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Ozark Softscape: Creators of MULE






Ozark Softscape was started by Dan Bunten, Bill Bunten (Dan's brother and MBA), Jim Rushing, and Alan Watson. The company was located in Little Rock, Arkansas, a most unremarkable place, yet it created a number of remarkable games under the Electronic Arts banner, notably 1983's M.U.L.E. and 1984's Seven Cities of Gold.


The company's motto was "Play with each other, not with yourself". M.U.L.E. truly lived up to that maxim. M.U.L.E was a game that remained highly playable with four people huddled around a C64 keyboard.


While the company was founded by four partners, Dan Bunten was the driving force behind Ozark. Buten got a degree in Industrial Engineering in 1974. He started his career designing mathematical models for the NSF. In his spare time, he played around with programming text-based computer games.


He sold his first Apple II game, Wheeler Dealers, in 1978 to a Canadian software publisher called Speakeasy Software. The game allowed up to 4 players to participate in a real-time auction simulation. The game was expensive. It retailed for $35. It was a hard sell when games usually retailed for $15 in simple zip-lock baggies. Part of the $35 price tag was for a hardware adaptor that allowed the multiplayer aspect. And because the hardware required something more durable than a baggie, Wheeler Dealers has the distinction of being the first game to be released in a box.


Speakeasy Software only managed to sell 50 copies.



Though a failure, its commerce aspects pushed Buten to develop in 1981 another Apple II commerce/resource management game called Cartels and Cutthroats. He sold this to SSI. Buten created a few more games for SSI including a popular multiplayer sports game called Computer Quarterback. He also created Cytron Masters, which was his first graphics game. While working for SSI, Buten met Jim Rushing and Alan Watson. They broke out on their own and formed Ozark Softscape.


Trip Hawkins, founder of EA, liked Cytron Masters so much he tried to purchase the rights from SSI but they refused to sell it to him. Hawkins was disappointed but Buten assured him Ozark could cooked up an even better game. Nine month's later Ozark laid M.U.L.E. at the feet of Hawkins. M.U.L.E. incorporated Buten's original real-time auction concept he used in his original Wheeler Dealers game. M.U.L.E. was also partially inspired by Robert A. Heinlein's Time Enough For Love. In Heinlein's story, colonist used genetically engineered mules to teraform their world.


EA wanted to package the game as Moguls from Mars. Ozark saved the day by creating a fancy splash screen with the "M.U.L.E." title. Although many think of it as the greatest C64 game of all time, it was originally designed for the Atari 400/800. The Atari 400/800 went out of production soon after M.U.L.E.'s release. Only 30,000 units were sold. Ozark and EA quickly turned out a C64 port. History was made.


After the wild success of M.U.L.E., Buten tried to convince his fellow developers to do a computer version of Avalon Hill's Civilization board game. His coworkers were not overly excited. Then, while backpacking, Buten got lost one day in the woods. He combined the "thrill" of that experience with some ideas from Civilization and hit on the Seven Cities of Gold. Seven Cities of Gold broke from Ozark's multiplayer genre but it turned out to be the company's best selling title. It sold 150,000 copies in 1984.


One of the biggest stumbling blocks to Seven Cities of Gold was trying to come up with a random continent generator that generated things that looked like actual continents. For a long time, the random continent generator could only produce land masses that looked like peanuts.


Seven Cities of Gold had the distinction of being the first commercial "edutainment" (a term Trip Hawkins coined for the game) software released. (Arguably public domain copies of Oregon Trail and Hamurabi were the first edutainment software.) Seven Cities of Gold was based on another maxim at Ozark. Strip out the crap and get down to core essentials. Seven Cities of Gold had only five resources to manage but demonstrated how fun a game could be using a minimum of bells and whistles.


Seven Cities of Gold was followed by the somewhat controversial 1985 sequel Heart of Africa. Many people thought Heart of Africa's natives were too stereotyped in appearance and a game about European colonization was not entirely politically correct.


Ozark went on to create the groundbreaking Modem Wars in 1988. It was the father of all network play games. Its success was limited, however, because there weren't many modems in use at the time.


Ozark and Buten eventually departed EA's company over a dispute regarding a port of M.U.L.E. for Nintendo. EA didn't want to release cartridge games (EA now makes the majority of its income from cart games). Ozark sold the cart port to Mindscape. Mindscape contracted Ozark to produce two more games. They create Command HQ and Global Conquest.


At some point Buten, after a couple failed marriages, got a sex-change operation and became Dani Bunten Berry. In 1993, Sega and Ozark began initial work on M.U.L.E. II ("Son of M.U.L.E."). Music was written for the game. However, Sega wanted guns and bombs added to the game (claiming the addition was necessary to "bring it up to date"). Bunten refused and the project died. The gang then went to work for Paul Allen's Interval. Buten worked on women-friendly games for Allen's Mpath Interactive.


Buten was disappointed that the M.U.L.E. sequel never got off the ground (though she wasn't disappointed she didn't compromise her morals). As the Internet began to bloom, Buten was struck by how many web sites were devoted to M.U.L.E. She hoped to one day create a respectable sequel. Unfortunately, her dream never came true. Buten was diagnosed with lung cancer and she died on July 3, 1998.


-- Karl Mamer





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