Biography Hat

Richard Allan Bartle was born in Ripon1, England, on Sunday, 10th January, 1960. His family (mother, father, younger brother) moved in 1963 to the small (population 7,000) Yorkshire seaside town of Hornsea, where Richard attended the local school and did all the other usual things that growing up involves.

Richard's interests in gaming go back a long way. His father was an enthusiastic player of all boardgames, and soon had his two sons just as interested as he. Hornsea is quite remote as English towns go, and its social life can be most succinctly described by the word "none", so Richard sought out like-minded games-players among his friends at school, later expanding his horizons by playing games postally. He began a small gamers' magazine for his local group of fellow players, which acted as a prototype for a national zine he ran for the two years prior to his going to University. Both these projects gave him a grounding in written English rarely seen among today's computer programmers (or, come to that, today's game authors!).

The purchase by mail-order in 1975 of one of the first sets of "Dungeons and Dragons" rulebooks to reach the UK married together Richard's gaming and SF/fantasy interests. He and his brother had developed several informal role-playing gaming systems themselves, but none in the domain of Tolkienesque fantasy, and none with the depth of the D&D rules. Nightly D&D sessions soon became a regular thing among Hornsea's dedicated group of gamers.

Being some distance from a large town, the local school couldn't easily organise trips to visit computer installations, and therefore was granted the special privilege of having a subsidised phone connection to the County Council's own timesharing system. This meant that computer access was actually better than for most schools in the UK. Richard therefore got an early chance to learn programming, which he immediately put to use by writing (and getting published) a single-player programmed-text book (you know the sort: "if you wish to open the door immediately, go to 19C; to knock first, go to 7F; to run like hell, go to 24A").

At school, Richard passed all his examinations without problem, but almost always relying on flair rather than hard work and revision. This was nevertheless quite sufficient to win him a place at Essex University in 1978, where he registered to study Mathematics. He switched to Computer Science at the end of the (common) first year, however, because "there were people better than me at Mathematics". His subsequent first-class honours degree was (and, I gather, still is) the highest ever recorded in Essex University's Department of Computer Science. He stayed on to take a PhD in Artificial Intelligence, eventually taking up a lectureship in the subject (which, at the time, made him the youngest member on the academic staff in the whole of the University).

In his first full week as an undergraduate, Richard had met Roy Trubshaw - a brilliant programmer in the year above Richard's. Roy was thinking of writing a computerised fantasy game, and was impressed by what he saw in Richard's programmed-text book. He introduced Richard to the game Adventure (a transcript of which Richard had seen the previous year in a postal games magazine), and soon after hit upon the idea of writing a similar game which would allow several people to share the game world at the same time. He called his creation MUD and devoted the remainder of his undergraduate career to writing it. Richard was on hand with a ready supply of suggestions and ideas for Roy to incorporate into the game.

Roy had got the shell of his third version of MUD running by the end of his course, but didn't have time to complete the rest of the game. He passed what there was to Richard, who added perhaps 75% of what constituted the final program. Roy had the "engine" working, but it didn't do much; Richard enhanced it, and employed it to manage a fully-realised game world.

Through MUD's success, Richard met a book publisher called Simon Dally. Simon commissioned a book from Richard (Artificial Intelligence and Computer Games;, Century Communications, London, 1985), and the two became friends. Along with Roy, they formed a company, "MUSE", to market MUD. In his spare time, Richard completely redesigned the entire MUD system from scratch, then wrote it anew himself. The new game was dubbed MUD2 by its players (although formally it should be MUD4). Roy's MUDs had certain limitations that meant some of the more complex concepts that it transpired rôle-playing games required were either difficult to express or necessitated large amounts of surgery to the MUD program itself. MUD2 addressed these issues by having its own fully empowered programming language, MUDDLE, specifically intended to be used for writing MUD-like games but strong enough to be used for general programming (you could write the MUDDLE compiler in MUDDLE if so inclined). So flexible was the design for MUDDLE that it's still very much in use today.

Richard left Essex University in 1987 to work on MUD2 full time. In 1989, Simon got manic depression and committed suicide, leaving MUSE in a thoroughly awful mess. Although the company survived this, the writing was on the wall. These days, it's little more than a place-holder for various pieces of MUD-related intellectual property.

Richard gave up working for MUSE full-time in 2000, to head up the online games division of dot com start-up Gameplay. Sadly, the company rather squandered its resources, and all that was left after the dot com bust was a rump that sold games by post.

Richard switched to consultancy, which he'd always done in the past but not very regularly. In between assignments, he wrote the world's first book on the design of MUDs, Designing Virtual Worlds. Published in 2003, DVW rapidly became the standard work for anyone developing, studying or playing MUDs (or MMORPGs, MOOs, MU*s, PWs or any of the other acronyms variously applied to this kind of software these days). He is also one of the authors of the popular research blog Terra Nova,

Richard returned to his Essex University roots in 2002, teaching on its nascent computer games degree. He was appointed Visiting Professor in 2004. Currently, he therefore spends his time juggling teaching duties and research with the occasional demands of his consultancy business. He still plays a lot of games, too!

Richard lives near Colchester in Essex, with his wife, Gail, and daughters Jennifer (born July 1990) and Madeleine (born March 1994).

1There is an interesting virtual tour of Ripon available, for those who want to see what small Northern market towns look like.

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
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