Christopher Williamson of DreamQuest Games on their licensed M.U.L.E. sequel
Originally written for the Atari 400/800 and published in 1983 by Electronic Arts, M.U.L.E. was an influential multiplayer video game that still maintains a following in the retro gaming community today. In fact, M.U.L.E. was Electronic Arts’ first big ‘hit’ and really helped form the publisher. With versions on the Commodore 64, Nintendo Entertainment System, and other computers and consoles, this planetary colonization economic simulator has struck a fond chord with thousands upon thousands of different gamers over the years.
One of those people was Christopher Williamson, who is now involved with creating an officially licensed sequel to M.U.L.E. I wanted to ask him some questions about this endeavor, called Alpha Colony: A Tribute To M.U.L.E., and am grateful for the time taken out of his busy schedule to answer them.
Eric: Chris, can you tell us a little about yourself?
Chris: I’ll skip the boring stuff and say:
- I have an 11 year old that knows more about raiding in WOW than I do,
- I was clocked jump serving a volleyball at 62 mph at the World Master’s Games in Sydney,
- I ride a Ducati motorcycle that I fell in love with after seeing T.R.O.N. Legacy in the theaters.
Eric: So: Why M.U.L.E.?
Eric: Just to be perfectly clear to readers, this undertaking represents an officially licensed sequel in the M.U.L.E. franchise. What can you tell us about the process of acquiring the rights to make this game?
Chris: This was not easy. The quagmire of licensing after Dani’s death and E.A. being anything but helpful roadblocked me. We had planned to proceed on our own with our own I.P., but managed to reach the Bunten family through a network of M.U.L.E. fans. Things got even more complicated when we discovered that the family had already granted rights for a remake to our friends at M.U.L.E. Returns. Thankfully, I was able to reach out to them and convince them (and the family) that the fans would be best served by allowing two different flavors of a remake, their faithful remake and our modern tribute. Although we both love M.U.L.E., our end goals for the game are very different.
Eric: DreamQuest Games has been responsible for titles such as Championship Hearts and Championship Spades, games that tap into long-held popularity and name recognition. As much as I love retro gaming and am familiar with its cultural sway, a M.U.L.E. tribute seems to be a mold-busting project for DreamQuest. Was there any hesitance on the team to take on such a comparatively obscure gaming choice?
Chris: We did get our start in card games with our popular Championship Hearts and Championship Chess games, but after having done over a dozen of these games over the past years we were honestly bored of them and wanted to do something fresh. After seeing my friend, Paul Trowe, at Replay Games, succeed with their Leisure Suit Larry remake on Kickstarter, I thought we could pursue rebuilding the game I always wanted to make.
Eric: What is your personal experience with M.U.L.E.?
Chris: As Melanie Bunten put it, “I am the #1 M.U.L.E. fan.” I have played over a thousand games and built over a dozen prototypes of a sequel to the game. I have an original shrink-wrapped copy of the game never opened and just about every article Dan, or, as she became later, Dani, ever wrote. My obsession with this game and the brilliant game designer that created it borders on insanity. I believe Jean Debuffet expresed it well: “For me, insanity is super sanity. The normal is psychotic. Normal means lack of imagination, lack of creativity.”
Eric: How do you balance the desire to pay proper tribute to the original game, yet also take advantage of modern technology to enhance the presentation and maybe even the gameplay?
Chris: Honestly, the hex modifies the player movement a bit, but it doesn’t alter the game play dramatically. It was mostly to give the game a more tactical and board game look and feel in the hopes of attracting a new wave of Settlers and other board game fans.As to hinting at some of the new function, we really want to let the M.U.L.E. and Kickstarter community help us decide what changes they want to see in the game. We have experimented with both a simultaneous play prototype and an asynchronous turn mode similar to Words with Friends and both were fun. Do our fans want to play this way or something more like the hot seat turn-based original? Personally, I would like to see more clear race benefits (such as one race being able to move a little faster, better at catching wampus, producing food, etc.), a more intuitive auction trading interface, a beginner tutorial, and more story. Perhaps even an interactive single-player campaign, like we are used to seeing in hit games like Starcraft, Diablo, and Civilization. This is why we wanted to go for a more aggressive $500,000 fundraiser so we could really add some special AAA-level features, music, and visual polish to a game that deserves it. There have been several attempts at remaking M.U.L.E. in the past and they have always been on the cheap. I really want this game to shine and give the creator’s family and the fans something as awesome as the original game was.
Eric: Are there any plans for a demo to be offered or a beta test in the works?
Eric: Electronic gaming is an increasingly enormous part of popular culture and providing to persist as a societal touchstone. What is M.U.L.E.’s place within gaming history, in your opinion?
Chris: It was a first on so many fronts, but the part that resonates the most with me was it was a game that brought friends and family TOGETHER to play. The combined cooperative and competitive aspects of M.U.L.E. made it truly fun for everyone. One of my favorite quotes from Dani was “No one ever said on their deathbed, ‘Gee, I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer.'” DreamQuest’s tagline of 10 years: ‘creating lifelong friends through play’ was obviously inspired by Dani.
Eric: For those of us who have never been involved with programming or otherwise creating a computer game from scratch, can you tell us a little bit about how much effort goes into something like this?
Chris: Creating a video game has got to be one of the hardest arts. It requires skills in business, programming, art, sound, design, production, and sales to be successful. For just about every game developer or studio head, this means long hours and pretty mediocre pay. However, the reward is we get to do what we love. It’s been cool to see the re-emergence of small game studios. I remember hearing many years ago that garage games were dead. And perhaps that was true, but the success of iOS and Android games has breathed new life into the scene.
Eric: What is your ultimate hope for Alpha Colony: Tribute to M.U.L.E.? Feel free to say “makes wheelbarrows full of money,” nobody would hold it against you.
Chris: Honestly? I have three key measures of success:
- To build a game to play with my own 11 year-old daughter and our family and friends,
- To realize some of Dan’s legacy and build a game Dan(i) would have been proud of,
- To put my money back in my 401k that I took out to get us this far…
Good luck to anyone who builds games and wants to ‘make wheelbarrows full of money.’ For every Zynga and Rio, there are thousands of studios who struggle to get by every day doing what they love.
Thanks again, Chris, for your inside insights on a worthy undertaking.
Readers, if you have never played M.U.L.E., I recommend you try it, even if purely for the fact that it is a fun game that uniquely combines both turn-based and real-time action.
And whether for new fans or long-time Irata residents, please check out the Kickstarter page and consider supporting a very cool project. You can also follow the Alpha Colony efforts on Twitter @MULEAlphaColony.