Recently Dr. Richard Bartle; widely recognised for co-writing the first MMO, Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), has been criticised for his alleged negativity of all videogames.  We decided to give Bartle a call, especially after our very own MMO Weekly reported his dissapointment in a WoW quest from the new expansion, in order to respond to various claims. In this, the first part of our interview, Bartle talks about how he got into videogame design. 

Can you just put in context why you’re considered the authority on MMOs?  And how does it make you feel when people state you claim you’re the authority on MMOs?  Evidence suggests that you have never claimed you are the authority on MMOs and it must be quite frustrating when you comment rather innocently and you get picked up on it.

The outside world see me as an authority whether I like it or not.  If you’re a journalist [for example] and you want to find somebody who knows what they’re talking about, you are going to look at the history and find someone.  It’s for that reason the outside world picks me just because I so happened to have co-written MUD.

Now you’ve said co-written, reiterating that you weren’t the creator as such.  Some people claim that you take full credit for MUD.

Yes they do, and I don’t know where it comes from, but there are many things that are written, even in books, which are wrong [about me].  You would have thought that editors would have checked claims like that, but no. 
I always make a point of correcting people when they say that I wrote it.  If you were to say who wrote the first line of code it would be Roy Trubshaw.

How long had Roy been on the project before you joined then?  From what I can see it was two years before you joined.

No, I took over two years after he’d started, but we did work together on it before then.  I approached him a week or two after he’d started it, and written the very first test version.  It was still in 1978 when I joined.

So, within reason, you were there pretty much right from the start?

Yes, pretty much, but I didn’t invent it.  What happened was that Roy had this idea, he discovered this new technique where you could write something which was shareable and have many users communicating with each other.  He decided to use that to write a game.  He’d only just done a viability test on the code he was going to use, the special trick that he’d found.  I came across him, introduced myself and told him about my games background which he was interested in.  We got on well and we started work on the game proper and I helped add things to the game after his first tests, so yes, I was there pretty much right from the start.

So what’s this number of you writing 75% of the code all about then?

No, that’s 75% of the code for MUD1, but from my point of view, Roy’s 25% was the most important and my code was to support what he’d written by providing content for the game, but his code was the mechanic of the game.

Is it fair to say that this was the birth of MMOs?

Yes it is, because what happened is that people played MUD and thought “Gawd, that’s good, but I could do better.”  Of course they went off and wrote their own.  Some of them were better, and some of them weren’t better.  Some were better in some ways, but worse in others.  And this process evolved, and we always knew we were going to get graphics so that was helpful.  Then the internet went commercial and spread all over the place, which meant we were able to get more people playing, which mean that there was a lot larger income, which in turn meant we could develop a bigger and better game.  The concept of virtual worldliness can be tracked back to MUD for virtually every MMO game.

Almost all MMOs today are indeed direct descendants of MUD, but there are exceptions – WAR
is perhaps the most visible one, as its ultimate ancestor is a game called Aradath that Mark Jacobs wrote before he ever heard of MUD.  The concept of virtual worlds has been invented independently at least seven times, and it’s just luck that led to MUD being their primogenitor rather than one of the other ones. In other words, we would still have got MMOs even if Roy and I hadn’t written MUD.{PAGE TITLE=Page 2}
Presumably the idea for MUD was from dice and role-play games?

No, not at all.

Where did it come from then, was it purely a mechanism to socialise?

No, we wanted to build a world!  Why wouldn’t you?  If you can build a world, you build a world.  I had a gaming background.  I had played Dungeons and Dragons quite extensively for a couple of years, but I’d also created my own [Role-Play] games and played them.  There were other important concepts which we got from things like Lord of the Rings not because we wanted wizards and orcs, but because it’s possible to create a world which was self-consistent and believable, but utterly different from the real world.

Obviously then, worlds come with rules and laws and constrictions.  Were there any strict rules that needed to be adhered to and how difficult was it to administer people in your world?

Well, there are two ways of applying rules.  The first way is just to code it, if the code says you can’t walk through a wall, then you can’t walk through a wall.  There are other things that the code can’t stop you from doing.  For example bullying.  How can the code stop you from bullying somebody when it doesn’t know you’re doing it?  If I attack you it may be because three days ago you stole something from me, but the code doesn’t know that.  In cases like that you need to manage by conventional norms where you have players themselves saying that they’re not going to help you because what you did was wrong.

We also had wizards and wizards were our equivelent of the end game.  Once you’ve reached the highest level you became a wizard and that gave you administrative rights.  You were an administrator.  You can do what you like, but it wasn’t easy getting to the wizard as this was a game with permanent death so you really needed to know your stuff to get there.

Is that something that modern MMO games have lost you think?  The idea of re-spawning, how do you feel about it?

Well it’s part of the paradigm of modern games and it’s what people expect and if you were going to put out a game with permanent death in it then I don’t think many people would play it purely because it has permanent death in it. 

In your book, Designing Virtual Worlds, you break MMO players into four personalities; achievers, explorers, socialisers and killers.  I know that’s the two-dimensional, if you will, version of this, and you later say that it can be split further into eight catergories, but just outline the theory behind this for us.

Well, there are eight player types.  Essentially, each of the four types are split into two.  So there are two types of killer, achiever, socialiser and explorer.  And there’s a lot to do with that, but ultimately, they’re quite compelling arguments as to why people play MMOs.

So what type of person, from the basic four categories, do players usually fall into?  What’s the percentage?

It depends on the MMO.  And also how old the MMO is.  People tend to move through the types as they go on.  People who spend a lot of time in the end g
ame might think of themselves as achievers, but actually they’re not achievers, they’re socialisers.  They enjoy the raids, they enjoy the company, they enjoy working together with all these people they’ve known for ages and that’s a socialiser thing, it’s not an achiever thing.  However they don’t think that because they’ve justified it to themselves by saying I want this particular helm, or this token which I can save up and cash for a sword or something.  They have achiever views, but they’ve moved on.  It’s not the reason they’re doing it, the reason they do it is because they enjoy hanging out with their friends.

Generally what happens is that people start off as a killer or opportunist.  When you arrive in the virtual world you want to know what your boundaries are and what you can do.  Some people go for physical boundaries, so “can I pick up this stone?”, “can I knock down this wall?”, “can I drink with this bottle?”, “can I shoot this arrow?” and they’re trying to find the physical boundaries.  Other people try to find out what their social boundaries are.  So questions like “can I swear?”, “can I pick people’s pockets?”, “can I attack them?”.
Once you’ve found out where the boundaries are you know what you can do physically and socially.

After they’ve done that they use that information to acquire more knowledge.  Sometimes it’ll be through exploring.  So you can go off and find things and do experiments with them.  “If I do this AND this, then THIS will happen”, “the last time I was in this river, the flame I was carrying didn’t go out, so I know that this river won’t put out fire”.
You’ll tend to see more social players actually asking people where to go, “how do I go up levels?”, “where is this person?”.
So effectively different people work in different ways.  Once the explorers figure out what they need to figure out in terms of fighting and collecting items they’re a lot more comfortable doing quests.  Whereas the socialites are happier not having the information, but going in groups, organising things with their group of friends together.
Generally though, the achiever stage lasts the longest.

Well, what happens then when you achieve everything there is to achieve, why do people hang around.  And when you’re leveled up, what’s to stop you from re-evaluating your position and boundaries?

Once you’ve achieved everything there are two things that can happen.  You either go back and play the game again be old timers and hang around with friends, or become guru’s. 

Stay tuned for more from Bartle, as well as his comments and feelings on the torture quest, his thoughts on current games and how MUD became the first MMO of all time, with a little help from the internet and CompuServe.

Paul Younger
Founder and Editor of PC Invasion. Founder of the world's first gaming cafe and Veteran PC gamer of over 22 years.

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