Peter Voke explores two multi user adventures, The Multi User Dungeon (MUD) and Micronet's Shades

One of the latest games trends to absorb home computer users is the multi user adventure (MUA).

If you are an adventure fan you have pohably already tried at least one MUA. It's the type of game where you wander around in a mythical landscape seeking treasure and weapons, fighting monsters, dragons and, if you wish, other players, while attempting to increase your stamina, strength, dexterity and score until you become a wizard or witch and can do almost anything. If the idea appeals to you, you simply must try an MUA.

I looked at two of the current favourites: Micronet 800's Shades and the Multi User Dungeon (MUD) from MUSE - both are supported by BT. To play, you need a modem and the right ROM chip in your machine; then you just dial up and start.

To try out the MUSE Multi User Dungeon, dial 01-998 8899 if your modem works at 1200/75 baud, or 01-997 9433 if it works at 300/300 baud. The protocol is the usual eight-bit, no parity, one stop bit. There is also a packet switching address, A21880100300, if you have access to PSS. Activate the log-in by pressing Return. When asked for a user name, type MUDGUEST, and when asked for a password, type PROSPECT. After some news a menu appears; item two is the game.

Shades operates in Prestel off-peak periods, and you have to be a Micronet subscriber, so it is more difficult to try without spending money. Shades is entered on Prestel page 81188. From there you can enter the game, read up about it and the commands available, or mail other players. Playing costs 1.6p per minute, so 10 minutes' trial would be less than 20p.

Being new to MUAs, I went in looking for the same things I admire in ordinary single user adventures: things like atmosphere, coherence, good game structure, and so on. There is a great deal more to an MUA than to a traditional adventure, and MUAs really have to be judged on different grounds.

But, let's take atmosphere first: MUSE's MUD is definitely better than Shades here, although atmosphere is difficult to define. If you thought Acornsoft's Sphinx Adventure was as good as their Gateway to Karos, for instance, then you certainly have no feel at all for atmosphere! MUD has a cold, Nordic feel about it, with gigantic mountains towering up to the south and east of the land. Part of MUD's strength is the quality of the descriptions of each location, which are excellent. The trouble is, reading them slows you down so much that you won't get anywhere in the game, so you soon switch to the alternative of a brief description.

Shades has a more amateurish feel. The locations vary more quickly but they don't lose their coherence, so in fact I found it much easier to keep track of where I was in Shades, even with a brief description, than I did in MUD. Shades has a more light-hearted, fun-loving approach. It is a teddy-bear adventure. MUD manages to be rather serious, until you meet some practical joker who has made it to Warlock: then the fun starts!

For coherence, there is not much to choose between the two adventures, though Shades manages to stay well-connected while having greater variety in the locations. Far too many of MUD's locations read very much like an adjacent one, which must surely be a fault.

On the game structure, Shades is better for the less experienced adventurer, who wants plenty of fun at the lower levels.

For the novice beginner, MUD can be frustrating. I spent all my reviewing time as a novice (naturally enough), though I am now well on the way to the next level. Much of my time in the game and out of it was spent talking to other players to get their impressions. To summarise, novices and guests don't much like MUD. They can't find any treasure, don't know what to do, and spend their time waiting for the next reset (more about resets below) or chatting to each other in the bar. Typical answers to my enquiries included phrases like 'bored' or 'where's all the T?'.

Shades is more exciting for a beginner. Maybe I got a particularly favourable impression because a kind-hearted enchantress showed me how to get over the river to the ruined city in my first game.

This brings us to the real issue that makes MUAs so much better than traditional single-user adventures, but which also causes their problems: the other players. No hatchet-chucking dwarf controlled by pseudo-random numbers can be as original, intelligent, helpful, frustrating, useful, fun, maddening, competitive, friendly, or, dangerous as another human plaver. A multi user adventure is a million games, not one, because no session is ever the same as the last.

Remember that feeling in single user adventures when you were starting on the last run through, having finally understood why you actually needed the rusty nail from the quarry after all? You collect the nail, and then spend the next three hours running right through the adventure. Boring, because you have seen it all too many times before, but satisfying because you are so competent and you are about to solve the final ultimate puzzle.

That never happens in a multi-user adventure. Next time you log in, the nail won't be there because somebody else has it. This doesn't spoil an MUA because it is designed to have many puzzles than can be tackled simultaneously by many players: it has a tree structure instead of being linear. You have to be an opportunist, grab what there is going and make the most of it. You won't like MUAs if you are one of those arcade players studied by certain psychologists, who found refuge in video games because they could 'control them' but couldn't cope with the Big Game outside the arcade. An MUA has everything from a single user adventure and much, much more. The game is just a fake setting in which to interact with other people in a limited and (it is hoped) enjoyable way. You could say the same about every team sport, not to mention bridge, youth hostelling, pub crawls and Mediterranean cruises. Adventurers, in other words, have joined the rest of the human race and are doing it together. You can talk to other players, help them, follow them about, attack them, steal things from them, cast spells on them (if up to it) and even, in MUD, do daft things like tickle them.

But the other players are also the problem in MUAs. Not when they are bolshy or aggressive: that is part of the game. But because they are collecting treasures and weapons, killing gremlins and so on, the game 'runs down'. In MUD, treasures are dumped in a swamp to get points, while Shades has a much more original place to take your treasures which nevertheless still removes them from the action. As a result, after an hour or so, there is nothing much left to do.

To overcome this problem, both MUAs reset at regular intervals. A reset puts the game back into its original state, with the treasures, weapons and monsters in various more or less predictable locations. This is standard practice, but I'm afraid I don't like it. Resets are false, have nothing to do wlth the game, and are imposed from outside. They are the multi user equivalent of starting again.

There are two things wrong with resets. First, because everybody is restarting the adventure simultaneously, experienced players who know their way around mop up the useful items rapidly, leaving almost nothing for novices or guests to stumble on even five minutes later.

Shades is much better at coping with this than MUD, since there are eight games of Shades running on each Prestel computer simultaneously, with a limit of up to eight players in each game. There is also (I think) more accessible treasure in Shades, so you usually find something to collect.

MUD is definitely worse in this respect - hence the complaints about boredom, and mass exits from the game shortly before resets, with all players gathering to moan in the saloon bar! Second, at reset there is a mad rush to get back into the game (worse in MUD if there are more than eight players) which completely wrecks the atmosphere.

The MUD literature does tell you about these problems, but almost makes them out to be virtues, like the daft suggestion that crashes should be 'used to your advantage'. The fact that something like the reset rush hour has become a tradition does not make it a virtue; Shades is definitely better because the problem is not so bad.

These two MUAs are both first generation, based on the original Essex University MUD. The next generation of adventures will, or should, deal with the reset problem in a much more effective and subtle way, by a policy of continuous reset. The idea is that many common items needed by several players at the same time should be available in large numbers.

Other items, such as those crucial to solving the most difficult problems, there should be only one of, but should be reset continuously if the player does not make use of them. Such an item should be taken from the player and replaced in its original location if the player does not use it at all in any period of five minutes, does not use it for its intended purpose within half an hour of finding it, or disposes of it by dropping it down the volcano or into the sea, or if the player quits. The precise mechanism for resetting items should depend.on the type of game.

Unfortunately such things are still in the future. Other aspects of both games are also not yet implemented, though planned. MUD has a large number of locations (there are many hundreds, about 40 per cent of which are underground), although MUSE says that it is constantly being extended and improved. The main thing that is missing is 'mobiles' - semi-intelligent entities controlled by the computer. There are a few, but they aren't yet very good.

Shades has more impressive mobiles, but there are lots of indications of construction work in progress on the layout. You come to parts sealed off by mysterious grey walls with computer printout messages stuck to them - or more gruesome indications that somebody hasn't finished the programming on time. I found little of Shades underground, but so far I have explored only a fraction of the 16,000 rooms it has, or is intended to have. Shades has neat touches like the 'information cavern', close to where you enter the adventure, and there is an adventure chatline outside the adventure, in Micronet 800, that corresponds roughly to MUSE's saloon bar.

When you join MUD you get a lovely but not very detailed map of 'The Land', and a booklet telling you what you need to know to get started. The first location is odd, and unlike any other in MUD, so don't be put off by it. There is a little tripwire problem you have to solve to get out of it and into the game proper, but that should only take a moment to figure out.

Choosing between the two is difficult. If you already have a Micronet account, then Shades will be an obvious first choice. Almost everyone I spoke to in MUD played Shades, though the converse was not the case. If for some reason you have a modem but not a Prestel/Micronet account, then MUD could be cheaper (£1 to £2 per hour compared to 96p per hour on top of the annual £66 fee).

Calls to Prestel computers are always local calls, while the MUSE computer is in London and will only be local for you if you live in the right area. For me, calling from a home county, phone charges to MUD were more than three times the price of those to Prestel.

If you are new to multi-user adventures, go for Shades. You only pay for what you play, and access to Micronet is useful for many other things. Once you have mastered Shades, the dizzy heights of MUD Wizardhood still beckon.


To subscribe to MUD, write to MUSE at 6 Albermarle Way, London EC1V 4JB. Each hour's play on MUD cost £2, with reductions of up to 50 per cent for bulk purchase of credits. To subscribe, get your own Micronet account from Micronet 800 at 8 Herbal Hill, London EClR 5EJ. A year's subscription is £66.

Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: auapr87.htm