Background to MUD Advanced Project Report Hat

In December, 1984, as part of the regular Wednesday afternoon seminar series in the Computing Department at Essex, we had a speaker from the British Telecom Research Laboratories at Martlesham Heath (just up the road from Colchester). Although he had been invited by the hardware group, we AI types dutifully turned up to hear what he had to say so that he'd think there were a lot more people interested than there actually were.

His Big Thing was ISDN, which was a fairly new technology at the time. He was looking for academic partners to put together a system which demonstrated ISDN in a form the public would understand. It didn't take long for me to figure out that MUD was exactly what he wanted... Afterwards, I sat and chatted with him for an hour or more, and he was very enthusiastic: he'd heard of MUD, in fact one of his children had actually played it, and he thought it would make an excellent demonstrator. Why didn't I write up a report which went into the ways by which MUD could be used to show off ISDN, get it to him by the first week of January, and he'd put together a proposal for funding from BT.

I wasn't too happy about the short deadline, but there was some budget or other that he could bite into if I got something to him in time. I agreed, anyway, and went to Martlesham for a day to meet the ISDN crowd. They became quite enthusiastic when I showed them the game live, and figured BT would probably pay around £50,000 for a MUD licence.

Hence, I wrote the MUD Advanced Project Report. I did not enjoy it. In fact, this was one of the least enjoyable exercises in authorship I have ever experienced. I had to coat the whole thing in sugary ISDN icing, and go into the boring ins and outs of how several quite unlikely combinations of technology might be implemented. I also had to produce some rough project specifications, so the main BT guy had something to bargain with when he put forward his proposals to senior management; in reality, we'd both agreed to go for the first project, the demonstrator.

I worked through the Christmas holidays to get the report finished, and succeeded in time to send it to Martlesham. I wasn't all that pleased with what I'd written, as I felt it emphasised many things which were irrelevant and didn't go into the aspects of MUD design that I really found interesting; I could have ended up spending a year working on something I didn't really want to, if I wasn't careful. Still, if I was going to get funding...

Near the end of January, I got a phone call from Mr BT. He told me he'd completely forgotten about our conversation from December, and had only just got around to reading the report I'd sent. It was too late now to make this year's budget, but he'd try next year.

I never heard from him again.

My colleagues at Essex showed no sympathy whatsoever, and told me it was my own fault for choosing to waste my time working on computer-moderated, shared environments instead of something academically meaningful. "You might as well be researching word processors"", I was told.

I note that Essex University now has a virtual reality laboratory. They have the gloves and the goggles and everything. I'm sure the research they're doing is very academically meaningful.

Why bother with a paradigm when you can wait ten years and take a bandwagon?

Re-reading the text of the MUD Advanced Project Report, I was struck by the constant references to the very different world we lived in then, when the hippest hackers used BBC Model Bs, LANs were something exotic, and it was possible to write an entire document spelling "micro" as "micro'". The machine upon which I am typing this would have been one of the most powerful computers in the world at the time.

People, though, don't really change.

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: maprbg.htm