The Game Archaeologist plays with MUDs: A talk with Richard Bartle

From talking with Richard Bartle, reading his blog, and looking over several interviews that he's done, I've concluded that the co-creator of the first multi-user dungeon is, in many ways, a card. A smart one, a perceptive one, and an outspoken one, but a card nonetheless. I say this in a good way, of course, because for all of the verbal pussyfooting that often goes on in this industry, it's refreshing to hear the voice of someone who knows what he thinks and isn't afraid to say it, even if it goes against the grain.

Dr. Bartle's name often comes up in discussions of both MUDs and MMORPGs. His designs, work and scholarship have influenced MMOs in substantial ways, and it's possible that if our children end up learning about massively multiplayer RPGs in school some day, Bartle's name will be mentioned once or twice.

While he's sometimes polarizing, it's hard to deny the incredible work he's done, which is why I was excited to get to talk to him about this month's subject on the Game Archaeologist. So hit that pesky jump and let's pick the mind of a guy who really earned the right to post "FIRST!!1!"

The Game Archaeologist: Do people you meet tend to know you more for your work on MUDs, Designing Virtual Worlds or the Bartle Test?

Richard Bartle: None of those, really. They tend to meet me because they've heard I'm a good public speaker on the subject of online games; most don't actually know much about me. Well, that's in a professional capacity. In absolute terms, most of the people I meet just think I'm a middle-aged bloke paying for something in a shop.

Were you a gamer back in 1978?

Yes. My dad was (and still is) a gamer, and I grew up playing board games. Every Sunday afternoon, we'd play one. My dad never, ever said no to us when my brother and I wanted to play games. I'd played thousands of hours playing games by 1978. More to the point, I'd spent thousands designing, making and playing my own games by then, too, and not just games but also worlds.

What are your favorite video or computer games that you've played over the years?

Here are my top 10 in no particular order:

  1. Civilization. My favourite one is Civ2, followed by Civ3/Civ1 and then Civ4. Civ5 is a ghastly mess. I want to be able to CONQUER THE ENTIRE WORLD; I don't want to have to compete in a race in multiple dimensions while watching archers fire arrows across the English Channel. Oh, and I don't want to get an unbalanced game I have to buy DLC for to balance it up, either.

  2. Baldur's Gate. BG2 is my favourite, but I love BG1 too. Although I do like its spiritual successor, Dragon Age: Origins, the latter is too on-rails to beat BG.

  3. Football Manager (Worldwide Soccer Manager in the U.S.). I buy this every year and am hopeless at it every year. Nevertheless, the team-building aspect of it is what brings me back. York City for the cup!

  4. Darklands. One word: atmosphere.

  5. Rogue. Very more-ish to play, but I just delight in the design of the procedural content creator. It creates environments more fun to play in than are a good many of today's hand-created environments.

  6. The Patrician. My favourite is Pat3 (Pat2 close behind -- Pat3 is basically a patched Pat2). Pat1 was crazy tough, but when I finally beat it, the feeling was great! I was really looking forward to Pat4, but when it came out, it was a huge disappointment. They over-formalised it and took out the fun asymmetries as a result.

  7. Morrowind. I prefer it to Oblivion; it doesn't have the same degree of irritation with monsters levelling up at the same rate you do so every single damned combat is always the damned same as the last damned combat.

  8. Master of Orion. The ship design is the fun part. Later games in the series were either stupidly unbalanced (MOO2) or mere spreadsheet manipulation (MOO3). MOO itself is my game of choice when I'm playing on my notebook on long flights.

  9. Adventure. The sense of exploration was so strong with this. It's not great as a game, but for its sense of place, it's remarkable.

  10. Star Fire. This is an old arcade game that I used to play in the arcade where I worked at weekends. I was really, really good at it -- better at it than anyone else who ever played on that machine. I don't know why, I just seemed to pick it up intuitively. That's the only reason it's on my favourites list -- it's the game I was best at out of all the games I ever played.

I almost put Mount & Blade in instead of Adventure or Rogue, but in my current game I'm engaged to marry some noblewoman whose country has been at war with mine for several years so I never get to have the big day, which is extremely annoying.

What inspired you to take on the MUD project in the first place?

You speak as if this were a project that had to be inspired. Why should that be the case? It was simply that I wanted to do something using computers that previously I had been doing anyway without computers. I designed worlds, I designed games, I wrote; I saw a way to use computers to offload maintenance of the gameplay mechanics from the players, allowing them to concentrate on playing. It looked as if it might be fun to program and would help me do more things with design.

I wasn't inspired to take on MUD; I knew immediately that what we were creating would be inspirational, but it wasn't itself the result of inspiration. It was the result of natural progression from what I was doing anyway.

Did you initially see it as a game or a multi-function tool?

No. I initially saw it as a place. Indeed, it was only a place for its first two years, until I gamified it (that was the actual term Roy Trubshaw and I used; it's not a new one).

In regard to creating the first MUD, were there any coding issues that caused a headache or even a laugh or two?

MUD ultimately came out of a coding headache.

Roy Trubshaw had been looking at some of the interesting things the TOPS-10 operating system could do and had come across inter-process communication. Because there were limits on the number of IPC blocks available, he needed to have special privileges to use the relevant operating system calls. He asked for these and was denied them. Feeling spurned, he read through the rest of the Operating System Calls manual (which came in three volumes) until he came across one call, SETUWP, which he realised he could use to implement his own IPC system using writeable, shared memory. He tried it out to see if he needed privs to do it and found he didn't. Eager to do something with it, he decided to create a world, which he called MUD.

His first attempt was basically just a test to make sure the functionality afforded by writeable, shared memory really was as powerful as he thought it was. That took him maybe a couple of hours and is MUD version 1. He discarded it immediately. He then immediately began writing MUD version 2, which was an actual virtual world and would be recognisable as such by people today. I showed up a few days after he started work on it; this would be October 1978. It was running before the end of November 1978. Roy worked on it over the course of the next year or so, adding improvements and content, but it was in MACRO-10 assembler and it became large and unwieldy. Roy started work on version 3 in late 1979, and I took over ownership of the code (that's programmer-ownership; I don't mean I asserted property rights or anything) over Easter 1980. This new version was in BCPL, and it later became known as MUD1 (because "MUD" got to be used as a generic term, so the players called it MUD1 to mean the specific virtual world rather than the whole class of them).

Obviously I can go into much more detail than this, but your eyes are already glazed over as you politely listen to arcane descriptions of computer programming as it was in days gone by.

What was the toughest design decision you had to make for MUD1?

It was always "what to implement next?" We had so much we wanted to do and so little time and few resources to do it.

If you could go back and change any part of the initial MUD design, what would it be?

Well, it would be the part I did actually go back and change: the MUD definition language. The first one wasn't expressive enough, so I designed a new one. That's what gave us MUD2.

Did you have people play-testing the MUD before release, or was it pretty much just the two of you?

To start with, it was just Roy. However, he took advice from a two or three other people, including me. Unlike that of the others, though, my advice was on the content side (what to implement) rather than the programming side (how to implement it). We didn't playtest or listen to playtesters; we decided what it was we wanted and programmed it. We were doing this because of what we wanted to say, not because of what people wanted to hear. We let people play the latest version, but it was more testing than playtesting (i.e., did it crash/hang?).

Of course, people did come up with ideas, some of which I'm sure Roy must have implemented if they were in the right direction. What you have to remember, though, is that there were practically no other computer games back then, and few people had even played many board games, let alone had any game design experience. I did have it, and as a result, what we added was better than what most of the players were suggesting anyway (which was typically along the lines of "why don't you put in a dog?" rather than anything to do with gameplay).

Besides, we wanted people not think of MUD as a game so much as a world. We wanted them to feel they were in that world (what we now call "immersed"). If they had been suggesting too many gameplay ideas, that would have been bad from our point of view, because it would have meant they were stepping back from the world instead of living it. Do you go to New York and come back with ideas for how to improve its gameplay? Well no, not usually. Why should it have been different for MUD?

Ultimately, though, we did have to gamify MUD because we didn't have the resources to implement the (what would now be called) emergent gameplay we had envisaged.

What did the playtesters think of it?

They thought it was awesome. This is a rather uncomfortable question, by the way, as you're basically asking me to blow my own trumpet here.

What did you say to others who were asking about this crazy project you were working on?

No one thought it was crazy. We never felt we had to justify what we were doing. It was obvious to all our friends that it was a blast to program, so they didn't need to ask why we were doing it. Programming was itself intrinsically a fun thing; you never asked why anyone was programming what he was programming, because the fact that he was programming was itself justification enough.

What can either gamers or designers learn from going back to studying MUDs and the culture that surrounded them?

They can learn what the future will be.

What MUD or text-based adventure game would you recommend to players who want to learn more about the early era of these games?

Players shouldn't be playing to "learn more"; they should be playing for fun. Academics and journalists play to learn; players play for fun.

There aren't many early-era MUDs still around. There's MUD itself, of course, but it's a museum piece now. If you mean "early-era" with the implication that all MUDs are early-era by today's standards, well I'd say to try out some of the older ones that are still extant and thriving: BatMUD, Ancient Anguish, GemStone, LegendMUD, even Medievia.

What do you think is the most innovative MMORPG from the past decade?

A Tale in the Desert
. Note that "innovative" doesn't necessarily mean "successful."

What are we as a gamer culture in danger of forgetting from text-based MUDs now that they are well into their sunset years?

That we have imaginations.

Nice barb about "sunset years" there, by the way, given that you're using text to ask me these questions.

And to write this article -- thank you for your time! For those MUD enthusiasts out there, don't forget to send in your favorite MUD memories to to be included in an article later this month!

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.