This article was originally published in the Michigan indie game zine Locally Sourced. If you enjoyed reading this, consider supporting further Michigan game history research by picking up a digital or physical version of the zine.
In the early days of online video games, before games like World of Warcraft and Overwatch, there existed the MUD. Short for Multi-User Dungeon, these games combined elements of text adventure games like Zork with tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons to create a virtual world that would allow players to connect to a server through their local network or phone line and explore a world together with other players. Players would type their actions into the computer and get a response back from the server describing what happened in text. While the genre still exists today, they were mainly played from the late 70s to early 90s. Most of the servers from that time have been shut down, but the one that interests me the most is a game called HeroMUD.
HeroMUD was a MUD set in the fictional city “Metadelphia” based on Ann Arbor, Michigan. The game ran on servers at the University of Michigan at the art and engineering schools. Since the MUD was not approved by the university, it would occasionally get shut down and would be offline until it could find another server to run on.
When players signed onto HeroMUD for the first time, this is what they would see:
You are standing on the Diag of Metadelphia Universitat.
A holographic clock pulses in the air above you.
A small sign reads: Orientation -- ‘press button’ for guided tour.
Obvious exits: northwest, northeast, southwest, southeast, south, west
Crity the utter frosh is standing here.
After being presented with this text, players were given the freedom to type in different commands to interact with the environment. They could examine different objects in the room, press the button for the guided tour, and talk to characters like Crity. The beginning areas were laid out just like the University of Michigan campus and heading in different directions from here would take players to parts of Metadelphia that resembled the campus.
The game itself seemed to have influences from everything that was popular in pop culture at the time. Character classes had powers inspired by Spider-Man, Wolverine, The Incredible Hulk, Green Lantern, and Jedi from Star Wars. Events in the game were also influenced by pop culture; players could walk into a movie theater playing Die Hard and join John McClane and Hans Gruber in the Nakatomi Building. There was a section of the game modeled after Toontown from the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that supported actions like sticking your thumb out to have Benny the Cab pick you up. The game even had Darth Vader as one of its toughest enemies.
The game was filled with interesting mechanics not seen in other games. In most online games, a sudden disconnection leaves the player’s character standing in place for a few minutes before being removed from the game. Suddenly disconnecting from HeroMUD without logging out would turn the player into a marble statue for others to see until they reconnected.
Like other MUDs, HeroMUD had players complete quests for experience points to level up. A few quests in the game relied on humor. One involved having to get refused service at a convenience store by having to get No Shirt and No Shoes objects from NPCs in town, before getting the No Service quest object from the convenience store.
HeroMUD had its own form of moderators. Police Officers were a player type who enforced the rules of HeroMUD. If a player was given the Police Officer role, they were given access to the Police Station where they were given a locker containing equipment such as armor and weapons that were of higher quality than the gear players normally had. The Police Station also had a box of donuts that players could eat to regain hit points.
The mechanic for death in HeroMUD was unique as well. Upon dying, players would float around and observe the world, unable to interact with anything, until the timer ended and the player was resurrected. Many online games work like this and it’s nothing unique, however there was a faster way that players could be reborn. HeroMUD featured a player role known as Death that was the highest level that players could achieve as a regular character. As Death, the goal was to retrieve as many souls floating around so they could advance to the next level of power that was more advanced than death. Players with the Death role would sit in a waiting room known as “Death’s Waiting Room” where they would wait to be alerted by their scythe that a player had died and their soul was waiting to be retrieved. This often resulted in a
scramble by all the Death players to be the first to retrieve the soul. Once the soul was collected, the player character would be resurrected and could interact with the world again. The MUD started sometime during 80s and ran until 1991, when it appears to have been shut down for good. When the game was shut down, they slowly flooded rooms until there were only a few left. This is the message people would see when they tried to telnet to the MUD:
Sorry, Further access from Michnet to HERO MUD will not be allowed. This situation will not change. Please do not bother Michnet with questions about HERO MUD. HERO MUD is not a public service. Connection closed by foreign host.
There was an attempt a year later to create a HeroMUD 2 but it was never completed. While HeroMUD seems to be lost forever, the game has had a lasting impact on its players. Even today, people exchange stories on Twitter and elsewhere of a game they played thirty years ago. More info about the game is discovered every few months and who knows, maybe the source code to the game will be discovered somewhere.
- The Internet for Everyone. Richard W. Wiggins. 1994.
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