Dani Bunten’s Game Design Memoir on M.U.L.E.

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“M.U.L.E.” was part of the group of games that launched Electronic Arts in ’83. It won numerous awards (including Computer Gaming World’s Hall of Fame) and sold reasonably well (despite being the “most pirated game” at the time according to the publisher of CGW). Curiously, it happened as a result of the fact that Trip Hawkins (the founder of EA) couldn’t get SSI to sell him “Cartels and Cutthroats”. I convinced him we (at that point I had formed Ozark Softscape and had 5 employees) could do it better. I took the auction from “Wheelers”, the graphic real-time aspects from “Cytrons”, some of the production ideas from “Cartels” and let it evolve where it needed to. This was the game that taught me the value of play-testing where you watch and talk to real people about the game while it’s under development. After all, games are a form of communication that can only be confirmed by checking whether it works against an audience.
     A couple of design pieces really pleased me about this game. I think the auction with the sellers on top and the buyers on the bottom of the screen and a timer was particularly cool. Sellers would walk down the screen thereby lowering the price they were offering to sell at and buyers would walk up the screen raising their bid. When the two met, units of commodity would zip from the seller to the buyer. This led to a lot of dickering and cajoling by the players trying to get each other to move closer using all types of justifications to support their inability to move themselves. When the timer started running down, this could lead to a lot of frantic maneuvering.
     Another neat thing was the invention of the MULE itself. In order to make the auctions interesting, there had to be commodities that players needed and also made (so some became sellers and others buyers). From a strategic game model what was needed was some way for players to say “I want to produce commodity ‘A’ on plot ‘X'” but text entry or even menu selection seemed uninteresting. What if your picked up a machine somewhere and dragged it to your property to produce what you wanted. This “machine” eventually became a “Multiple Use Labor Element” that you got from the coral in the town, dragged into an outfitter shop of the right kind for the commodity you wanted and took out to your land and deposited there. Voila we had the info the model needed and with the addition of a timer, we had an interesting play element.
     My only disappointment with the game is that it only exists on long defunct hardware and it looks awful (since those machines only offered 48K of memory and I used it mostly for program rather than graphics). I almost got a Sega Genesis version through EA in ’93 but at the Alpha phase they insisted on adding guns and bombs (or something similar) to “bring it up to date”. I was unable to comply. I’m still amazed at how well loved it is (there are a number of web sites devoted to it) and I’m hopeful I can find a way to bring it to life again – possibly on the internet.