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MUD co-creator Richard Bartle reveals for the first time the project's surprisingly subversive origins, presenting a critique of current context-less design in the clever guise of a history lesson on MUD's creation.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

October 8, 2010

7 Min Read

With his friend Roy Trubshaw, Richard Bartle created the first multi-user dungeon, MUD. Their aims were a little different, however. While Trubshaw wanted to see if he could use the wonder of engineering to build a world superior to reality, Bartle hoped to build a world in which people could be -- and become -- themselves. "It was all to do with freedom," Bartle said at a GDC Online panel presenting a surprisingly subversive history of MUD that elegantly masked a critique of modern design values and the class system. Trubshaw and Bartle, 19 and 18, respectively, at the time of MUD's creation, both shared the primary goal of creating a realistic virtual space with what designers now call immersion. "We wanted you to believe you were part of the world," says Bartle. "We wanted people to be able to escape the confines of the real world, to try on new identities, to be... not so much new people, but to try to find out the people they really were." Rules Of The Real World Nowadays, people given any sort of significant budget tend to conceive of the world or genre first -- an approach to conceiving games that Bartle says is premature, as it makes assumptions about what's possible. Developing the "physics" of the world first can create room for conceiving new ideas the developer couldn't have previously imagined. By "physics", Bartle simply means "what an uninformed player would believe should happen without evidence to suppose otherwise." When things happen as people expect, they have more inclination to believe it's real, he suggests. "One of the things that the human brain has got through evolution is the ability to understand the world and process it in an instant," he says. "But when there's something different between what you see and what happens, then the brain notices, and that's the point at which either immersion is broken or you require an explanation." So in MUD's design, to make players believe they were really "in" the world, the pair aimed to place as few barriers as possible to interrupt that illusion. They began with one key rule: in the absence of a reason not to conform to reality, conform to reality. Of course, the world can only approximate reality; it was enough for them that ice should melt, to use an example, rather than to have it melt based on realistic heat transfer and air temperature ratios. Light cannot pass through a closed wooden door, so when one shuts themselves into an unlit room, it becomes dark. In some ways, then, primitive MUD is more realistic than many current MMOs. His World of Warcraft character, Bartle notes, has been carrying "the same glass of milk, in her backpack, for four years." Immersion And Its Breaking The form of multiplayer online games has been diluted through the years, Bartle says, leading to unreal situations like the ability to swim in plate armor or the existence of paint that only works on the walls of one's own house. "I can build a snowman in a fire and neither is affected," Bartle says of the possibilities in MMOs of today. In MUD2, one player used circumstances of the world's natural physics to create a secret hiding place for himself, by dropping one of the world's teleportation objects into flowing water so he could move himself into the space beneath the grate where the water eventually deposited. and another player craftily found a way to use the water flow to send an explosive keg of gunpowder in to the player's secret room and blow it up. Such realistic behavior is not hard to program, he says, nor is it hard for players to understand. "No, no," he says, "what's hard is explaining why, when you drop something into a well, it doesn't fall down a well." Worries about realistic physics creating opportunities for exploits are unfounded too, he asserts. That can only happen when the physics are implemented inconsistently. "There are, however, more legitimate reasons not to put this kind of thing in," he concedes. One of them is that it can annoy players: would they really have more fun if their character's movement was encumbered by the actual weight of all the gold coins they had collected? MUD's original maxim of conforming to reality in the absence of a reason still applies, and not annoying players is a good reason to overlook some principles, he says. "[If] you're simulating for no purpose, you can just abstract that out," he suggests. Meaning In Setting Once Trubshaw had implemented the worlds' physics, Bartle's task was to mull the setting. He knew he wanted something close enough to Earth to be understandable, but foreign enough to be unfamiliar. So he chose English folklore, which today is conceived as a "fantasy" setting in the most general sense. He also considered Three Musketeers-era France, but abandoned that idea because only men were musketeers. He also considered Scheherazade's 1001 Arabian Nights, with its "magical otherworldliness", and Arthurian Camelot. But electing English mythology allowed for a continuum that wasn't set in a fixed period. "What that allowed me to do was... use time as a metaphor for menace," he says. "How many designers today have the luxury of using metaphor? Well, you all do. You just don't." "If you want to make do with making money, why aren't you working at a bank?" He posed. "...Besides, you're not actually developing a game. You're developing the tools that someone else is using to create the back end of a horse. You're doing it because somehow you want to express something, and yet people don't express something, even though they have the tools right there before them." Bartle says he chose the fantasy setting for its romance and resonance. Today, people choose "fantasy" settings because of the way that it meets player's expectations solidly -- "'Progressive' these days means your dwarves neither drink ale nor speak with bad Scottish accents," he says. "Inventive" means concocting a new "race", an idiom Bartle finds "hideous" in its connotations, or another "tiresome class hybrid." He wondered if designers even need to use classes. At the beginning of MUD, Bartle and Trubshaw might have been a little bit over-ambitious. They wanted to make a world richly featured enough to be self-sustaining, but unable to do so, Bartle suggested "game-ifying" MUD a bit by implementing the equipment, scoring and leveling mechanics that helped it resemble the RPGs of today a little more. Players needed something to do, after all. And therein Bartle revealed one of MUD's previously undisclosed goals: He and Trubshaw ultimately decided to implement levels as a response to the "current social order." It was an intentional political statement, he says. "We put in a level system because that led you out of the class system," he says. "There was nothing stopping you from going up a level because you were a girl, or because you were slightly socially inept, or because you are from the North of England. It was a kind of meritocracy where everybody could succeed." A Place To Go In that light, MUD had a fascinating context: Two angry young men, feeling oppressed, creating an escape with their own two hands; a place where the laws were fairer, where the experience was not so unkind. But the MMOs that followed, he says, took those foundations and implemented them without context. Mere achievement-oriented leveling without a purpose is just consumerism, he says, and lacks any purpose besides "get stuff." "The why is important," he stresses. "All these choices that Roy and I had... you can still make those choices today." MUD was "a contrivance... it was Roy and I ripping into our awful situation in the British class system," he explains. "What we wanted to do was to say unpalatable things about the real world through the protected frame of 'it's just a game.'" Designers working on games "must want to say something... if you're a game designer, you have to have some of your soul in the game design. Because otherwise it's just superficial, there's no vision to it, no substance to it. And that's the biggest lesson I'd like to give you from here," he concluded.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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