I got an unexpected e-mail this week. A game company called Simutronics told me that their flagship product, an MMORPG called Gemstone IV was now free to play. Gone at last was the $15 monthly charge.
You probably haven’t heard of this game before. If you’re into online roleplaying games, you’d be surprised that you hadn’t heard of a game that was getting away with a premium subscription price point. But this is Throwback Thursdays after all. Maybe this game’s from before your time. What’s that, you’ve had a World of Warcraft account for a decade? It’s still before your time. Because Gemstone IV first showed up in 1987. We’re talking about a MUD.
Before there was the MMORPG, there was the MUD: the Multi-User Dungeon. MUDs like Gemstone share a lot of features with Warcraft: you create a character, and go seek adventure in an online universe, killing bad guys, chatting with strangers, and exploring a vast world full of stories. While the games promise a role-playing experience, you spend most of your time grinding for experience and loot.
Only one thing is missing. While Warcraft looks like this:
But hey, you can’t have fancy things like graphics when you’re offering an online experience that literally pre-dates the Internet. The earliest incarnation launched in 1978, and at first, it was only playable over a local network. Eventually, it spread out over ARPANet, and MUDs were ready for the modern Internet as soon as it got around to being invented.
Gemstone came onto the scene in 1987, playable over a network called GEnie. GEnie charged up to $36/hour to get online, so it wasn’t a good fit for the time commitment of an MMORPG. It took off a few years later, when it was ported to America Online in 1995. Y’all remember AOL, right?
This was middle school for me, and after convincing my parents to get us a subscription to AOL, I was immediately hooked when I found an online RPG. It was a multiplayer version of Final Fantasy, or Dungeons & Dragons without needing friends. It felt like magic, no matter how boring the text-based role-play could get. Gemstone and I had a few good months back in the mid-90s. Until the month I burst through AOL’s monthly time limits and ran up a $100 Internet bill. That was the end of AOL in the Whiplash family for quite some time. Gemstone eventually added a Web interface, and I’ve come back to it about once every four years since, paying the subscription fee for a few months before moving on.
Now that it’s free-to-play, it might be worth checking out. I don’t want to oversell it—beyond the retro charm, there’s not a whole lot to recommend about Gemstone. But it’s a fascinating period piece at this point, retaining the features of a different era.
For one thing, it takes some real creativity to build an immersive world without a graphical interface. Each room requires four or five sentences of written description, a formidable task for the game’s designers when creating a world with thousands and thousands of rooms. Any secrets have to be buried in that descriptive text, requiring the player to read through for clues.
Likewise, player inputs in a text-based game require a lot of trial and error. Looking to head down a road? Maybe it’s “go road” but maybe it’s “go path” or “go trail”. Fighting some kobolds? You might be able to get away with “attack kob” until a second one runs in, and then the interface could get confused. Never mind the uselessness of typing “attkac kobold” in the midst of a fight to the death. Typos, thankfully, have left the world of gaming, but there’s something delightfully unique about keeping a text file open with cut-and-paste ready commands.
Gemstone’s dungeons never handled crowds well, so the game forces the player back to town after a little while. Even though you level up with experience points like every other RPG, here, there’s an extra step. While fighting bad guys, your EXP total stays constant, but the points are being banked—only to be converted when you spend some time back at the inn. This mechanic puts almost half your playtime out of combat, a feature long since rendered irrelevant in more modern games.
Frustrations aside, these old-fashioned mechanics have their charms. Attacks which can’t be visually rendered end up with delightfully-violent descriptions. Forced time back in town means more opportunities for low-stakes interactions. And of course, there’s something satisfying about finding a well-hidden secret in a wall of words.
As an added bonus, the remaining players are, it must be said, eccentrics. The aggression of raid-obsessed WOW players is thankfully missing—instead, you have people with a happy little attachment to this old digital world. The norms of that player base heavily favor role-playing interactions, which means you can actually get someone else to accept your character’s personal quirks, without being screamed at for failing to effectively farm an instance.
So, give it a chance—Gemstone is something of a living museum piece by 2015, but now that they’ve gone donation-only, it might be a museum, worth visiting for a few hours.