Multi-Modem Games Hat


In a multi modem game you can share an adventure with players hundreds of miles apart. Martin Croft dials up the dungeons.

Modem Games

I love computer games - good ones, that is. But if, like me, no matter how good the intelligent monsters are in an adventure game, or the computer controlled opposition in a wargame, you miss the challenge you face when playing with real people, then the answer could well be Multi User Games.

For the uninitiated, a computer Multi User Game is one which is played by modem; the actual bones of the game - the database of rules and regulations - is kept on a mini or mainframe, and you use your micro to communicate with this program. With some MUGs, players who are linked to the host computer can also talk to each other; on others, though, the computer is acting as a mail-box. In this case, you just feed in your orders and, at a set time, the computer looks through all the messages it has and acts on them. You will then get an updated situation report.

Probably the most famous of the interactive MUGs - the ones where players can talk to and fight each other - is MUD, which stands for Multi User Dungeon. Originally written by students at Essex University and, running on the universityís DEC, it has now been licensed as a commercial product and is running on Compunet and is also being offered by British Telecom. It's also being put on the Compuserve network in the United States, with a projected launch date of July 4th, so it's getting pretty wide exposure.

Simon Dally, managing director of Multi User Entertainments, the company which he formed with Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw, the two people who wrote MUD, told me that, although the implementation of MUD on BT's computers had been delayed by 'Murphy's Law' - it was originally scheduled for launch last November - it was now up and running well. Apparently some 600 to 650 people have opened accounts with MUD and, Simon says, around 60 to 70 accounts were dialing in each night last time he dropped into the game. Thats accounts, not individuals, as some people have more than one account.

About half the people playing BT's MUD are aged under 25, although there is one account holder who's nearly 70.

Theoretically, up to 64 people can play MUD at once on BT's system, but Simon says it's probably better with a maximum of around 30. "The most I've seen playing at the same time is around 22."

There is an initial registration fee of £20 to register on MUD on BT, and then it costs between £1 and £2 per hour to play. The first three hours play are free with the starter pack, which also contains maps and a guide to how to play the game.

Compunet MUD is also going strong, and the original system is still running on Essex University's computer, although it's apparently very difficult to get through - there's only 16 lines - it runs in the small hours of the morning, and the university authorities are, I understand, somewhat hostile.

Meanwhile, Micronet is also launching a multi user interactive game. Called Shades, it sounds similar in many ways to MUD, although, of course, Micronet are saying it's much better. It's set in a similar fantasy type environment, but more than that I can't say as I haven't seen it.

Micronet also has another multi user game running - Starnet. Starnet, which was originally written by Mike Singleton, the author of The Lords of Midnight and Doomdark's Revenge for Beyond Software, is a space strategy game in which players have to make economic and military decisions in their attempts to control the galaxy.

"We did have Incredible problems with Starnet," Micronet 800's press officer Peter Probert says, "and we bad the choice of starting from the beginning or ditching the whole thing." In the event, the game was given a thorough overhaul and is now working very well, with some 500 regular players.

In the game, players get a report of what resources they have, what planets they control and what ships they have. They then input their orders - move to x, build so many ships etc. Once all the players have given their orders, the computer calculates what happens to everybody and sends out a new situation report. This is very much a simplified description - the game is in fact incredibly complicated.

As Peter Probert says, "We've even got people who have set themselves up as insurance agents - you pay them a set amount of money each turn and they'll, buy you a new ship if you get one blown up."

In addition Shades and Starnet, Micronet is used for other games, in pact Diplomacy, but also sports games, quizzes and chess. For Diplomacy in particular Micronet is very well suited - just as with Starnet, players hand in their orders by a deadline, and the results are then calculated (although in this case it's a human acting as referee, not a computer).

Meanwhile, down in the West Country, Level 9 has also been working m an interactive multi user game, to be set Arthurian Britain. This was originally being developed for British Telecom, but Level 9 has been considering running it itself, according to the company's founder Pete Austin. This is because of the success of the Adrian Mole adventure game Level 9 wrote for Mosaic Publishing; the Austins now have enough money to go it by themselves if they wish.

"We have decided that the hardware we would want to use is well within our means," Pets Austin told me. But he also said, "it is possible that we may be running Avalon with BT - we will be discussing that with them next week."

There is another option, he suggested. "We may go in with some bulletin board people, because they're used to working the odd hours that the players keep."

Avalon will be set in the countryside around Level 9's top secret West Country base, not a million miles from Weston-super-Mare. Glastonbury is just around the corner, and so is Cadbury, one of the supposed sites for Arthur's Camelot.

Essentially, you start off as a lowly squire and work your way up the ladders of society by performing chivalrous deeds. But beware - there may be wizards about!

One company rumoured to be working on a multi-user game was Magnetic Scrolls, which produced a very challenging adventure called The Pawn. Unfortunately, this isn't so, according to the company's Anita Sinclair - "but we do have the intention of working on a Multi user game," she added.

One good way of of finding out about some of the smaller games which may be running is to check the electronic bulletin boards - not just the larger ones like Micronet or Compunet, but the smaller ones as well. There are a lot of people said to be working on MUGs as Simon Dally says - "I'm always hearing about games that are going to be bigger and better than MUD!"


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One problein with games like this is that you have to have a modem, and you have to be able to afford the phone bills -which can come as rather a nasty shock. But before those of you who don't have a modem or a bottomless bank account don't despair, try contacting Mike Singleton: he's writing a multi user game with a difference - you do need a computer, it has to be a Spectrum with a microdrive, but you don't need a modem.

It's called Dark Sceptre and for £14.95 you will get a Play By Mail pack. In it is a microdrive cassette with on one side, a straight adventure game and on the other some control programs. The adventure game is based on the same fictional world as the PBM game.

You control a party of adventurers - probably eight to start with, Mike says - and basically you have to survive the threats of the world you inhabit, which will include magic and monsters, as well as other players. Your present situation is recorded on a cartridge: run the data through the control programs, and you can see what has happened to your party in the last few episodes. You can also use another of the programs to see what might happen to you in the future - Mike calls it "hindsight and foresight". Once you've chosen what you think is the best course of action, you save your orders onto the cartridge and post it off to Mike. He runs it through his master program and sends it back with an updated cartridge which tells you just how successful you've been.

There axe no deadlines, and Mike says that cartridges will be returned the same day as they are received; theoretically you could get in three turns - or episodes, as Mike prefers to call them - a week, but probably two is more likely. There are also facilities to give "standing orders" so you can survive fairly well even if you only send in orders once a fortnight, Each episode will cost £1.50 - but Mike says "you're getting a pretty full data cartridge for that, so we certainly think it's going to be worth it".

Dark Sceptre is going to be launched in the middle of July - we'll keep you posted with more information.

Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: cgaug86.htm