Rich emailed in to tell me about a Japanese MUD called Habitat that has over one million users. This MUD was started in 1990 by Fujitsu and upon a cursory inspection appears to have one of the most complex game communities around; Habitat even had its own Yakuza-run casinos! (note that Habitat was originally developed in the US by Lucasfilm in 1987. Also, many of the pages online about Habitat are no longer available, so use the Internet Archive to follow up missing pages).
An MMORPG called Lineage apparently has around four million active players, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the social or political complexity of other much smaller games, so clearly numbers don’t count for everything.
I don’t think that Habitat can be easily compared to recent AI-like mmoes, though. It seems that Habitat is, like most MUDs, driven primarily through interplayer interactions, and that there is no centrally dictated narrative. This is not a criticism; different styles of mmoe serve different needs. However, AI-like mmoes concentrate more on a strong central narrative which players work around, and this provides an altogether different experience to a traditional social MUD. In fact, as several people here have pointed out, they’re quite similar to role-playing games writ large on the Internet.
What was the point to this post, beyond the fact that there’s a cool Japanese MUD called Habitat? It serves to show that AI-like mmoes have a long way to go before they can match the popularity of traditional (and comparatively old) MUDs, and that they are qualitatively different types of mmoes. I have this image in my mind of MUD developers being intricate watchmakers, carefully constructing and tweaking their creations so as to make sure they work as smoothly as possible with the least amount of intervention. Developers of AI-like games would be frantic administrators, attempting to lead artists, authors, designers and actors around the clock in response to players demands – a much more hands-on approach. But this is of course a facile analogy; there’s a broad spectrum of MUDs and AI-like games. Hmm… I can sense a possible article here…