EmpireMUD: A player-driven city-builder

ko-fi Written by Andruid
The current EmpireMUD map with the text: EmpireMUD: A player-driven city-builder. Build. Rise. Rule.

Khufu shares his experiences building a screen reader-friendly map for his long-running map-based game: EmpireMUD.

Table of Contents

    Today’s post features an interview with Khufu, the implementor of a “little” game called EmpireMUD.

    I’m excited to talk about EmpireMUD because it’s a bit different from the MUD styles I’m used to seeing. While the game does include elements of hack-and-slash adventuring, it’s more of a city-builder – a place where you can scour ruins for resources to build up your very own empire.

    As for how I found out about the game, well, I have Opie to thank for that. 😉 When I asked him who I should interview next, he pointed me toward Khufu.

    Turns out, the two are long-time friends in the multi-user dungeon (MUD) niche and have been bouncing ideas off of each other for decades.

    I’m glad I followed through on Opie’s suggestion – not just because EmpireMUD seems like an interesting game, but because I think Khufu has some valuable insights to offer the MUD community in general.

    Meet Khufu, implementor of EmpireMUD

    To kick things off, I invited Khufu (or Paul, as he’s known IRL) to introduce himself.

    “I guess in the game it lists me as implementor and programmer, but I hate labels. All the best features come from player ideas and feedback, anyway. I just put it all together,” he humbly told me.

    As for his life outside the game, he’s worked in programming roles in a variety of industries, including video games and web-based entertainment.

    “My most recent job wasn’t programming, though, it was social media moderating, which is really weird. You get an unusual glimpse into people’s lives doing that – both good and bad,” he said.

    He went on to admit that he does prefer programming, in part because it allows him to express his creativity in ways that social media moderating doesn’t.

    “I feel like there’s a lot of ideas and a lot of creativity in my brain that are always trying to get out, and the biggest downside to the social media job was that there is no creative component to it at all.

    In programming – even if I’m just building a web admin tool – the creative parts of my brain get to come out.”

    Quote by Khufu, pulled from the body of the text.

    From teen to tinkerer

    Like many of us, Khufu originally started playing MUDs as a teenager, back before the rise of graphic MMORPGs.

    “I was really drawn to the idea that a MUD is a place where you play together, in the same space. It’s a place where you can connect with people, chat, and adventure together,” he said.

    “It also opened up a creative outlet for me. I started building game content, which led me to start a MUD with a friend I’d met online, where I could build as much as I wanted.

    That’s what got me into programming, too. I started tinkering with that MUD and, eventually, it led to more MUDs and also to professional programming work.”

    But Khufu never forgot his roots.

    “I still love to tinker and develop and build content for my own MUD,” he said.

    Looking back, it wasn’t just a game he’d created – but a long-lasting community. And that community is a large part of the reason he’s still at it after all these years.

    “People sometimes show up on EmpireMUD to tell me they played 20+ years ago. Sometimes I still remember them.

    I’ve made lifelong friends this way, and that goes right back to the social nature of a MUD – the part of it that’s also a chatroom where friends come together day after day, week after week, year after year.”

    EmpireMUD: Build, rise, and rule to your heart’s content

    So, let’s talk about EmpireMUD. What kind of game is it, exactly?

    As Khufu describes it, it’s based on a procedurally-generated world map where you can gather resources to build not just your own house but entire cities.

    And you can build all kinds of things in and around those cities, too.

    “Artisan buildings for crafting, homes for other players or NPC citizens, storage buildings for resources, and lots of specialty buildings,” he said.

    “Virtually everything on the map comes from the players and their NPC citizens. When they stop maintaining a city, it falls into ruins, which are a good source of resources – and adventure – for the players who come after them.”

    Quote by Khufu, pulled from the body of the text.

    To appeal to a variety of playstyles, EmpireMUD also features about 40 hand-crafted, scripted adventure zones that spawn across the map.

    “Some are real simple, like a swamp hag living in a 1-room hut above the swamp. Others are way more complex, including one that clocks in at over 146,000 words and is more like a traditional MUD zone,” Khufu explained.

    The game spawns multiple instances of these adventures around the map for players to find and explore. While most have a hack-and-slash element to them, others require skills to get through or feature quests and plots.

    And as for the loot… 😁

    “Rewards from adventures can include new gear, new buildings, new crops or terrains for your cities, non-combat mini-pets, and lots more,” said Khufu.

    Many of the adventures use what he calls a “drop or craft” loot model – a term I’d never heard before. In this model, defeating a boss earns you a random loot drop and a special token.

    If the loot drop wasn’t exactly what you were hoping for, no sweat. Saving up tokens allows you to buy the crafting pattern for the item you really want.

    You can then go on to craft the best version of that item. More than once, even.

    Inspiration for EmpireMUD

    When I asked Khufu what inspired him to create a map-based MUD, he credited KaVir:

    “When I first started EmpireMUD, over 20 years ago, I did take some inspiration from a map-based MUD by KaVir that I had played years earlier, called Dark City/Last City.

    It was a big inspiration for some of the original terrains and basic features that I wrote. Really, KaVir was the one who made me want my own map-based MUD.”

    If you’re curious, EmpireMUD features some nifty browser-based maps, including a live-updating world map, as well as an animated historical map.

    While the live version shows you what the map looks like right now, the historical version shows you how the landscape and territories have changed since May 2018.

    Although EmpireMUD is derived from CircleMUD (which itself is a derivative of DikuMUD), it doesn’t use any of CircleMUD’s stock classes or areas.

    “I’ve always loved CircleMUD’s robust base and familiar interface. But I stripped out a ton of its features on day one, so while players should find some parts familiar, there is so much more to discover,” Khufu said.

    If you, too, are a CircleMUD fan, you’ll be pleased to discover that EmpireMUD includes a small tribute to the Temple of Midgaard, including a beastly fido, tucked away in an adventure zone called “Unstable Portal.”

    The zone also includes tributes to The Hobbit, Colossal Cave Adventure, Fallout, Oregon Trail, and Elden Ring, among others.

    Seasonal events and prizes

    At this point, EmpireMUD already sounds like a pretty feature-rich game to me, which makes sense given its long history of development.

    But according to Khufu, there’s an entire special event system layered on top of it, which supports any number of points-based games and competitions.

    During the month of October, for example, EmpireMUD ran an event called “Halloween of the Dead,” where players could do up to 5 daily quests around their cities for points and fun rewards.

    Rewards included a headless horse mount, a pumpkin coach, new mini pets, a pumpkin crop, a candy apple tree crop, and more.

    “It’s a fun way to get players to log in every day during October,” he said.

    Events, rewards, and player-generated content are all great ways to improve player retention.

    Can an ASCII map-based MUD be screen reader-friendly?

    One of the interesting features of EmpireMUD is that within the game, the map is available as either ASCII art or as text descriptions.

    This allows sighted and non-sighted players to play side-by-side.

    “EmpireMUD had its ASCII map years before any VI support. But players started to arrive who used a screen reader and some would leave, disappointed, while others would play by bumping their way around and memorizing layouts,” said Khufu.

    This was a problem for him, as he wanted everyone who logged into EmpireMUD to have a good experience playing the game.

    “At first, I imagined VI support would be really difficult. I envisioned a lot of complex features that would be really daunting to write.

    But I sat down with VI players and bounced ideas back and forth, and what I realized was that I was completely wrong about most of what they needed – and it was a lot easier than I imagined.

    After that, the number of VI players climbed to the point that at any given time, at least half the players are using screen readers. Some of them help me test new features, and some have built adventure zones.”

    A comparison of map outputs

    To demonstrate how he implemented a screen reader-friendly map, Khufu provided a handy example.

    Below is a screenshot of what the game looks like at night near a player’s city:

    ASCII map of An Overgrown Forest with symbols and color to represent different domain types.

    The city’s walls (VV) and guard towers (TT) can be seen to the west, with mountains to the north. The player is at the center, designated with <oo>.

    Both the walls and mountains are currently blocking the player’s view past them, while the darkness is limiting what they can see in the other directions.

    And now here is the same map area in screen reader view, where tiles are listed according to their distance from the player (from nearest to farthest away):

    Screenshot of text map output for An Overgrown Forest.

    The same content provided as text:

    An Overgrown Forest (579, 256)
    North: 2x Overgrown Forest, Old-Growth Forest, 2x Mountain, Blocked, Mountain, 3x Blocked
    East: 4x Overgrown Forest, Dark Forest, Overgrown Forest, Mountain, 3x Blocked
    South: Old-Growth Forest, Overgrown Forest, Old-Growth Forest, Overgrown Forest, Dark Forest, Dark Tree, 4x Dark
    West: Old-Growth Forest, Overgrown Forest, Old-Growth Forest, Advanced Guard Tower, 6x Blocked
    Northwest: 2x Overgrown Forest, Old-Growth Forest, 2x Dark Forest, Advanced Guard Tower, Blocked, Mountain, Blocked, Mountain
    Northeast: 2x Overgrown Forest, 3x Mountain, 5x Blocked
    Southwest: Overgrown Forest, Old-Growth Forest, Overgrown Forest, Advanced Guard Tower, 6x Blocked
    Southeast: 3x Overgrown Forest, Dark Forest, 6x Dark
    Commands: chop, dig, gather, pick
    A little honey bear dangles from a tree.
    A little brown monkey is walking along a low branch.

    I love this because it’s a great example of how accessibility features don’t have to be complicated.

    Simply chatting with players about their pain points can reveal surprisingly easy solutions that can greatly improve their experience of the game.

    Khufu’s advice for future MUD developers

    In addition to the lesson on communicating with players, Khufu had a few other pieces of advice to offer potential MUD devs:

    “The biggest thing for starting your own MUD is to download a codebase you’re already familiar with or one that has the features you’re looking for – and then start tinkering.

    The Internet is an amazing place that can generally answer any questions that come up about popular MUD codebases, so using one of those is a good place to start,” he said.

    Having tenacity is also important, in his view.

    MUDs take time to create, so “stick with it, build it piece-by-piece, and eventually it will transform into the MUD you’ve been dreaming of.”

    Tip: You can find a list of popular codebases, and links to their GitHub repositories, on the MUD Resources page.

    Quote by Khufu, pulled from the body of the text.

    Experimenting with the EmpireMUD engine

    Speaking of GitHub – EmpireMUD 2.0 Beta is actually available on GitHub for people who want to run their own map-based MUD or who want to peek under the hood and see how things work.

    “I’ve created a huge suite of creation tools to help people make their own content – whether it’s new terrains, new resources and buildings, or whole adventure zones,” said Khufu.

    The EmpireMUD engine supports numerous in-game configuration options, including everything from player-vs-player combat to empire-vs-empire wars.

    “On the EmpireMUDs I run, PvP is almost entirely opt-in, and some players do enjoy it, but a lot of people prefer to work on their cities in peace,” he said.

    To enable PvP, empires have to declare war on each other, which then allows the two sides to attack each other’s buildings with siege weapons and spells.

    “But war requires an up-front cost that’s higher if the empires are less equal in power, and lower if the other empire has committed offenses against yours (such as infiltrating your buildings, killing your NPCs, or even being shot at by your guard towers),” Khufu explained.

    “In practice, players almost never go to war.”

    Keeping MUDs free and open-source

    Making EmpireMUD’s code available to others on GitHub fits right in with Khufu’s philosophy when it comes to games: he wants them to be free and freely available to everyone.

    “I’m a huge believer in free games,” he said. “I grew up on free games – demos on floppy disks, free trials, and MUDs.”

    Even today, MUDs are an important creative outlet and source of entertainment for people who can’t afford a gaming computer or a monthly subscription fee.

    Plus, he loves that he can develop the game with the community:

    “When I have an idea for a feature, there are players I can discuss it with and who will help me shape it. Players also have the most amazing suggestions and ideas.

    And when I write a bad feature, they let me know, and it helps me improve the game.”

    Khufu noted that one of his earlier MUDs, decades ago, required all player characters to sleep for almost half of their playtime.

    “This was for balance reasons, as vampire characters had to sleep during the day, but it was TERRIBLE for players – and they let me know,” he said.

    The future of multi-user games

    Drawing the interview to a close, I asked Khufu where he’d like to see the MUD niche in the next 5-10 years.

    “More or less right where it is,” he said.

    “This is a nostalgic genre that only seems to need updates, not changes. I fear things like the questionably-legal change to the DikuMUD license, which is meant to let people charge money for their MUDs.

    For me, and my MUD engine, I only hope that in 5-10 years it’s bigger and has better content. I don’t want to see a paywall or a push toward graphics.

    When MUDs update or modernize or expand, what I want most is for them to still be MUDs.”

    A big thank you to Khufu for sharing his experiences creating and improving upon EmpireMUD!

    If you’re interested in learning more about the game, you should check out the website at EmpireMUD.net or peruse its list of adventure zones. You’re also invited to join the game’s Discord, where you can chat and ask questions.

    To play, point your favorite MUD client to empiremud.net port 4000. You’ll find some helpful advice for newbies here. Good luck, and happy building!

    Smiling blonde woman wearing glasses.
    About the author

    Andruid is a writer, roleplayer, storyteller, and nerd who tries to live by Bill and Ted wisdom, i.e. “Be excellent to each other.”