Richard Bartle Interview Transcript

Hi, all. The transcript for my interview with Dr. Richard Bartle, creator of MUD, is finally available! Enjoy. Transcript begins below.

Matt:   Alright, folks. I am here with the great Dr. Richard Bartle. He’s the writer, co-creator of MUD, the game that pretty much laid the foundations for all of the later MUDs of course, and the MMORPGs to follow, games like World of Warcraft, EverQuest. [chuckles] You know what I’m talking about. He’s also a professor of computer game design at Essex University and a consultant to the games industry. So, how are you doing today, Richard?

Richard:   I’m doing fine today, thank you.

Matt:   It’s a real honor to have you on the show.

Richard:   You’re just saying that.

Matt:   [both chuckle]

Matt:   Well, I was looking at this website of yours, and you’re quite –

Richard:   – Ah!

M:   – a prolific guy! My god, I mean, there’s a lot of material up there!

R:   That’s only because I’ve lived a lot longer than you have.

M:   [laughs]. I kinda sort of hung up for a while on those stereoscopic pictures. I think there’s one of Colchester Castle up there?

R:   Yeah, yeah. There’s lots of those. I take them a whole time. Only a few of them ever make it to the website because I’m kinda lazy. But eventually I’ll put more up.

M:   Yeah, those things – it always amazes me when you finally look at it just the right way and the pictures just sort of – I mean, it’s a pretty weird effect. I have no idea how that works [chuckles] visually. Well, it must be going – I guess it’s a mental phenomenon, right?

R:   Yes, it’s just the brain picking up two images, one for each eyes, and then thinking, “Oh, my goodness, oh, these don’t look like two images,” and put them into one. I mean, it’s – I can do it fine, but some people get headaches after a while. But I’ve never had a headache in my life, so I can do it indefinitely. So it’s easy for me, but for other people, it’s okay for a while, but they they start feeling queasy, headaches and all. Probably achy heads.

Richard:   [both chuckle]

M:   Yeah, you always hear that about the nausea from 3D. That seems to be a – I’m glad I don’t suffer from that ’cause I love those stereoscopic images, too. I noticed you do a lot of fiction as well. People probably don’t know that. Maybe they don’t know that about you, but you’ve got some novels and some –

R:   Yeah, yeah –

Matt:   – some stories –

Richard:   Yeah, well. Yes, I’ve got – The reason they don’t know about them, because nobody buys them because, you know, in order to get fiction published, you pretty well have to be famous, or –

Matt:   Well, you’re famous!

Richard:   – have already had some –

Matt:   [chuckles]

Richard:   I’m not famous in the – in a sense appreciated by the publishing industry. Let’s put it that way, yeah. Because if they’ve never heard of me, then obviously no one’s heard of me. The thing is that there’s so many people who’ve written fiction, and you get these “Write a book in a month” things every year. So much fiction coming out that if you’re a book publisher then you’re not looking for good fiction, you’re looking for a reason not to accept everything that comes your way, so the slightest reason not to do it and you’re gone. So if you’re famous enough that they’ve heard of you, then you’re fine, if you’ve already published a book, you’re fine, if you’ve got an agent, you’re fine, or if you work for a book publisher, you’re also fine. But to get an agent, you have to be famous or know an agent or work for an agent, and so, you know, it’s quite difficult. So yeah, but I write the stories not because I’m actually intending to get them published, although we can hope, but because I’ve got this story and I just want to write it, so I do. So, yeah.

Matt:   What’s your – what story or novel do you think is your best work so far?

Richard:   Story or novel… hmm… Well, obviously it’s the one I’m working on at the moment –

Matt:   [both laugh]

Richard:   – which is the second in a series that I already wrote the first one for. But, yes, I did manage to sell 200 copies of that on the Kindle, so, at least, I’ve either got 200 friends, or those, that free set of advertising that I got off Google once suddenly brought me 200 people who accidentally clicked on the link or something. I dunno. But it’s – that one’s a young adult fiction thing. I’ve got other ones that I really, really liked writing and really, really liked reading, and sadly I’m not the person who gets to decide whether they get published or not, so, eh.

Matt:   Well, let’s see. You’ve also done some, I guess, JavaScript games or browser-based games on there people can play?

Richard:   Ah, yeah, but they’re just for fun, like 15 years ago. Only took me a day each or something like that.

Matt:   Then you’ve got some Civ maps, er, some Civilization maps?

Richard:   You have been looking at my website, haven’t you?

Matt:   Yeah! That’s what I – [laughs]

Richard:   It’s almost like you do research!

Matt:   Yeah, it was a huge website! What else? It seems like you’ve done a little bit of everything. I mean, you’ve got these Civilization maps –

Richard:   Yeah, yeah –

Matt:   – that other people can download –

Richard:   – yeah, Civilization III –

Matt:   I take it you’re a pretty big fan of the series?

Richard:   Yeah, I quite like Civilization, yes, because it’s – well, Civilization III & II, they were kind of the best. Civilization IV, not so good. Civilization V? Ah… But –

Matt:   You didn’t like Civilization V?

Richard:   Nah, I don’t like Civilization V.

Matt:   What’s, what’s the matter with it?

Richard:   Well, if you’ve got archers in England, they can’t fire across the English Channel to France. Realistically.

Matt:   [laughs]

Richard:   But in Civilization, because they’ve got this – sorry if you’re not a Civilization fan – but they’ve got this range thing going on now, so you can have archers, and they’ll fire 2 hexes away, but the trouble is that a hex isn’t a fixed amount, so a hex in an interstellar thing could be, you know, galaxies, or, but if it’s set on Earth, then a hex could be just a few miles away or it could be across the English channel, or it could be across the Red Sea or something. You know, it could be any size, and “Let’s shoot an arrow from Madagascar to mainland Africa.” Well, no. Yeah, no. So that’s one thing I don’t like. I also don’t like the separate cities that they’ve got. Every time I play it now, I turn off the city-states option because I don’t like them. They – people – they get upset if you kill them. And eh…

Matt:   [laughs] Yeah –

Richard:   – Anyway.

Matt:   – I’m the same way. I was – one of the essays I saw there, you were talking – I think it was – I didn’t write down what magazine this was for. I think it was maybe one of the science fiction mags? But they were talking to you about virtual reality, which was kind of interesting because I believe the article was either in the 80s or the 90s, and you were talking about this, and you had a nice little twist in what – I won’t spoil the ending for the viewers out there –

Richard:   – Oh, yeah. The future of –

Matt:   [chuckles]

Richard:   – artificial, of virtual reality. yes.

Matt:   [laughs] Yeah. I was just wondering if you’d had a chance to play around with Oculus Rift or any of the new sort of augmented reality stuff that’s come out lately?

Richard:   No, I haven’t had a chance to play around with them because if I did have them, I would feel obliged to – to have to take a student on to do something with it, so, at the moment, no. No, it’s the sort of thing where much as I’d like to have a go at it since I like 3D, it’s not something that I’ve got anything that I can do with this at the moment. you know, I’d have to take it, I’d have to start developing with it myself, which I’d kind of like to do but basically that’s the sort of thing, well, why would I do that when I can have a s- I was going to say slave, but I think student’s probably better –

Matt:   [laughs]

Richard:   – when I can have a student do that as, finally, a project and then they can do all the hard stuff and then I don’t have to do that anymore. So that’s kind of the way I look at it. I did – I didn’t put any money into it – the Kickstarter – because I didn’t think it was actually gonna get funded. Huh! Shows you how much I know about that, still.

Matt:   I think a lot of us kind of assumed that stuff was dead, you know, at the time, but then suddenly –

Richard:   Oh –

Matt:   – there just seemed to be this huge resurgence of it.

Richard:   No, I always knew it was gonna – that the 3D stuff was gonna come back because there’s nowhere else to go, is there? If you’re doing vision, there’s nowhere else you can go but 3D, and once you can see which direction the eyes are pointing so that you don’t end up with people having diverging eyes like they did in the 1950s 3D movies, then you should be okay with that. So, yeah, I always knew we were going to get it. Okay, so it’s the Oculus Rift looks like it’s going to be the one, but who knows? And the other thing is, you never know when a blindingly obvious idea is not going to make it because somebody took out a patent in 1997 that stops it from being made until the patent runs out or some – there’s all these nasty little –

Matt:   Not a –

Richard:   – dodges (?) –

Matt:   – big fan of the intellectual property law, huh?

Richard:   Uh, I’m not a fan of it being given out for things which it shouldn’t be given out for, which is pretty well most of it. But at least in the UK, you can’t patent software, so that’s good. But in the US, you can, and passing things off like the notorious one-click one – buy with one click – on Amazon. Wh- why is that ever patented? Why?

Matt:   Yeah. How does that promote progress, right?

Richard:   Well, I don’t think the patent office is there to promote progress. I think it’s probably there in order to promote its own existence because if you get your funding, like the US patent office does, from the patents that you award, you know, people pay you to award the patents, well, you’re going to award patents, aren’t you? Maybe if they had to pay if a patent ever got broken, then that might wake them up a bit, but I don’t think you can force government agencies through the courts like that in America, so, anyway.

Matt:   So if you had the opportunity to have patented MUDs, you’d have made, I guess, billions of dollars at this point from the –

Richard:   No. Nope. I had the opportunity, and I said no. We- we could have clamped some intellectual property on it but – the reason that Roy and I wrote MUD wasn’t to make money, it was because we wanted to make the real world a better place, and the way to do that isn’t by clamping down on intellectual property and stopping anybody else from making it. The way to do that is to give it away for free and to let other people do what they want with it, so that’s what we did. I mean, I was a student at the university, my – back then, we didn’t have to pay any fees. It was all – we got a grant, and the taxpayers had effectively paid Roy and I to make this thing, so it would have been rather cheating on them if we had said, “Oh, thanks for paying us to make this thing and now we’re going to make all the money and you don’t get any, Taxpayers. Ha ha. Sucks to be you.”

Matt:   Kinda like Kickstarter, almost?

Richard:   Well, well, yeah, well – [sighs]. If we were the kind of people who wanted to make money from MUD, we wouldn’t have been the kind of people to have written MUD in the first place. See? –

Matt:   – Mhmm.

Richard:   – See what I mean?

Matt:   – Yeah.

Richard:   The, the game was supposed to be a way to get away from how dreadful the real world was and so that people could live in, well, not so much live in, but they get to be themselves, they could be themselves, become themselves in this other world that we’d created, but other people’d get, “We want other people to create versions, we want to make ’em ourselves,” and so, we let people play. When anybody wanted to know how things worked, we told them, we sent copies off to the university. We did stop people from making money from it. If other people wanted to make money from it, then we said, “No, we don’t want that,” you know, this [‘d be it? indistinct]. So it was kind of a bit like what in these days would be the –

Matt:   Creative Commons?

Richard:   – yeah, yeah, an NRT license or someth-, you know, basically open source. So – and that’s what we did. People liked our games, they wrote their own. Some of them were better than ours, some of them weren’t, and they went off in all these different directions. Now, other people did come up with the same idea of a virtual world around the same time as us, some slightly after, some, depending on what you mean by virtual world might have been before, but theirs didn’t ever get anywhere, and the reason they didn’t get anywhere was either because it was some kind of a walled garden like the PLATO ones, you know, you could only play on PLATO. That’s Avatar on there. Or they were making money like Scepter of Goth was, and Island of Kesmai. They were also early, and because they were making money, they didn’t want people to have their source code. In fact, Scepter of Goth, their source code was ripped off by one of their programmers who just took it and set up his own game, so – and that was before you could do anything about stealing software. But what it meant was that if they kept hold of their software and kept it close to their chests, then in future, there weren’t going to be many people who could code for it, whereas with MUD, we’ve got people who played MUD, they liked it, they wrote their own, people liked that, and we got generation, generation, evolving very quickly and by the time the games industry thought, “Hmm, these things here could make us some money,” and they took on some programmers or people who had experience, well, you know, there was 100 MUD people for every one from Kesmai or Scepter of Goth. So that’s kind of why you’re speaking to me now, rather than speaking to Alan Klietz who did Scepter of Goth or Kelton Flinn who did Island of Kesmai. Either that or you’ve already spoken to them and I’m just third in line.

Matt:   [chuckles] No.

Richard:   [chuckles and sighs]

Matt:   No, there is – I’ve always felt the same way that maybe you’re not making that quick cash from something like that but on the other hand, you get so much more influence and you make such a larger impact on something by giving it away for free.

Richard:   Well, you get the impact, yes, but – I’m not trying to parlay the impact into a knighthood or anything – the –

Matt:   Sir Richard Bartle. [chuckles] That’s got a nice ring to it.

Richard:   Yes, it would be. Yes. The way these things work in the UK is:  if you create something that makes you a billion pounds, you get a seat in the House of Lords; if you create something that makes other people billions of pounds a year but doesn’t make you any, then you don’t get to be – in fact, you get to be a professor in computer science at Essex University, in my case, or a software design consultant, in Roy Trubshaw’s case. I should mention – I always have to mention this – it wasn’t just me, it was two of us wrote MUD:  me and Roy Trubshaw. I’m just pointing over there:  he’s like 300 miles in that direction, but –

Matt:   Oh –

Richard:   – but, um –

Matt:   It’s interesting you should bring up this knighthood and the House of Lords and all ’cause one of the things I thought was really interesting. In one of the interviews that I was watching with you, you said that the reason that you put levels into the game was a response to the inherent unfairness of the British –

Richard:   – Yes.

Matt:   – caste system –

Richard:   – class.

Matt:   – and I just – I wan- class system – I was wondering if you could – [chuckles] I don’t know where that came from!

Richard:   India, I think. [chuckles]

Matt:   Uh, that’s a Freudian slip, I suppose. But anyway, could you elaborate a little bit on that?

Richard:   Yeah, yeah. The – hmm. Okay. So it’s 1978, and you are a student at the University of Essex, and you’re studying computer science. You’re not supposed to be there. You’re not supposed to be at university: no one in your family’s ever been to university before. The – computer science is regarded as a low thing, below electronics, which itself is regarded as a low thing beneath physics, which itself is regarded as a low thing beneath mathematics. We’re at the bottom; we’re kind of software engineers. The only reason that we get to be at university is because there’s a slight window where the country as a whole feels that it needs, perhaps, some people to do this software engineering. Now, the middle class parents, they aren’t going to send their children to be software engineers. I mean, what does- What does a software engineer do, dig a hole in software and bury it? No, soft- so, they don’t care. They want their children to be historians and art critics and, perhaps economists and so on. Some of their children aren’t all that bright, so they can get them into the computer science. The other way, though, is that there are people who are very, very smart but come from a working class background. And that’s where Roy Trubshaw and I and some of our friends came from. I mean, we we- we weren’t rich. My parents, my father was a gas fitter, you know. He spent all day installing cookers in people’s houses. My mother was a school meals cook, so she cooked for 30 primary school children, or 50, or 100, or however many there were. Trouble is, she still cooks like that, you know. I go to eat –

Matt:   [chuckles]

Richard:   – and she makes – there’s one of us, me and maybe my wife – and she cooks for four!

Matt:   She probably makes really great rolls.

Richard:   Psh! No, no, no, she cooks things. Ah, mmm… anyway. So, the thing was, we got to university, and everyone else there is better off than us. We’re looked down on because we’re doing computer science. You know, “You call it a science, why is it a science?” and so on. And life sucked. Computing didn’t suck:  computers were a form out, a way of freedom, and you found this a lot in what used to be called hacker communities – they’re not called hacker communities anymore because hacking means breaking into someone’s computer and stealing their data – but back then, a hacker was somebody who was, had an innate understanding of computering. They got ’em; they grokked them. And to, to get that kind of attitude, you needed to have a view of the world, like a particular worldview. You had to think that computers were a force for good, that you could use them to change the world, and all the people who came to, who, what you would call hackers, they weren’t – they didn’t kind of learn the culture from other hackers. It wasn’t, “We’ve learnt your culture,” it was “This is our culture,” and “Oh, wow! You feel the same way!” So, we naturally bonded, all of us, together.

And we all thought that the real world sucked because, you know, we were never gonna get anywhere. You know, we were only there because the people who had deigned to throw a few crumbs our way because computers might be something that would be worthwhile in the future: “Oh, you could probably get your secretary to use one,” you know, this sort of thing. And we raged against this. I mean, we were bottom of the pile, and the real world was, I mean, it sucked. It just sucked for us. It was just not a lot of fun at all. Couldn’t get – we couldn’t get girlfriends, and the- there were girls doing computer science, but they were, like, people, not girls, they were sort of people. So, you know, you would say things like, “Who’d- who were you speaking to last night?” “Oh, well, let’s see, there was a group of us, let’s see, there was Roy, he’s quite tall, he’s got a mustache, there was Kevin, he’s – big afro, he’s black guy, big afro, there was, there was Gayle, she was a girl, and then there was Nigel who’s got like a hooked nose”-

Matt:   [chuckles]

Richard:   – you know, it was like a physical characteristic –

Matt:   Ah –

Richard:   – so you wouldn’t ever treat a girl as anything other than a person if she was a computer scientist, you know. We were all just there together. And so, we just couldn’t get anywhere in soc- you know, you speak to someone who’s doing their degree in art history or literature or philosophy or something and, you know, the way it works is, “So, you’re computer science, are you?” “Yes, yeah.” “Alright, so. See this? This is your heart.” [makes a gurgling sound] So, we didn’t like the world. We didn’t like it.

Matt:   I thought computer nerds over here had it bad, but sounds like –

Richard:   [chuckles]

Matt:   – you’re dealing with a whole different level of –

Richard:   Yes! Yes, well, I’m probably getting the same as you, but in America, you’ve got this vision of “Everyone can become the President.” In Britain, not everyone can become the Queen. And, I mean, my accent at the moment, I mean I’ve lived in Essex for 35 years, but I’ve got a Northern accent. I come from the north of England, and I sound like a peasant to southern of England. The south of England – it’s like the opposite of America where the – in Britain, the South is where all the power lies, ’round London. And Roy comes from Northern Hampton, and he’s got a west midlands accent, so he speaks like this [less pausing for breath, slightly elevated tone, slightly faster paced]: “What d’you think you’re doing? I don’t know what you’re going to do. I’m speaking like this. My accent goes up’n’down,” and then he’s from Northern Hampton, which is slightly – so he’s got this bit where, “Whaddyouthinkyou’redoing? Idun- I’mgonna-” and you ask him a question and he goes higher and higher, so, and he sounds like he should be working in a factory, but he’s really, really smart. I’m also really, really smart, and I’ve got the qualifications to prove it. [chuckles].

But it doesn’t matter, being really smart, if people th-, as soon as you show up, as soon as you open your mouth, they’ve pigeon-holed you because you’re working class. And we wanted a place where we could go where none of this mattered, where who you were was based on your strength of character, on who you were as a person, and it didn’t matter what sex, gender, class, whatever you were, you could just go there and be and become your self. And we never really discussed it at the time, Roy and I. We just sort of, we implicitly understood that this is what we wanted to do. And so we did it. We made a world. And it was very empowering for the people who played, and the whole class thing just got out of the way. Everything went. It didn’t matter what your accent was – it mattered if you could spell, but it didn’t matter what your accent was – and, and you got the freedom. It was always, always about freedom to be and become your self, or to become and to be I suppose I should say, your self. So, that’s why we did it. We did it because we wanted to create a better world. Having done so, we wanted that to spread:  we wanted the real world to be better, so of course we were going to give everything away. If we didn’t want to give it away, we wouldn’t have been the kind of people who’d written it in the first place. Levels, in MUD, were so that you could tell how experienced another player was. I looked at a number of ways to – I, when we started off, well, when Roy started off MUD, he was trying to make a world, and in the same way that the real world doesn’t have levels, like you don’t have a number stamped – okay, just checking. You don’t have a number stamped on your forehead –

Matt:   We just have degrees. [both chuckle]

Richard:   [chuckles] Yes, yes, but you can’t, but it’s not actually physically noticeable:  “I am a -,” Dalek, by the look of it. –

Matt:   [laughs]

Richard:   I am – so – but in the – he, he had the world, and it was all free form, the idea being that the emergent interactions between players gave the content, gave the things to do. But back then, computers were less powerful than, probably than the little camera that’s pointing at me. I mean, they were really bad. I’ve got a photograph of Roy Trubshaw that I show my students. I think it’s about 250, maybe 300k, I think. There’s more bits in that photo than we had to write MUD, so it’s – we didn’t have the power to do that, so we had to make the world a game. And this is the point where I came – well, not the point where I came in, the point where I kind of took over because I was the content person. Roy could do content but he really liked programming. I could do programming but really liked content. Roy talked about –

Matt:   Were you – were you guys roommates –

Richard:   No, no, no –

Matt:   – or just friends?

Richard:   Just friends, yeah. Roy did about a quarter of the coding, but it was the hardest part. I did about three quarters of the coding and maybe 90% of the content, and when it, when we decided, “Look, if we want people to play this, we’ll have to make it into a game.” The word we used was gamify, which doesn’t mean anything like it does now. But it did – back then, it meant turning something into a game. Now it means turning something that isn’t a game into something that maybe ought to be a game but they just can’t bring themselves to do it. But we wanted – but we wanted to make MUD into a game, so I was looking at ways – I knew you had to have intermediate goals. Well, that’s what I concluded:  you needed things for people to aim at. And I looked at a number of different models, and I took the levels one out of Dungeons & Dragons, in part because it gives a clear goal – you can see where you’re going – but I also wanted it to have – each level to have a personality, so when you’re at each level, you could feel what that level meant. If you saw someone who was a level Hero, that was different to seeing someone who was a level Necromancer, and we only had about 12 levels, the highest being Wizard/Witch, and that was the level that once you got to that, you’re an administrator, you’ve got administration powers. And the reason for this was so that you could see yourself working up through – you could see yourself rising. You weren’t trapped down at one level. How far you got was depending on how good at MUD you were or how many friends you had or how you conducted yourself, things like this.

Matt:   Kind of a merit-based system.

Richard:   Yeah, merit-based, yes. But with the aim that, in time, anybody – well, I say any – well, not anybody, some people really, really are stupid.

Matt:   [laughs]

Richard:   But most people could get to the top if they persevered. And in so doing, they’d come to understand more about themselves. I mean, it was kind of – it was built – I wasn’t aware at the time of this about, you know, journeys to self understanding – well, I knew that they existed, Buddhism and stuff, but I wasn’t aware of the Hero’s journey, that sort of thing, or narrative arcs, how they were structured, but I did have this sense that the more that you got to experiment with who you are, the better feel that you’d have of who you are, and the better you’d be able to become who you are. You could try being a jerk, doesn’t work out, so you don’t. Okay. Some people are jerks, and they like it, so. Okay, well, you’ve reached your level then, haven’t you? But it was a way of understanding, and it was specifically to address the class system, and it – we really. It was, “Look. This is what you’ve got. We don’t want that. Go away.” And later – we never explained this to the players because players don’t like the idea that they’re being… manipulated in any way, so we never explained any of that, we just – this is how it was. And then people who came along who’ve made their own games thought, “Well, MUD’s only got 12 levels,” or however many it was at the time, “so we’ll have 20. That’s so much better.” And then others: “We’ll have 50,” “We’ll have 132.” Yeah, turn it all the way up to 11, you know, the dial. I mean, it’s – so, they never really got it, got why we had the levels, and their levels lost personality, and then eventually you get so many levels they may as well actually be experience points. Sorry. I’ve ranted for quite a while here, but you did – you did touch a –

Matt:   No, yeah, I mean, I agree. I played a lot of MUDS, too, when I was growing up and –

Richard:   Mmm.

Matt:   – you know, I felt the same way, like this was a space – that part about you could kind of experiment, get away from people just judging you based on appearance or whatever and get to role play, I suppose, is really the word for it.

Richard:   Yeah, well. Yeah. There’s two sorts of role play, really. There’s the “here’s the role and you must fit yourself to it,” which is, like acting. So, if you’re playing Hamlet, you can’t play Hamlet for laughs. Oh, I’ve spotted your Pac-Man t-shirt.

Matt:   Oh, yes, Pac-Man’s 35 today.

Richard:   Oh! Oh, right! I should – I should – and Bioware’s 20, isn’t it? I should have put my Pac-Man cuff links on, but I didn’t.

Matt:   You’ve got some Pac-Man cuff links? [chuckles]

Richard:   Uh, yeah, I’ve got Pac-Man cuff links. I’ve got two sets of Pac-Man cuff links, I’ve got Tetris cuff links, I’ve got Breakout cuff links.

Matt:   Oh, wow.

Richard:   Yeah, anything I’ve – plus, dice, cards, several playing cards –

Matt:   Breakout?

Richard:   – dominoes –

Matt:   You said Breakout cuff links?

Richard:   Yeah, Breakout, yeah –

Matt:   Those were probably designed by Woz, but [chuckles] –

Richard:   Oh. [sighs]

Matt:   – but somebody else got the credit?

Richard:   They’re just a – someone’s taken a screen shot and put it on a little tiny square.

Matt:   Hmm.

Richard:   But, hey. Anyway, I’m sure I was saying something important before I said that, so there.

Matt:   Oh, role playing.

Richard:   Yes, role playing, yes, yes. Well, yeah.

Matt:   I got totally distracted by those cuff links. [chuckles, then both chuckle]

Richard:   Oh, yes, yes. Those cuff links. Woo, hey. So, yeah, the role playing thing. So, you’ve got the – the fixed role playing, where the role doesn’t have much give in it, and the actor has to manipulate themselves into the role and play the role and take on the role. But what we have with MMOs is a soft role playing, so you say, “What role am I going to play?” and then you envisage one, here, say, and then this is the real you, and you think, “Okay, well, I’ll try to play that – play this role,” so you try and play the role, and so you might go off in a different direction, you might adjust the role accordingly, but the more you play, the closer you and your character in the game get together, and if you play long enough, you become your character. You’re actually in the world, and you’re immersed. You and your persona are one.

The way I’ve just described it there is the typical way that you do it if you’re a male player. Female players tend to play further ahead, so they just go – rather than extreme opposite and come at it like that, they’re more just ahead of it, and then they’re tracking it and then closing up and catching up with their perso- so, that’s just an observation, and, since it mentions genders, I’m probably guilty of all kinds of sexism there, for which I apologize. However, that’s just something that I-I’ve noticed over the years, whether it’s nature/nurture or my bad observation, I don’t know. But it would explain why you get only about 5% women playing – well, it wouldn’t explain it, um, it would be supported by the fact that only 5, maybe 10 percent of women play male characters, whereas about 40 percent of males play female characters ’cause, you know, that’s opposite rather than nearly you but not quite. So, “Ooh, look, I’m casting spells, ooh.”

Matt:   That’s one of the things I missed most about MUDs, ’cause that’s what I started off playing, and then I moved on to World of Warcraft, games like that later, but it just seems there was so much more socializing –

Richard:   Mmm.

Matt:   – you know, in the MUDs. I had some really – people I considered to be really close friends. We’d never met in real life, just, you know, just strictly over the MUD, and I’ve never, you know, experienced anything like that on the – playing something like World of Warcraft. I’ll bring my real life friends in to play, but I don’t make those kinds of relationships in that style of game for whatever reason.  

Richard:   Yes, well, with MUDs, what you see on the screen, the text, is the same as what you’re typing in, so there’s no change in modality. Your commands, and everything you’re typing is the same modality as what you’re seeing, so it’s easy, where – but in an MMO, you’ve typically – mouse one hand, WASD, you’ve gotta hit return, start typing something, off it goes, or you’re on the voice over IP thing, in which case you still sound just like you did. So, oh, yes, “You’re American, are you?” “Yeah, yes, okay.” Well, is that a good thing, or a bad thing? Well, you start to worry, don’t you? Well, obviously, I don’t ’cause I’m not American, but the, the whole VOIP, I mean, it brings reality in, and you’re – if you’re trying to get away from reality, why would you come in? I mean, I’m looking forward to when we’ve got proper voice fonts so that you can just – I speak and it gets converted into phonemes and the phonemes are reconverted back using a voice font so that I sound like I really am the troll I’m playing. Not that that would please other people, but still.

Matt:   Sort of interesting that we were talking a little about gender and –

Richard:   Mhmm.

Matt:   – the men playing female characters, and I noticed there’s a certain character from the original MUD that comes up a lot on your website, a certain Sue –

Richard:   Oh, yes. Sue Thomas –

Matt:   –  the Witch. [laughs] Do you want to talk a little bit about this character?

Richard:   Sue. Yes, Sue the Witch. Yes, she was the – she used to play all night. Really – it was one of those start at midnight, log off at six o’clock in the morning things using what was called a midnight line because telephone charges were really expensive in the UK back then – it was per minute, and it was extraordinarily expensive. We were – when I was a university lecturer, I wasn’t allowed to make phone calls before 11 AM because they were so expensive. But there was this thing you could buy – you paid something like 140 pounds and you got three months of unlimited phone time between midnight and 6 AM, which was when our computer at the university was opened up, so lots of people would get these and come in. And Sue was there, she was a witch. Everyone liked Sue, she was really good, and she – she’d send people letters, real life letters, handwritten, like – one of my friends got one 109 pages long, handwritten. Hundred and nine pages. And you’d get all these photos –

Matt:   What do you – [chuckles] What did she go on about for 109 pages?

Richard:   Well, good, good – you don’t think I’m gonna read 109 pages of girl writing?

Matt:   [laughs]

Richard:   No! So, but, yeah, and she sent photos out. Some of them looked like they could have been different people, you know – the makeup was different and other stuff – and she lived in South Wales, and then, one day, she said, “I’m going to be an au pair in Sweden or somewhere, and I’m going. Goodbye.” And people thought, “That was a bit blunt, never said anything about that before. What’s going on?” So a bunch of them got into a van, drove off to South Wales, knocked on the door of the address they’d been writing letters to, and this woman answers and says, “Ah, you’d better come in.” Turns out Sue’s real name is Steve and has just been defrauded – just been arrested for defrauding the Department of Transport out of 60,000 pounds. So, that was quite a shock to most of us because we’d never come across this before.

Now, as it happened, I had thought, “I wonder if this Sue really is a Sue,” but when you did, like, make probes and things, things like asking questions, which you’d get different responses from it if was a man or a woman, and when I don’t – say, not in terms of knowledge. Things like typing speed. Men would tend to respond quicker because they don’t – didn’t think, you know. First thing that comes into their head, whereas the female players that we knew we had, they tended to type, to respond slightly behind because they thought more, so we – I mean, I did do some little probes like that, but they – you know, Steve/Sue came through, and then we’d get these other little things that were unsolicited, like breaking nails and things.

And, I once, I made these, I got these sweatshirts made up and they said, they were – they had the – there was a big block of text, oh, here [indicates size using hands against chest]. Quite good. You used to get read on – read – while you were standing in queues and in public transport. And it – on this block of text, it had the opening description for MUD, where the – where you first arrived: it was a narrow road between lands, the description of which was:  “Narrow road between lands. You are stood on the narrow road between the land and whence you came. To the north and south are a pair of majestic mountains,” and when I, Sue said, “I tried that on and it said, ‘pair of majestic mountains’ right across my majestic mountains” –

Matt:   [laughs]

Richard:   And now that’s pretty good attention to detail. I mean, some guy who deliberately buys a sweatshirt size small and then reads it and then thinks, “What would happen if a woman wore that?” Or maybe he actually had a tame woman he could put it on and then see, and then, “Oh, yeah,” and it’s actually quite good attention to detail. However, it’s also betrayal, and people didn’t like it at all, and there was a very  sour taste afterward. Nowadays, well, from then onwards, it was every time you see a woman in the game, you make the assumption that it’s a man even if she’s sitting next to you playing. It’s not so much like that nowadays, but back then it was, which was quite liberating, I think, for some women because they got that whole treated-as-a-person thing instead of treated-as-a-woman thing. Anyway.

Matt:   I just wonder if this Sue person –

Richard:   Mhmm?

Matt:   Was she a transgendered person?

Richard:   No! No –

Matt:   – or was she just a guy having a joke or something?

Richard:   Well, the way these things happen is, I mean, the first question MUD asks you is, “What sex do you wish to be?” Now, the reason it asks you that is because English doesn’t let us have no sex. You have to have – the pronouns have to match. You c- because otherwise, you know, “Richard has dropped Richard’s box on the floor.” So, you know, you have to have his and her and stuff. And, so, that’s why we asked. Ideally, we wouldn’t have had gender in it at all. So if the first question you get asked is what gender you gonna be, then why wouldn’t you put female? Yeah. So you do it, and – some guys do it, and it’s not – you know, they feel a bit uncomfortable or something, and other guys do it and think, “Oh, wow! This is great!” I mean, in MUD, we made it deliberately easy in MUD to switch gender. There was things you picked up and they switched your gender, there was a change spell where you could cast it on other people or on yourself to change gender, and sometimes you’d be playing for days and not know what gender you were, which was just how I wanted it. And also, by having gender, that allowed people to learn the concepts of role playing because role playing wasn’t a thing back then, so people didn’t really know what to do. I mean, I did the cross – the first cross gender thing because I created a character called Polly, originally as a parrot, as a test character, and then when I added gender to the game, obviously Polly was going to be female because it’s a female name, so, and then so, I was playing as Polly, and then, “But Polly’s a girl, and you’re a man!” Yeah?

Matt:   So you’re the one that started that? [chuckles]

Richard:   Yeah, and deliberately so. I deliberately did it to teach people – not to teach, to show people that you could role play. And some people also role played, not pretending to be women – that wasn’t how it worked – it was just the – pretending to be something that you’re not. There’d be other people pretending to be pirates or magic users or whatever. That’s – they, they went in their own directions. But the – for Sue, what happens when people – what you should do if somebody starts treating you as if you’re the person you’re pretending to be, as soon as that’s a real life thing coming in, then when real life comes in, what you should say is, “Yeah, nah, sorry. This is just a character. In real life, I’m not female.” That’s what you should say. That’s what I say, if anybody asks me when I’m playing female characters. Although it turns out that I’m really, really cute –

Matt:   [chuckles]

Richard:   – so they don’t believe me. I’m adorable. Eh, anyway –

Matt:   Are you sure you’re not female?

Richard:   Last time I checked, not. So the – what happens, though, is when you make ’em – if somebody says, “Are you female in real life?” and you say yes because, you know, you’re just going with the flow, you’re just rolling with it, and then, from then onwards, you’re now betraying. You’re no longer role playing a character in a game; you’re masquerading as a real person. You’re pretending that there’s a – you’re role playing a real person who’s role playing a character, and this is where all the trouble comes from with the cross gender play. It’s when people fall in love, and we did have people fall in love with Sue.

Matt:   I’m thinking, too, maybe of kids, people pretending to be kids or a certain age that have –

Richard:   Yeah, you can get that. When I’m – whenever I’m playing MMOs, if somebody asks me what sex you are, I say, “What, in the game? You can see what I am.” “In real life.” Oh, well. I’ll say something like, “In this game, I am a female, magic-using human. In real life, I’m only one of those things.” So, it sort of, it doesn’t exactly break the fourth wall, but it lets them know that – or sometimes they’ll say, “Are you female in real life, or are you like a 50-year-old guy?” And I’ll say, “Actually, I’m 55, but, yeah. So, sorry for creeping you out, but you know,” but that’s a –

Matt:   Well, it seems like there’s kind of an expectation of – back then, at least of – you know, you’re role playing for a while, but once you get to know somebody on a certain level, then it bleeds over into real life, right?

Richard:   Mmm. Yeah.

Matt:   Is that fairly common?

Richard:   Yeah, yeah. It, it was fairly common. On the US servers we had on CompuServe, there were, ooh, divorces, all sorts of things going on. Once, I tracked a chain of, I think, 13 relationships? You know, guy going out with girl who’s married to guy who’s also seeing somebody else whose sister is – who plays as her sometimes, and she – it, this great long chain of things, and it was quite, quite exciting when they all met on a boat in – off the coast of California –

Matt:   You’ve had quite a few of these MUD meets, right, where all the –

Richard:   Yeah, yeah.

Matt:   How big do those – how big were those at the peak of the –

Richard:   Eh, 30 people, something like that. Never got all that big because the – accessing the game it was expens- you had to have a computer, you had to have a phone line, you had to have spare time, and you had to have the money to pay for the phones – phone calls, and it wasn’t easy for UK players. The same sort of applied in the US, but your phone calls were free to local numbers, which meant all the big cities could have them. And we did get lots of American players who could happily afford $6 an hour because $6 an hour was to them was worth about what 6 cents an hour is to worth you right now, you know, it’s nothing. We had lawyers and actors from TV shows and soap operas. There was all sorts of people who played, generally quite wealty but not always, you know, school teachers, people like that, and they would be quite, I don’t know if the word chuft is American, but they’d be quite, “Oh, I happen to know this leading actor in a soap opera through having met him in a game.” So, yeah. We got, we got a bit of kudos out of it.

Matt:   It’s kind of interesting. You started this whole thing to get away from that –

Richard:   Yeah. [both chuckle]

Matt:   – class-based system, and then I guess only wealthy people could play it on CompuServ, right, or –

Richard:   Well –

Matt:   This was after British, British Legends –

Richard:   Yeah, that’s called – British Legends was the name that was given to MUD when we put it on CompuServ, and there was one reason and one reason only for calling it British Legends, and that was I didn’t have to change all the spellings.

Matt:   [laughs]

Richard:   So –

Matt:   Colour and armour and all.

Richard:   Yeah, yeah, yeah, all those things, yeah. So, they said, “Okay, well, then rather than spend ages going through you changing all the spellings, why don’t we just call it British Legends, and then people will think, “Oh, I can read the British accent as I play,” so, yeah, I mean, it was quite –

Matt:   A couple of questions bef- I want to talk about the CompuServ and how that happened, but I also wanted to talk about this making wiz system and –

Richard:   Oh, yeah.

Matt:   And you said when you got to a certain level, you got administrative privileges –

Richard:   Yeah.

Matt:   And I’m just wondering, what kind of administrative privileges are we talking about, and it just seems like it would invite a lot of chaos.

Richard:   Yeah. When you got to Wizard level, then – it was 204,800 points from – actually, it was smaller than that at first, but then I racked it up a bit – for most of its existence, it was 204,800 points, and the reason for that number was because they doubled up, so you went 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, and so on, to there. And when you got the last point, you got to be a wizard. “You are now in – Congratulations! You have now reached Wizard. Type Wizard mode, and if you type Wizard Mode, the prompt, which had previously been an asterisk became —* so it looked like a magic wand.

Matt:   Cool.

Richard:   And at that point, when you typed help, you got a whole bunch of new commands, and they were pretty impressive. There was things like FOD, finger of death, does what it says on the tin:  you know, FOD Fred, bye bye Fred, and this is a game with permadeath [chuckles], so really, bye bye Fred. It had a command called “Crash.” You type crash, it’d cause the game to crash.

Matt:   Why would you want to crash the game? Just for –

Richard:   Why would you want to crash the game? Well, there – because you had so many powers that you could crash the game – ordinary players, regular players who weren’t Wizards, we’d call them mortals – if a mortal found a way to crash the game, I would fix it. But if a Wizard found a way – so, if I pick up the rain and put it in a room that’s already got the rain in it, then it causes a crash. Well, big deal. Don’t do it then. If you want to crash the game, just type crash, so it was sort of there, just to show, show what the power, and the mortals thought, “Oh, wow, I so want to be a Wizard because look at the power you can have when you can crash the game just by typing crash, so, so it worked like that. Some Wizards did get out of control, well, I say out of control, they were never in control. You know, they got to where the first thing they do is FOD everybody. Well, okay. You can bring people back from there. They may have been FODed, but we did keep backups of the database, we could bring them back, and we could also de-Wiz people because although there were Wizards, there were also Archwizards, which was me and Roy.

So the, the wizards, most of them, they would hang around for a bit, then they’d – they’d leave the game, which is kind of what we were expecting most of them would do because once you’ve learned who you are, once you’ve reached the end of your journey, and you know, you’ve self-actualized in the game, I suppose, there’s no reason to be there as a Wizard. It’s just a place. It’s no longer some kind of awesome, mysterious world; it’s like the real world but not quite the same. It’s now – you’ve conceptualized it. It’s part of your life and it’s somewhere you go to meet people that you like or you know or something, but it’s not somewhere you go to progress as a person anymore because you’d reached that once you’ve reached Wizard level. So, some of our Wizards, most of them would come in and then they’d what we called drift away, they’d come in less and less often, and then they’d go back to the real world because that was – the, the aim is for – you, you become a better person by – well, not a better person, you become the person you are by playing MUD, and then so there’s no reason you’d need to carry on, except if you occasionally wanted to come back and meet people, so most people, most Wizards drifted away.

Others, though, they liked it and they hung around because they wanted to help the game, they wanted to help other people, they liked the people there. Maybe their real world was ev- was really not as good as MUD, and they preferred to be in MUD, the Land, we called it, so they preferred to be there, and so they’d stay around and use their witchly or wizardly powers to monitor the game and make sure the mortals weren’t misbehaving and give them fun things to do and so on, and that’s what they did. I mean, you couldn’t do that nowadays because it’s not something that scales. Sort of the equivalent would be, maybe guild leaders, that sort of thing. They don’t have the same powers that MUD Wizards did, but they’ve got the same authority to kick people out of the guilds and stuff, so.

Matt:   Yeah, I saw League of Legends was trying something new with that. I don’t know if you saw that news item, but apparently they’ve got a very toxic community of players, and they’re trying to –

Richard:   [laughs] You don’t say!

Matt:   They’re trying to implement some kind of way for other players to have a little more control, I suppose.

Richard:   Yeah, well, it’s quite easy to get players to have control. You just put in payment, permadeath. Permadeath is great because with permadeath, if somebody gets on the wrong side of you, then you can just get you and your buddies to kill them. Unfortunately, although there are many, many things that permadeath is very good at, it’s – it’s got one thing that means no one uses it, and that’s the fact that although everyone’s quite pleased to see other people lose their characters, they don’t like it when it happens to them. They really, really don’t like it, as in they cry, punch holes in the screen. I mean, they DO NOT like it. So permadeath isn’t a thing anymore, but back then, permadeath was a thing and you could, if somebody was coming along and following you around and calling you a jerk and doing all sorts of things, then you think, you know, “I’m sufficiently provoked that I may well risk my own character to take you down, you bastard.” So they would. And if you were a good player, it wouldn’t take you long to get back to where you were. And when you talk permadeath to people these days, they think, “If my character died, then I’d die five times a night!” Well, no. I mean, characters would last for three months without getting killed, and when they did get killed, it was because you had made a mistake yourself, you had thought, “Oh, they’re down – the enemy’s down, and it just takes one more hit and they’ll die, and I know I should flee, but I won’t, I just – Ah, no!”

Matt:   [chuckles] Oh, no. Three months! [laughs]

Richard:   Yeah, three months. But people could get to Wizard level and without getting killed, which obviously they had to do, then it shows it’s possible, so permadeath didn’t happen everytime you played. I mean, it did very – when you first started off and you were attacking everybody and everything, and realizing, “you know this isn’t a winning strategy. Perhaps I shouldn’t be attacking people,” and after that, then you started playing it what we called properly and then it was really exciting. I mean, you think PvP is exciting, PvP with permadeath is very, very exciting! Open world, open PvP, and permadeath. And why did nobody get killed? Because we didn’t have enough players that you could form gangs of 50 who would go around and attack. As soon as you can get gangs of 50 who can go around and attack, permadeath’s not sustainable and that’s what we have with today’s MMOs.

Matt:   I was just wondering if anybody’d ever picked on you, found out who you were in the game, and you know, focused on killing you?

Richard:   Well, yeah, they did, but the thing is I didn’t –

Matt:   FOD them! Pew! [chuckles]

Richard:   – care. No, no, no, no because I – I didn’t care because I wouldn’t be playing for the same reason players play, and I would be playing because I was a designer and I was trying to figure out things about the game. You know, it was, if I needed another character, I could just make one, but I never played it for the same kind of fun that a player of an MMO plays. I still don’t play them for the same kind of fun that MMO players – I play them for designer fun, not for player fun. That’s different.

Matt:   Hmm. Oh, speaking of permadeath, I – just, just in passing, was curious if you – I know you’re a Pillars of Eternity fan?

Richard:   Yeah.

Matt:   Did you select the permadeath option for that when you were playing it?

Richard:   No! [both chuckle]

Matt:   That just seems insane to me!

Richard:   Yes, yes. I mean, it took me long enough to finish the game without permadeath. It did take quite a while before my character did die, but there aren’t enough second characters to replace them. You know, you know, it’s got the hire an adventurer at an inn thing, which you can do if you’re playing that and you’ve lost all the other ones, you can just hire a new one, but I wasn’t playing for that. I wanted to – I wanted to run like a party mechanics thing and so Pillars of Eternity, yeah, that was just right, and as soon as I’d finished it, I went off and started playing Baldur’s Gate again. So – [chuckles] which I –

Matt:   Ah. Did you think it’s as good as Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2?

Richard:   Baldur’s Gate 2 is better. Baldur’s Gate 1 – yeah, I quite like Baldur’s Gate 1, probably about the same the – in terms of the narrative. In terms of implementation, I much prefer the one for Pillars of Eternity, not just because it’s built for modern screens but it’s got some nice interface options that are useful, things like, “Don’t make me guess if there’s a door in that cave. Let me press the button and see if a door shows in the cave,” so I don’t have to go and mouse over to try and find out if there’s a door there or an opening there. Just show me. That sort of thing’s useful. I was a bit ambivalent about the stash as well.

Matt:   Mhmm?

Richard:   I almost switched it off. Well, not switched it off, switched off the unlimited stash, but since the option I’d chosen had it as unlimited and it was a while before I noticed that it was actually unlimited, I thought, “Oh, I’ll keep on playing with that.”

Matt:   Yeah, it seems like it’s always been a hard question for designers:  to what extent is the realism going to make it more fun or just make it more frustrating, you know, for the player? How do you make that call?

Richard:   Well, okay. The argument for having, we used to call it “realisticness” because obviously it’s not real because obviously there aren’t vampires and dragons, but realistic as in, if there were, then they should behave logically. Verisimiltude, you know, this is the – the reason for having these, is essentially to do with immersion. If you’re in a world and the world is behaving like the real world does, then it’s easier for you to will yourself into that world, but the more obstacles it puts up, the more it blocks you by doing things which are stupid, then the more you have to will yourself to believe that this is how it should be to overcome it. Yeah, my World of Warcraft warlock had a glass of milk in her backpack for seven years. Still cold, still fresh. Didn’t matter how many times she’d swum underwater, you know, still there, that glass of milk. And that makes no sense.

Now, with, with vision, with the graphical world, because about 60% of what human – I just wanted to touch my eye when I said vision! Ugh – the – because about 60% of what humans experience comes through our eyes, we can ride roughshod over a lot of the things we were doing in text worlds to support reality. So in a text world, things like, “I have a bag. Inside this bag is a box, inside the box is a casket, and inside the casket is what I really don’t want you to have.” So you could carry around things like that. There’d be a weight limit, so you couldn’t carry around things which were too heavy. Today’s MMO’s don’t even have the concept of weight. How much does it weigh? “Eh?” What’s its volume? “Eh?” You play a game – I remember playing one, it was a Vauxhall based one, it was fairly recent, and thinking, “Why am I trying to make the decision of what to take out of my backpack?” I’ve got a choice. I can either drop one leaf, which is occupying a slot in my backpack, or 99 cubic meters of ice.

Matt:   [laughs]

Richard:   Now, why does a leaf take up the same space as 99 cubic meters of ice? Now, that’s – but the thing is that, if you’re someone who’s played computer games for years and years and years, you – when you started off, that seemed a little odd, but the more you played it, the more other games did it and more games did it until now, that’s  – when you just see slots, and you don’t think it has anything to do with reality, and so if something did suddenly say, “99 cubic – you can carry 99 tonnes, can you? Because that’s how much 99 cubic meters of ice weighs. If you stop them, they think – that would jolt them out of their immersion. Their immersion now is not in the real world but in their experience of previous virtual worlds, so in a virtual world, they don’t notice that rooms have no doors because, well, they don’t have doors. It just doesn’t occur to them.

But if you add more verisimilitude, then it allows players more of a sense of not just being in the world but of the depth of the world and of control – it allows for more emergent things, interactions between things. You can try something out because, “Well, that should work in real life,” and – there’s an example in MUD 2, which would show this – so, we have these two things, there was a baton and a bow. And if you waved the baton, it teleported you to where the bow was, and if you waved the bow, it teleported you to where the baton was, and what players would do is, if you were damaged and you wanted to get your health back, you’d have to sleep, so you wanted to sleep in a room where no one could get to you. So, one person – there was such a room, but it was quite hard to get to in the first place. What you had – what you could do was take the bow, and you dropped it down a well. When it land- it fell down the well, when it landed in the bottom, there’s a stream. It would float down the stream, and there was a grate at the end, which you couldn’t normally get through, but ’cause it’s only a bow, it could go through there. And – no, no – no, no, the grate stopped – no, the grate was what stopped it. So it comes down – goes down the river, hits the grate, stops at the grate, which is in this particular room, and then you can wave the baton, and it teleports you there, you pick it up. Now you’ve got the baton in your hand, and anyone who gets the bow can’t teleport to you ’cause you’ve got it, and so you can sleep safely in this room. Now that was emergent. What was also emergent:  if I take this keg of gun powder, and I put it in a coracle (?), and I set fire to the coracle, and I drop the coracle down the well, the coracle will float down the underground stream while on fire. At a certain point, the fire will get hot enough that it will ignite the gun powder. So someone’s asleep, you drop a coracle with – a lit coracle with gun powder in it – down. It floats down and catches on the grate, and then a few seconds later, BOOM! And you’ve just killed the guy who thought you couldn’t get to him. Now, I never programmed that in! Well, I programmed it in, but I didn’t program – the players figured out that this is how it should work, and it did work!

And that kind of depth of physics is something you don’t get in modern MMOs. I mean, in MUD, you could do things like, um, “I’ll fill up this glass with water – this jug with water – and I’ve got a glass here, and I’ll pour that – I’ll fill the glass up from the jug, and if it’s a pint glass, this jug now has a pint less water in it. Now that’s eas- we could do that on a sim- on an old, you know, 486 machine. And yet, today’s MMOs can’t do that. Or, it’s not so much they can’t, it’s just they don’t do that. But there’s so much you can do if you’ve got that extra level beneath there. So, eventually, I think we’ll see some more physics coming through. If not that, then maybe some more detail, at least in the AI of the monsters, the NPCs, the mobiles, because they’re stupid compared to what they were in the text days as well. Sorry. I’m starting to mope now about modern MMOs and their inability to reproduce things we could do in text years ago. Ah.

Matt:   Yeah. I was just thinking about those examples that you gave, with the, you know, lighting the thing and having it float along the stream. To me, just thinking that people could do something like that in a game would make it a lot more appealing to me ’cause I’d always – it was like a whole imaginary dimension to it that wouldn’t be obvious, but it seems like – you know, I don’t know why – I’m trying to imagine why the modern MMOs – we’ve got so much more memory now, we’ve got systems with so much more powerful processors, you know. It seems like they would have even more of that kind of thing, but instead, like you said, they’ve – they’re even a lot more limited than the original MUD game was in some ways. I mean, why is that?

Richard:   Well, in part because some things have to be animated. Fire is generally a bad thing to have in modern MMOs because you’ve got to show something being on fire. In a text world, you can just say, “The coracle is on fire,” but something’s got to have flames coming out of it. And pouring glasses, you know. You’ve got to motion capture someone pouring something into something else for that to work, so they’ve got all the – this extra baggage that comes with it that makes it harder to do, but there are somethings that they could easily do. Things like, in World of Warcraft, sometimes when you’re starting out, you see rabbits going around and wolves who kill the rabbits. All that sounds quite good. So if I wanted to kill a wolf, then maybe I should try and set up a rabbit so the wolf goes for the rabbit, and then I can kill it at range. Well, I can’t a rabbit, but there’s a crazy cat lady there, and she’s got a ton of cats. Can’t I just buy a cat from her and go out and release the cat near a wolf and then stay, and the wolf will go for the cat and then I can – Well, no you can’t because you can’t release your cat, and even if you do, it doesn’t get eaten. Cats are invincible. So, that’s something you could’ve done. Something you could actually –

Matt:   [laughs] You’d want to buy cats and use them to – as bait for the wolf?  

Richard:   Yes, why not!

Matt:   [laughs] Poor cat!

Richard:   It’s a cat, it’s got it coming!

Matt:   [laughs]

Richard:   But think, just things – I mean, that doesn’t involve any extra animation or anything. All it involves is an ability to do what seems to be common sense, you know. Other things that we used to have, things like weather. You have weather in MMOs today, but very often – it’s very infrequent that it actually has any effect. You walk around an MMO at night, and everybody is still awake, everyone’s wearing the same clothes as they were in the day. It’s tipping it down with rain, they’re wearing the same things. Why have the weather if people are immune to weather? So these are game things. I mean, sometimes you do – there are some MMOs that have seasons. Son of Rhizome (?) had seasons, so there’s places you could only get to every four game months, which is probably something like every three real days or something. Maybe a week. I dunno. But the – if the weather’s just a cosmetic effect, well, why bother having it? Because – it’s not just so much, “We’ll have it just for an atmosphere,” but you could actually give it teeth! And other things, being able to swim across rivers while wearing plate armor. Now that’s –

Matt:   [chuckles]

Richard:   That’s not something you really should be able to do. And if plate armor floats because it’s, it’s magic plate armor, well, okay. But then, you’ve, you’ve just, you’ve ruined the world. You’re just saying magic for everything you can’t explain. It’s not got any consistency to it, it’s just – so, yeah, so these are things which today’s MMOs can’t do mainly for reasons of expense, often for reasons of the designers didn’t know they could do it, and there is some – I won’t say laziness, but complacency, as in, “Why do it if we don’t need to do it? People will play these games anyway, so I don’t need to.” But if somebody did come up with an MMO with a high degree of physics that did need some more thinking about things, then you can see how it might attract some of the people who played MMOs and left because they no longer do the business – people who are looking for more worldly worlds.

Matt:   It sounds like you’re not really pleased with the modern crop of MMORPGs. Is there any one? Which ones do you play regularly, if any?

Richard:   I’ve just stopped playing The Secret World, having racked up 150 days of play. I was the 50th highest player on XP at the time, out of the whole database, when I quit, so – I like that because that game tried to do something different. It tried to be – it tried to break quite a few of the paradigms that have come out from Everquest. And it had some parts of it which were just beautiful from a designer’s point of view. It had this skill wheel – if you’ve never played it, it won’t make a difference – but it had this selection of skills, and you built a deck out of them, and they went together, oh, really sweetly. It was – I dunno how much effort had gone into that, but that was really, really well done. That’s the sort of thing where if designers were allowed to give out awards, that would have won one. That was beautiful. But being Funcom, they launched prematurely, got bad press. They attracted players to come in but not quick enough, then they stopped putting people to work on it and kept missing deadlines. Missing deadlines like Halloween! You know, kind of hard, “We weren’t expecting Hallowe-” They knew Halloween was coming, but they – if you’ve only got one person coding it, then, eh.

And when I finally quit, it was – I would have quit earlier, but I was waiting for the final Tokyo expans- part of the Tokyo expansion to come out. When that came out, I looked and thought, “Ugh. They’ve got the same room layout 21, I think, times with different puzzles in each one. So they’re doing their best with limited resources but they really should have had more resources. I mean, it’s such a shame. But that’s the – that would be my current, “What’s your favorite MMO” from a design point of view, it would be The Secret World. And if you’d asked me a month ago, that would have been the game I was playing. Normally, I – when I play them, when I play MMOs, I play up to the level cap and then stop. The one before The Secret World, or I should say concurrently with The Secret World, that I tried was Wild Star, and that was pretty good. That was quite, quite joyous at times; that was really well done. But they – it felt quite bitty from the – it wasn’t so coherent, and my – the problem I had with it was I’d started out playing as a healear character because you can always get into groups as a healer. Yes, you can, but you also need to get to a level where people are playing in groups, and that means you have to level solo, and if you are playing as a healer in Wild Star, you will NOT level very fast at all. It is appallingly slow, and I got up to about level 24, I think. I thought, “I could see where this was going from about level 10, and am I really going to play through the rest of this? Really? No, I don’t think I do need to. I don’t need that qualification any more.

In the old days, I used to write things about MMOs and people would say, “Well, you write these things about MMOs, but do you play them?” Well, no, I don’t play them ’cause I don’t need to. I’m a designer. I don’t need to play them:  I just need to see other people play them or read up on them, and then I know how it will be. “Well, if you don’t play them…” Okay, just for you, I’ll play them. So I started with, I think it was World of Warcraft, and – ’cause I’d been given a free World of Warcraft pack in America, which meant I had to play on American servers, and that’s a bundle of fun ’cause nobody’s around when I’m around on American servers, but anyway, I was playing on that –

Matt:   What? Blizzard sent you a free pack, or was it a friend?

Richard:   No, no, it was – I was at a conference, and it was a “Get your free Blizzard MMO pack here,” and so – so I played that. I worked 3 characters up to level 60, which was the level cap at the time, and then – Well, I worked – because that gave me the qualifications. That’s – that gave me things like, “Okay, this isn’t an academic or a journalist who’s writing about a game with no knowledge of it.” I mean, as a designer, I have knowledge of these things. And now, look! Just for you, here’s my character. And then they say, “Well, of course, that’s just when the game starts. It only really starts when you get to lev-“. Yeah. Yeah, it does really – only really start when I get to that level, doesn’t it? But I knew that. I knew at level 6 how the whole game was going to pan out. I didn’t get anything new. I could see it all unfolding. Yeah, sure, I didn’t know what color particular herbs were gonna be, or what the names of plants were gonna be, or what actual, specific dungeons were going to be, but I knew what the gameplay was going to be, and sure enough, that’s what it was like. So, yep. Oh, I kept on with that. I kept on with World of Warcraft, playing that. Played others:  Lord of the Rings Online, Rift, sort of things like that. And I finally quit WoW when Pandas came out.

Matt:   [chuckles] Not impressed with the Pandas?

Richard:   Jumping a shark, there.

Matt:   [laughs]

Richard:   And I’d racked up 227 days of play on WoW. So that’s whatever that is 227 times 24, that’s how many hours I’d played it. And what do people say? Not “you’re qualified,” and not “you understand the endgame,” but “you’re a WoW fanboy.” Ah.

Matt:   [chuckles]

Richard:   Then the next one I played, Star Wars:  The Old Republic, which I really, really wanted to see succeed because that was go- not only because it cost a lot, and if it failed, the we wouldn’t get any new MMOs, but because it was trying to do something new with the story. So I worked my way up to the endgame there, doing high-end raid guilds, got my full Rakata gear. I was – I played that for 137 days of real day – of actually elapsed time – averaging 6 hours a day. I think I finished on May the 4th, which was appropriate for Star Wars. And with that, the reason I stopped playing was because the game was all about the story, and when they were gonna bring out the new expansion, they had two wasy they could do it:  bring out more story, or go into regular endgame, raiding, add more gear stuff. And they did the latter.

And what particularly annoyed me was my character, who was female in that one. Can’t remember, I think she was called Marie – they’re either called Marie or Polly, my characters. People tend to get Polly, so I go for Marie ’cause I named it after my niece. But the character in there, when she was in her full gear, actually looked like a Jedi. And when you looked at the new gear that was coming out, it looked as if someone had just gone to the sack shop and said, “Give me some sacks, and then I’ll put them on,” and I thought, that may have lore behind it, for all I know, but that doesn’t look like the kind of outfit that’s going to appeal to the people who are here for the story. They want more story, and they’re not getting more story, so that’s when I stopped that because I – all I wanted to know was, “How are they going to take it? Story or not?” And The Secret World has really good story, and they keep on with really good story all the way through it. The only differences between that and Star Wars:  The Old Republic is in The Secret World, your charcter never says a word. In Star Wars, you got to choose a voice, but in The Secret World, you never say anything. It’s all – other people talk to you, but that’s a – anyway. That’s another ten minutes of chatting with you never getting a word in.

Matt:   Well, the – I’ve read in the news a while back that World of Warcr – whirl – can’t talk now –

Richard:   WoW –

Matt:   I’m out of practice here.

Richard:   [laughs]

Matt:   – So I read in the news that World of Warcraft had lost – they’re hemorrhaging subscribers, you know. They’ve lost 3 million, I think, in 3 months, I believe, if I recall correctly. But I guess they’re still, you know, by far the dominant MMO on the market. I was wondering why you think they’ve managed to have that longevity, and what would it take, if it’s even possible for another game really just to topple them, you know, basically do to them what they did to EverQuest?

Richard:   Well, there’s more people who have played WoW than who are playing WoW. A lot of people who have left have left for reasons. Some of those reasons are they’re never gonna play another MMO, other ones aren’t so much we’ve left WoW as WoW has left us. You kow, WoW has gone – it tried to broaden its market by pulling in more people. In order to do that, it had to go more casual. In order to go more casual, you lose your core market, and so on. Now where are all those players? They’re probably playing League of Legends or something like that:  they’re just treading water. And when – what would it take to get them back? Well, I was at a conference in Hong Kong, and I was describing this, and this Australian guy was also at the conference came up and said, “Mazda X5.” “Oh? What’s that, the sports car?” “Yeah, yeah.”

You see, in the 60s, sports cars were – they were bought – the best ones were the British and the Italian ones, you know, the E-type Jaguar, things like that and they were responsive, fast, nippy. Once you got in them, you felt like they were great, wonderful drives. You knew you were in a sports car. But in order to increa- to sell more sports cars, they widened the market, so they put in things like more safety features so that the braking was softer – it wasn’t so sharp. The steering was power steering, so you didn’t feel like you were turning the wheel, you just turned the wheel. The seats were raised up, more padded, and eventually the sports cars started to compete with the regular saloon cars on the market. So why would you buy a sports car if it’s just the same as a regular Jaguar? And Mazda were looking at bringing out a new car, and one of the designers said, “Look, why don’t we go for a sports car? Because all those people who like sports cars are still there. There was always a market for sports cars, it’s just that now the market’s diffused. If we bring out a proper sports car, people will buy it. Trust me.” And then, [mumbles]. Anyway, to their credit, they did the market research and thought, “Well, there’s a chance here.” So they made this, the Mazda X5. Immediately became the best-selling sports car of all time because all those people who wanted sports cars and couldn’t get them, they could now go out and play. Now. So now, we’re seeing this similar thing with MMOs. People want an MMO that’s like a sports car of the past – the ones that they grew up playing. We’re seeing some of the – some people trying progression servers, you know, start off, play EverQuest as it was back in the day. Maybe play WoW, well you can play WoW if you go onto somebody else’s illegal server. And play ’em as they were back in the day, and that’s got some appeal, but you really – it’s like you’re visiting the town you grew up in after you’ve moved away years ago. What people want isn’t so much the nostalgia, what they want is a modern take on what they liked in the past.

And as soon as somebody manages to come out with an MMO that’s good and it has all the old features so that it actually feels like an MMO instead of feeling like Facebook, well then, yes. That will, that will take off, and all those people – see, WoW didn’t take players from EverQuest. WoW took players from, “We’ve tried EverQuest and don’t play it anymore.” EverQuest had 450,000 players. People won’t be able to get these. They didn’t aim at the 450,000:  they aimed at the 800,000 who had played it and weren’t playing it anymore, and some of those people, “Oh, wow! This is just what we wanted! It’s like EverQuest, but it’s more expansive, it’s less grindy. It’s got a nicer feel to it, you know, a tongue-in-cheek feel.” And they, that – they just moved over there in droves. The people who have played WoW have seen the pendulum swing too far the other way, and they’ve left. If it comes back, they’ll go off. Now there are some MMOs that might do that. Crowfall looks like it might. It’s probably a bit niche in terms of – because it’s mainly a PvP world, but niche is all it takes. If you’ve got 100,000 players, and they’re paying you $10, $15 a month, however, that’s enough for you to make an MMO that would sustain for ages. You don’t need 7 million players. So that’s what I would – I’d expect a reboot rather than somebody coming along trying to make a WoW that’s better than WoW, although there are some in Korea that look like they’re doing quite well, if only they didn’t have that dreadful free-to-play model that’s going to put off anybody who wants any kind of immersion, so.

Matt:   Did you follow the whole Tabula Rasa –

Richard:   [clears throat] I think you’ll find it was called Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa –

Matt:   [laughs] Richard Garriott’s, yeah –

Richard:   That’s what it was called, it’s- that’s what it said in every –

Matt:   Did you ever meet him, by the way?

Richard:   I met him, yes. I met him once at JamCon. He didn’t know who I was, but I knew who he was.

Matt:   [laughs] He didn’t know who you were? Oh!

Richard:   Oh, he didn’t, couldn’t have known who I was. No, I was introduced to him at JamCon, this would be in the 80- mid-80s, but you know, why would- well, not mid-80s, probably early 90s maybe. Well, why would he know who I was?

Matt:   He never played any MUDs?

Richard:   Well, if he did, he never said. I mean he – this was before Ultima Online. I mean, I knew him because I had played Ultimas 4, 5, and 6. So I knew who he was, but he didn’t know who I was. Why would he? We only exchanged a few words. He had a – I remember he had a great long plait, or queue I think you call them in America, right down from, from his neck down to his belt which looked like the sort of thing that if he’d have had that sort of thing in England, someone would have set fire to it. Now, I’m not trying to disparage Richard Garriott – his publicists have got an awful lot to answer for, but he’s a solid guy. He’s done an awful lot for MMOs. I’m not in any way trying to be snarky about Richard Garriott. There’s a lot the MMO industry owes to him. Of course, in the UK, he wouldn’t have got anywhere ’cause we never had any astronauts here, so you couldn’t be the son of an astronaut, but he did spend a lot of time in Britain, that’s why he calls himself Lord British. So, yeah, I’ve, I’ve met him but it was only for 2 or 3 minutes at a JamCon, and he was talking to somebody else and someone just introduced me, and “Oh, hi, yeah, so what’re you doing,” “Oh, I do,” you know, and that was that. I doubt he’ll remember.

Matt:   I’ve been doing some research lately into Colossal Cave and Zork and the whole Infocom thing –

Richard:   Yeah?

Matt:   They faced a lot of challenges when the graphical adventure games started to come out. I guess they held to their guns for a while and I was wondering what it was like for you, you know, as the MMOs, or the MUDs, I guess, started to add on graphical elements – Ultima Online, Meridian – what was it, Meridian 59, all these sorts of things –

Richard:   Yeah.

Matt:   How did you feel about these sorts of things when they came out?

Richard:   We always knew. We always knew they were going to come. We’d been speaking about what we called graphical MUDs for years. We knew they were going to come. I mean, Island of Kesmai was basically a graphical MUD. Okay, so the graphics it had were ASCIIs:  square bracket, open square bracket, close square bracket [] that’s a wall; tilde, tilde ~~ that’s water. So, it did f- we always knew they were going- we were hamstrung by the modem speeds. We always knew how to do it:  you would send a code down the line which your computer at this end would interpret, but of course, that meant that you had to have the same – computers, computers then weren’t – it wasn’t like there was a PC standard, that everybody used the PC. If you had a Commodore 64 or Amiga or something, or you had an Atari ST or BBC, model B or a Spectrum. They were all different. Each one of them was different, so we had to wait until the technology was available, and then it was a case of who could raise the money to do it. We could never raise the money. I couldn’t raise the money; I’m not a business person. And the – and our business person that we did get got manic depression or bipolar disease you call it nowadays and shot himself dead. Yeah, Simon Dally. So we, we were never gonna get it done. So when they arrived, it was a case of, well, yeah, text is superior to graphics. However, graphics has the best first impressions. If you see text and you see graphics, you’re always going to go for the graphics, so it doesn’t matter that textual worlds – and today you can play some textual worlds which are rich, varied, delightful, emotional, with far more content than you’ve got even in WoW –

Matt:   Are you talking about, like Aardwolf and BatMUD and those sort of –

Richard:   Yeah, things like that, yeah. Legend MUD. These are ones that have been going for ages, and if you can use your imagination instead of looking at the screens, you will get a better experience from them, but you’re not going to because you’re looking at screens. That’s why this is a visual thing and it’s not a- me exchanging emails. You know, pictures have got a place, so although I personally regard text as being superior to graphics and graphics as just one step along the long road that’s going to get us to text, that doesn’t make any odds because players of computer games look at the graphics before the look at the text, and in one sense, if you look at something and it’s got lousy graphics, you know they’ve not spent a lot of money on it, so why would you think they’d spent any money on anything else? But if you play MMOs, you’ll see, after a while, that all the monsters are actually the same monster. You know, one murlock in World of Warcraft is the same as any other warlock- murloc. It’s just that some are bigger, and they’ve got different textures on them, but they’re pretty much all murlocs. And one basilisk is the same as any other basilisk, and you’ve got a stock of monsters that you take out and repurpose. You might get the occasional difference for bosses that have been handcrafted.

But in a text world, you can have many, many, many monsters because it’s so easy to add a new one. It’s just a line of text describing the thing, and then what is it. It’s a humanoid, regenerating, weak, good creature. Well, there you go. And I’ll call it a Sound Troll. Or just give it a name:  it’s the Planet Zog alien, and it doesn’t matter. You can just create as many as you want because you don’t have to animate them. Some poor sod’s got to go and animate it if you create one of those things, and you’re looking at a month, two months away before it actually could be made. In a text world, you can just make it on the fly, and that makes it so much easier to add content and it means much more variety of content. And the other thing is in a non-text world, on the screen, you have – the interface is buttons to click on, so you’re limited by the number of buttons you can fit on the screen. But in a textual world, you’re limited only by the vocabulary. You can have as many commands as you want. You can add shades to the commands:  “quickly pick up” or – and MUD 2’s powers, it can handle things like “Pick up the smallest of the green swords and drop it in Fred’s bag.” You know, you can do things like that. Most of the time, people don’t type that. Most of the time, people type things like K-Zed-F-L-S:  Kill zombie with longsword. The reason they use “F” is because that’s short for the preposition “from” and it’s only one character whereas “with” is two characters, ’cause that’s “wi” for with because “w” is “west.” So they get KZFLS – kill zombie with long sword – E….. meaning east 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 times. So those are the kind of commands that you get. But if you ever do need to do something – if you wanted to open the door with the silver key ’cause you know the other keys are gonna make the door explode, you would type open – op door f – or with – silver key, and that would do it.

But you can try all sorts – and the number of emotions in MMOs that you’ve got. I mean, in MUD, yeah, if you type LOL in MUD, then you laugh out loud. Now, there are some MMOs that have got that, you know:  laugh out loud, Ha, ha, ha. But they always – they, they don’t let you moderate it. So if I salute, if I type /salute, and it’d sort of give you a salute – or, probably that way for American salute – but it doesn’t let me say /salute sarcastically. In fact, it may even impose upon me. It may say, “You salute smartly.” No! I didn’t want to salute smartly, I wanted to solute sloppily, but you wouldn’t let me! You just assumed I was doing it smartly, but no. So these kind of nuances that you can get in a text world. If someone’s asleep and you LOL, it should wake them up. You know, you just made a noise. Well, it would in a text world because they’ve got noises. If you can’t hear something because someone’s deafened your character, which never happens in modern MMOs, but back then your character could be deafened, so they couldn’t hear anything. But you might still see someone salute, but you wouldn’t hear them laugh. But you might see them laugh. But if it was just a noise – you wouldn’t hear a bell in the distance.

All these modal changes to characters by disabling particular sensory inputs or abilities, those are again things which you don’t get which you don’t get in modern MMOs. It might be to do with political correctness ’cause you can see why having a character who’s being blinded is not going to go down well with people who are actually blind or you know people who are blind, but on the other hand, if it’s a game thing? I mean, I have a basilisk in MUD which you can fight while blind but if you’re not blind, you’re going to see it and turn to stone, so. Yeah, well, so. Some things have moved on, but others – why can’t you – why can’t you just make these minor changes that where we could do in the old days. They’re so much different. Ah, back to – it sounds as though I’m reminiscing for the past and wanting the past, but it’s not – what I want is the present, further ahead, and if it takes some of the things we did in the past forward with it – well, it would have to do to advance. You’ve, you can’t progress unless you go with depth as well as breadth, and the depth is what we had in the past, so by making developers aware of these – well, the thing is they are aware of them because they played MUDs as well. They know about these things. It’s just they’ve got to sell them to the players, they’ve got to implement them, they’ve got to design them, and they’ve got somebody saying “This is costing $50 million, don’t do anything stupid,” so why take the risk?

Matt:   Yeah, that was one of the things we – I mentioned that – a documentary I watched Bedrooms to Billions – that’s a theme that comes up in there a lot about how the UK used to have this amazing games industry centered around the Zed-X –

Richard:   Yeah.

Matt:   – and Commodore 64. But that suddenly went away once that sort of got taken over by Nintendo and Sega. But I’m just wondering, from your perspective, what impact do you think that MUD had on the UK personal computer scene at the time, if any?

Richard:   Not a lot. The reason the UK got so far ahead in games was because of the BBC Model B Micro, which was installed in every school. What do you do with a computer? Well, you write games on it, don’t you? And that’s what people did. And this was, the BBC went into schools about ’81, something like that. So we had lots of kids who were writing games for these things. Some of them were rubbish, some of them were good. Some of them, the people were, they got lucky. Some of them had rich parents, and they managed to get these games made and sold, and it was – was kind of a contained market ’cause there weren’t so many people with BBC’s or Spectrums in other countries, and it worked really well. And to this day, the UK is still I think probably the fourth, maybe fifth, biggest games developer. What we’re not good at in the UK, though – we’re very good at creativity. We’re not good at exploiting it or funding it, so if you want to set up your own company, then the banks will give you money if you can show them in quite strong terms that you don’t need it. Then they’ll give you some, but other than that, eh, dunno. We’re good at creating things, but bad at exploiting them, and, yes. French bought a lot of our companies up, moved some things away.

Games have never been treated as academically respectable, or indeed any kind of respectable:  they’re a low-brow entertainment. When government money was ever put into games, it was always into making the equivalent of, well, back in the 30s, the UK had quite a good film industry, but films were getting subsidized in other countries, and the government decided that maybe the government would subsidize our films but because film was a low-brow entertainment, why would we subsidize them? Let’s make film- let’s subsidize documentary making. And they put some money in, maybe kind of through the Post Office back then, which made documentaries, and Britain became really good at making documentaries. All these documentaries that you see, Life on Earth, and so on, that’s a consequence of our long tradition in making documentaries.

However, the British film industry for non-documentaries, well, Hollywood ate our lunch. And it’s similar with games. We’re great at making games, but if you want, say, in academic terms, to develop games, then you’ve got to – it’s got to be serious games, which are like the equivalent of documentaries for games, and it’s ridiculous. Other countries that have – are embracing games have got no problems. I mean, the Scandinavian countries are much smaller than the UK but they outperform per head in games just because they see this as the future, whereas in the UK: “Oh, games? Yes, well…” I’ve been – I have been to cultural things, talking about games, and I’m still hearing things like, “Do you ever think games will be able to do emotion? Will we ever have a game where someone will cry?” Permadeath! Cry? Permadeath! That’s what you need to hear, mate! And, yeah.

So you still get these – and we’ve just got to wait for them to die. These people are going to die eventually, and once they’ve died, everybody who’s grown up, who’s played games, they understand games. They’ll know games. We’ll have better games. But old people have got to die first. Sadly, I’m getting to be an old person and will be dead before I see this, so kind of annoyed about that, but the – things will change. The UK had the – we still punch above our weight, and with the US and Japan because they control the consoles, and the consoles are where most of the action was until fairly recently with Steam and so on. The – there’s a big tradition there, and in America, famously, it doesn’t matter how bad they think what you’re doing is, if they think it’ll make you money, you’ll find someone who can give you money for it. And lots of money’s been put into games. It comes in waves – you have the Dot Com Boom and so on, but the way venture capitalists in America think is, “If I invest in ten companies and one of them makes it big, that’s good.” They expect to lose, whereas in Britain, they don’t want to bet on anything unless it’s a sure bet. So, America, Japan, Canada with its games subsidies which took a whole lot of talent over from the UK to go to Canada. Now, South Korea, if it’s not on the same as the UK, it’s close, it’s maybe overtaking. China again coming through, mainly rewriting games, or not even rewriting, just rebranding games, but it’s such a huge market that they’re going to be big. Lots of smaller countries trying to get in because they can see that there’s a niche. Some that are not doing as – Germany’s not doing as well as it should do, France doesn’t do as it should do even though it’s got Ubisoft, but they’ll come through eventually, once the people who are complaining about, “Oh, you mustn’t have blood on your screen” die.

So it’ll all come out, yes, but in the UK, yeah, it was quite an exciting time. We always – many of the people who played MUD went off and worked in the games industry. I mean, Jess Sand who formed a company called Argonaut. He was Jess the Wizard in MUD. He wasn’t called Jess before he got here, really. That’s short for Jeremy, if you ever wanted to know. But yeah, he got an OBE. I nominated him for it, but he still got it. That’s the point. And things like DirectX was invented in the UK. Twice. One of the guys who was responsible, played as Egor the Wizard, Andrew Gleicester, he runs Microsoft’s Redmond facility now, I think. So we have got some MUD graduates, I think, who went on, but you wouldn’t say that the UK games industry really owed much to MUD. People had played them, played MUD, but – and it’s like some people today who work in MMOs didn’t start off on MUDs. They started on Scepter of Goth, about three of them started on Avatar, there’s one or two were from Habitat, probably some Kesmai people, but not many. Main;y Scepter of Goth would be the one behind MUD, but you can’t really say that today’s MMOs are what they are because of Scepter of Goth just because of the way history unfolded. So, yeah, some people who played MUD did go on to develop games, but I can’t say they developed – that the UK games industry’s beholden to MUD in any way. It’s getting dark here, by the way, so –

Matt:   Yeah, we need to finish this up –

Richard:   Yes, yes.

Matt:   Just a couple quick questions, and then –

Richard:   Okay, quick questions.

Matt:   This oughtta be just real quick.

Richard:   I look terribly red! Oh, no. Maybe I should put the light – oh, dear, people are gonna think I’ve got scarlet fever!

Matt:   Well, just a couple quick –

Richard:   Yeah, okay.

Matt:   last minute things I wanted to clear up.

Richard:   Right. Okay.

Matt:   I’ve heard you mention that the PLATO stuff had no connections to MUD. Is that true?

Richard:   Yes. PLATO was a walled garden because you could only – it had special – way ahead of its time, vector graphics. There are some PLATO revisionists who like to think that PLATO did have an effect on MUD or MUDs to come with, but no. The way I explain this to my students:  golf was invented in China – there’s pictures of people playing golf, or hitting balls into a hole with a stick – from the Ming dynasty; it was also invented in Holland where it was called Kolf; it was also invented in England and Ireland. Depending on how far back you want to go, it was invented in Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, and Ancient Egypt. Although some of the things you look at and you think, “Yeah, that’s not golf, that’s hockey.” But pretty well, hitting a ball into a hole with a stick is not an original idea. It was always going to be invented multiple times. Same with MMOs, virtual worlds – they were always going to be invented multiple times. If you track back from the current game of golf, though, you will end up in Scotland. Today’s golf is descended from Scottish golf. It’s nothing to do with China. Even if China – golf was invented 300 years before the Scottish one. It didn’t somehow make its way down the Silk Road and go to Scotland. No. Hitting a ball in a hole with a stick is something you will get more than once. It’s like that with MMOs.

Now, as far as I know, there was MUD, Avatar, Scepter of Goth, Island of Kesmai, Habitat, and much later a game called Monster by Rich Scrainter at Northwestern University. Those are the six occasions that I know of that MMOs were invented independently without any of us knowing about any of the others. It’s not an act of genius to think of an MMO. I am a genius, but that’s not evidence of it. So when you look at timelines, when people say, “Well, you know, maybe Avatar – Avatar was maybe after MUD, but some of the other ones before Avatar, they were kind of like MUDs, and they all thank – so it predates it.” Well, it doesn’t matter if it predates it. If you want to change the definition of an MMO to include that, well, that’s your prerogative, but being earlier doesn’t mean that it in any way – that today’s descend from it. And any – just like they don’t descend from – just like golf doesn’t descend from the golf in China.

Scepter of Goth does have its own thread. Mythic was, well Mark Jacobs, that comes out of Scepter of Goth. That one there, yes. That’s made it all the way through. I would accept Scepter of Goth has had an influence on the modern MMOs. Nowhere near as much as MUD’s, but nevertheless, it’s there. Also there are, I mean, people – I suppose the main – well, there are people in senior positions who played Avatar on PLATO. So some Avatar, some of PLATO’s DNA, if you like, maybe made it through from Gordon. But you couldn’t say that Crowfall has anything to do with Avatar because it’s mainly come out of MUD traditions, and the other guy at Crowfall is – he’s an ex-Scepter of Goth person, but still, he probably thinks Crowfall’s gonna be – it’s out of MUD, really. So if you’re thinking of timelines, yes, Scepter of Goth might have predated – MUD might have been about the same time. Doesn’t matter. When you talk about pedigrees, like, my grandfather was probably born before your grandfather. Doesn’t mean you’re descended from my grandfather. So, yeah. Some things from Avatar really did – not Avatar, PLATO really did make a difference. You know, things like mouse, the mouse stuff came out of, well, Xerox part, but you know, it was – and some games, the 3D worlds – I think there was one called Wizardry or something which had quite an effect, and that came out of PLATO, and that sort of kicks out a lot of 3D worlds. So you could, if you really wanted to, I suppose, argue that the 3D dimension of MMOs might be able to track back to Avatars, but the MMO-ness of it, the virtual worldliness of it doesn’t track back to Avatar. If you want to look at parents following a particular line and the line being virtual worldliness, then you’re going to end up at MUD, possibly Scepter of Goth, and maybe, maybe Kesmai. Okay. Next question. Oh, dear. Oh my god, it’s like I’m suntanned!

Matt:   So, I’ve got here that you’ve that you never played Colossal Cave or Zork before you met Tripshaw (?), right?

Richard:   Yes.

Matt:   And he introduced you to it?

Richard:   I’d never played Colossal Cave – I had read a transcript of it in a postal games magazine, but I’d never played it. No. He showed me that. Zork, or Dungeon, as it was known to us, and I didn’t play that until after MUD, quite some time after MUD. In fact, I’ve never finished it. I’ve only ever played it like to get into the house and down and stuff. So –  

Matt:   That’s where the multi-user dungeon name came from, right?

Richard:   Yeah, that’s right, yeah. The “D” comes – because we – we weren’t trying to make a multi-user Zork, we were trying to get across the idea that the world that we made was – we wanted a name that captured what it was like so that people would understand it. And so we’re saying, “it’s like a multi-user version of Dungeon.” In fact, it was only like it in the interface. The interface, the text interface, which itself was pretty obvious because that’s how you communicated with computers in those days. It was a command-line interface, so it was always going to be like that, there was no other option, so. But the idea of – it was like a fantasy thing you could dwell on, that you tell things to do through commands. We figured people knew, well Roy figured because I didn’t name it – we figured people would know what Dungeon was, and we’d call this like a multi-user version of Dungeon so that they’d be able to get their head round it, and once they started, they’d kind of know what to do, but it wasn’t – it wasn’t just a – you couldn’t say that it was a descendant of Adventure or Advent as we called it, or Dungeon, or Zork, as it’s really known. There was influence from it in the way it was implemented, but the, the ideas – I mean, Lord of the Rings probably had much more of an impact because that showed you you could have a virtual – you could have an imaginary world fully realized as if it were real, treated as if it was real. That, that was inspirational because it showed – it was a proof of concept, but it wasn’t – if you’re trying to track back, MUD is kind of where it started. We didn’t base it on anything because we had a purpose.



2 thoughts on “Richard Bartle Interview Transcript

    1. Matt Barton Post author

      Yikes! Thanks for pointing that out. I fixed a few of them at the beginning. Is that the only mess up or are there more?


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