Every now and then we come across a person whose intellect and list of achievements, skills and awards just leave one fazed, so it has been a wonderful privilege for myself to interview Honorary Professor of Computer Game Design, Richard Bartle Ph.D., FRSA, FBCS, who just likes to be referred to as Professor Bartle. Given his notoriety in Professor Bartle’s chosen field, what strikes one is his accessibility to help others, as he explains in ordinary language the nuances of such a niche career.
Only recently, BBC Radio 4 broadcast contributions from Professor Bartle and contemporaries, concerning his world famous software design MUD which he co-founded with a colleague, and one may be able to listen to the podcast, though I believe there are two more weeks in the series as it explores the progress of computer game design from its earlier days through to the present time. I particularly liked the way Professor Bartle clarified the technical detail thereby making it easy to understand the ethos behind his software design.
Professor Richard A. Bartle has been playing and designing what we now call Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMOs) longer than anybody, having in 1978 co-written MUD – the progenitor of the entire genre. His famous Player Types model has seen widespread adoption by the MMO industry and beyond. His book, Designing Virtual Worlds, is the classic text on the subject and he is an influential writer on all aspects of online game design. In 2010, he was the first recipient of the Game Developers Choice award of Online Game Legend. He is Honorary Professor of Computer Game Design at the University of Essex, England, where it all began. He’s also innumerable characters in MMOs.
Hazel Speed: For people who are not in the world of virtual reality software gaming design, can you outline how this area of professional expertise differs from others, perhaps in a lateral or contemporary area.
Professor Richard Bartle: The easiest way is to look at it as a creative art, in the same way as novel-writing, screenplay-writing and song-writing are creative arts. The game designer is trying to express an idea or make a point through the medium of game design. When you read a novel or watch a movie or listen to music, you are receiving a designed experience – you’ll pick up what the creator of the piece is saying to you through words, or vision, or music, and interpret this both intellectually and emotionally. It’s the same with games, except that the artistic payload is delivered through gameplay rather than through narrative or graphics or sound. Yes, these can all play a part, as they can in other media, but the important thing about games is that they have gameplay and nothing else does. What this means in practice for the player is that they get to choose how the game goes, so have some influence over their experience. A film is like a rollercoaster ride – it can be a lot of fun but it runs on rails. A game is like a rollercoaster ride with points, where you can switch to different tracks with different experiences (faster, slower, higher, upside-down, whatever).
A game designer’s job is to specify what the game world will be like, its fiction, its look and feel, and (most importantly) its gameplay. For a small game, the designer may then program the game; for a large one, it could take hundreds of people to program it, create and animate the graphics, write and speak the voice-over scripts, compose and play the music, provide the content and test it all to make sure it works. The designer, however, is the auteur: it’s their vision towards which the others are all working.
That’s except when it’s a hack piece of work trying to make a quick buck, of course! Game design is like any other art form in that regard.
HS: Did you always have an interest in this type of career path or did you morph into it at some stage, especially given your impressive online CV, which lists degrees and other distinctions and Awards that could have taken you along different paths?
RB: I was always interested in games, having played board games most weekends with my father and brother for much of my childhood. I came across computers by accident: BP gave our (remote, seaside) school access to a computer as part of an outreach programme so that people had nice things to say about them (in addition to the nasty things that came from their operating a giant chemical works 25 miles away). When I went to university, it was initially to study Mathematics; however, in the first year I also did Physics and Computer Science. I found there were two people better than me at maths, but no-one better than me at computing, so I switched. I enjoyed programming, and did it for fun in my spare time on the university’s mainframe. Naturally, I used it to create games. One of those games, MUD (which I wrote with a friend, Roy Trubshaw), went on to found a $30bn dollar a year industry.
I didn’t at any time think “hmm, shall I do computer games as a career?”, it just happened. I followed my interests, and was lucky enough that my interests took me somewhere that I could make a living from doing.
HS: As Professor of Game Design at the University of Essex, tutoring Ph.D., Students, do you find a great facility in being able to draw upon your various skills in science, philosophy, physics, mathematics, chemistry, languages, technical drawing, as well as basic software design utilising diverse original game theory structure you create, and what key subject areas should students of your craft attain in order to secure a worthwhile career in your chosen industry?
RB: I think you’re overstating my abilities somewhat! My main task when supervising PhD students is keeping them on track, giving them pointers and ideas, encouraging them, reading (and correcting!) their academic writing, beating them with a stick if they stop working, and making sure that they know that the main obstacle to their getting a PhD is their own self-confidence.
It depends on the student which skills and knowledge sets I need to bring to bear. One of the characteristics of game designers is that they are insatiable devourers of information, and they read widely. There’s no game design course at a university that says you should go off and read an economics textbook, for example, but I know many game designers who have read one (including myself). They have eclectic tastes in whatever takes their fancy, the main disadvantage of which being that they’ll often pursue their interests when they should be doing something else.
As an example, one of the best students I ever taught at undergraduate level came to me a month before his final exams, asking how he could ever be a game designer. He was supposed to be revising, but he’d spent three days looking up the internal workings of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in the 1970s. He was neither Palestinian nor Israeli (he was Greek) and had no connection to the group, but he was fascinated by how it held together historically. How could he be a game designer when he was so easily distracted? I told him that this was exactly the kind of thing a game designer would do: a month before I was due to hand in my PhD, I spent a week researching the architecture of pagodas.
The key areas of my craft are easy to gain, you just need to design a lot of games (“toy games”, we call them). This is much the same as the way a would-be novelist merely has to write a lot of prose to find their voice and understand how to put together a story. Anyone smart can do it. The key point is that it’s not craft that’s important, it’s art. There’s no gain in having the craft of an Austen or a Dickens if you’ve nothing to say. There’s no gain in having the craft to design games if you have nothing to say, either. What I try to instil in my students is an understanding that they need to understand what they’re trying to say when they create a game, and to whom they want to say it. Everything else flows from that.
HS: From the educational standpoint, what should younger students of today be pursuing in order to develop their own skills which may lead to Doctorates in virtual reality software design, and, once they qualify, can they also put their abilities to use within a variety of occupations in software gaming design, Government Departments, Military Colleges, such as Sandhurst, (where strategy formats are utilised in training), also other services such as MI5, MI6, GCHQ, the new Bletchley Park et al? Also, are areas such as medical research, or hospital planning programmes, viable fields? Are there apprenticeships in conjunction with school studies?
RB: Younger students should pursue their interests. There’s no point in studying something in order to get a PhD in that subject if your heart isn’t really in it. You’re going to spend the rest of your life doing this, so you’d better enjoy it. A good rule of thumb is that if you do it for fun in your spare time, as well as studying it, then it’s probably the right area for you. Students of history will read historical books and biographies for fun; students of politics will follow political developments and join political parties; students of mathematics will work on proofs; students of chemistry will have their own equipment and experiments; students of computer science will write programs.
Most programming skills are portable. If you can program, you can program. As for what you program, well that’s up to you. Ideally, you should like the subject matter, but really it doesn’t matter if what you really, really like is programming. It’s like having a degree in English Literature or Creative Writing: the ability to string sentences together coherently and precisely is portable. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing advertising copy, magazine articles, novels, washing machine instructions or welcome guides for recruits to the Royal Marines, it’s all writing. So it is with programming. Computer Science will get you jobs in any of those areas you mention, and more besides.
I would also add that if you’re offered your ideal job, take it. Don’t go on to do a higher degree just so you can gain an extra qualification for a job you can get without it!
HS: I see by your website links that you have a wry sense of humour within many of the short stories therein, is that a facility which you incorporate in your virtual reality gaming, thinking back to your world famous Co-Founding of MUD, and the FOD command, which I think you are best to explain to the Reader, please.
RB: When you create a game, it has a personality. It’s the same for most creative works. If you had to describe what the personality of three different newspapers were, you wouldn’t find it hard. For MUD, I wanted the world to have a particular, wry sense of humour, in order to draw players in and to lessen the blow when anything bad happened in the game (if you lost a fight, say). In general, jokes are a no-no in games because games are replayable but jokes are only funny once. However, it’s possible to sustain an atmosphere of amusement, or whimsy, or exasperation, or sarcasm, or anything else you want, through a game’s design. This is what I did with MUD: I gave the game a personality that was humorous without being stand-up.
As for why I did this, well I know it was deliberate, but to be honest, I can’t put into words why it had to be that way. It just did. That’s one of the things about art: if you can explain everything in words, you don’t have to create the art. All I knew was that MUD had to be like that, and to find out why, you had to play it, then you’d know.
The FOD command was a way to stop players from behaving. FOD means “Finger Of Death”. If anyone started acting like a jerk, they’d be warned to stop. If they didn’t, they’d feel the force of a FOD and their character in the game would be obliterated from the database. It wasn’t a punishment we had to use very often, but we did have to use it.
HS: An independent person advised me that your software is still being utilised by famous Hollywood Producers and Directors which must make you, and your Co-Founder Colleague feel most proud.
How do you see the next generations of virtual reality software gaming being developed, what levels are left to reach, other than perhaps bio-incorporated within some way, thereby bringing thought processing interfacing not only within virtual reality gaming software, but for medicinal benefit, like a Star Trek ‘Mind Meld’, or is that a barrier which would need to be regulated given the huge risks of misuse? Currently new technology is being utilised which endeavours to quantify pain via brain scanning indicators of MRI. New usage of virtual reality, adapted from the software used in gaming design, may provide a breakthrough in medical science, or is that beyond the bounds of current possibilities, if so, do you ever envisage such new horizons?
RB: There’s nothing in science that says we can’t have these things. It’s just a case of when we have them. Is 500 years enough for you? 5,000? 50,000? Half a million years? We have the rest of eternity to develop this software!
That said, plenty of other things are scientifically possible but we don’t do them. It’s scientifically possible right now to kill anyone on the planet (you drop a nuclear bomb on them), but we don’t do that. What will decide how far we progress down this path won’t be limited by science, it’ll be limited by what humans will accept – which is, of course, how it should be.
HS: Please utilise this next question to comment on any aspect of your work, publications, etc, as you wish.
RB: I have nothing to plug! I do what I do because I believe that virtual worlds are a force for good. If the real world sucks, which for most people it does, then either it needs to change to a better world or we need to create new worlds that are better. My aim with MUD was to achieve the former by achieving the latter. What virtual worlds offer is the opportunity to be and become yourself. That’s all that people ever want in the end: the freedom to be.
HS: Can you tell us something of the work you are currently engaged upon and any related future release dates.
RB: I’m not working on any games myself at the moment, because the kind of games I want to make cost upwards of $50m each and no-one will give me $50m to make one! I am working on books, though, both fiction and academic.
HS: You are a well known Guest Speaker at various conferences throughout the world. Do you find any of the questions put to you on these occasions are similar in content or do they vary between countries?
RB: They do vary by country, yes. Some countries, for example Germany, are more suspicious of games than other countries, such as Sweden, which embrace them. In the USA, I’ll be asked politically-charged questions about diversity and so on, some of which can be quite tricky to answer. For example, we don’t have “Hispanics” as a group in the UK, so it’s awkward if I’m asked how many of the early players of MUD were Hispanic (which has happened).
Overall, though, it’s less of a country thing and more of a questioner thing. Students tend to ask original questions more often than professional journalists do, for example. That doesn’t mean my answers are better, of course! I was once asked by a student in Spain if, were Shakespeare alive today, he’d be writing computer games – wow, what a great question! The answer, by the way, is no, he wouldn’t be – he’s too good at playwriting and poetry to need to say anything through gameplay.
HS: Your contributions of expertise to major Corporations, Publications, revered Universities, both with Academic Papers and then as Official Examiner, are prolific, along with various Honours in your field, but I want to ask you about the three Awards which are featured:-
2005: Game Developers Choice Awards: First Penguin (now known as the Pioneers’ Award)
2010: Game Developers Choice Online Awards: Online Game Legend
2013: GameIS Awards: Half-Life Achievement
Given they will be quite different from each other, both in time span, and areas covered by each Award, what one comment can you share with us about them individually.
RB: The 2005 award is for people who started some new trend in the games industry. The weird name comes from what happens when penguins are on ice floes in the Antarctic: they all stand on the ice floe as it melts, and they all know it’s going to melt away, but they’re warm huddled together so none of them want to jump, but the ice is still melting, then suddenly one of them will go out on a limb and jump into the ice-cold waters to swim to another ice floe, whereupon all the others jump in afterwards. This award is for the metaphorical “first penguins” of the games industry, who dared to jump into the water to go somewhere new, rather than staying together where it’s all cosy but it’s going nowhere.
The 2010 award was for people who have contributed the most to the online games industry. It’s very prestigious, and I was its first recipient. So far, it’s tended to go to people who started out in the games industry so long ago that at the time, there weren’t any awards, or even organisations who could give out awards.
The 2013 award is a lifetime achievement award. It’s called a “Half-Life” achievement in part as a nod to a game called Half-Life, and in part because they didn’t want people to think it was an award for not having died yet.
HS: Cheating a little here, in I wish to tie in three smaller questions within the one:
1 – All of the interview so far begs the obvious question, what does someone like yourself, with so many gifts and skills, actually do to unwind, or do you find fun in playing virtual reality software designed games, your own included?
2 – Also, what inspires you when creating a new design structure?
3 – And there cannot be many things, if any, you have not yet achieved, but is there any unfulfilled career ambition you would welcome invitations to facilitate?
RB: Usually when I want to unwind, I play games. I only watch occasional TV shows (last year, only Dr Who, Game of Thrones, Westworld and Sherlock) and movies (mainly Science Fiction or Fantasy, but I try to avoid superheroes). I don’t read a lot of fiction, as I prefer writing it (which I do).
I don’t need inspiration when I create a new game design. This is one of those questions I get asked a lot, by the way! For me, I have a constant stream of ideas, and the problem is which ones to keep and which ones to discard. I’ll have ideas for game mechanics, or for a game world fiction (setting), or for an interface, but mainly it’ll be for gameplay. I have many ideas about non-game things of course, it’s not just games. Games, as with any other art form, are a way of saying something; if I have something to say and a game is a way to say it, I’ll think about it in game design terms. If not, I won’t. I never need inspiration, though.
Regarding career ambitions, so long as I’m paid for doing what I’d do for free, I’m happy!
HS: You are married with children and perhaps you can advise us whether your Wife, or children, share the same interest in virtual reality software gaming design, or laterally connected thereto. Either way, I am sure they must be proud of your achievements thus far.
RB: My wife has no interest in computer games. She works with computers all day (she started out as a programmer) so associates them with work. The last thing she wants to do when she gets home is touch a computer! Both my daughters do like games, though, and play them in their spare time like much of the population of the country under the age of 35 does.
A final word of thanks. Wow! That wry sense of humour came through here and there, and I am sure readers of this interview will not be disappointed, whether they are allied to the virtual reality software design for gaming industry, or people who just enjoy playing these game formats. Then for those who are interested in learning more about this industry in general terms, its integral creativity and integrated structures, I think Professor Richard Bartle has given us both an edifying and entertaining interview, and I do thank him, most sincerely.
Professor Richard A. Bartle has been playing and designing what we now call Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMOs) longer than anybody, having in 1978 co-written MUD – the progenitor of the entire genre. His famous Player Types model has seen widespread adoption by the MMO industry and beyond. His book, ‘Designing Virtual Worlds,’ is the classic text on the subject and he is an influential writer on all aspects of online game design. In addition, he is author of the following books: ‘MMOs from the Inside Out‘, ‘MMOs from the Outside In‘ and ‘Lizzie Lott’s Sovereign.’In 2010, he was the first recipient of the Game Developers Choice award of Online Game Legend. He is Honorary Professor of Computer Game Design at the University of Essex, England, where it all began. He’s also innumerable characters in MMOs.
Photo (c) Hazel Speed – used by kind permision to Tuck Magazine
Hazel Speed is a Philosopher, Writer, and Artist with various creative projects at differing stages of development. Her flaship project is an animation which has produced a film short:www.thepinkprofessor.com. She has also written an E-novel, ‘Just Suppose…!‘ which is available via the attached link.