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GDC Online: Bartle On  MUD 's 'Soul', Design 'Must Want To Say Something'
GDC Online: Bartle On MUD's 'Soul', Design 'Must Want To Say Something' Exclusive
October 8, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

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.

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Jason Schwenn
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"mere achievement-oriented leveling without a purpose is just consumerism, and lacks any purpose besides "get stuff.""

Very true. In general, actual achievements have been terrible for MMOs and I also have to say that the idea of "modes" in a persistent online world is atrocious. Hard mode vs normal mode, etc.

And of course, worse is that every MMO that is released that could be a paradigm-shifter just follows the WoW-wagon and we get the same regurgitated crap over and over again.

Andrew Grapsas
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Very passionate and almost contrarian. I love it.

Christopher Plummer
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These guys helped shape my childhood and I thank them for it, but now he's turning this into book vs movie. MUDs had the advantage of being completely text based which meant they could leave a lot up to the imagination. I agree that games today should definitely make more use of this, but they also have to worry about audio and visual fidelity in addition to being logically accurate. Sure, we could cut back on how things look and sound, but there is a reason why more people play World of Warcraft than the number of people who have ever played any of the thousands of MUDs that were created.

Michael Joseph
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"there is a reason why more people play World of Warcraft than the number of people who have ever played any of the thousands of MUDs that were created."

What reason is that? More people watch 24 than they do Masterpiece Theater. The production values of 24 episodes are certainly higher than those of Masterpiece Theater shows. So what? 24 is crap.

If maximizing the number of players so that staff can continue earning a living is the number 1 objective then fine. Accept that artistic compromise and be real about it.

Ian Uniacke
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@Chris: I totally agree. It's quite silly of him to dismiss this as easily implemented. Sure, it's easily implemented in a MUD because verbs don't cost exponentially more than nouns. So once you implement what "wet" means for instance you instantly have "wet horse", "wet feet", "wet helmet". But in a graphical game you then need to create artwork for every item in your game so that we know what a "wet" something something looks like.

I find some of what Leigh says quite illuminating, but he's really showing his ignorance on many points.

edit: I know I said verb and then used an adjective as my example but the same argument applies to both. (eg "running" dog, "running" man)

Bart Stewart
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What stands out to me is how much this philosophy of game design is about the player.

This philosophy isn't primarily interested in what things you like to do in a game, or in how to extract maximum cash from your wallet. It is, almost uniquely, concerned with *who you are* as a person. Play is a process for discovering your identity, and games enable that process.

Which leads to an interesting quality metric: a game is good to the degree that it helps you realize who you are.

By that definition, MUD was a pretty good game.

Have there been other games that were as good or better at this purpose?

Why haven't there been more such games?

Michael Joseph
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"Why haven't there been more such games?"

Perhaps appealing to the lowest common denominator is something our beloved industry has become too heavily engaged in.

A lot more young people listen to Britney Spears than they do Beethoven.

But i'm sounding like a broken record these days... I just blame corporations. People can create some really terrific games when they believe that they are not alone and that there are enough like minded folks who would "get", enjoy and BUY the game they've envisioned and then created for them to earn a good living. But that's not good enough for some entities in this world.

Michael Joseph
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re: "What stands out to me is how much this philosophy of game design is about the player."

After reading yours and then Hayden Dawson's post below I wondered if perhaps an important element of player centric game design is inextricably tied to the perception by the designer of the player as an equal? If you think of your potential players as equals (particularly in the like-minded sense) then you're willing to trust that they will "get" the game just as you do. If you think of your players as inferior or perhaps of a personality type that is not congruent, then as a designer you are put in a situation where you must design to their level and perhaps the game loses complexity, depth, and artistry as a result.

To some designers it seems as if it doesn't even occur to them that anyone would not be capable of "getting" their game. These are designers who hold all people in high esteem. And if in the final tally 12 million people don't play your game, it doesn't mean it's not GREAT. Similarly just because 12 million do, doesn't mean it is.

Raymond Grier
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You think Beethoven and Masterpiece theater are better than Britney and 24 but obviously those millions of people enjoying them don't agree (accept those who enjoy all 4, which I can do). You're letting your own taste influence your logical reasoning which is not a good way to start of a game's design.

Sun Tsu (Sunzi) said "Know your self, know your enemy." but game designers need to "..know their customers.".

Matt Mihaly
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There have been and continue to be. There are still hundreds of text MUDs out there today, some of which are considerably more sophisticated than the first MUD.

Michael Joseph
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@Raymond Grier If you're suggesting that Britney Spears is better than Beethoven I really don't know what to say. Specific examples aside, Im simply pointing out the obvious truth that being more popular doesn't always equate to being better. I don't think there's anything illogical about that.

But I think if you replace the word "game" in game designer with "product" then the typical industry approach to designing not by taste but by trying to appeal to mass audiences makes perfect sense.

But that typical approach is obviously not the path Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle followed.

William Holt
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@Michael Joseph: The bottom line is that this is an industry, and in order to sell things, the industry needs to give the customer what they want. This business is not artistic compromise, it's applying one's creative side within the context of a business.

If you have the time and money to make a game while staying completely, unabashedly and uncompromisingly true to your artistic ideals, I envy you. Not everyone has that luxury. But, I'd ask that you stop being so critical of those who don't share your apparent excess of liberties.

Michael Joseph
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@Will Holt: I don't think it's fair to say that I'm being critical of any single person. My wording is clumsy at times. I think perhaps you've misinterpreted where I'm coming from. I'm not judging anyone, however I think there's a lot of delusions out there as evidence by people's rhetoric and frankly the facts. I'm aware of the economic realities of creating games (particularly big budget games). That is why it bothers me when for instance, someone like yourself says that it's not artistic compromise. Of course it is. That's not me being critical, that's me disagreeing with a statement. And to the extent that I disapprove, it's not with the act of compromising, it's in the delusional (imho) denial of that compromise. And I'm not sure how I can disagree with such an apparently sensitive belief without bothering some people.

I'm just advocating a more accurate, open and honest view of things (or as I garishly put it previously, let's "be real about it.")


EDIT: "This business is not artistic compromise, it's applying one's creative side within the context of a business."

If you meant "this business is not ABOUT artistic compromise" feintly suggesting that artistry does not even factor into the equation, then I would be more inclined to agree with that sentiment (corporations produce products not works of art). Creativity (which is wonderful and great by itself) is certainly a factor in many human endeavors including creation of consumer products.

EDIT 2: "to give the customer what they want"

In the context of business first, I absolutely agree. Although, giving consumers what they want is a good excuse to serve all manner of markets. Social responsibility is what separates the unethical businessman who wants to make a buck at any cost, from fruit and vegetable sellers (so to speak)... but i digress.

Michael Chui
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It saddens me that the bottom line of the conversation is that this is an industry, and thus it can't be anything else. Software engineering is an industry, too, but some of us code in our spare time for nothing but the love of making something cool or meaningful. Why can't virtual worlds be like that?

sean lindskog
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Hard-edged realism is only important to a small segment of gamers. I'm surprised to hear Bartle argue otherwise, as he has written extensively about the radically different varieties and motivation of gamers.

I strongly disagree that immersion is necessarily equated with "conforming to reality". As long as the game is consistent within it's own rules (whether they be realistic or not), it can create an immersive experience.

The examples given of melting ice, rotting milk, and swimming in platemail don't do anything to convince me otherwise. I think most MMO players would rather the devs spend their time implementing new adventures, monsters, or character abilities. Things that are relevant to the game, not the real world.

For many years, I played and later coded a "player killing" (or "PvP" in modern terminology) mud. Nobody in it cared at all about realism. The whole game was about the thrill of player vs. player competition. It was an extremely unrealistic, and extremely immersive experience.

The best games are abstractions of our world, or of worlds imagined. They focus on creating all the best parts of a compelling experience, while leaving the boring details out. Kind of like how a good book or movie usually leaves out the part of the story while the protagonist is sleeping or using the bathroom. ;) Sure, there are some people who would like this level of realism in game, but not many.

Hayden Dawson
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Uber realism/total world immersion was a limited audience even within the world of the pen and paper social experience that MUD grew from. It was not for everyone then and is even less a 'requirement' for a player now with such a broader spectrum of gamers gaming.

I have nothing against a developer/creator explaining to me their personal goals and desires in the creation process; and to an extent a creator does have a right to express how they 'wish' their creations to be played and experienced.

Yet, a player should be allowed to experience a game in their own way. And if the experience a player wishes can not be found in a particular creation, they have the right to play something else. Our real world is no less better or worse, regardless.

Michael Joseph
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Uber realism/total world immersion may have a relatively smaller audience compared to that of a modern MMO, but so what? If you're concerned about popularity then let's be real and admit that you're willing to sacrifice your ideals for creating something that will sell more copies.

This is why "products" (as are so many commerical games) not art.

Greg Gursky
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I really like what these gents had to say about realism in gaming, even if it's difficult to attain in practice. When I try to argue in favor of realism people tend to jump on me with extreme, contrived examples. I agree that perfect realism is neither attainable nor an attractive prospect. But when it doesn't directly impede game-play, it's almost always an advantage to immersion, and that's the primary goal of gaming for me. Everyone's thresholds to immersion are different, however. So making the game world make sense whenever it can, and make the fantastic elements either explainable, intuitive or natural, will engender immersion in the widest audience.