MUD on your Screens Hat

MUD on your Screens

Is British Telecom's new MUD pack offer merely cosmetic? Nicole Segre ventures forth to find out.

By this time this issue of MSX User appears on your newsagent's shelves, British Telecom will have launched MUD upon an unsuspecting world. What is MUD? How does it affect the MSX owner? And why is British Telecom involved with it?

To obtain the answers to these and related questions, I spoke to Mike Anderiesz of New Information Services, the sub-section of British Telecom charged with perpetrating the folly, as some might think, that is MUD.

MUD stands for Multi-User Dungeon and is an interactive real time role-playing adventure game for children in the older age group - say around 35. Players must have a home computer - any make will do - plus a modem enabling them to access the game via the telephone line. They must also have nothing better to occupy them between the hours of 6pm and 8pm or at weekends.

The original version of MUD was the product of the fevered imagination of a computer studies undergraduate at Essex University called Roy Trubshaw. Like many of his fellows back in 1979, Trubshaw used to spend much of his free time playing Colossal Caves, the daddy of all adventure games, on the University's DEC 10 mainframe computer.

Much as he liked the game, Trubshaw felt that there were several ways in which it could be improved. The main play. Since the DEC-10 had a timesharing facility, why not arrange it so that several people could log on simultaneously and share the fun?

Trubshaw started writing MUD as part of his final year project and developed a special language for it which has become known as MUDDLE. The game caught the fancy of one of his tutors, Richard Bartle, who took over where Trubshaw left off. Bartle has been embellishing and purifying MUD ever since.

Meanwhile, MUD became so popular at Essex University that access to the adventure had to be restricted to the period between midnight and 7am. Today these unsociable hours do not deter some 2000 regular subscribers from competing fiercely with each other to log on every night, 30 at a time, in order to resume their adventuring.

A Compunet version, for Commodore owners, has proved just as successful, even though it costs around £3.50 an hour, where the Essex University version is free. (However, Richard Bartle cheerfully admits that the Essex game crashes more often, due to his own propensity for changing the game whenever he feels like it.)

In 1984, Richard Bartle Roy Trubshaw and publisher Simon Dally set up a company called MUSE (Multi-User Entertainments) whose purpose was to market MUD. Last April, MUSE signed a deal wlth British Telecom to co-publish MUD and any possible future MUSE productions. As a result, MUD was translated for a British Telecom VAX 750.

British Telecom boast that the version of MUD that is about to burst upon the screens of eager micro owners everywhere is the biggest interactive computer game in the world. As in the prototype, the aim of the game, if it can be defined at all, is to pursue items of treasure through a chequered landscape, and to rise in status by the accumulation of points. A new player will start as a novice and hope to proceed through such conditions as hero, champion, super-hero and legend to achieve the ultimate rank of wizard, or witch, or wiz if you prefer.

Because it has had the benefit of 50,000 hours of writing and testing, the BT version of MUD has a much greater variety of locations - 1000 compared to 400 at Essex - as well as many more spells and commands. The VAX 750 host computer can also accommodate more people - up to 100 at a time.

Players might find themselves ranging back and forth in time, exploring an Indian temple or ascending to a cloud in a hot air balleon. They might slay fiendish opponents, or they may even be killed themselves, only to be resurrected and start all over again as novices.

But even such variety and excitement is not the chief attraction of the game, according to Mike Anderiesz. 'MUD is a means of communication with other people, an electronic forum,' he says. 'Other players have to be reckoned wlth. They might steal some piece of treasure from right under your nose, or they might be feeling magnanimous and give you a helping hand. Even though players assume false names, after a while you get to know who is who and what they are up to.'

With luck, you might find a particularly friendly character who is willlng to take you aside and give you some much needed advice. Wizards have special powers: they can enter closed rooms, kill mortals or transport them to a different place, and animate objects.

Wizards are also immortal, and enjoy the privilege of two command: not available to mortals. One is SNOOP, which enables them to spy on everyone while remaining invisible. And the other is FORCE, which, allied with SHOUT, can oblige some unfortunate player to have a message such as "I am a total wally" displayed on every other player's screen.

As a result, wizards are valuable as allies but much to be feared as foes. Some, like the notorious Century on the Essex system, make themselves hated by everyone, so that players must form posses in order to retrain them.

'Wizards can muck about,' says Mike Anderiesz, 'but they also police the game. For example, you had better watch your language while playing or a wizard might FOD you.' FOD stands for Finger Of Death, and is not used too often because it is 'not done'.

To add to the complications of all this interaction, the new MUD has computer-generated characters, known as intelligent mobiles. Anderiesz promises that these alarming products of artificial intelligence will often be indistinguishable from real players.

How does an MSX owner join in this mayhem? If you have already purchased a modem in order to access something sensible like Prestel or Telecom Gold, all you need now is a MUD pack. Available only by mail order, the pack costs £20 and consists of a map, a security card and instructions on how to play.

It also includes 30 credits allowing two hours of free introductory play. Thereafter, credits must be purchased in advance in batches of 5O.Each credit provides six minutes of play and costs 20 pence, so playing MUD for one hour costs £2. Telephone charges must be added to this and can range from about 40p an hour local rate - since MUD can only be played during off-peak hours - to about £4 an hour using PSS.

British Telecom have devised their pre-payment system to make sure that MUD addicts do not suddenly find themselves running up a fortune in the heat of the moment. 'It is in their interest as well as ours,' says Mike Anderiesz.

If you do not already own a modem, then the cost of playing MUD will be even higher. There are a number of modems on the market, ranging in price from £50 to £200.

Your troubles will still not be over, however, because you will probably need an RS232 interface to plug into your cartridge port. Computer Mates do an interface and communications software package (which also includes a word processor and card index) for a mere £229. The Toshiba HX R70Q costs £99, and Kuma's interface costs £99.95, plus £19.95 for the software.

Clearly, playing MUD is going to be an expensive hobby. But British Telecom is confident that it will more than pay its way.

'Modems are currently selling at the rate of around 3-4000 a week,' says Mike Anderiesz, 'and this already offers scope for promoting MUD mania.'

Among existing modem owners, BT are taking special aim at some of the Essex University players who might be lured by the wider possibilities offered in the new version. Th@ fact that the Essex computer recently had people logging on from as far a field as Japan, San Francisco and New York on the same morning, and that the 60 odd wizards on the system include a 13-year old schoolboy, are some indication of widespread dedication to the sport.

A survey of MUD players has also revealed that over 50% played almost every night and that the average duration of play was 3 1/2 hours. 'It certainly is addictive,' comments Mike Anderlesz.

BT are also hoping that MUD will be the spur to encourage people to buy modems and in this way be lured into the wider world of communications, making more use of BT's own viewdata systems. As part of the launch of the game, BT will be staging a grand MUD Spectacular, with players slugging it out for a prize in typically indecorous fashion, on November 5th at the London Dungeon. A speclal offer allows early buyers of the MUD pack to explore the game and learn the ropes without using up their credits. But on November 6th, the date of the official start of 1he game, all these players will be returned to the rank of novice, however far they have got.

So if you think you might be mad about MUD, this could be the time to ring the special MUD line on (01) 608 1173.

Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: msxoct85.htm