M.U.L.E. is a seminal multiplayer video game written in 1983 by Dani Bunten of Ozark Softscape. It was published by Electronic Arts. Originally written for the Atari 400/800, it was later ported to the Commodore 64, the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the IBM PC Jr. While it played like a strategy game, it also incorporates aspects that simulate economics.
M.U.L.E. is widely lauded by players and the gaming press. In 1996, Computer Gaming World named M.U.L.E. as #3 on its Best Games of All Time list.
Its historical influence and current status, conjoined with its low production numbers in the 1980's due to poor sales, have made the Atari and C64 versions of the game highly coveted among video game collectors.
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 between two players, 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, solar flares, and theft by space pirates. The game features a balancing system for random events which 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 setting was inspired by Robert A. Heinlein's Time Enough for Love, wherein galactic colonization is still done in the style of the American Old West: A few pioneers with drive and primitive tools. The M.U.L.E. itself is a cross between the genetically modified animal in Heinlein's novel and 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.
Although not a bestselling title, the game was very popular in its day among certain groups, and has more recently become a favorite of retrogaming enthusiasts. Several clones for various computers exist including the popular versions Subtrade and Traders. The most recent commercial clone has been published in 2002. The original's theme song by Roy Glover has been widely covered by remix groups.
Dani Bunten was working on an Internet version of the game until her death in 1998. In 2005, a program called Kaillera was finally integrated into an Atari emulator, enabling the original game to be played over the Internet.
Many game designers cite the game as one of the most revolutionary ever and an inspiration for many of their games. Will Wright dedicated his game The Sims, the greatest selling computer game of all time, to the memory of Bunten. The M.U.L.E. theme song was included in Wright's later game, Spore, as an Easter egg.