Get behind the M.U.L.E.

Dani Bunten's pioneering computer game inspired some of the greatest designers in the business. But her life story is a testament to how the industry lost its way.

Published March 18, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

Will Wright dedicated the Sims, the bestselling computer game of all time, to a Little Rock, Ark., programmer named Dani Bunten.

Bunten was a computer-game maker of the old school: Her games were designed to fit onto 5.25-inch floppy disks, where a puny 170,000 bytes or less hung suspended on brown magnetic film. She was also prescient: Even as the gaming industry increasingly focused on games designed for one player only, and her own career faltered, she insisted, again and again, that the future of games would be based on social relationships.

She was a pioneer several times over. Her most famous game, M.U.L.E., has been cited as an inspiration for generations of game developers. As the frontman of Ozark Softscape, a quartet of game designers from Little Rock, she and her co-workers were the stars of the first publicity campaign to promote programmers as if they were rock stars. The former Dan Bunten also pushed gender boundaries, changing her name, and her sex, in the early '90s. But in 1998 Dani Bunten died of cancer at age 49, shut out from the mass market she envisioned when computer games were only an oddball hobby.

Her career arc is instructive: In the 1980s the computer game business was as free-form as college radio, as willing to back risky creative projects as '70s Hollywood was. Back then, an upstart company called Electronic Arts could unleash the impulses of a creator like Bunten, whose games were known as much for impish humor as for revolutionary design.

"Ask most game designers what their favorite computer game of all time is," says Wright, "and you'll get M.U.L.E. as an answer more often than any other title."

But outside the relatively small world of game designers, Bunten and her 1983 game of robot prospectors have been mostly forgotten. Unlike old movies and music, landmark computer games are not, as a usual practice, reissued commercially. At CompUSA, any search for the past stops at the bargain rack of mid-1990s titles: $9.99 shrink-wrapped reissues of Deer Hunter and Braveheart. Except for the fingerprints that her philosophy of graceful simplicity left on modern game designs from the Sims to Civilization, it's almost as if Dani Bunten's games never existed.

And yet, today, the gaming industry is finally investing hundreds of millions of dollars into the market niche of multiplayer home computer games, a genre Dani Bunten specialized in back in 1978.

In her speeches and writings, Bunten told us this day would arrive, a day when not just Computer Gaming World but the New York Times would write seriously about games as windows into human behavior. But her predictions and passionate beliefs have been lost in the glitz, megahertz and adrenaline of modern gaming.

The name Dani Bunten is absent from current accounts detailing the rise of multiplayer games. Newsweek's timeline of multiplayer online game history, accompanying a cover story on the Sims Online, never mentions her social interaction games for Electronic Arts and completely ignores multiplayer gaming's offline, home-computer origins.

Thumbing through a recent Business 2.0 recap of Electronic Arts history ("Could This Be the New Disney?"), it seems the entire early history of the company under founder Trip Hawkins (now at 3DO) has been deleted. Describing current CEO Larry Probst's arrival in 1984, at the delirious height of gaming's early golden age, the article bubbles: "Back then Pac-Man was the most popular video game, and Electronic Arts' portfolio was limited to a handful of products for the Apple II and Atari computers."

And also the most popular home computer of the time, the Commodore 64, but who's counting?

Today Electronic Arts is best known as a distribution Goliath. But in the heady atmosphere of the early 1980s, E.A. was famous for a contribution to computer game culture arguably as culturally significant as Apple's famous 1984 Super Bowl commercial: the "We See Farther" ads, which for the first time promoted game creators as artists with distinctive styles.

One ad shows Ozark -- Dani (then known as Dan) Bunten, his brother Bill, Alan Watson and Jim Rushing -- seated on a bench in front of a rustic market. Shot in sepia tones, the four disheveled men are hunched intensely over the Arkansas Gazette. The photograph conveys the ambiguous drama of an L.P. cover.

Despite Bunten's status as computer gaming's first star designer, she "didn't have a scrap of pretension," says game designer Chris Crawford, another iconoclast of the floppy disk era. "He was one of the few really good people in the industry."

Even as she stood up for the rights of programmers as employees -- to the point that some in management feared a union was in the offing -- Bunten once politely walked out of a conference to protest what she saw as programmer egotism, Crawford says. Some designers wanted to receive an award that had previously gone to software publishers, and Bunten didn't like the idea. Unlike others, Bunten was purely dedicated to game design -- not money, fame or hacking repute, Crawford says.

As a child, Bunten had found classic board games to be a peaceful escape from family pressures, which included the burden of taking care of his four younger brothers when the Buntens hit hard times, according to younger brother Steve, who noted that Dan worked at a drugstore and as an assistant scoutmaster for the local Boy Scout troop to help pay the bills. As a computer game designer, Bunten wanted her creations to be as breezy to learn, and social, as her favorite board games, but to also benefit from the complex intelligence of a computer at work beneath the friendly surface.

"That was his inspiration," says Civilization designer Sid Meier: "the vision of the family gathered around the computer."

While an engineering student, Bunten started a bike shop called the Highroller Cyclery. Hometown friend Jim Simmons recalls, on the Dani Bunten Memorial Web site, that while Bunten's partner saw the bike shops as a way of making some extra cash, Bunten saw it as part of a quest to improve the world. "If more people rode bikes, the world would be a better place. Typical Dani."

Later, while working a day job in Little Rock, she spent some nights teaching others in the Little Rock Apple Addicts club the secrets of 6502 assembly language, and recruiting testers for her games. Friend Ted Cashion posted on the memorial site that at a bar on Markham Street, "several of us would usually down several pitchers, and as the night wore on, get carried away/excited/buzzed at what the future held for computers and gaming."

Bunten's games caught the interest of Russell Sipe, a soft-spoken former pastor who founded Computer Gaming World in 1981. According to Sipe, Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts, dropped by the magazine's tiny offices early on to ask for his opinion on whom to hire.

"Dan was one of the five that I listed," Sipe says. He and Hawkins shared an admiration for Bunten's easy-to-play multiplayer games. In 1978, Bunten had self-published Wheeler Dealers, a stock-market game that came with a special push-button controller so four people could play. Cartels and Cutthroats, published in 1981, had also contributed to Bunten's growing reputation.

In the early years of E.A., Hawkins -- who remembers Bunten as a kindly soul who would give him free chiropractic help -- allowed Bunten the freedom to choose ambitious topics. Robot Rascals was envisioned as a family board game. A whimsical scavenger hunt for items like the "Digital Donut," it came with real-life playing cards -- and no single-player mode. It didn't sell well -- nor did 1988's Modem Wars, a real-time strategy game released before enough people had modems. But Bunten's 1987 Spanish explorer game, Seven Cities of Gold -- one of her only single-player games -- sold 150,000 copies. That was a lot back then.

Its scope was awesome for the time. "Your Computer Is Creating the New World," your 64K Commodore would tell you in its blocky yellow approximation of calligraphy, as it spent 20 minutes drawing the coastlines of a random new Western Hemisphere. (Separate blank disk on which to store the New World not included.)

On the Bunten memorial board, former E.A. producer Joe Ybarra recalls that a buggy beta version was unable to generate an image of North and South America that didn't look like an enormous peanut. There was an outburst of celebration in the E.A. offices the first time Bunten, at an agonizingly slow 2,400 baud, successfully transmitted a believable Western Hemisphere from Little Rock to the Bay Area.

"The energy and excitement was terrific," recalls Ybarra. "Dan was both elated and burnt out, but you could hear him grinning on the other side of the phone."

Bunten's philosophy was that complex games could be based on surprisingly few rules. In Seven Cities you only kept track of Food, Men, Ships and Gold. But Meier was "blown away" by the final product, he says, not only because of its friendly interface design -- "Amaze the Natives," "Drop Stuff Off" -- but also because it made him realize the vast historical scope possible for a simple game.

"Dan's genius in M.U.L.E. and in Seven Cities of Gold was in taking big ideas and making them fun and accessible," Meier says. "And that paved the way for a game like Civilization." Indeed, Civilization pulls off the Buntenesque feat of turning 6,000 years of world history into a playable game.

Bunten's greatest game, and the one with the most relevance to today's multiplayer world, was M.U.L.E. Named for the stubborn electronic beasts ("Multiple Use Labor Elements") that players haul out to plots of land on the planet Irata ("Atari" spelled backward), it took advantage of the Atari home computer's four-joystick setup to let players cooperate and compete in an artificial economy. Designers still admire its flawless balancing of ruthlessness and interdependence. A player can make a tidy sum using such tricks as monopolizing the planet's energy supply, but a robot Ken Lay who takes it too far will bring the economy crashing down for all four players, dooming the colony.

As anyone who has played it knows, bloodshed is unnecessary in the good-naturedly cut-throat competition of M.U.L.E. Today, journalists writing about the massively multiplayer Everquest find it remarkable that a game can teach us about free markets. But on a much smaller scale, M.U.L.E. staked out this territory on an Atari computer with four players gripping leathery joysticks.

The subject -- robots developing real estate -- is seemingly as dry as it gets. But the concept and execution were sublime, even "genius," according to Meier.

The game turns the economy of a planet into a simple visual arena. As a timer ticks down, buyer robots and seller robots walk up and down the screen trying to lure each other to a meeting place. Sometimes, in days past, someone would tilt a joystick to run away at the last moment, and chaos ensued, typically characterized -- as is still common at today's LAN parties, where gamers gather to play networked games -- by people laughing at each other's failures and hubris. "It made economics and capitalism fun," Meier says.

In M.U.L.E. you, the player, are a robot entrepreneur. You pick a species of robot -- such as the Leggite or the simian Bonzoid. Then you begin each turn walking around a Town. So long as the Town has Smithore (a valuable mineral) with which to produce M.U.L.E.'s, a nearby pen is full of the creatures. Typically, you begin the turn by buying one of the robotic beasts of burden and trotting it out to a plot of land, being careful not to let it run away. Then, after "installing" it in the right location to earn money for you, you race back to town, where you convert your remaining time into cash by gambling at the Pub. After everyone has completed a turn, it's time for the Auction -- at which the plots of land and other commodities are sold.

M.U.L.E. was beloved in the small world of computer hobbyists -- science fiction author Orson Scott Card wrote in Compute that it "faces the fundamental ethical dilemma of humanity, while teaching you, firsthand, the principles of economics. Sounds deadly, doesn't it?"

But for decades the industry ignored M.U.L.E.'s lessons. At Chris Crawford's game development conferences, Bunten's sermons preached that a large, untapped market of gameplayers could be reached with socially oriented games that appealed to non-programmer types. Anything was possible back then. In the mid-'80s, Crawford could release a game like Balance of Power, which was one part Cold War sim, one part social commentary. A Massachusetts company called Infocom sold nothing but witty text adventure games (Zork, A Mind Forever Voyaging). Strategic Simulations, meanwhile, focused on detailed strategy wargames for military history buffs. Then there were quirky life simulations like Alter Ego and Little Computer People -- and unclassifiable games such as M.U.L.E., singular in its designer's strange faith in multiplayer gaming.

Most of the above genres are extinct today. Instead, the industry has narrowed its focus to just a few, mostly violent, niches, guaranteed to sell: the D&D franchise product, the first-person shooter, the real-time strategy game. Increasingly, Bunten found the gaming industry unreceptive to her ideas.

Somewhere during this sad evolution, the twice-divorced Bunten struggled not only with the difficult task of finding appreciation for her work but also with a growing uncertainty about her identity.

When Bunten became more reclusive in the early 1990s, Computer Gaming World's Sipe was one of the few people in the industry she kept updated on her personal life. This included the looming, final phase of what Bunten called the "pronoun change," completed in 1992. Not long after, Sipe ran into Dani at one of Crawford's game design conferences, sporting a perm. He asked how "it" went.

"I had to call it off," Bunten said. "They wanted to add guns and bombs in there."

The two had a good laugh when they realized Bunten thought Sipe was talking about her other life's struggle: to remake M.U.L.E. for the '90s.

"Some asshole at E.A. insisted there had to be combat in it," says Crawford, although company founder Hawkins says he has no recollection of that.

Unfortunately, a weird and wonderful multiplayer game about capitalistic robots was destined for trouble in the dawning mass market of late '80s solo games. With graphics-intensive games like Wing Commander, glitzy "bells and whistles" were becoming increasingly important in selling software. And games themselves were doing double-duty as advertisements for extravagant graphics hardware.

"Dan did not adapt well as the market became more focused on video games for kids that required more action and better graphics," says Hawkins. M.U.L.E.'s primitive look did not fit the bill.

Throughout the 1990s, the industry -- driven by the consumer lust for graphics and the accompanying demand for upgrades -- became something very different from the puckish world of early games. In the 8-bit era, memory and hard disk space was at a premium and the Dani Buntens of the world strove endlessly to cram better and more efficiently coded games into a tight squeeze. But now, formerly inconceivable amounts of computing power are splurged on the visceral thrill of the death match.

Today the massively multiplayer game is trumpeted as the next big thing; the game industry is finally beginning to take human interaction seriously. But its open-ended chaos is the polar opposite of Bunten's meticulous arrangement of rules. Has something been lost?

Yes: innocent charm -- a kind of gentle 1980s engineering student humor that would produce something like M.U.L.E. or Robot Rascals. There is also less willingness to let game designers take risks. When was the last time a computer game felt like something other than a sequel or an incremental improvement? And how many young would-be Buntens are stuck coding yet another snowboarding game?

Like many other American pioneers, Bunten found she couldn't fit into the new order she helped build. Her friend Crawford says: "It is with much shame that the industry rejected her towards the end, treated her as a washed-up loser, out of touch with reality."

Fellow designers still welcomed Bunten as a visionary. In 1997, on the threshold of the multiplayer age, she gave a speech at the Computer Game Developers conference. "Solo sells, or at least it has until now," she said in her speech, predicting things would change. She also ticked off the elements in her philosophy of multiplayer games -- ideas that can be seen in games from Civilization to the Sims. You should be able to personalize your game; there should be what she called the "Norm Effect," after the Cheers character everyone greeted as he walked in the bar. Chance events should balance out the competition. And "keep the features down," she said. Then players, anticipating their opponents' next moves, could concentrate on human psychology, not game detail.

("The whole world was focused on solo play," Crawford says. "Bunten was passionate about that point, that no amount of A.I. would ever, ever match the richness of play you could get from multiplayer.")

Then she told a story that some say is myth and others swear by. The story was that for years she and Sid Meier had been eyeing a board game, called Civilization, as a likely possibility for adaptation. In one version of the story, related by Infocom's Brian Moriarty, the suits at E.A. talk her out of doing it. But in the version Bunten related at the speech, Meier was the one doing the dissuasion. Bunten ended up writing Command HQ, a Risk-like and un-Buntenish game that sold modestly. Meier's 1991 Civilization game sold 850,000 copies.

"Not that I would have done the amazing job that Sid did with that game," said Bunten, "but it does give one pause to consider the ways fate works out." (Meier says he was unaware of this story.)

By 1997 Dani Bunten was fighting the effects of a lifetime of heavy smoking. She searched the Internet one day looking for Web sites about herself and came across the fanatically detailed "World of M.U.L.E.," run by Christian Schiller. Schiller says he receives about five e-mails a week from people "who say they play M.U.L.E. on a regular basis." Instead of waiting for the industry to create a new version of the game, he and others are programming their own. His is called "Son of M.U.L.E."

In an e-mail to Schiller, Bunten described her frustrations: "The unfortunate situation is that virtually all the folks in authority got here after MULE was already out of print. The world is so oriented towards 'sizzle' these days that showing someone the original product doesn't go very far either..."

"Anyway, on a personal note I'm currently finishing treatment for a fairly advanced case of lung cancer. The prognosis is good and my spirits are very high. I view the future one day at a time. However, if there is one thing I want to do before I die it is to re-do MULE for a modern audience."

But as Bunten met with potential publishers in the '90s, they watched the blocky robo-donkeys march to tinny, mock-stately title music; they observed the primitive 8-bit doodles of the Auction; and time after time, they saw nothing more than an ancient, dusty, stupid Atari video game.

When her obituary appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette -- the consolidated version of the newspaper she was reading in that old Electronic Arts ad -- a woman who met Dani Bunten at an Arkansas hospital was quoted as saying that a conversation with her was like "having your head opened and the universe poured in." Late in life, Bunten seemed to become fanatical about studying other people; she was devouring New Age books, anthropology and Jung. At a time when modems were seen by most users as optional peripherals, like printers or koala pads, Bunten's genius was in seeing the interconnectedness of people as the key to a new era in gaming. She had "a vision that, in hindsight, turned out to be correct," Meier says. "It's not easy to be ahead of your time."

Insisting that a mass market of people could be reached if designers would only get out more, Bunten uttered her most quoted maxim: "Nobody on their deathbed said, 'I wish I'd spent more time with my computer.'"

By John Gorenfeld

John Gorenfeld is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

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