Interview with Richard Bartle
clawrenc at cup.hp.com
clawrenc at cup.hp.com
Wed Aug 6 10:31:13 New Zealand Standard Time 1997
Aside: I find his view on perma-death particularly interestly (partly
as its one of the few areas I agree with Bartle on).
Interview with Richard Bartle
by Taff and Asterix
(Taken from Dragon Times, Issue #2, April 1995)
There can be few MUD2 players unfamiliar with the name of Richard
Bartle. Together with Roy Trubshaw, he wrote the original MUD1 in 1979
at Essex University, and went on to create MUD2, the game you all know
Taff, the arch-wizard at portal.aladdin.co.uk, one of the three MUD2
sites in the UK, caught up with Richard to ask him a few questions
about life in general, and MUD in particular (with a few additional
questions thrown in by Asterix, from Ireland OnLine).
How old are you?
I was 35 in January.
Are you married or do you have a partner?
Married (to Gail).
What does she think of MUD?
She doesn't play it -- she's not a gamer. She does wish that I
had a more reliable job than being a MUD programmer, but lets me carry
on all the same!
What was your degree subject and your Phd title/subject?
BSc (1st class) Computer Science. PhD Articifical Intelligence:
Cross Level Planning
Although naturally it's the PhD I was most pleased to get, I
think my BSc mark is still the highest they've ever had at Essex (no
one's told me any different, anyway!)
Where do you live these days?
Near Colchester, in a village called Great Horkesley. Since Great
Horkesley is basically a road with houses either side of it and little
in the way of amenities, we're hoping to move to somewhere else in the
district sometime this year. Would have been last year but the house
sale fell through (sigh).
Do you have any hobbies?
Apart from the one I'm paid to do, ie. write games programs?
Well, my main hobbies (all game-related) had to stop when I became a
father; tiny pots of paint and scores of lead figures don't last long
when there are small hands eager to grab them. I still play a lot of
games, but they're now more computer-based than board-and-counter
stuff (for the same reason -- a stack of counters swiftly becomes
several stacks once someone has picked them up to see whether they're
edible or not).
Do you make all your living from MUD2 or do you have another full
time job as well?
I am a full-time employee of MUSE Ltd. Most of my money comes
from BL [British Legends, the CompuServe version of MUD1], though,
rather than MUD2. I do odd jobs occasionally if they don't take long,
eg. I'm an examinations moderator for the University of Cambridge
Local Examinations Syndicate (300 quid for a morning's work, 3 times a
year), but I have no other job. I used to be a university lecturer
until I found that I could make more money doing practically anything
else involving computers (including "Word Processor Operative").
What got you interested in MUD? Was it the technical challenge of
writing something as complex as MUD or was it the creative side of
putting together descriptions and inventing the puzzles?
Well it certainly wasn't the technical challenge; I find that if
I don't see how to program something immediately, I don't enjoy having
to find out how to do it, which is what "technical challenge" means, I
guess. It wasn't the creative side, either; I can "create" without
having to go to the bother of programming -- writing stories, for
example. I just liked playing with it, I think, like a child with lego
Specifically, I liked the way that things could be added
incrementally, and I liked the fact that what was being designed
wasn't so much a world as a world-creation system. Having lots of
enthusiastic players was good, too!
Where did you get your ideas from for the rooms and puzzles?
I used my imagination.
You've spent close to 10 years (more?) developing MUD2 to its
current state. If you had had the benefit of that experience back when
you started, what would you have done differently (either in the
gameplay itself, or in how the game was marketed)?
I would have implemented some things differently, in particular
GET and DROP are messier than they need be. I may also have graduated
the room and object descriptions better, reserving immediacy ("You are
standing in a room with ..." rather than "This is a room with...") for
things I wanted to be more intensely experienced.
I'd also have added an operator in MUDDLE to return what the
parent classes are of an object, so wizzes wouldn't keep asking me why
the game couldn't tell them... They're not really gameplay things,
though -- I can't think of any major gameplay changes I'd have made
Marketing, well, I'm a programmer, not a marketer. I do wish I'd
known then what I know now about large corporations, though (sigh).
Did you ever think that MUD would become what is today, with
literally hundreds of MUD-like (some might say rip-off :) servers
around the world?
Yes, I always knew it was a damned good concept. Roy is still
bemused by why people like it with the strength they do, but my
background is in gaming and I knew from the beginning what we had.
As for the other servers, well, we did MUD1 at Essex University
using computers paid for by public funds, so it was only right that we
let the idea of MUDs propagate freely without slapping a patent on it.
NB: this is mid-1980s talk; nowadays, UK universities are under
pressure to "perform", so even patents on trivial, non-respectable
things like computer games are still patents...
Do you still enjoy playing MUD as a mortal (incognito of course),
or do you know the game so well by now that there is no challenge
This presupposes that I ever did enjoy playing as a mortal! I do
still play as mortals, incognito, but most of my effort goes into
recalling what it is the player I'm pretending to be knows about the
game at that point. I have no difficulty in modifying my in-game
actions according to some personality type I've concocted for a
pseudo-player (maybe because I've done it so often) but I don't really
enjoy it, no.
This is undoubtedly because I can either remember the stuff
exactly, or I can look it up in 20 seconds by switching to another
virtual terminal and loading files into an editor. I don't DISLIKE it,
I hasten to add, but it's more of a job than a fun thing to do.
What is the shortest amount of time it has ever taken a new
player to to reach Wizard?
I've no idea, mainly because we're never quite sure that they ARE
new players! I seem to recall someone having done it in a month
without having played any MUD (mine or otherwise) before -- I think
the player in question was VISHNU. There are others who have done it
in under 100 games, though, spread over maybe 2 or 3 months.
It's much easier if you've played oodles of BL before, and it's
easier if you get in on the ground floor of a new incarnation when
everyone is co-operative and friendly.
Would you like to reveal a choice MUD2 game secret that you feel
confident few players are aware of?
A "game secret"? It's hard to know what's secret and what's not!
There are a whole load of sillies that few people know about (PLAY
POKER, that sort of thing) but I expect you mean something useful...
Is it well known that if you SIP DJ (DJ=DARJEELING) in the
Tearoom you get many more points than simply SIP TEA? Or that you can
convert the ORANGE into a golden orange by taking it to the Orangery?
Or that if you leave the ACORN in the squirrel room, it turns into a
Probably, yes: I expect these are all known to most mages... Did
you know you can kill the THIEF more easily if you get him drunk
first? Thought so...
No, there are no game secrets I'm truly confident that few
players are aware of!
Who is the oldest known MUD player? The youngest?
In terms of age? Hmm, very hard to say, as I don't have access to
personnel records for most incarnations of the game. We've certainly
had people who've made wiz while aged 14 (DAN), and others who have
done it while in their late 60s (DECUS), but I don't know the current
maximum and minimum, sorry.
What is the single most important attribute a player should have
in order to have a good chance at making wiz?
A sense of humour.
Do you think MUD2 can fill any role other than simply providing
entertainment for its players?
It can, yes (I've had several players tell me that playing MUD is
what gave them their touch-typing skills!). Sure, there are social
benefits to this kind of game, where people can talk out their
problems among friends or whatever, but I specifically programmed MUD2
to be a game, and its primary job is to entertain. If I wanted to
focus on some other purpose, eg. for rape counselling or for modelling
human anatomy, I'd write another program.
What is the largest phone bill ever reported by a MUD2 player
that you have heard of?
3000 pounds for 3 months, back in 1984 or thereabouts. SUE the
arch-wiz played every night from midnight to 6am, calling long
distance from Wales.
One of the biggest differences between MUD1 and MUD2 is that in
MUD2, players don't automatically get magical abilities but must work
up to them. What differences in playing style has this caused between
players of the two versions?
I put that in so that everyone stood a pretty good chance of
losing a persona before they got to wiz. It was a kind of controlled
way of allowing players to come to terms with loss, since they're
basically expecting to die every time. Then, when it happens to their
mage, they're they're not quite so cut up about it.
Realistically, anyone who's higher than champion isn't going to
last too long unless they have magic, so essentially it IS the same as
BL but with a good chance that players have at least to contemplate
their own demise, if not experience it.
As to how it affects the playing style, well I'd like to think
it's responsible for the less bloodthirsty attitude that MUD2 players
have. The two games differ in many other respects, though, so it may
be that's just wishful thinking on my part.
With any moderately complex system, the users always end up doing
things not envisaged by the original designer. What are the most
outrageous, unorthdox or generally surprising things you've seen
Players constantly surprise me with their ingenuity. The classic
"stick man" scenario, where someone sits at the rapids with "GIVE
BRAND TO PLAYER EXCEPT ME" in their input buffer and repeatedly hits
^L until some poor sap gets the brand and blows themselves up, is one
I ought to mention.
Players are always finding ways to get around restrictions in the
game, though, and I keep having to make changes to keep up with them
(that's how come most mobiles will drop the URANIUM now!). Even as I
write, there's probably someone somewhere trying out a command that I
hadn't expected; the game may handle it, it may not, but the fact it
encourages players to try at all probably says a great deal about
confidence people have in the program, which is rather nice.
A lot of MUD players around the world seem to be ignorant of the
roots of multi-player adventure games. Sometimes it even seems that
the creators of these MUDs like to think of themselves as the
innovators and the creators of the first "real" MUDs. Does this annoy
you at all or do you feel that they've inspired you as much as you
It doesn't annoy me that people don't know who I am. It does
annoy me that people try to rewrite history in order to promote either
their own interests or the interests of the particular game to which
they owe allegience. Trying to categorise "MUDs" as some kind of
hack-and-slay game, whereas they play something else ("MUSHes" or
"MOOs") is another thing I dislike, as it's borne out of snobbery.
I have not been inspired by these games whatsoever. I have
occasionally imported items of syntax from them in order to make the
games more compatible (the most significant is probably making
':swallows hard.' the same as ACT "swallows hard.") but I wouldn't
call that inspiration.
Theres a lot of competition between MUDs these days, especially
since free MUDs have become so widely available and a few have become
almost as sophisticated as MUD2 itself. Does it worry you that
eventually maybe no one will want to pay to play a MUD when they can
play for free?
It's a niggling worry, but I know that MUD2 will continue to
improve. If these other MUDs want to improve, they'll have to get
their programming done for free. That's possible, of course, but it's
not going to happen on a large scale.
What's more worrying is that a game that's only 75% as good as
MUD2 but is free will nevertheless attract players away from MUD2
simply because it IS free -- for some people, it doesn't matter how
good a game is, if there's a free alternative that satisfies their
basic needs, they'll take it.
Do you, or have you played on any of the free MUDs?
I've looked a few over, but I don't play any regularly.
What do you think of them?
From what point of view? From a programming point of view, I KNOW
that MUDDLE is better for writing MUDs, so I may be impressed if what
I see represents triumph over adversity. On the other hand, it saddens
me to see people playing these games simply because they don't know
there are better ones out there which might suit them better. The
descriptions I see are never all that great, either, and the commands
some of them use are about as intuitive as UNIX's...
How many MUD1's and MUD2's are there out there?
Still being played? There's one MUD1 -- BL on CompuServe. MUD2s,
hmm, let me see... In the UK we have DRAGON, ONLINE and SONET. In
Europe we have IOL. In the USA we have GENIE/DELPHI/CRIS (one game on
3 systems), IPLAY and MPGNET.
In the rest of the world, there's a local-to-Toronto one in
Canada. Two more incarnations are due out sometime in the distant
future, but have met with hitches (due to incompetence, so I won't
tell you which organisations they are; suffice to say, it seems that
putting a capital letter in the middle of a company's name is a bad
sign). So, total number of extant MUD2s is 7. I have one at home, of
There's a lot of talk on the net these days of graphic MUDs,
especially now that Dr. Cat is pushing
DragonSpires so hard. Do you see MUD2 evolving into a graphic
MUD like DragonSpires or into something entirely different?
Evolving? Or regressing?
I don't see MUD2 going graphical like DragonSpires, because I
wrote it as a text-based game. As far as I'm concerned, making it
graphical would be like doing a cartoon of "War and Peace" --
interesting, but hardly the same as the original. If I wanted to do a
graphical game, I'd start from scratch.
DragonSpires, incidentally, is just the latest in a line of this
kind of game which started with Island of Kesmai and continued with
Kingdom of Drakkar. It's attracting attention because it's the first
free game of this kind to appear on the net, and its graphics are more
modern, but the gameplay is early 80s.
Do you like graphic MUDs, or are you a text-only purist?
I despair of graphic MUDs, because I know that eventually they'll
take over, supplanting them like graphical RPGs did text adventures.
There'll still BE textual MUDs, because on the net there's no "shelf
space", so if there are people who want to play them they'll still be
available. I just think that once the big-spenders start using their
advertising money to push their flashy graphics games, new players
will go for those games rather than MUDs.
MUDs do have one advantage over ordinary adventure games in that
for the next few years at least there's no way to engage in
conversation with other people or mobiles in the game except by
typing, so graphical replacements can't be entirely mouse-based (click
on the H, click on the E, click on the L, click on the L, click on the
O, click on the SEND). It'll come, though, and MUDs will lose
something as a result.
What is going to be the next biggest change in MUD2?
I don't know. Probably some kind of user interface to smarten up
the appearance, but there are lots ofthings in the game that I want to
I've been meaning to give the mobiles the ability to talk, ooh,
forages, but it would take a couple of monthsof dedicated programming
which I don't have time for at the moment.I also want to complete
myMUDDLE-to-C compiler -- I've done all but the run-time-system,
butagain that's maybe 2 months ofworking on it and nothing else to
I'm mid-way through a hefty tome documenting exactly how to
useBLANKs, which I'll follow up with aprogram to help design such
objects offline, but I wouldn't callthose major changes to the game
What is MUD2's biggest strength? Greatest weakness?
Biggest strength: its players. Biggest weakness: its players.
What do you think the future holds for MUDs, taking into
accountthe imminent arrival of multi-playershoot-em up servers like
QUAKE and their ilk?
Do you expect to see MUD2 sites still operating in 10 years,
orwill we all be playing Doom XIX in 3D overhigh-speed fibre-optic
There are people playing MUD2 and BL who have been doing so
fornearly 10 years. This is an enormousstaying power for a game, due
mainly to its depth and the fact thatalthough graphics have improved
overthe years, text doesn't date so quickly. People will go out
andplay multi- player shoot-em-up games, butare they people who would
otherwise play a MUD? I'm not convinced.
MUDs won't look the same in 10 years time, if they exist at all.
However as a caveat, if you'd asked me that 10 years ago I'd have said
the same thing -- and been wrong!
Thanks to Richard for taking the time to answer our questions; we hope
you found the answers as interesting as we did.
J C Lawrence Internet: claw at null.net
(Contractor) Internet: coder at ibm.net
---------------(*) Internet: clawrenc at cup.hp.com
...Honorary Member Clan McFUD -- Teamer's Avenging Monolith...
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