M.U.L.E. is a seminal multiplayer video game by Ozark Softscape. It was published in 1983 by Electronic Arts. It was originally written for the Atari 400/800 and was later ported to the Commodore 64, the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the IBM PCjr Japanese versions also exist for the PC-8801, the Sharp X1, and MSX 2 computers. While it plays like a strategy game, it incorporates aspects that simulate economics.
Set on the fictional planet Irata (which is Atari backwards), the game is an exercise in supply and demand economics involving competition among four players, with computer opponents automatically filling in for any missing players. Players are provided with several different choices for the race of their colonist, providing different advantages and disadvantages that can be paired to their respective strategies. To win, players not only compete against each other to amass the largest amount of wealth, but must also cooperate for the survival of the colony.
Central to the game is the acquisition and use of "M.U.L.E."s (Multiple Use Labor Element) to develop and harvest resources from the player's real estate. Depending on how it is outfitted, a M.U.L.E. can be configured to harvest Energy, Food, Smithore (from which M.U.L.E.s are constructed), and Crystite (a valuable mineral available only at the "Tournament" level). Players must balance supply and demand of these elements, buying what they need, and selling what they don't. Players may also exploit or create shortages by refusing to sell to other players or to the "store," which raises the price of the resource on the following turns. Scheming between players is encouraged by allowing collusion, which initiates a mode allowing a private transaction. Crystite is the one commodity that is not influenced by supply and demand considerations, being deemed to be sold 'off world,' so the strategy with this resource is somewhat different—a player may attempt to maximize production without fear of having too much supply for the demand.
Each resource is required to do certain things on each turn. For instance, if a player is short on Food, there will be less time to take one's turn. Similarly, if a player is short on Energy, some land plots won't produce any output, while a shortage of Smithore will raise the price of M.U.L.E.s in the store and prevent the store from manufacturing new M.U.L.E.s to make use of one's land.
Players must also deal with periodic random events such as run-away M.U.L.E.s, sunspot activity, theft by space pirates and a meteorite, with potentially destructive and beneficial effects. The game features a balancing system for random events that impact only a single player, such that favorable events never happen to the player currently in first place, while unfavorable events never happen to the player in last place. This same "leveling of the playfield" is applied whenever a tie happens in the game (e.g. when two players want to buy a resource at the same price); the player in the losing position automatically wins the tie. The players also can hunt the mountain wampus for a cash reward.
According to Jim Rushing (one of the four original partners in Ozark Softscape), M.U.L.E. was initially called Planet Pioneers during development. It was intended to be similar to Cartels & Cutthroats, with more graphics, better playability, and a focus on multiplayer. The real-time auction element came largely from lead designer Danielle Bunten's Wheeler Dealers. The board game Monopoly was used as a model for the game, for its encouragement of social interaction. From Monopoly came several of the game's elements: the acquisition and development of land as a primary task, and the economy of scale effect wherein grouped plots and multiple plots of the same type would have increased production quantities. It also inspired the different species, as the different tokens in Monopoly. Random events affecting each individual were similar to "Chance" cards. Additional game features, such as claim jumping, loans, crystite depletion, were discarded for adding complexity without enhancing gameplay.
The setting was inspired by Robert A. Heinlein's Time Enough for Love, wherein galactic colonization is in the style of the American Old West: A few pioneers with drive and primitive tools. The M.U.L.E. itself is based on the idea of the genetically modified animal in Heinlein's novel, and given the appearance of a Star Wars Imperial Walker. Another Heinlein novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, provided the decision to not have any government or external authority. All land was originally sold by auction but this caused a feedback loop in which the wealthiest player had the most land and thus made the most money; thus, the developers created the "land authority" that gives each player a free plot of land each turn.
Ozark Softscape developed the game for the Atari 8-bit first because of its policy of developing for the most advanced computers then porting them to other platforms, removing or altering features such as sprites as necessary. Bunten stated that Ozark did not port the game to the Apple II series because "M.U.L.E. can't be done for an Apple". The PC port of M.U.L.E was developed by K-Byte Software, an affiliate of Electronic Arts, and published by IBM as part of their venture into the home market with the PCjr, but it sold poorly due to being released in 1985 after the latter had been discontinued (although the game did not have any actual PCjr support). No copies existed on the Internet and it was considered "lost" until 2012 when Vince Bray found an original disk which was then archived by Jeff Leyda and Jim Leonard.
M.U.L.E. was unusual in the ease with which it allowed multiplayer interaction through a single game computer console. Though this failed as a trend-setter at the time, the game is still heralded as the first game to make effective use of the multiplayer game concept.
Although not a bestselling title, M.U.L.E. remains a favorite among retrogaming enthusiasts. Several clones for various computers exist including Subtrade and Traders. The unlicensed clone Subtrade: Return to Irata was developed by Century Interactive and released in 1992. The clone replaced the terrestrial playing field of the original with a new underwater setting and greatly enhanced graphics. Subtrade was released for Amiga and MS-DOS.
Bunten was working on an Internet version M.U.L.E. until her death in 1998. In 2005, a netplay component called Kaillera was integrated into the Atari800WinPlus emulator, enabling the original game to be played over the Internet.
A modern version of the game entitled Space HoRSE was developed in 2004 by Gilligames and distributed by Shrapnel Games. An online remake of the game called Planet M.U.L.E. was released on December 6, 2009. The game is free for download and runs on all major platforms. Comma 8 Studios later acquired the mobile M.U.L.E. license and released a new mobile game called M.U.L.E. Returns for iOS in November 2013.
Many game designers cite the game as one of the most revolutionary ever and an inspiration for many of their games. Super Mario Bros. creator Shigeru Miyamoto cited M.U.L.E. as an influence on the Pikmin series. Will Wright dedicated his game The Sims to the memory of Bunten. The M.U.L.E. theme song was included in Wright's later game, Spore, as an Easter egg in the space level. The song, by Roy Glover, has been covered by remix groups.
A board game adaptation titled 'M.U.L.E. The Board Game' was released in 2015.
M.U.L.E. only sold 30,000 copies but was widely lauded by players and reviewers. Computer Gaming World described it as a "fascinating and very enjoyable game which comes to its very best point with four human players". Minor criticisms included too-weak computer opponents and the lack of a savegame feature. Softline called M.U.L.E. "what computer games should be like. It's a game, and it's a learning experience. It's also stimulating, fun, frustrating, thought provoking, fun, addictive, and fun". The magazine praised it as offering "valuable lessons" on economic topics, noting that "Most of them are learned the hard way", and concluded that "The game feels good" and "virtually flawless" because of the human-computer and human-human competition.
John J. Anderson wrote in Creative Computing, "I should also mention that there is no shooting to be found anywhere in the game. How positively refreshing ... Mule belongs on every Atari software shelf in the world: in every home and every school, near every Atari." InfoWorld stated that M.U.L.E. would have "incredible lasting power, just like the best of the board games", praised its multiplayer option, and stated "I learned more about the economics of the marketplace from M.U.L.E. than I ever did in college". Leo Laporte of Hi-Res also said that he learned more economics from the game than during college. He predicted that M.U.L.E. "may revitalize the [video game] industry. It ought to make them rich anyway", praised its theme as "most captivating musical come-on I've ever heard", and concluded "If you ask me, M.U.L.E. is the perfect game." In an interview, Chris Crawford said of of the game that considering the platform the team had to deal with, M.U.L.E. was "the greatest game design ever done."
Reporting in BYTE that his children loved it, Jerry Pournelle described M.U.L.E. as "a cross between Hammurabi, Diplomacy, and an arcade game, with lots of strategic decisions—provided that you're skillful enough with a joystick to implement what you've decided to do". Another reviewer wrote in the magazine that "it is impossible to adequately describe all the interaction and economically realistic subtleties of M.U.L.E.", concluding that it was "an intriguing way to illustrate some of the triumphs and perils of free enterprise". Orson Scott Card in Compute! in 1983 gave M.U.L.E. and two other EA games, Archon: The Light and the Dark and Worms?, complimentary reviews, writing that "they are original; they do what they set out to do very, very well; they allow the player to take part in the creativity; they do things that only computers can do". The magazine listed the game in May 1988 as one of "Our Favorite Games", stating that it "requires a sense of strategy as well as proficiency at joystick maneuvers".
The Addison-Wesley Book of Atari Software 1984 gave the game an overall A rating, stating that it "combines some of the best features of Monopoly with economic simulation games like [Hammurabi]" while teaching "valuable lessons in economies in a fun way". The book noted that "when several people play, the game becomes involved and interactive". Two of Zzap!64's reviewers stated that M.U.L.E. was "an excellent trading game" and "recommended for both novice and skilled", while the third complained that he "found little [excitement] ... nothing to keep me interested".
In 1984 M.U.L.E. was awarded "1984 Best Multi-Player Video Game/Computer Game" at the 5th annual Arkie Awards where judges described it as "a unique blend of boardgame strategy and computer-game pacing" and noted that "since its release, 'M.U.L.E.' has gained an intense cult following".:29 Softline readers named the game the third most-popular Atari program of 1983. With a score of 7.44 out of 10, in 1988 M.U.L.E. was among the first members of the Computer Gaming World Hall of Fame, honoring those games rated highly over time by readers. In a 1992 survey of science fiction games the magazine gave the title five of five stars, calling it "An all-time computer classic, this was one of the only games ever devised that was playable and entertaining for four humans. Economics made fun! ... it still holds up well over all these years and, by itself, provides justification for holding onto the 8-bit Atari". In 1996, the magazine named M.U.L.E. as #3 on its Best Games of All Time list.
Currently, the site Twin Galaxies recognizes World Records for the highest end of the game score. The following records are recognized:
Nintendo Entertainment System Jason P. Kelly 68,273 Commodore 64 John J. Sato 57,879
Board game version of M.U.L.E
Board game version of the computer game was made in 2015 by Heikki Harju.
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Rushing: We can discuss more on phone, but ... Trivia: Working title of the game was "Planet Pioneers."
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- M.U.L.E. at MobyGames
- The Atari 8-bit version of M.U.L.E. can be played for free in the browser at the Internet Archive
- Images of M.U.L.E. package, manual and screen shots
- "The Gamer's Quarter Issue 6" - Features an article by John Szczepaniak, containing transcribed audio interviews with three of the original key team members behind M.U.L.E., along with other people involved in the project, plus a comprehensive history of the game. Article title is "Mechanical Donkeys".
- Article at The Dot Eaters detailing Bunten, EA and a history of M.U.L.E.
- Article from The Arkansas Times about Bunten and M.U.L.E.
- Review of M.U.L.E. board game