An extremely modest man and gaming legend, it was a pleasure to send some questions over to one the fathers (along with Roy Trubshaw) of the MMORPG, MUD1 and MUD2 co-creator Richard Bartle!
MUD stands for Multi-User Dungeon and these games were the first ever gaming virtual worlds. We hope you find Richard’s answers as fascinating as we did. If you’re curious to try them out the MUD2 server can be found here, whilst you can play MUD1 here.
Can you share with our readers your earliest experiences with computers, video games and programming?
If you discount TV programmes on the subject, my earliest experience with computers was at school. BP had a large facility about 15 or 20 miles away, and in order to engage with the people into whose atmosphere they were pumping chemicals, they gave some schools access to their mainframe. We had a maths teacher who had a PhD in chemistry, for which he had done some programming. He therefore accepted the offer to use BP’s mainframe. We started off writing programs on coding sheets (which were typed up manually by a secretary at BP and were very prone to errors). We then managed to get a dial-up connection using a 110 baud acoustic coupler. This was prone to line noise, but was manageable unless someone came in and shouted deliberately to mess it up. The (single) teletype we had came with a paper tape reader, which meant we could type in our programs offline then upload them from tape when we had a connection (which we did at specific times of the day). Programming was in BASIC. I later encountered computers at universities when going for interviews, and on visits to industrial sites as part of school trips. The first three computer scientists I met were men called Tony; the fourth was a woman called Roz; the next two were men called Tony again.
As for video games, well apart from the ones I programmed myself I guess that would be “Moon Lander”, which I saw on a visit to Southampton University, shortly followed by the machines that appeared in the amusement arcade I worked in (such as “Space Invaders”). My dad got us an early console of some kind with “Pong” and about 5 other games on it, but we didn’t use it a lot because the games were poor and the gun that was supposed to detect squares on the screen was inaccurate.
I was useless at all these games except an arcade game by Exidy called “Star Fire”, at which I was unbeatable.
You helped create the now infamous and legendary MUD1, the first-ever multiplayer real-time virtual world. How exactly did this opportunity arise?
I wanted to create worlds. I’d made my own paracosms from an early age, and developed them in my teens. I saw that computers could be used to make worlds, and when I got to university found someone else (Roy Trubshaw) who had the same idea and had started to make one a week or two earlier. It was only natural that we’d hook up and work on it together. Roy did most of the work for the first two years (I mainly contributed content), then I took over.
Can you briefly describe the initial inspiration for MUD1 and how did you and Roy set out to create this virtual world?
OK, well we wanted to make worlds. That in itself should be reason enough, but we did have further motivation. Basically, the real world was a dreadful place (ain’t that the truth – Ed), but we had no hope of ever being able to change it. We therefore aimed to create a better world of our own, where who or what you were in the real world didn’t matter. In part it was competition, but in the main it was our way of saying screw you, real world, we don’t need you and your wretched social system, we’re out of here.
We never really discussed this, by the way, it was just tacitly assumed. Everyone who did computing back then had to have a particular mind-set, which I’d describe in “D&D” terms as Chaotic Good. We all had similar opinions about politics, class, religion, society, not because it was inculcated in us when we went to university but because that’s how almost all programmers saw the world.
How long did it take you to make MUD1 and at the time did you realise the importance of this project?
“MUD1” is actually “MUD” version 3.
Version 1 was a technology test and was done in maybe 2 hours.
Version 2 was in assembly language (MACRO-10, the one used by the Essex University mainframe, a DEC PDP-10). It was playable within a month, but Roy kept working on it for maybe 14 months before it became too unwieldy.
Version 3 was written in BCPL, the language that was based on the language that C was based on (C was based on B, which was based on BCPL). Roy spent about 3 months on this before passing ownership to me; it was just about playable by then, but only about 25% complete. I worked on it on and off for the next three or four years, but it was fully playable after maybe two or three more months.
As for the importance of the project, well we didn’t know when we started that there weren’t already dozens of games like this out there. We didn’t really care: we wanted to make a world, so that’s what we did. We always assumed that these games were going to be important, because we had something important to say. It wasn’t until we had “MUD1” that we saw the beginnings of the effects of the game on wider culture and society, though. To be honest, the effects were less than we had hoped; I think these games will eventually become what I envisaged (I can’t speak for Roy here), but expect I’ll be long dead by the time that happens.
You are rightly regarded as a true pioneer in the creation of the massively multiplayer online gaming industry. How do you reflect back on your huge impact in gaming?
I don’t. We were always going to get these games; Roy and I just happened to be the first to make one. Because of our philosophy, we wanted other people to make similar games, too, so were keen to encourage it. This is why almost all MMORPGs today descend from “MUD1” rather than any of the similar games that were invented independently of it.
You soon started work on MUD2, what were your main aims when working on this updated Multi-User Dungeon?
It was to be able to express concepts that I couldn’t express in “MUD1”. The language “MUD1” used to definite its world was called MUDDL (“Multi-User Dungeon Definition Language”), which did make adding content easy but it was limited in how much content of what types it could add. It was basically a set of production rules that used pattern-matching on user input to decide what to do. It had problems with concepts such as loops, which usually had to be hard-coded. I wrote a completely new language, MUDDLE, which I designed from the ground up. This is very expressive, and it still used by “MUD2” today.
As you mentioned there, MUD2 is still online and fully playable today. How does it feel that the world you created so many years ago is still so popular today?
It’s not popular. It does have players, but few people today like their games to come in text form. It’s a shame, because the pictures are better, but that’s how games are perceived these days. The people reading this interview are faced with a wall of text that they’re happy to read, but how many of them are going to spend time getting to know a text-based world? Hardly any. Text beats graphics in every respect except one: immediate impact. Sadly for text, that’s the one that counts when it comes to computer games.
Do you have a personal favourite power, item, magic and character in your MUD2 universe?
Power: FOD (or “Finger of Death”). It does exactly what its name suggests it does, which is amazing in a world that has permadeath.
Item: Valetant, a magic sword with an AI component to it that gives a running commentary while you use it.
Magic: powers and items all count as magic. There aren’t different magics: the world itself IS magic.
Character: the goat. It’s a bad-tempered beastie that attacks with no provocation or thought for its own safety. It’s probably killed more player character than any other mob in the game.
Many of today’s video games can be accused of holding players hands and offering many extra lives and checkpoints. What are your views on the current gaming industry and do you think permadeath should be used in more games?
It depends on the game. I’m not going to tell designers what they should or shouldn’t put in their games. Game design is an art form, and designers use it to say things to their players. Well, that’s the ideal, anyway; all too often, designers are all craft and no art – designers of games rather than game designers. What I would say is that designers should make the effort to understand what permadeath delivers before dismissing it out of hand; that said, unless they have some clout their views are going to be overridden by risk-averse company management anyway.
Text-based video games are still really popular and have a much longer legacy than a lot of visual-based games. Why do you text adventures and role-plays still strike a chord with many fans in 2018?
Some people have imagination. They’re going to like text more than graphics, because the pictures they see in their minds are particular to them. If I see in my mind a scarlet city of towers and spires atop a rugged hill, I’ll see a different scarlet city to the one you conjure up in your mind. Both of these will be perfect for us, but not for each other. With graphics, we get the same image, which may be glorious but it’s not personal.
You are obviously a huge role-playing fan. What are your personal favourite board games and video games in this genre?
Board game: “Dungeons and Dragons”, first edition plus the Greyhawk expansion. I spent many happy hours playing the worlds of my friends, and even happier ones making worlds of my own.
Video game: “Baldur’s Gate 2”. It still hasn’t been bettered.
Have you ever considered working on MUD3, and if so, what changes would you like to make?
I have, but I’m some £50,000,000 short of the funding I’d need to do it (anyone got any spare change lying about? – Ed).
It would have to be a graphical world, because no-one would play it otherwise. I did have the URL MUD3D.com for many years, but decided not to renew it when it became clear that I wouldn’t ever be able to make the game.
Could you ever see yourself working on a role-playing MMORPG using the most up-to-date graphics, or would that go against your personal beliefs?
I can see it, yes. I’m not against graphics, far from it, I just think text is better. Sadly for me, that’s not what most players think, so graphics it would have to be.
Your 2003 book Designing Virtual Worlds has helped shape many future games. How do you reflect back on this book and would you ever be tempted to write a follow-up?
I wrote the book because if I didn’t then someone else would have done, and I didn’t want it done wrongly.
My aim was to create a work that would establish the principles of virtual world creation, but I was aware it would be superseded by developments so would eventually become dated. It doesn’t even mention “World of Warcraft”, for example, because it hadn’t come out when the book was published. I’d be tempted to write a second edition, but I have other book projects on the go at the moment so that’ll have to wait.
I have written other books about virtual worlds, but the publishers haven’t exactly been pushing them. The main ones are “MMOs from the Inside Out” and “MMOs from the Outside In”, which came out in 2016. You won’t have heard of either of them.
Ready Player One looks at a future where many humans escape their real-lives to live in a virtual world. Are you a fan of this book and do you feel there is a danger of this actually coming true?
The book was OK, but was too much about venerating superficialities of 1980s culture for my liking.
As for escaping real lives and living in a virtual world, I don’t see this as a danger at all – I see it as a promise. Why would you call it a danger? It’s our destiny, and we should be striving towards it!
If you had the opportunity to actually enter the Land in MUD2 and explore your game in real-life would you be tempted?
If I had the same powers as my arch-wiz persona, then yes. Otherwise, no – it’s too dangerous!
What is your personal favourite video game and why?
“Darklands”, a 1992 RPG designed by Arnold Hendrick and Sandy Peterson. Its atmosphere is second to none, and entirely supports the gameplay – which itself is actually saying something. Life is a dark land, but it’s worth playing.
What projects are you currently working on?
If I wasn’t writing this, I’d be working on a book about applying what we know from virtual worlds to the real world. It’s called “How to be a God”.
Yes, I have bought the URL, cybersquatters…
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character, who would you choose and why?
I don’t drink alcohol, so it would have to be a non-alcoholic drink.
Hmm. I’d go with either Mazzy Fentan out of “Baldur’s Gate 2” or Saïd out of “The Secret World”. Mazzy, because she’s so earnestly sad and I’d like to know more about her past; Saïd because he’s so affably world-weary.