Chatting up total strangers at home Hat

Play this game and your name is Mud

Chatting up total strangers at home

By Phil Manchester

The home computer software industry is always searching for something novel to keep people's interest and at the same time the telecommunications industry is trying to find a way of attracting home users to the joys of networking, which they clearly regard as the next growth area.

Something which combines a novel approach to computer games with home networking would seem destined for stardom. Surprisingly it does not come from a whizz-kidd software houses nor from one of the trendy micro manufacturers but from the research department of the Essex University situated just outside Colchester.

It is a computerized "role" playing game called Mud, which stands for Multi User Dungeon.

To play it you sit at your home terminal, attached to a remote computer, sending commands and small slices of text to the abstract world of Mud via the network. When you enter the game you can adopt a persona which may or may not be similar to your own personality and through a series of encounters with others in the game you may gain experience and find out more about the dungeon.

Sophisticated environment

What makes it exciting is the opportunity to meet other players within the game and to "chat" over the network.

The authors of the program, Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw, have created a sophisticated environment for people to communicate with each other and the game-playing side is incidental to the way it allows communications between total strangers. The software engincering is way beyond anything previously applied to home micro software.

Commands from users are interpreted using a natural language interface which allows a wide range of variations and abbreviations on the commands. The scenario or world thal users move about in is defined by a database that can track where individual users are 1ocated as well as their current level of experience. This is of special interest because the more experience you gain, the more you can learn about the way the game works.

The original idea was not necessarily to crcate a piece of popular software. But Compunet, a recent newcomer to the networking services business, sees Mud as the first in a bagful of multi-user games. The Compunet version of Mud only opens to Commodorc 64 users - the only ones who can get into Compunet at the moment - and costs £3 an hour to play, which can become expensive if you become addicted to the game.

The Essex University version is also likely to be inaccessible to most people as it requires an expensive packet switch service (PSS) connection.

Mud is expected to be one of the most popular innovations in home computing over the next year or two and other services will almost certainly come on stream.

The rich and resourceful

The major obstacle to multi-user games over the telecommunications network at the moment is the high cost of playing them. Mr Bartle noted that one player had to stop playing Mud earlier this year because of an enormous phone bill (£3,000 in eight months!). May be the forthcoming changes in British Telecom might lead to a more enlightened attitude to telephone charges for this type of service. For the time being, however, Mud playing will be limited to the rich or the resourceful.

Mr Bartle is a lecturer in the Essex University's department of computer science and cognitive studies and is specifically involved in the study of planning systems - a branch of artificial intelligence research.

Mr Trubshaw has now left the university and is working as a contract programmer in the United States. But they intend to produce a rewritten Mud sometime next year.


Richard Bartle is ready to take on all-comers on his network game - but it isn't much fun when you have to pay the telephone bill.
Image size: approx. 40K.

Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: tt131184.htm