Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Videogame Classics - M.U.L.E.
March 17, 2003
Ozark Softscape for Electronic Arts
Atari 800 (4 Player), Commodore 64 (2 Player)
Playing around with Super Bomberman 2 got me thinking about the truly great multiplayer games. The best ones always allow for that extra edge. It's fun to outmaneuver your friends, but when you can really put the screws to them, you're on to something. A brilliant example, one of my personal favorites, is the computer game classic, M.U.L.E.
MULE was the product of an Arkansas-based development team called Ozark Softscape. The team was comprised of Dan Bunten (project leader), Bill Bunten, Alan Watson, and Jim Rushing. These were the heady days of the early 1980s, with the fall of dedicated consoles (Atari 2600), and the rise of home computers. There was a great desire to experiment and create games that stretched out in new directions. An upstart company named Electronic Arts was entering its own "golden age," with a solid string of excellent, original games like Pinball Construction Set, Archon, Murder on the Zinderneuf, and One on One.
Electronic Arts followed the trail blazed by Activision. Game designers weren't stereotypical computer nerds, but young, creative, and above all, craving attention. They imagined themselves as the new artists, and their games as a creative work. These were not merely children's games, they were…something more. Different. New. Electronic Arts promoted this idea, and Bunten and his team were willing to accommodate.
Just what kind of game is MULE? It really is difficult to describe, since it seems so different from the conventional shoot-em-up, sports, and adventure genres crowding today's market. Perhaps it is most similar to Monopoly, with a dash of arcade action and commodities trading added to the mix. Taking place on the world of Irata, four alien settlers set out to develop the land over the course of 12 monthly turns. Each player selects a plot of land, and then equips that plot for production of food, energy, or mining ore and crystite. At the end of each turn, the plots bear fruit, and the players buy and sell their goods at the market.
I'm afraid that I am making MULE sound boring, but it is anything but. The casual pace belies a fiendishly competitive atmosphere where friendships are made and lost in a matter of minutes. If you do not grow enough food, you will lose precious time for your turns and risk falling behind. If you do not produce enough energy, your plots will suffer. And if enough ore is not made, there will be a shortage of mules.
The mule (for Multiple Use Labor Element) is one of the game's more clever touches. Each plot of land needs to be equipped for the proper function, and for that, you need mules. A mule is bought at the colony store, equipped, and then added to your plot.
This development phase is only one part of the game. The other part is the trading phase. After the monthly harvest, players meet at the market, watch the progress of their crops, and buy or sell with each other or the store. This is where MULE can become so fierce. True, it would be nice to share your extra food with everyone for the good of the colony, but what fun is that? Sharing is for losers. The real fun comes from cornering the market. When there is plenty of food in the store, for instance, the price is very low. But when there are shortages, the price soars.
This is where you screw your friends into the ground. How desperate are they for that extra unit of food or energy? Make them run up the screen and raise the price. Skilled players can learn how to control the market and make a killing in the process. And, yes, this is where shoulders start getting punched between curses.
The bidding in MULE is simple, with buyers on the bottom and sellers on the top. A price is found by both parties meeting somewhere in the middle. There is a certain, almost masochistic joy in watching other players desperately running up prices while you sit safely at the top of the screen. Another great "fuck you" moment comes during plot auctions; the leader runs up the price, then quickly darts back down at the last second, sticking someone else with the bill.
In the end, we are all competing for bragging rights and the rank of "First Founder" at the end of the game. However, in another inspired stroke, the colony as a whole must survive together. If the colony fails to make enough money at year's end, nobody is the winner. Think about that while you're cutting everyone off at the knees.
There are still more surprises to be found in MULE that I haven't mentioned. Mules go crazy and run off; pests eat your food; pirates steal all your crystite (diamonds); there are earthquakes, acid rainstorms, and meteorite strikes; the store catches fire, taking with it all surplus goods. And the game itself subtly teaches market economics: supply and demand, economies of scale, the Learning Curve theory of production, the Law of Diminishing Returns, the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs.
There really has never been a game like MULE, and that is a tragedy. It deserves to be seen by anyone who considers themselves a lover of videogames.