Fast lane thrills on computer Hat

Meet the man who invented MUD - and brought fantasy to life for thousands of computer users

Fast lane thrills on computer


You have to be prepared to sit up all night to play games with Dr Richard Bartle.

And then pay for the privilege.

Dr Bartle, a graduate of Essex University, is the computer brain behind the world's first multi-user computer adventure game, MUD (more about this later) which brought a glint into the eyes of microjunkies in the early 1980s.

The kernel of MUD was written by Dr Bartle's colleague, Roy Trubshaw, but Dr Bartle took over after his departure.

The rest is computer fantasy. Wallowing in MUD, you can be debugged, kill people, snooped, meet Polly the Warrior, be enchanted and whizzed by Wizrad without leaving the comforts of your own living room.

If you think you'd prefer to read the book of the game, that's because you are out of touch with the thrills and spills of life in the computer fast lane. Eight years later a new version of the original game, known as MicroMud has just been released, and it owes its birthright to Dr Bartle's pioneering work as an Essex University undergraduate a decade ago.

"I gave them the source code and told them to get on with it. This game is like the original but there are only people made up by the computer and not real people to play with," said Dr Bartle.

The genuine MUD original won't fit onto a microcomputer. That is too limited, "unless you squeeze really hard," so players had to pick up the phone, dial the Central VAX computer and use theirs as a terminal.

The original masterpiece known as MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) allowed computer games enthusiasts to link up their computers, via a telephone line, to play with other flesh and blood computer enthusiasts. This set up a network of computer game experts who all take part in an imaginary adventure, play different roles, and a jolly good time was had by everyone.

The first hint of trouble was when the phone bills came in. British Telecom were doing more than nicely from Richard Bartle's computer brilliance.

The advantage of MicroMud is that it's a multi-user game without the people. That way says Dr Bartle, you can play whenever you want and it won't make your phone bills look like the national debt.

MicroMud is now available as a pack containing two discs for home computers. No cassette version is available but it contains almost every detail of the original game.

The object is to become a wizard, a level attained on scoring 102,400 points. Points are awarded for finding treasure, killing other players or performing simple tasks. But in this one-player version all the opponents are computer generated.

Dr Bartle has dreamed up a Tolkeinian fantasy which has the same attraction for computer lovers as the original fairy tale for grown-ups.

But he promises you don't even have to know about computers to play out this dungeons and dragons with great skill. It's as simple, he says, as switching on the machine.

In partnership with four other computer experts, including one of the onginal creators of MUD 1, Mr Roy Thrubshaw, Dr Bartle of Hugh Dickson Road in Colchester now has own business called Multi-User Entertainments Ltd., or more poetically, MUSE.

The state of the science has developed so quickly, says Dr Bartle, that schoolboys can today work on GCSE courses which are as complicated as anything he did back in the computer-infancy days of the late 1970s.

But the money still comes in from the fees paid by other computer players to use his central VAX computer, which is based at British Telecom's computer control centre in north London.

"They buy credits of between 50 pence and £1 per hour. Some people will play all night but the average length of time is two hours," said 28-year-old Dr Bartle.

But the big bucks come from the States. "The original MUD 1 is now installed in America on Compuserve, their equivalent of Prestel.

"We are one of the services and this brings in several thousand dollars a week." All of which is quite a success story for an undergraduate who went to Essex University to study maths before discovering the delights of programming.

"I didn't have much choice once I'd discovered computers. Computers are my vocation. But the things I'm interested in happen to be involved with computers. It's not the computers themselves."

MicroMud is now available at Virgin Games outlets. It's priced at £14.95.


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Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: ecsmay88.htm