Richard Bartle immerses himself in MUD. Follow his footsteps into The Jungle.

Commodore owners who keep themselves abreast of happenings out there in the big, bad, computer world, won't have failed to notice the new network which has been set up especially for CBM64 owners, Compunet. They'll also be aware that while it's quite a promising system, it's still in its infancy and hasn't too many games available on its pages.

This should change fairly quickly, because there's an area of the network known as The Jungle, where users can upload their own pages, including their own software, and even make people pay if they want to play it! Most of these will be games specially designed for the 64, which will download into your machine and use the modem as a dongle to stop you giving it to other people (or, even worse, selling it!). There's one program, however, which doesn't do that; you never get a copy of it zapped down the line at you because it runs on whacking great big mainframe computers, the same ones which the Compunet system itself uses. It uses more disc space than you can store on a floppy, never mind a cassette, and (not surprisingly) it's the only game of it's kind in the world. This program is called MUD, an acronym for Multi-User Dungeon. It's a normal adventure game in virtually every respect except one: you don't play alone.

Multi-user dungeon

MUD is the first adventure game where more than one person can play at the same time. To understand the full impact which this has on the game, you really have to play it. The difference made by the fact that other people are in there with you is so profound that it's very hard to get over in an article such as this. It's just such an incredible extra dimension that it leaves ordinary games standing. With other players around to thwart your ambitions, or help you when you're down, to chat with you (while perhaps relieving you of your belongings!), MUD improves on the basic concept of an adventure game by such an extent that it just has to be the way computer games are going to go in the future. MUD on Compunet may be the only commercial version available for the moment, but within a couple of years there will be multi-user adventwres sprouting up all over the place. The whole computer games market may never be the same.

If MUD s such a good idea, then, why hasn't it been thought of before? Good question! The problem is that in order to manage such a piece of software you need very powerful computers. Micros just aren't up to it. No-one is going to buy a mainframe computer with half a million pounds just to see if they can write a multi-user adventure game! Also, it's only recently that the micro boom has started to give way to the communications boom, with modem sales rising as micro sales start to drop. Up until now, there's been hardly any market for games which you can just play over the phone lines. Now, however, the growing number of modem owners looking for something new to do with their machines has prompted people like Compunet to set up networks to tap the market.


In order to trace the development of MUD, we have to go back to 1979 at Essex University. There, undergraduates used to spend their free time on the University's mainframe computer playing this new game they'd discovered. They knew it as Advent, but these days it's called Adventure or Collosal Cave. Judging by the impact it has had on the world of computer games, perhaps the name Advent is more appropriate!

One of those undergraduates, Roy Trubshaw, played Advent and liked what he saw. There were a few things which really niggled him, though, for example, the poor command parser (verb-object pairs only). He was also annoyed by the fact that Advent was a one-off, and if he wanted to make the program work for another fantasy world it would have to be done from scratch. Why bother rewriting all those routines to move, drop objects, kill monsters and the like when most of them are common to all adventure games? What he envisaged was a game which had its own built-in adventure-designing language, so you only had to say a few things and it knew what to do with them. If all adventures have tables of rooms, objects, room connections and the like, what is to prevent your making them data instead of part of the program? And take our game-dependant stuff too; like having it check there's a bear following you every time you go round the command loop so it can inform you you're being followed by a bear..?

The other major disadvantage he saw in Advent was that it was only a single-user game. No-one else could be in there with you to help you out in times of trouble, or give you times of trouble if you had more treasure than they did! Surely a game along those lines would be much more fun?

And so he set about writing such a game - called MUD. It had a language of its own to define the world, and because Essex University's powerful (by the standards of those days!) DEC-10 computer did timesharing, it wasn't too difficult to arrange it so several people could play at a time. The thought of what would happen in the future if everyone had a computer of their own which they could connect to a network to play games of this kind, just didn't concern him; he was doing it solely out of interest and love of programming.

A helping hand

What Roy came up with was a bare-bones system, which had a programmable world, a passable language parser, and multi-user capabilities. Now one of Roy's friends was a chap by the name of Richard Bartle. I'd say he was an expert games-player and a programmer of the most elite class, except since he's me you'd think I was boasting! In spring 1980, Roy had gone about as far as he wanted to with MUD. I'd helped him with ideas from the start, but the programming was all his own work. However Roy's great love is writing programs, and he's not particularly interested in designing adventures, so I gradually took more of a part in designing the game starting with adding new rooms to the world which it modelled and gradually moving over to adding bits to the code. When Roy left at the end of his 3rd year, I took the game over and have never looked back!

The first thing I did was to rationalise some of Roy's experiments. The multi-user aspect hadn't been explored in full, and there were anomalies (such as if two people were in an underground room and one had a torch, the other couldn't see). I fixed those sort of things, and added in a few more interactive commands like stealing, helping, giving. I increased the number of rooms gradually to its present number of 418, and put in an appropriate number of new objects (an easy thing to do since we had the Multi-User Dungeon Definition Language - MUDDLE!). What the game didn't have was a purpose, however, so I put in the concept of scoring for treasure, and having levels of experience based on the amount of treasure you'd accumulted in previous games.

In order to debug MUD when we'd just stuck in new rooms, we'd always had a "debug mode", or "wizard mode" as we used to call it. If a new room complex had been added, then to test it out we might normally have to get an axe, chop down a tree, fetch a light source, and go beneath the tree to explore the new rooms. Wizards could fly to any room, and they glowed in the dark.


About this time, I had a spare afternoon and decided to put in a new feature, the "snoop". With this, one player (if they were in wizard mode) could sit and watch what was on the screen of another player, without that other player knowing. The original intention was so you could see common mistakes people made, and try to get the game to cope with them. It turned out to be far more useful than that!

When I put in snoop, I spent the next 3 hours enraptured by watching other people stumble about the game and make complete fools of themselves! It was tremendous fun! The time just flew by, and I resolved that I'd better make this facility more generally available. So, when people got a certain number of points for playing, they were given the password to wizard mode and obtained the same powers as I had.

Wizard mode works really well. Non-wizards (mortals) all the time witness the power of wizards, and strive to make it themselves. To date, 52 players out of maybe 3 or 4 thousand who have tried the game have managed to make it to the top. We also have female wizards, who are called witches, so there's a generic term, wiz, to mean both wizards and witches Wiz's still play if they can, too, because the game is never ending. When you're a wiz, there are still fresh supplies of new people coming in to watch as they progress through the game, and you have plenty of friends in there anyway if you just want a chat. Although wiz's are able to do immensely powerful things (there's a CRASH command - and it makes MUD do just what it says!), they rarely do. This is because they've been mortals themselves and know how heart-breaking it is for someone to interfere with the game and make them lose all their points. They tease mortals, yes, but always reward them with a few treasures afterwards to show they're really nice deep down...

The rest of the world found out about MUD from ex-Essex players who left with a yearning to hack and slay in the world of MUD. The grapevine was the only way people heard about the game for ages afterwards, until the present flurry of articles in the Computer press. Now I get 5 or 6 letters a day from people asking how to access MUD.

Playing the game

So how can you play the game? Well, there are currently two 'open' versions in Britain (and one in Norway!) one of which is free and one of which isn't. The free one is based at Essex University, and is the original. Because of this, it gets changed whenever I feel like it and is prone to crashes (OK, so it crashes at least once a night!). Also, it keeps extraordinary hours, like midnight to 7am, or, if the computer is exceptionally busy, from lam to 7am. The University may not charge money to play it, which is very decent of them and makes you glad you pay your taxes, but BT do charge money, and to access MUD via PSS (the BT national network) costs at least £2.50 an hour. The second MUD site is Compunet, which comes to around £3.50 an hour, but doesn't crash so often and has more civilised hours.

Compunet will be sole distributors of the current version of MUD for some time, but work is already proceeding apace at the new, improved version! There has to be a new version, because now people know how good MUDs are they'll start designing their own, and we'll have a whole bunch of them appearing before you know it. The best these will be able to do is imitate MUD, however, whereas with the order of 25,000 hours playing time behind it, the Essex MUD has lots of experience which can be drawn upon in creating an even better version (if such a thing is conceivable!) (oops, did I just boast?).

For the moment, though, MUD remains unique. So if Father Christmas brings you a Commodore modem for Christmas, and you find yourself huddled over a micro on December 25th, snow falling outside, a mug of hot soup beside you, as you tap through gloved fingers at a keyboard that's beginning to freeze over, remember it's only your body that's feeling the cold. The real you is perhaps hundreds of miles away in MUD, sword in hand, wand at the ready, doing battle with who knows what and who knows whom to force your way against the odds up to wiz. MUD is always warm, of course - it is in the Jungle, after all!

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: ycmar85.htm