M.U.L.E. (video games software) (evaluation) John J. Anderson.
Question: When is a computer game not just a computer game? Answer: When it is truly educational. When it is truly educational, it is much more engaging. It has depth, staying power. You find yourself thinking about it even when you are not involved in an actual round of the game. You begin to analyze the forces at work.
Question: When is education not just education? Answer: When it is truly fun. When it is truly fun, it is much more effective. It makes a lasting impression. The message gets through and stays in your mind. You begin to understand the forces at work.
Question: When is the release of a computer game news in the educational software market? Answer: When the software is from Electronic Arts, makers of Mule.
Mule is one of those very rare games-- one that embodies the best in a home entertainment program. A good concept and a good follow-through. Professionally mounted, executed, and debugged. Imaginatively packaged. Documented thoroughly and with wit.
Best of all, Mule has depth. Each game is different. Each prepares the player to do just a little bit better next time. And though it is a competitive game, Mule also demands cooperation for success. I should also mention that there is no shooting to be found anywhere in the game. How positively refreshing.
So What Happens?
The Mule acronym stands for "multiple use labor element,' and without mules, players of Mule would have no way to get things done. Terraforming an alien planet is no piece of cake, you know. It is tough work. And without mules, it is impossible.
There are always four players in a game. Up to three of these players, however, may be controlled by the computer, so that the game can be played solitaire. The real fun begins, though, when two, three, or four people get together for a game.
At the beginning of a game of Mule, you and your fellow players choose species. Each species has its own look, and some have special handicaps I shall describe later. The players are then allotted money and supplies.
Each ensuing round of play includes a land grant, during which the players vie for plots of real estate shown on a screen map (see photo). One of the pleasures of the game is how simply user input is handled--through the joystick and trigger. The only time the keyboard must be touched is to choose the level of play and to begin, pause, or restart a game.
Each player then gets a turn. He may choose to produce energy or food, or to mine a plot of owned land. To outfit a plot, you use the joystick to move your player into the corral in town. The screen automatically zooms in to a close-up view of town. After you have paid for and obtained a mule, you go to the outfitter of your choice, located on the north side of town, and suit up. Then you march the mule out to the plot of land you wish to outfit, and drop the production symbol onto the plot. It is that simple--you are literally in business.
In the first two of the three available levels of play, you can use up extra time in a turn by hunting for the Wampus. If you catch him, he will pay to be let go. You can also visit the pub, where your gambling luck invariably runs strong.
Random events, like planetquakes, acid rain, and pest attacks, occur throughout the game. They change the conditions of the game, but as they can't really be anticipated, there is not much reason to worry about them.
At the end of each round of a game, there is a production sequence. During this sequence, all players watch how their little colony is doing. Then the really fun stuff comes along.
The Market Phase
After the production sequence comes the market phase of each round. If you have a surplus of any commodity, you may choose to sell it: either to the colony store or to one or more other players. If you have a shortage, you may buy from the store or other players--assuming, of course, you have the cash.
The free enterprise system, you see, is really what Mule is all about. For each commodity in every round there is an auction. Each player can declare as either buyer or seller. Using the joysticks, players determine what transactions take place. The store sets its own prices, but sellers can set their prices as well. And then all heck breaks loose.
The trading sessions in Mule are the best part of the game. Players use the joysticks to march their characters up and down the screen, setting sellers' and buyers' prices (see photo). Trading takes place when a seller's line meets a buyer's. At the bottom of the screen, the statistics are listed, including prices and amounts traded. Furthermore, this process takes place against the clock. Trading therefore is usually frenzied and cutthroat.
The description I am providing makes the marketing process seem complex, but one of the foremost strengths of Mule is that it makes the trading process intuitively understandable, even for kids and the likes of me. Moving your player up and down to establish your price on an item is a great visual aid. Most kids won't realize, of course, that the auction screens are actually bar graphs mapping supply vs. demand prices. So why spoil their fun?
At the conclusion of each round, a summary report screen is shown. This shows each player's net worth, in money, land, and goods, after every round. It is the scoreboard, in a sense, by which players determine how they are doing, and, of course, whom to dump on in the next round.
Three Levels of Play
There are three levels of play available in Mule. The beginner's game lasts for six rounds and keeps things pretty simple. Prices have fixed ceilings, and you cannot sell goods beyond your own critical level.
The standard level lasts for twelve rounds, and introduces some new wrinkles. The store will auction land at the end of each round. Players can also choose to sell off plots of their own land. The most interesting alteration in this game has to do with the mules themselves. The standard game starts out with 16 in the corral, and new ones can only be built with "smithore' mined from players' plots of land.
This means that the player or players who control smithore also control the price and availability of mules--and remember, no development can take place without them. Prices can go as high as the traffic will allow in the standard game, and players may sell their goods beyond a critical level if they so desire.
The understated documentation comments on the distortion of screen-graphed prices when no ceilings are imposed, players are desperate, and the clock is ticking down: "This allows shrewd players to take advantage of their friends.' It does indeed.
In the third, or "tournament' level of play, things really get hot. My advice is to play with really good friends, total stangers, or better yet, enemies. This level sometimes makes you wish you had a tactical nuclear device or two to bring into play.
While you can still mine smithore in the third game level, and it remains a necessary commodity in the production of mules you may also choose to mine for "crystite.' This commodity is quite a bit like diamonds on earth. It is very valuable, and its price can swing outside of any constraints tied to supply and demand. You can assay plots to determine crystite content, or just outfit for crystite and hope for the best.
However crystite, like diamonds, can be a dangerous commodity. A priate ship may appear up to twice in a game, When it does, it steals all crystite produced.
The concept of collusion is also introduced in the tournament level. This allows players to conclude private deals. During a product auction, two or more players press their triggers simultaneously. A special collusion screen appears, and only those who pressed the trigger get to trade for that commodity during that countdown. The regular auction then continues. Collusion can even take place in your land deals. Here is where you will find out how good your good friends really are.
The store may also burn during a tournament game, making things much more competitive within the colony. After a fire in the store, prices skyrocket, and players can corner the market on one or more commodities.
Mule is addictive, nonviolent fun. It demands cooperation as well as competition between players. If the net worth of the colony falls below a certain number at the conclusion of the game, all players are considered to have lost. The real way to riches is to make sure your opponents at least have the money to buy what you wish to sell--then you can try to come out ahead.
Best of all, Mule is a vibrant model of the free market system at work. Prices are set by supply and demand. Economies of scale provide increased productivity for adjacent plots under a single commodity and owner. The Learning Curve Theory of production provides increased productivity over time. The law of diminishing returns eventually acts to mitigate these effects. The Prisoner's Dilemma penalizes excessive selfishness. The documentation describes how these effects work, and how to best harness them.
If beginners or youngsters need a bit of a boost, they can choose the Flapper character and get more money and time. Expert players can choose the Humanoid character and have the handicaps of less money and less time. Playing the solitaire game as a Humanoid facing three computer opponents makes for a real challenge.
A quick digression. Those readers who have been following "Outpost: Atari' recently know of the changes Atari owners have sought and gained from Atari. One place where we lost, however, was on the point of joystick ports: the new generation of Atari machines still has only two. When we pressed Atari on the point, they said they knew of no games that required four joystick ports (even though their own early version of Asteroids could be played simultaneously by up to four players).
Mule dramatically shows how short-sighted (and possibly chintzy) was the decision to chop off ports three and four on new machines, limiting human opponents to two. Mule is a game the whole family can play and enjoy over and over again, and be richer for the playing. Four can play only on the older models 400 and 800, which have four joystick ports. Please, Atari, wise up and reconsider.
Two ports or four, Mule belongs on every Atari software shelf in the world: in every home and every school, near every Atari. Mule points a strong way to the future of quality entertainment and educational packages--where the concepts of education and entertainment are mutually beneficial to, and totally integrated with, each other.
Congratualtions, Dan and Bill Bunten, Jim Rushing, and Alan Watson, for a masterful job. We shall be watching you, and Electronic Arts, closely.
Photo: At the beginning of the game, you arrive on an alien planet. Your job: colonization. Your objective: riches.
Photo: Pick your character. Each has a distinct personality, and is delightfully animated.
Photo: During a commodity auction, the animated players themselves graph transactions as they occur through joystick control.
Photo: After a few rounds, the settlement befins to take shape. Food is best produced in the river valley, energy in the desert.
Photo: The four basic commodities of Mule: food, energy, Smithore, and Crystite.
Products: Electronic Arts M.U.L.E. (computer program)