Fed up with dragons Hat

Fed up with dragons

Computer games come out of wizardry and into exploiting the galaxy.

'IT SETS you free from reality,' says 'Trancer'. He is one of a growing number who play Federation II, a 'multi-user game' (MUG) on the newish (1984) computer network Compunet. 'Fed' is a different kind of MUG, rather like Monopoly crossed with Star Trek.

Armed with a personal computer and a modem (which links computers by telephone), players can connect to the central computer that runs Federation and submerge themselves in outer space - the author of Federation calls it Dataspace - where they go exploring and meet other players, all in heavy fantasy disguise. The players hold 'live' conversations through their keyboards (the meaning of MUG) and have to be wary of attack from other players or from the writer of the game.

If this reminds you of Dungeons & Dragons, you are right. The difference is that in Federation, launched this year, players inhabit a private-enterprise universe. They are explorers and entrepreneurs, like Europe's early mercantile seafarers.

There are several MUGs. They all sprang from the original MUD (Multi-User Dungeon), still played (British Telecom), developed by students Rob Trubshaw and Richard Bartle at Essex University in 1979. MUD is sold in the US as British Legend and is the most-played multi-user adventure game in the world.

Prestel's popular Shades, launched 1985, is about a Dungeons & Dragons-like quest, and has bats, ghouls, dwarves, a Mad King's Room and other claustrophobic images. There are local games, such as Gods in Guildford, which become expensive if you'r playing long-distance.

All these MUGs are sword-and-sorcery in theme, and written in that mixture of archaic, fairy-tale, animals-as-humans and violent American comics language that is the style of fantasy games, a strange offspring of the J. R. R. Tolkien books. You progress by killing, or finding valuable object.

The games are extremely Freudian, characterised by journeys and small spaces. In Shades, players, who are 'striving to become wizards', can find and acquire a bronze rattle, a fluffy toy, a toy drum.

Fed, in contrast, is logical, and about interstellar commerce. You don't prosper by killing, although you might kill. It is played by a wide range, from a 13-year-old schoolgirl to pensioners. Its female players are something most computer games are short of. Players can build factories on the planets, and sell commodities (the game has 52) to each other. Each planet has a trading exchange. Certain goods are illegal, so players get more money for transporting those.

You begin by being given lowly transportation jobs, and try to amass enough money (imperial groats) to buy your own company. You can then build factories. If you get enough power, you can design and build your own planet, which is added to the system. Players can rise in rank, from Groundhog to Emperor. To reach Emperor would take skill, luck and thousands of hours. Most stick at Explorer.

Chez Diesel

Federation II is by Alan Lenton, 40, who learned to programme specifically in order to write 'a game I would like to play'. It now earns him enough not to do a full-time job. The one he abandoned was in the production department of the London listings magazine City Limits.

There are no pictures, it's all text. Federation tells you 'You're in a room' (the game like others has hundreds of 'locations'), and describes it, or 'You're sitting in a space-ship... Most of the forward bulkhead is taken up by a large screen. To the right is the output from the battle computer and weaponry controls... South is a hatch.'

If you come into a location with someone else in it, the screen will inform you. Or you can call up company by pressing the command COM and typing 'Who is playing?' This will be read all round the universe, and someone will type in an answer.

The players congregate at 'Chez Diesel', a seedy space bar run by a proprietor who, you read, stands against the wall, toying with a baseball bat. At peak early-evening time especially, players head towards this bar, one of the most important locations in the game. Here players chat, 'buy' each other 'drinks' and generally act in character, typing their conversations in via the keyboard. If they buy a drink, the price is deducted from their hoard of imperial groats. If they have one bought for them, up goes their stamina rating for when they return to their tasks.


Ironically, in the real world, the interaction of Fed players is preventing them from talking to anyone else. The best way to win friends is not to make it impossible for them to phone you. 'I play for about eight to 10 hours a day,' says 'Deadly'. Fi Craig, 'Diesel', a computer operator in real life, plays about 15 hours a week. A 64-year-old man, 'Penelope', has ordered a second telephone line; for the others, the rest of the family has to sit incommunicado.

While players are 'on-line', the phone units clock up inexorably, leading to bills that Telecom executives fantasise about. Compunet is in North London but telephone calls from anywhere in the country are paid at the local rate. Even so, 'Penelope' spoke of bills of £400-£1,000 a quarter as if everyone got them. Not only are the Telecom counters whirring and clicking but their Compunet equivalents are also clocking up charges of £1.50 an hour for your use of Federation. It costs £12 a quarter to subscribe to Compunet (01-997 2591), and subscribers can have an account or be on direct debit by credit card. It might be the new world but it's horribly expensive.

So why do people do it? 'I can have a large party every night with people all over the country, enthuses 'Top Cat when asked via the screen. 'Penelope' thinks that: 'We all want an alter-ego and Fed releases it.' 'Reality is boring,' comes back 'Top Cat'.

Does Alan Lenton feel guilty about what it costs people? 'It costs as much as going out with your mates one night.' As Fedders improve their skills, he has to add to the game, a hovering gamesmaster.

Lenton goes to the Fed 'meets'. These occur at major computer shows - the next is the Personal Computer Show at Earl's Court, London, at the end of September - and are a chance for players to see behind each other's personae and to have some genuinely liquid drinks. The 'meet' can also turn into myriad sessions of plotting strategies and moves against a third player. 'Alliances are made and broken,' says Alan.


Clement Chambers, in charge of marketing the game, is brisk about what it costs players: 'Consumption is not a sin.' It certainly isn't in this game, it's the new ingredient.

Far from being worried that people are clocking up huge bills, He says: 'I feel proud and honoured to offer people this game. It's like partying without risk to the body. I'm giving them value for money, so they come back for more.'

Jeffrey Davy is co-editor of the computer magazine 'The Bug'.


Alan Lenton, gamesmaster, gathers imperial groats in his chiswick command module. Picture by Sue Adler.
Image size: approx. 29K.

Richard A. Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk)
21st January 1999: to130889.htm