This may read like a comic opera, but it's all true...
The beginnings of MUSE were in 1978, when Roy Trubshaw wrote the very first prototype of the computer game MUD. He and Richard Bartle created the bedrock upon which all subsequent MUDs were built, and such was the popularity of the game that in 1984 they were approached by book editor and games-player Simon Dally to form a company to promote and market MUD itself, while designing and implementing additional games. MUSE was formed in 1985, which makes it a comparative old-timer in the online games industry.
MUD1 was placed on two networks: CompuServe in the USA and CompuNet in the UK. A new version of the game, which came to be known as MUD2, was written in 1985 to be run as a service for British Telecom.
Disaster soon struck. BT was in the throes of privatisation, and began convolving. Initially, we were talking to board-level directors, but every few months would find ourselves passed down the hierarchy to someone else as a result of some reorganisation. Because BT's MUD2 license was an exclusive, we were unable to place the game elsewhere; because we were forbidden to market the game and BT's personnel were never involved for long enough to be able to, we did not get the kind of player numbers that we were expecting; because of internal BT politics, we were prevented from placing the game on Prestel. For five years, we had a world-beating product that very few people actually knew how to access!
The MUD2 problem was passed around within BT between departments, losing height with each move. We went to the division which owned the computers that the game ran on, then to the section which owned the building, then to the systems manager at the network installation, and then sideways to Prestel. At least Prestel knew what to do with the game: they paid for some inexpensive hardware (a "MUDbox") which the product was to run on instead of a £500,000 VAX (which we'd been obliged to use before). They authorised us to rewrite the system in C, which is what we'd wanted to use from the outset instead of the Pascal that had been forced upon us as BT didn't want to buy a C licence for their VAX cluster (which, of course, they did anyway 6 months after we'd finished programming).
Things were finally looking up. The MUDbox version was slick and fast, and it was a good, low-cost solution for the time. It was Prestel-compatible, and we began to gear ourselves up for a marketing blitz.
Then, Simon Dally got manic depression, stole £800,000 worth of antiquarian books, emptied MUSE's bank account, and shot himself dead.
This was the last straw for BT. Responsibility for MUD2 passed to a youth opportunities trainee, and he finally signed off on our contract. Our relations with BT had gone from director to a YOP in the space of 5 years..!
MUSE was left in a state of flux because Simon had written a codicil to his will that gave his shares in MUSE to Richard and Roy. Unfortunately, he got his codicil witnessed by two employees of his brothers, who found themselves unable to verify afterwards that they had actually seen him sign his name; they had merely signed to attest that they'd seen him sign it. This meant that his brothers got the MUSE shares, and that Richard and Roy had either to fold the company or buy them back with their own money; they did the latter.
MUSE then began a period of expansion. The game was licensed to anyone who could possibly make a go of it without spoiling existing licensees' products. The first, and most successful, license went to Roger Harazim, who formed a company, The Wizards' Guild, to run it. The game thrived. Other licenses in the UK met with some success, too.
In the USA, we were also lucky, at least initially. An agreement was reached with a dynamic individual, Bridgette Patrovsky (a MUD1 player) to run the game on a games network she was setting up. She organised hardware and software for MUSE, and was on the point of launching when her business partner pulled out without warning because of shenanigans in the boardroom of his other company. Her operation was stopped in its tracks. She bounced back, however, and placed MUD2 on the US Videotel network, where it also began to do well.
Not, however, well enough. USV had problems at upper management level, where some people seemed to regard it as a hobby rather than a business. USV went into bankruptcy. In response, MUSE placed the game on GEnie (and Delphi and CRIS) via Kesmai's ARIES system. Viktor Toth, who had been an arch-wizard on USV, took over the running of it.
Bridgette and the former games product manager of USV, Rick Mulligan, moved to Interplay together and founded the company's online division, which was later to be spun off as Engage. They took MUD2 with them, and put it up on the Interplay BBS.
Interplay's online division expanded rapidly, and went from strength to strength. MUD2 was identified as their key initial product, and work began on a graphical front-end. Unfortunately, as with all trailblazing products, things did not always go according to plan. The first programmer, a MUD2 player himself, did not have a green card and had to return to Scotland after 6 months. The second turned out to be a pacifist and after 6 months decided that some of the violence portrayed in other Interplay games was than his conscience could bear. The third programmer was a trainee, who after 6 months left for another company claiming "6 months' experience of game programming". The fourth programmer was pretty good (not that the first two weren't), and did manage to get much of what the other three had written to work in harmony. However...
At this point players from the UK MUD2s were beginning to intersect with the Interplay/Engage user base. Engage were not prepared to put a whole stash of money into marketing MUD2 (which, they were already advertising in press releases, would be available on Prodigy and AOL), if they did not have exclusivity. Despite reservations stemming from our earlier experience of exclusivity with BT, MUSE nevertheless had to concede: we were reliant on some other contracts with Engage to finance our own expansion plans, and would have been in dire straits if they had been withdrawn.
So it was that we informed the other operators of MUD2s that there was the possibility of an exclusive with Engage. Kesmai ignored it on the grounds that it meant nothing until it was signed, but Roger Harazim, who had just succeeded in amalgamating the UK and Irish player bases into one, decided that his game was dead; who would play something if they knew it was going to close in 6 months? He was also angry because he was close to negotiating getting MUD2 onto AOL UK himself. So it was he shut down his system, had a nervous breakdown (which involved several, thankfully failed, suicide attempts) and a divorce, and went back to Germany where he is now a successful media Internet guru. Except he lives in Holland.
With the field clear, Engage did not actually need exclusivity any more: they had effective exclusivity anyway, with the other MUD2s being shut down (except for Kesmai's, but Engage was running their own MUD2 for free and therefore Kesmai didn't exactly have many players). There was a fly in the ointment in that ex-arch-wiz Henry Muller was three months into translating MUD2 into French and in the process of setting up a company to run the game in France, but they dealt with him by the simple expedient of not answering any of his letters or emails.
Under the terms of its agreement with Engage, MUSE was due a minimum monthly payment in lieu of business lost from exclusivity. Engage did not, however, sign the agreement; neither, though, would they say they wouldn't sign it. MUSE was therefore left in limbo for a period of a year, unable to pursue other options because Engage kept insisting it would sign the exclusivity agreement shortly but never did.
Bridgette and Rick, being honourable people, were not happy at all with the situation. Bridgette left Engage, and although Rick took over personally as producer of MUD2 his efforts were hindered by the fact that he was beginning gender reassignment therapy (he's now Jessica Mulligan) which meant he had to be out of the office more often than he would have liked.
Finally, Engage pulled the MUD2 project and Jessica left in disgust. They also pulled the remaining contracts they had with MUSE. Our earlier assessment of the financial implications of this were correct: we were indeed in dire straits as a result.
The Kesmai version of the game did pick up some of the players from Engage, although their system was very difficult to access. The user base grew again, and things were once more looking up when Kesmai removed all text-based games from their system in one fell swoop, without warning.
Viktor Toth, who had been overseeing the game's return to grace after the Engage disaster, sprang into action. He set up his own server, connected it to the internet and got the whole system working in under a week. His site, mud2.com, rapidly achieved a critical mass of players and is still going strong. In late 1999, when CompuServe shut down British Legends with a whole 1 day's notice, he went into hack mode and in under two weeks rewrote the entire MUD1 system in C/C++. Many of the former CompuServe players signed up, and MUD1 now runs for free at british-legends.com.
In the UK, MUD2 was made available though the Wireplay service. This was originally a British Telecom owned direct-dial system, so there was very little overlap between its user base and that of mud2.com. The user base grew rapidly and independently. However, Wireplay was spun off from BT to form Gameplay. Gameplay opened up all their games to Internet access, and this meant that mud2.com lost a few players to Gameplay's MUD2 (but not as many as first dreaded). Richard Bartle signed up as Head of Online Games at Gameplay, but this was the time of the .com book and bust; the company expanded so quickly that it simply couldn't cope (at one point there were three people with the job title "Head of Online Games", because whoever appointed the later versions didn't know there already was one).
Eventually, in early 2001, Gameplay closed down their Colchester office. In lieu of the royalties that they were supposed to have been paying MUSE, they handed over to MUSE the rights to all the MUD2 code written by Gameplay staff. As part of the deal, MUD2 was to leave their system. Arch-wiz Richard Underwood migrated the game to mudii.com (a new site he specially set up for this), where it runs happily to this day.
The catalogue of disasters which has befallen MUSE (and those cited here are just the highlights - eWorld, MPGNet, IOL and ALMAC all came with their own little set of earthquakes) has, in a perverse way, been of help to it: we now have expertise in all kinds of areas that are not traditionally the purview of online games companies. Furthermore, as our products have been in continuous development since the very beginning, we are also highly experienced in game design and development. We have contacts in many parts of the industry, and as a result consultancy is becoming a greater part of our business than ever before.
We still, however, regard ourselves primarily as a games company. We want to help people have fun, and if we can have some fun ourselves while we do it, well, we'll be happy!
That'll teach you to click on an icon marked "background", won't it?
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7th May :\webdes~1\ tm.htm