Mud in your eye Hat

Mud in your eye

Christina Erskine talks to Richard Bartle, creator of MUD, at Essex University

Richard Bartle must be extremely thankful that his A level grades weren't quite up to scratch. A grade higher, and he would have gone to his first choice of university; Exeter. If he had gone to Exeter, MUD might never have come into being.

As it happened, that one grade short took him to the University of Essex. The rest is probably D & D history...

About 2-3000 people have sampled Richard's creation, the Multi-user Dungeon in Essex's mainframe computer, in the four years that it has been running. Only 44 have managed to reach the ultimate status of Wizard or Witch.

So far, only members of the university's Computing Society and a few external users with PSS (Packet Switching Service) systems have been able to access the DEC-10 computer where this vast Dungeon and Dragon adventure is stored. Now Century Communications plans to publish MUD commercially so that it is available to the public, sometime next year.

"The idea for MUD's creation began when I met Roy Trubshaw, a fellow student at Essex. He had had a long-term interest in adventures, and wanted to set up a multi-user game. I had been playing D & D games since I was at school, mostly by mail, so I was obviously enthusiastic about the idea.

"Roy wrote and designed the core of the game - it took up most of his third year and ruined his degree. After he'd graduated - just - I took over the game's development."

MUD started as a scenario of about 100 locations - a diversion for the Computing Society. The word spread, however, and demand from external users - mainly American students to start with - made Richard expand to 300. Today's version has about 400 locations.

The game's development took up all of Richard's spare time in his third year - evenings and weekends. "Having completed my degree course, I wasn't too keen on the look of the outside world, so I took the opportunity of doing a PhD in Artificial Intelligence like a shot. Now I'll be able to stay with MUD indefinitely, because I've been offered a lectureship at Essex."

At one point there were too many external players for the Computing Society's time to cope with. "I went to the university authorities, expecting them to disapprove strongly of giving more time to a 'mere game'. But they were surprisingly understanding, and arranged that we could play at nisht, when no-one else would be disturbed. "When MUD 'goes public', it won't be on the university computer - the night hours will be too inconvenient. Either there will be one big computer with the whole lot on it, or lots of smaller ones linked to a larger one. But it should be capable of accepting input from any modem, even the very slow baud ones. And obviously people will be charged, per hour, for playing the game."

The essential aim of MUD is to collect collect points and enhance your status. The treasure may not always be obvious - you may well find some 'dirty old groats' lying around. Giving them to a beggar may earn you goodwill, but washing them and discovering that when clean they're actually quite valuable is a lot more useful.

Not only are the traditional assortment of villains out to get you - dryads, dwarfs, zombies - but the interaction between players can be amicable or decidedly vicious. Nor are people as they seem - a senior lecturer in the computing department stole my axe three times while masquerading under the title of Bom the Berserker Enchanter!

You can talk to other players - either to help or mislead - and you can 'snoop' on them to find out where they are and what they're carrying.

Richard's title - as befits the game's Lord High Priest - is Arch Wizard. His role frequently involves acting as mediator when squabbles between players break out.

"I have to make sure that everything is sorted out amicably, as well. If I offend someone, they could wreak havoc in the game before leaving it. Also, I get a huge number of letters from people interested in learning how to play, wanting hints and so on." Once you have become a wizard, or witch if you adopted a female persona at the start, you remain one, and can't be toppled from your position. But even without specific goals to aim for, the 44 wizards and witches still play. And you can always adopt a new identity and start the quest all over again - the interaction with different characters means that no game is ever going to be the same.

"People certainly get very wrapped up in it - myself, for one. I ve known students stay behind in the holidays to have a go when they aren't going to be thwarted by other players. When we start the comrnercial version, it'll probably start with about 100 lines open - at the moment, the maximum number at any one time is 36, and only six of those can be external players."

Most nonce players end up getting immediately lost in the graveyard, where the tombstones are inscribed with various names. Richard has commemorated all the wizards and witches on the stones - and some others as well. Roy Trubshaw has his own headstone, Brian Roberts, who wrote a chunk of the original game, is remembered, as is Nigel Roberts who extensively tested the game before it was launched to an unsuspecting computing society.

My personal favourite is the tomb dedicated to Murrell's Balloon Emporium.

"A friend of mine and Roy's tried to set up his own multi-user game, called PIG, be@ause he said it was a PIG to write. But he never had time to finish it, and when he gave it up, his major location was Murrell's Balloon Emporium." Well, it beats radio dedications.

After an afternoon with MUD, I'll admit to being hooked. All I can say to anyone who doesn't have a modem/can't wait for Century to make it available, is, get those UCCA forms off to Essex.


Image size: approx. 35K.

Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: pcwk0884.htm