Adventurers Club Ltd. Member's Dossier, February, 1988 Hat

Richard Bartle's Pages

Rather than give you my usual controlled fervour about the blessings that multi-user adventures can bestow upon your otherwise drab lives, I thought in this issue I'd be a little more pessimistic (well, realistic anyway!).

It can't have escaped your attention that although multi-user adventures are undoubtedly popular among the players, there aren't really all that many of them (games or players!). The only games with anything like a decent user base are MUD, SHADES, AMP, GODS and MIRRORWORLD, and some of those are supported by only a handful of dedicated enthusiasts. You can probably add FEDERATION to the list when it is fully released on CompuNet, although it's more like ELITE in many ways than it is MUD.

The dearth of games is due to the fact that there aren't all that many players, or rather "potential" players. The number is strictly regulated by those who own modems. It varies depending on whose figures you read, but there's probably only around 20,000 people in the UK who use modems regularly. Many of these will just use Prestel or a few local bulletin-boards. Reaching those players and convincing them to try out a game like MUD is an expensive and time-consuming business, which is why it's handy to be associated with a national network like Prestel that comes with a built-in user base.

Also, these games are still labours of love. There is very little money to be made in them unless you happen to own the telephone network. Part of the trouble is that there is a "conditioned market@" for such games in the UK. MUD1 was free for many years, and people came to expect to have few overheads when playing. When MUD2 was launched it was around £2 an hour to play, but SHADES was priced at £1 an hour when it came out, deliberately to undercut MUD2. Fair enough, MUD2 had to halve the cost of playing too, so as not to lose players. However, £2 is about the minimum you need to charge to make a healthy profit, £1 is borderline on breaking even and losing money. If a new MUA appeared, then to be commercially viable it would need to be profitable at £1 an hour to play. Once overheads are taken into account, such as renting offices, telephone & PSS bills, hardware costs and advertising, not to nention 15% VAT (which SHADES doesn't pay, by the way), there's not much left for author's royalties!

In the USA, the market is conditioned completely the other way. There, people pay $6 an hour to play BRITISH LEGENDS (as MUD1 is known over there). Although most of that goes to CompuSene (the network which runs the game for us), there's still enough left over for us to make money, particularly since most of the overheads are borne by CompuServe. Initially, MUD2 subsidised BL, but now the situation has almost reversed.

There are other reasons why people don't play MUAs as much as you'd think. Even with a gleaming new modem and a natty comms program, and paying 50p an hour for a game (which is the lowest price you can pay for MUD if you buy a lot of credits in advance), there is still the dreaded quarterly event of the Telephone Bill. BT Telephones makes almost as much money as we do from MUD, without doing a stroke of work. BT do, of course, provide computers for us, but since privatisation they've not been allowed to cross-subsidise among divisions of BT. The computers we use are owned by BT Computer & Network Services, not the telephone division. So that other 50p an hour you pay to use the phone goes straight into BT's coffers but can't be used to pay for use of the computers, the network, or the game.

Anyway, suppose you do have a modem, and don't resent paying both us and BT Telephones, you might want to play. MUD has a guest account, which can be used to try out the game (I'd tell you the details but this is an article, not an advertisement - if you write to me care of the ACL I can supply details). This gives you some idea of the flavour of the game, but you don't get to solve many puzzles in it, and you get thrown off after ten minutes or so. Suppose, having tried out the guest account, you decide it's worth a try at playing. You send off for your starter pack and away you go!

And here, I think, is where we may lose a lot of players. For the first few games, MUD - indeed any MUA - is almost completely incomprehensible! Everything seems to be happening at a furious pace noises sound in the background, people whizz by, voices are shouting strange phrases, and you hardly get a chance to read the room description before some event or other occurs to disrupt your concentration.

So, in a confused state you wander around looking for all this treasure there's supposed to be. Only you don't find any. That's not because there isn't any, it's because the game is big and you don't yet have decent maps to the goodies. Or someone has been around looting the areas where novices usually wander. In any case, things look very odd without objects around, and the more you play the less like a normal Adventure it may seem!

We lose a lot of newcomers that way, but there is a lifeline - the other players. They have all been learners at some time, and they know the problems only too well. If you can find one to talk to, and ask questions of, and trust, then things suddenly start making sense. You find out how to move quickly, where the treasures are, what to do with them, how to see in the dark, and generally what on earth is going on. If you persevere long enough to make a friend, then the game will suddenly appear to change its character. You'll then know what all the fuss is about, why MUAs are such fun to play, and what keeps some people playing night after night after night.

If you can't play just yet, don't worry. These games are so popular among those who can play that they are certainly here to stay. Twenty years from now they'll be ubiquitous. I bet BT still take all the profits, though!

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: aclfeb88.htm