

I have a confession to make: I never played the original EverQuest. Several weeks ago, someone asked me about this (accused may be a better choice) in the comments, so it's time to clear the air. While the rest of you began your MMO careers, I was attending my freshman year of high school and trying not to look geeky in front of the girls. Elsewhere, I could be found scouring the two continents of The Final Challenge, trying in vain to complete my entry quest for The Black Conclave. In 1999, I was two years into a love affair with the MUD that would steal my attention for the next seven. So many players look to EverQuest and Ultima as the roots of the industry. Today, I'm here to take you on a tour of our grandfather's father, the Diku MUD.

Did you know that EverQuest is essentially a Diku MUD with graphics? It's true, but then you might not know what a MUD is at all, so let me back up. MUD stands for Multi-User Dungeon. There were lots of different MUDs, just as there are a lot of MMOs today. Diku was the codebase closest to that adopted by EverQuest.

MUDs were the domain of imagination. Within that black screen lay the doorway to fantasy. Movement went in rooms, each with its own description. Getting around meant mapping out the world, in your mind or on paper, and remembering where things became dangerous. The world had texture and depth as only the mind can create, but if the basic descriptions weren't enough, you could LOOK or EXAMINE or CONSIDER its inhabitants.

In the screenshot above, you see an elven tree-village with eagles standing guard. If you traveled DOWN and NORTH and EAST you would eventually come to the human capital city, the sprawling Midgaard, whose mayor locked the gates and greeted citizens as he passed, but not before crossing the Great Western Road which would take you north to the icy frozen valleys beyond the human town of Ofcal or south to the demon's lighthouse and the great frothy sea beyond, a place where the exits were random and the Tempest lied in wait.

In Diku MUDs, everything was command-based. This gave a better sense of character than first-person perspective ever could. If you wanted to move, you typed a direction. If you wanted to look in a bag, you LOOKed IN the BAG. Healing meant RESTing, EATing magic mushrooms (clerics conjured them), and DRINKing from your wine skin. You would FLEE from battle and QUAFF a potion to escape. You would PRACTICE spells at your the trainer and CAST them by name. Communication was done by POSTing notes on public bulletins, chatting in global channels, or, if you were a thief, using a secret CANT channel only available to other thieves.

And because players felt like their characters, they acted like them. They wrote full character descriptions and titles. When they joined followings – guilds ran by “immortal” staff – they adopted the full roleplay of the job. The Black Conclave, the guild I mentioned above, were the black cloaked followers of Lord Molo, servant to Lord Nash, and when they earned a kill the chat channels erupted in praise. They had rites and rituals. Look at the website, it's still up and is really something. These other players, along with the Goods and Neutrals and Unaligneds, collectively birthed worlds that were more alive, dangerous, and connected than anything developers could ever write.

There was danger in The Final Challenge. When players killed you, your corpse fell to the ground, with everything you owned, and you woke up in a safe zone naked as a jaybird. When followings went to war, or certain players came online, you had to rely on each other. The same thing was true in PVE. It was entirely possible to wander into a zone beyond your level and die horribly. If you cast a bad teleport and wound up in the Demon Realm, you would need a team to reclaim your gear. There was gratitude, and camaraderie, and lots of rage. But it was worth it.

It might sound harsh, but it's not so far removed from MMOs today. Look at these screenshots.

Here you can see my character. This is exactly what other players would see if they looked at me. Players were deceptive back then, someone who seemed a friend might just be waiting until your guard is down to strike or steal your goods. A player's description and gear could reveal a lot about their character.

Here you can see some of my skills and a sample from combat. On the bottom you can see my health, mana, and movement points before I would need to rest, as well as my remaining XP (7998) and gold. I did well against that defender because he was a low level mob. Against a player, it would very different; their gear – resistances, stats, and armor rating – would factor in, as well as their skill and knowledge of the world.

Some of my favorite gaming memories come from The Final Challenge, and I'm betting a lot of EQ fans can relate: logging on minutes after a server reboot to LOCATE rare items before anyone else; journeying far beyond your know-how, risking everything for the sheer exhilaration; clearing out zones of mobs, waiting on the respawn timer, and doing it all again; hording each magic item, hoping against hope to see the “powerful magic” flag before asking a mage for an IDENTIFY. But more than anything, I remember doing these things with friends and enjoying the game offline by reliving it in our conversations.

The PvP was fantastic and incredibly satisfying. I remember paying thieves to use their INFO ability to find the locate players. I would approach invisibly and stalk them; stand in their very rooms until they were low on health. When they slept, I would strike. But there were better adventures.

The taxidermist's office in Midgaard had a closeable door. There was a superstition that the cityguards had a higher chance of dropping loot, so the town was popular. We would wait, hiding in that room until our target passed through triggering our ALARM spell. We would SUMMON them against their will and in their panic, they would spam FLEE without realizing there was nowhere to go. If they were a crafty mage, they might JUMP from combat and cast DARKNESS and SILENCE to leave us paralyzed in the dark, but mostly we got our kills.

TFC, or “The MUD” as my friends and I called it, was my virtual home until I found World of Warcraft, a stark contrast. To go back to it now, I still remember the routes between cities and my favorite XP spots. I remember where the best randoming places are. I remember haunts and hidden meeting places. I no longer play, but I still find myself logging on periodically, checking in to read notes and see what's changed. The Final Challenge has a special place in my heart for all that it was: beautiful, and explorable, and old school, and text-based. Maybe you old school players can relate.

You can play The Final Challenge by using a Telnet client (such as Mushclient) and connecting to mud.finalchallenge.net port 4000. You can also play with a broswer here.

Christopher Coke / Chris has been an MMO blogger since 2009 and freelance writer since 2012. His work can be viewed at Game By Night and Hooked Gamers. Hear him on the official podcast every Monday. Twitter: @gamebynight

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Christopher Coke

Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight