Note: This interview was conducted by Zedd the wizard, known at the time as Asterix the arch-wizard at a former MUD2 site.


Many of you are familiar with the name of Richard Bartle, the man behind MUD1 and MUD2. Richard lives with his family in the English countryside, and spends his time working for MUSE Inc, the company which develops MUD2.

Arch-wizard Asterix ("AX") caught up with arch-wizard Richard ("RB") recently to chat about MUD past, present, and future:

AX: Most people know that the original MUD was developed by Roy Trubshaw and yourself at Essex University, during 1979-80. How did you and Roy first meet?

RB: "Most people" have never heard of MUD! Roy and I first met when I went to sign up for Essex University's Computer Society ("CompSoc" -- not to be confused with "ComSoc," the Communist Society). This was within days of my arrival at Essex, although he was just another face at the time. I didn't get introduced to him properly until I was waiting in line for tickets to a free Lindisfarne concert (!), when he gave me his opinion on a game I'd written a couple of years earlier ("The Solo Dungeon," one of those paper-programmed games where you read a paragraph and it tells you a new one to go to based on your decisions -- I really must do a WWW version of it someday). He said it was definitely programmable, but that he had this idea for another fantasy-oriented game...

AX: How did the computer department at Essex Univerity react to their nice expensive mainframe being used to run MUD?

RB: They were great. Their Computer Manager, one Charles Bowman, was of the opinion that if the DEC-10 was lying idle then there was no harm in letting people hack about on it, and that it might actually lead to more computer-literate students. This is indeed what happened: we could play with the DEC-10 as much as we liked, within reason, so long as we did so out of prime time. It cost the University nothing, and gained them goodwill from the students while advancing their expertise. Whether this kind of magnanimity would prevail in today's academic climate is, however, another matter.

AX: If development of MUD had halted with MUD1 at Essex University, what would you be doing now?

RB: Who knows? If I'd kept on my original career path, I'd still be a University lecturer, although probably not in a senior position because I used to spend too much time teaching students, preparing material, running classes and debugging their programs, when I should have been jumping on a research bandwagon, writing banal papers using as much neo-jargon as I could, while politicking within the Computing Department as much as possible to ensure that the only administration I had to do involved little work but lots of power, and that anyone who was attracting larger research grants than myself got insignificant amounts of kudos from it.

AX: How did the formation of MUSE come about?

RB: One of our players, Jeremy San, was writing a book about the Sinclair QL, and enthused to his editor, Simon Dally, about MUD. Simon played it, saw its potential, and approached me with regards to setting up a company to market it. I'd been thinking of doing something similar myself, but with no business experience had no idea what was involved. That's how come I ended up with only 15% of it (although it's now 45% -- Roy Trubshaw has 45% too, and Simon's ex-employers have a totally unjustified 10%).

AX: MUD1 survives to the present day, under the name British Legends on Compuserve. How did the Compuserve deal happen?

RB: Simon Dally did most of the background work. We knew that CompuServe was the dominant marketplace in the USA, and that they had DEC-10s, so in about 1985 we approached them and flew out to Columbus. CompuServe exhibited their usual attitude of "it's only our magnanimity that allows your game on our system, and we deserve far more than the meagre 90% of the income your game generates that we will be keeping, and although we have computers coming out of our ears we can't allow you to use more than 0.45% of a CPU's cycles per player, oh and we've modified the operating system so that programs that work perfectly well on a variety of sites will not function here until you perform major surgery on them, and while you're at it we insist you use our libraries even though your own are smaller, faster and much more appropriate, and don't expect us to publicise your game because it's a game and that will put off our corporate customers who will think we're a games system" attitude for which they are justly famous.

AX: There are probably not many people in the world who can claim to be fulltime MUD programmers. How do you describe what you do to people with no experience of MUDs?

RB: I just tell them I write computer games. If they say "Oh really?," I reply, "Well someone has to." If they ask what kind of computer game, I tell them multi-player games played over telephone lines, then I increase the detail and technical explanation until their eyes glaze over.

AX: What games, other than MUD, have you played seriously in the past? How much influence did they have on the design of MUD?

RB: I have played many, many games. I come from a game-playing family. Just look at the entire catalogue of Waddingtons in the 1970s, you'll see what kind of thing we used to spend our time on. As I got older, I started playing games by post -- Diplomacy and Railway Rivals, mainly -- in fact I still play RR by post to this day. In the mid-70s, though, I read a magazine article about this amazing game called "Dungeons and Dragons," and our small gaming group clubbed together to raise the enormous six pounds necessary to buy it mail-order. From then on, we played a LOT of D&D. Its influence on MUD, though, was minimal: the atmosphere of The Land owes more to Tolkien than Gygax and Arneson, and I'd designed several story-telling games myself which would now be classified as "role-playing," although they were single-player only, for my own amusement.

AX: What books do you enjoy reading?

RB: Science fiction and fantasy, when I get the time.

AX: Describe a typical day in your life as a MUD programmer.

RB: Log on, read my mail, reply to my mail, react to anything awful which has happened to the game while I slept, fix any minor bugs which have been reported, then get on with the main task of the day. These are prioritised as: bank any cheques received in the post; pay any bills that absolutely have to be paid; perform any administrative tasks required by officials (tax forms etc.); do any programming asked for by Mike (a/k/a Stripe), the guy who's writing the MUD client software; do any tasks requested by people at Engage (a/k/a Interplay Online); choose the next task from my list of things I have promised Jessica at Engage that I'll do; fix minor bugs; fix major bugs. Today, for example, I've read my mail, and am currently replying to it while I'm compiling some changes I've made (I'm about a quarter of the way through implementing TOUR 6, "commands," which Jessica asked me to do when I was in California last week). Stuck to my PC is a yellow sticker telling me that I need to do last month's Income Tax and National Insurance admin, which I'll either do late today (if I reach a convenient point to break off programming) or tomorrow (when it really has to be done, because it's Father's Day coming up which will clog up the postal service for the remainder of the week). I also have a pile of yellow stickers telling me the ideas/suggestions/bugs that merit attention sometime soon, but I doubt I'll give them any today...

AX: Describe your MUD development system.

RB: At the moment it's just a 486/66 running SCO Unix, with a couple of hard drives and 8mb of RAM. I have a P90 sitting next door to it, but I don't use that for MUD programming.

AX: After working on MUD all day, what do you do to relax?

RB: I have children: I work on MUD all day to relax! It's when I stop that life gets stressful!

AX: What sorts of new areas might we see added to The Land in the future?

RB: I'll be putting in the temple itself, which will complete the northern section, and then I have two other areas written. These are linked to one another, and are set in a sort of foggy Victorian London kind of environment which you reach by going through the wardrobe.

AX: Many Internet MUDs now feature 'bots -- programs which connect to the game masquerading as normal players, but which are actually under computer rather than human control. Are you aware of any experiments along these lines with MUD2, and what advice would you give to someone writing such a program?

RB: Most bots are variations of specific prototypes, so I guess people would be able to take one of those and modify it for MUD2. The only experiments I'm aware of are my own, though; I designed a program some time ago to play MUD2, since my PhD was in AI/multi-agent planning and it's something that interests me. I have something lying around which will log me into a chosen MUD2 and handle the i/o, but that's all it does. I did some work on it earlier this year, come to think of it, but it's the kind of thing that needs a lot of work to be any use. Engage would have to sanction it before I could do more than just tinker with it, and they probably have other priorities for my time at the moment.

AX: MUD's mobiles have become quite adept at looking after themselves over the years, but experienced players can easily anticipate their moves. What scope is there for making mobiles more intelligent in the future?

RB: I can make them as intelligent as necessary; they did used to be more intelligent, but I had to dampen them down because they were a lot more capable than many of the players! If people have specific requests for making mobiles behave more intelligently, I'll be glad to consider them, though. I'm interested in variety over predictability when it comes to mobile behaviour, so the more things they can choose to do, the better!

AX: How much work would it take to allow MUD's mobiles to respond sensibly to simple questions from players?

RB: Using what scale of measurement? "More than it would to add a new set of rooms, but not as much as it would to add an entire database?" The question is not how long it would take, but where Engage's priorities lie. At the moment, they want more rooms so that MUD doesn't feel crowded when there are 50 people in it, so that's what I'm doing. If they ever want me to add talking mobiles, or if they give me a free hand to choose what to do, then I'll add them.

AX: Some time ago, you mentioned you had plans for an offline program that wizards could use to help them design blanks. Any news on this?

RB: Not yet, no. Engage were going to commission someone to write one, perhaps even me, but at the moment they have other things they'd rather spend their money on. The sheer scope of blanks is now more apparent to them, too, after I spent 6 months working on the "blank book." The recent over-enthusiasm of certain wizzes in their creation of blanks has obviously set the project back somewhat, as well.

AX: You've said in the past that the most important attribute for a MUD player aiming for wizard is a sense of humour. What other qualities would you rate as important?

RB: I wouldn't: it's up to the individual MUD how it wants to develop. See my forthcoming paper in the "Journal of MUD Research" (which is at for a discussion of the different player types, and choose your important attributes accordingly.

AX: 10 or 15 years ago, most if not all MUD players were very computer literate -- they had to be, just to successfully connect to the MUD computer! Do you see much difference in playing style between those players, and the players of today?

RB: Yes, but not because of the fact that they were computer-literate, just general changes of attitudes in society over the past 18 years.

AX: Most MUD2 devotees would agree that the typical Internet MUD doesn't come close to offering the same atmosphere or depth as MUD2. Is this a consequence of allowing too many people input into the game design, or simply a limitation of the programming languages used to implement such games?

RB: Well I have to speak generally here, of course; individual games may be a lot different. The lack of an overall editor (person, not program) will certainly put strains on a MUD's atmosphere, and despite what people may believe, not everyone can write decent room descriptions. There are some stylistic tricks which can be used that most authors don't even consider, e.g. using short, sharp room descriptions to up the pace in an area of danger, followed by a long "breather" description to indicate that the immediate danger is over and the next is about to start. MUD2 uses time as a metaphor for danger, too, so the older something is, the more distant from the present, then the greater the challenge it presents. That foggy Victorian area I mentioned earlier, for example, is more dangerous than the cottage, but less than, say, the tin mines. Unless these things are spelled out to authors, they won't use the same rules, and overall atmosphere suffers. Weak programming languages (or programmers) limit depth, but that's not where most of the atmosphere comes from early on. It makes a game more believable, but by the time players start exploring a MUD's depth they're probably hooked on it anyway.

AX: What do you think will be the next big step forward in the MUD genre?

RB: I don't care, so long as the steps are forward!

AX: Given unlimited resources and time, what are the most significant enhancements you would make to MUD2?

RB: I'd make the mobiles able to talk, and get someone to write a graphical front-end with illustrations of every object and room and full sound effects.

AX: With the announcement that AOL and Prodigy have signed up to run MUD2 (along with other Engage online games), MUD's userbase looks set to grow substantially. How well do you think MUD will cope with 40-50 players in a game, rather than 10-15?

RB: I've no idea until we get a flood test, however I should think that the first few times it happens MUD2 will cope very badly indeed! There's always some system limit which needs to be changed that we never find out about until we can test it.

AX: Rumour has it you've written a novel! What's it about, and when can we buy it?

RB: It's a fantasy novel written like it was cyberpunk. Spells are made up from sequences of gestures, strung together to create an overall effect. The overall setting is a renaissance-level world in social terms, but the codification of magic has brought about an early industrial revolution. The novel concerns two women, one of whom developed a major aid to creating long spells, and the other of whom (unknowingly) represented it as being her own idea, taking all the credit. The former has done some more research, and come to the conclusion that the underlying theory of how magic works is flawed, but the consequences of anyone else finding this out are unthinkably bad. The brunt of the novel is her attempt to get rid of magic in its entirety, so that no individual can use it to master the cosmos. As for when you can read it, well I've had about 9 rejection letters so far, which would seem to indicate that the most likely answer is "never."

AX: Finally, what would be an appropriate epitaph for your gravestone?

RB: Since I'm an atheist, and have no belief whatsoever in life after death, I couldn't care less -- it's not like it'll have any impact on me, since by definition I will be completely extinguished. I guess if someone twisted my arm and forced me to provide an epitaph, it would be "Don't forget." Sound advice...

Our thanks to Richard for taking time out to be interviewed!