This article tells the story of Deluxe M.U.L.E. for the Commodore Amiga, spanning from the summer of 1990 to the spring of 2020. And beyond? Who knows!
Summer of 1990
Summer of 1990 was a delight for German M.U.L.E. fans. In the August issue of renowned German games magazine “PowerPlay”, a two-page article appeared about a remake of M.U.L.E. for the Commodore Amiga, 7 years after its Atari/C64 debut and just a bit before it’s U.S.-only remake for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
Deluxe M.U.L.E. was in development by German game studio “Infernal Byte Systems”. Julian Eggebrecht was project lead and game designer; programmer was Stefan Schulze; music by Rob Hubbard (the one and only!), and graphics by Tobias Prinz and Sebastian Dosch.
The majority of the article introduces and praises the gameplay of original 8-bit M.U.L.E., and then only briefly teases the plans for the 16-bit Deluxe version. Obviously, graphics and sound were significantly improved, utilising the potential of the Commodore Amiga. As you can see, the town screen looks simply gorgeous!
From a gameplay point of view, designer Julian Eggebrecht planned to stay as close to the original as possible, with just one planned new game feature: Defense plots. As you can see from the town screen above, on the top left you can see a rocket symbol. These would have allowed players to defend against the pirates. However, only the player with the most defense plots would be spared from the pirates raid. This was planned to spark a kind of “defense arms race” among the players, who would need to balance the need for production against the need for defense. The board game “Settlers of Catan”, in its 1998 expansion pack “Cities and Knights”, has a similar game mechanic where only one player, the player with the most knights, can defend against the invading barbarians.
Apart from that, M.U.L.E. fans could expect to get what they love, just with better looks, as the status and planet screens show:
Spring of 1991
So, after summer 1990, German M.U.L.E. fans waited eagerly for this game. And waited. And waited. But – nothing happened. Apart from working on Deluxe M.U.L.E., Infernal Byte Systems was working on two other titles for other publishers at the time – Masterblazer for Lucasfilm Games (a sequel to Ballblazer), and Nebulus 2 for Hewson/21st Century Entertainment. These games made it to the market; Deluxe M.U.L.E. did not. After the initial report from summer 1990, nothing was heard of it anymore. Why?
A first hint was given in spring 1991, when out of the blue a M.U.L.E. clone named “Traders” (developed by Swiss company Linel) hit the store shelves for Commodore Amiga, and later for Atari ST and for MS-DOS PCs. In his game review in issue 5/1991 of PowerPlay, author Volker Weitz mentioned that “some developers may be biting their behinds now”… That was certainly pointing towards the “Deluxe M.U.L.E.” team (not a very nice thing to say by the way…).
Autumn of 1992
A second hint was given in autumn of 1992, in the 10/1992 issue of PowerPlay magazine. In a two-page preview of M.U.L.E. clone “Subtrade” (by Century Software), author Richard Eisenmenger reports that two years ago, Deluxe M.U.L.E. failed first “because one of the programmers lost motivation”, and second “due to EA”.
Spring of 2020
The third and probably final answer why Deluxe M.U.L.E. remains unfinished was given by Julian Eggebrecht himself in an addendum interview with German games podcast StayForever issue #95 (which covers M.U.L.E. in general) on April 11th 2020. Julian was interviewed by German podcasters Gunnar Lott and Christian Schmidt and during the interview disclosed many interesting aspects of the game’s development and demise.
In this interview, Julian tells us that he was a longtime fan of the game since his childhood. The first idea to create a Commodore Amiga version of this game dates back to 1986, but the project began in earnest only in late 1988 / early 1989, during the teams’ “Abitur” (German A-levels) time at school. (Yes, Infernal Byte Systems was a very young games development startup, in every sense of the word!).
Julian did something bold – he just called Dani Bunten (then Dan Bunten) at home to pitch his project. In his talk, Dani disclosed to him that there was already an unfinished 16-bit version of M.U.L.E. for the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST developed, created by A.J. Redmer’s team in 1987, with the Atari ST version already playable. However, Electronic Arts decided to shelf this project again due to the Atari ST’s low market share and thus commercial un-viability. Why the Commodore Amiga version of A.J. Redmer’s design was not pursued at that time remains a mystery in the dark parts of M.U.L.E. history – hopefully, someday to be revealed by A.J. Redmer himself?
But back to Dani. Dani herself was not working on anything M.U.L.E. related at this time, so she got Julian into contact with Electronic Arts, who – according to Dani – had the rights to the game at that time anyway.
Digression: “Guns and Bombs”
People who are deep into the history of M.U.L.E. remember reports that in 1993, Dani Bunten was at odds with EA and left the development contract for Son of M.U.L.E. (a M.U.L.E. sequel for the Sega Genesis / Mega Drive) because EA “insisted to add guns and bombs” to the gameplay.
So – Deluxe M.U.L.E. had “guns and bombs” in the form of “rockets” – what about that then, was this the reason why it never saw the light? Was it the same creative disagreement?
No! Julian discussed the idea of “defense rockets” with Dani, and she was fine with it, even liked the idea as an allegory to the futility of the cold war. Image a M.U.L.E. colony with just rockets, no food, no energy, no other production – what a wasted life! As it turns out, already the A.J. Redmer design of M.U.L.E. had thought about / introduced a similar gameplay element.
Whatever it was that led Dani Bunten to leave Son of M.U.L.E. development in 1993, it probably was not the concept of “defense rockets”. This is also supported by a statement Jim Rushing made in his Mechanical Donkeys interview, where he mentioned that the “guns and bombs” issue may not have been the creative issue at all.
On the other hand, we can also note that the 1993 Son of M.U.L.E. does not include the concept of defense rockets. So in the time between 1987 (A.J. Redmer) and 1988 (Julian Eggebrecht), Dani may have changed her mind about it. Probably, because the Cold War had ended? Sadly, we will probably never know, unless she confided in someone before her premature death.New aspects to M.U.L.E. history emerging from Deluxe M.U.L.E. development
Still late 1988
Leaving the “guns and bombs” revelation aside, so the next thing was that Julian pitched the game to EA, under the name of “Deluxe M.U.L.E.” due to EA’s ongoing “Deluxe”-branded series of developments (Deluxe Paint, Deluxe Music etc.).
Following these discussions with EA, Julian received from them the game design from A.J. Redmer’s version, as well as the original Atari/C64 source code of the game (still in his possession to this day). His team built upon the A.J. Redmer design, extended it a bit, and also used some parts of the original source code – such as the map generation algorithm – in order to let Deluxe M.U.L.E. feel as close as possible to the original.
Deluxe M.U.L.E. was only ever planned to be released on the Commodore Amiga. First reason was the already-mentioned low marketshare of Atari ST, which made it a commercially unviable platform for EA at the time. Second reason was that during the 1985 creation of M.U.L.E. for the IBM PCjr it seemed that EA had given rights for any IBM PC version of M.U.L.E. to IBM, and did not get them back! Whether that is due to EA’s negligence of “just getting it back”, or IBM’s unwillingness to “just giving it back”, is another chapter in the dark part of M.U.L.E.’s history yet to be revealed.
The end (?)
In the April 2020 interview, Julian reported that the Deluxe M.U.L.E. development “fell asleep due to other projects gaining speed.”, adding to the list of reasons hitherto reported in the media (“developer losing interest”; “due to EA”).
The prototype has survived in Julian’s hands, but the game got developed only to a very, very early alpha stage. Many crucial elements were missing, so even if the prototype disk image were to be released someday (which the WoM community hopes of course), it would just be a nice piece of history to “have a look at”, but not playable.
“Have a look at” is the right keyword: Thus, I am finishing this article with a second look at the gorgeous, beautiful, – did I mention gorgeous? – town screen. 🙂
- Preview of Deluxe M.U.L.E. in German games magazine PowerPlay issue 8/1990
PowerPlay_08-1990-DeluxeMULE.PDF (2.6 MiB, 14 hits)