Lessons from MUDs

Posted: November 2, 2007 by Xeavn in General Game Concepts, The Gaming Industry
Tags: , ,

Multi-User Dungeon, or MUD as it is known to most people that have had a chance to play one. “What am I talking about?”, you might ask. I am talking about older text based games, that I used to play in High School, as well as in College. They have been around for a lot longer than that, since the early 80’s at least. They were some of the first multiplayer online games.

The reason I want to look at MUD’s a little bit today, is because I read an article that got me thinking about an old MUD I used to play. That lead to thoughts about game design, and if some things that MUD did would work in a Graphical Massive Multiplayer environment. After all MMO’s really are just fancy graphical MUD’s.

The MUD which inspired this article, is called Achaea and it is currently run by Iron Realms Entertainment. I would not be surprised if a few readers have played it, or one of its spin offs by the same company. It has been around for a while, and has had a fairly large player base over the years. The reason they have done well, and continue to do well is that they offer a number of things that no graphical MMO currently does. It is these features, that I want to look at, and talk about.

To start I think the most important thing that Achaea did right, is they did not try and create a game, they instead tried to create a world. The focus was removed from leveling yourself up to 100, and was put instead on becoming a member in one of the many guilds, and being a part of your town. It was to draw the character into one of the many storylines already in progress. This is probably the biggest problems with MMO’s today. They focus so much on the game, that you miss the world underneath them. Are we interested with Rise of Kunark that the Iksar Empire has returned, and that the Sarnak have returned as well? No the focus is instead on 20 more levels for the Guild, another 10 for all the players and 40 AA points. To that we add more legendary loot with slightly higher numbers than previous legendary loot, and some new raid targets, that likely aren’t that much different than the old raid targets. The end result feels more like a spreadsheet than a world.

The second thing that I think Achaea did correctly, was that they designed it with player conflict in mind. This meant that the players were creating a lot of the content themselves, just by being a part of the world. If things ever got boring, which they rarely did, the developers could always step in and lend a hand. The main structure that held players together was guilds. This was more a medieval type of guild, or an association of members from the same class. The guild you belonged to was what gave you the skills you could use. Your guild was usually part of a city to which they held allegiance, but guild members were not required to join that city. You could usually join a different city if you could convince them to take you in. Lastly there were a number of deities you could worship. All of this resulted in conflict, and lots of it. Usually you had to take a few of your guild mates, or some friends from your city, and go settle it with sword, or fist or magic spell.

I realize not everyone wants PvP in their games, but for now lets look at those that do. Why do people PvP in World of Warcraft or in Everquest 2? Has that Night Elf over there done something deserving of his death? Sure the Alliance dislikes the Horde, and there are some basic lore reasons they don’t get along, but for the most part it doesn’t seem personal. He hasn’t burned down part of your city, or defiled that shrine to your god, or betrayed your guild when you needed him. Most likely you just needed some honor points, and since he was already fighting a tough mob, he was an easy kill. Sure we even got into some tough fights, and had some grudges against players in certain guilds on the Alliance side, but there wasn’t any long lasting affects for winning these PvP battles.

Another thing that Achaea did well, was that not all sides were created equal. If you were part of an evil city, you didn’t have Paladins and Clerics among your ranks. The city of light by the same token wasn’t taking in Occultists, and Death knights. Sure there were some guilds that had an equivalent guild with the same class skills in an opposite city, but for the most part a lot of guilds were unique to one side or the other. There were also guilds that took a mostly neutral stance, and you might find members from the guild on both sides of a fight.

In many of the more recent MMO’s there is no good and evil. You can be any class you want on either side of the fence. In World of Warcraft they used to have two classes that were unique, one on the Alliance side and one on the Horde, but those were eventually changed, and the uniqueness removed with the release of Burning Crusade. In Everquest 2 we can have a Paladin grouped with a Necromancer, and not even an impolite word is said to the other. On the PvP server this isn’t done as easily, since both would have to betray to the neutral faction in order to accomplish this, but it is still done. Sides and factions end up having little to no meaning.

I will admit that a lot of things that Achaea does would be harder to do on a large scale. They get away with a lot of the interaction of developers with the players because it is one unique world on a single server with a small player base when compared to the larger MMO’s. This is however my largest problem with current MMO’s, they don’t seem to interact with the player at all. Where are the goals other than kill the biggest dragon out there? Why is Qeynos not trying to secretly rescue citizens from Freeport, and bring them to the light? Why isn’t Freeport working to bring some terrible disaster down on Qeynos? These games have occasionally had events, such as rebuilding the spires in Everquest 2, or the Ahn’Qiraj War Effort in World of Warcraft. They seem to be a rare thing though, and happen infrequently at best.

To be honest, we live in a stale, non-unique world where sides matter little. I don’t want more of this flavorless word, where my only focus is another 10 levels. I want a world that is vibrant and alive. Where my friends and I can make a difference, and effect a change, even if it is only a carefully scripted event. The kind of game you don’t want to stop playing when the latest greatest game releases because you are part of the history, and part of the story. For now its a dream, but one I will hold onto.

  1. Illuminator says:

    You nailed it.

  2. Laldail says:

    I think the issue you laid out is pretty much a dollars and cents thing. MUDs, no matter how complex they get, are cheap to produce and run (relatively speaking). Once you enter the world of the modern graphical MMO, you are in a whole new ballgame and the budgets are huge. At least for any game that aspires to a AAA tag.

    Big budgets must be justified with large prospective income. Large income means large customer base, whether by subscription or box purchase or RMT or whatever. I think we can say that, for now, the industry simply sees more interest in game-based worlds than in sandbox worlds. The (arguably) best sandbox MMO to date – SWG – was almost totally deconstructed and rebuilt because the sandbox simply was not drawing the clients that Lucas and SOE thought it should.

    I sort of laugh and shake my head when I read posts by people that say things like, “they are just making this change because they want people to play longer.” Well, duh! Money is the bottom line in everything commercial. Game companies have to always be aware of what is in the best interests of the game and, ultimately, the game company. Sandboxes don’t seem to sell well.

    I do wish they would add in some more RP tools into EQ2 though. Useable furniture would be a good start.

  3. Xeavn says:

    While I will agree that MUD’s are very cheap to host, and develop, I have disagree with you on nearly everything else you said.

    You don’t think that a World Based, interesting, interactive MMO has the possibility to draw in a large crowd? I think if it was done right you would probably end up with the same problem WoW did. You would have to add a lot of servers to keep up with your new player base.

    I won’t pretend that it would be easy to do right though. There would be a lot of problems to solve, and it would likely take a larger staff to support than a regular MMO, and you would need to do updates far more often than every year. (Some of this might be solved by having the right tools.)

  4. Rheysa says:

    Heh, your post brings back memories. I’m an Achaean veteran — played the game for four years, and even met the man for whom I would travel halfway across the world to be with. Although I stopped going into Achaea in mid-2006 due to being lured into World of Warcraft, it still holds a place in my heart.

    I played a druid, who above all else valued nature and all the gifts it brought. We lived in the forests, never taking part in city politics and never choosing sides — nature is all about neutrality, after all — and only really took a stand when something threatened the forests/nature.

    There have been world events where citizens from Mhaldor, the city of evil, went around burning plants. The druids as well as the sentinels and sylvans (the other nature-based guilds who are a bit more relaxed with regards to letting their members join cities) retaliated by placing an herb ban upon all Mhaldorians. This was very effective in curtailing their destruction, due to the fact that herbs and the various potions that could be concocted with them were a necessary part of Achaean life.

    Some classes also have the ability to steal, which had consequences both for the thief and the person being robbed. The victim’s guildmates would seek out the thief for justice, or in some cases where the thief’s robbery was more extreme, the thief’s guild and/or city leaders would become involved. There was a case of a thief who hypnotized a guild secretary into giving him the entire contents of the guild’s bank (yes, hypnosis is a skill in the game), and the fallout from that was huge.

    Roleplay was everywhere, events were started up all the time, people would interact with each other in both positive and negative ways …

    God I miss Achaea sometimes.

  5. Laldail says:

    Sure I think that a World Based, interesting, interactive MMO has the potential to draw a large crowd. Does not Maple Street fall in that category? Or maybe SIMS Online? I don’t play either but from what I understand they fit the description.

    What I do not think has much potential for making the market any time in the foreseeable future is such a game that is set in a framework that adventure gamers will flock to. Which is kind of the crowd I thought you were writing about.

    But, if by chance some developer talks some deep pockets into throwing money his way and comes up with that World Based, interesting, interactive MMO with an adventure theme, then I will most certainly give it a go. So long as you can sit on the furniture.

  6. “But, if by chance some developer talks some deep pockets into throwing money his way and comes up with that World Based, interesting, interactive MMO with an adventure theme, then I will most certainly give it a go.”

    It was called Myst Online, and it flopped horribly.

  7. Xeavn says:

    I think I am going to have to just agree to disagree with you Laldail. I don’t think a game has to be completely open ended, or a sandbox design to be world based. So no, SIMS Online and Maple Story are horrible examples.

    In fact that is why I used Achaea as an example, was that they had hit the mark, and they had done so very creatively. The only MMO out today that I think comes close to the mark is perhaps Eve Online. They have managed to shift thier focus off of levels and on to skills. They also let the players develop a lot of the storyline. The interesting part of Eve Online is what different Alliances are doing, and who holds what territory. This is all decided by interaction between players.

    What if Qeynos had a governing council on each server that was made up of elected players, and these player had the ability to set sales taxes, setup guard patrols, etc. What if all the tradeskill writs done inside the city went to equiping, and outfitting and controling the number of guards that were in the city? What if Qeynos had a standing army that could be used to control land and fight with Freeport? What if every class had a class hall in the city of thier choice? What if we could elect a class leader from among the class members?

    Well okay, it probably won’t be EQ2 anymore, but it sounds a lot more fun to me. If it doesn’t to you, thats okay.

  8. Laldail says:

    It’s entirely possible we are talking around each other. You see, I don’t view what you describe as “world-based” or what I call “sandbox”. As soon as you start adding objectives to the game that are provided within the game itself by the developers you have left the realm of “world-based” and entered (reentered?) the Game world.

    I’m not saying I don’t personally like your ideas. Done well and with appropriate detailing that Qeynos sounds like it could be a lot of fun. What I am saying and what I believe to be true is that the game market is overwhelmingly in favor of “Games” and not “Worlds”. The vast majority of players seem to prefer (by their game and server choices if nothing else) cooperative gaming environments with as little disturbances from macho “I’m leet” crowd as possible. PvP servers live but generally at a fraction of the population of cooperative servers.

    Games like Eve, while wonderfully designed and a real pleasure to explore, will always be niche due to the builtin combative nature of the player interaction. You either love the game or ignore it, and most people frankly ignore it other than to comment on its beauty.

    I’m afraid I am totally clueless about Achaea. Actually never heard of it prior to this blog. Which might also be a clue as to its impact on the market as a whole.

  9. Kendricke says:

    You’ve probably never heard of The Realm or Meridian 59, either…but that doesn’t mean those games held no impact on the market as a whole. Popularity does not equate to impact.

    I’ve spent many an enjoyable beer discussing MUDs with current MMO designers. MUD’s neither of us have ever heard of probably had more of an impact on their current design philosophies than anything since.

    As far as EVE Online being “niche”, it currently has more 200,000 subscribers, putting in on par with games such as Everquest II.

  10. Laldail says:

    Yep, heard of both of those. And impact on a market is a matter of perspective and degree. What role has Achaea (or The Realm or Meridian 59) had in growing the MMO market? If the only people who have ever heard of it are dedicated gamers who track every game ever proposed then I argue that it hasn’t had any market impact because the only ones who know of it are already part of the market.

    From that perspective, Ultima Online, Everquest, Guild Wars, and WoW had market impact – Achaea, not so much. I also think (but cannot prove so mark it as pure conjecture) that the market was negatively affected by SWG’s NGE debacle and, as a consequence, I do think that EQ2 suffered subscription loss and reduced growth due to established market participants bailing on SOE as a whole after the NGE. This can be repaired but not quickly and SOE as a marketing entity does not seem to have the drive to make it happen faster.

    I’m not an industry insider. I don’t have access to anyone in the industry “over beers”. The only thing I have for analysis is what is available to every other market participant – a murky view of subscriber numbers, who is marketing what, and how successful are they relative to others in their competition category.

    From that perspective, it doesn’t seem to me that “sandbox” games are doing well, and MMOs with “sandbox” aspects either have them as tertiary aspects to the game or have undergone major revamps that damaged the viability of the “sandbox” in favor of objective-driven gameplay. I believe this is more a failure of implementation rather than lack of desire for the game style from the market.

    I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in my life and I always try to learn from them. I’m not arguing for or against anything here. I don’t have a stake in anything being discussed here. So, if there are any sandbox games being developed or considered for development (with a reasonable chance of making it into the market) I would be interested in reading about them. Star Trek Online had the potential to be a great sandbox world but it appears Perpetual is not taking it in that direction. That’s a shame but understandable.

  11. Xeavn says:

    I am not talking about MUD’s impacting market share, I am not talking about any specific upcoming MMO. I was just thinking back to a very good game, and a good MUD, and looking at some features that it had. I was trying to take a look at how those features might fit into some unknown MMO in the future. I was taking a look at why those features worked there, and how they might work elsewhere.

    Design ideas and decisions can come from anywhere, not just other current popular MMO’s. To that end it was my opinion that whichever future MMO learns some of these lessons, or borrows some of these ideas, may find itself popular. If you still wish to argue, please point out which of the ideas mentioned will specifically lead to an MMO’s downfall.

  12. Illuminator says:

    I wouldn’t use Myst Online as a litmus test for anything. I despised the dreariness of the original Myst and ignored anything that derived from it.

    Something as expressive as EQ2 can be the platform for the perfect adventure-based MMO, but getting to the pinnacle requires a shift in content philosophy. I’d rather that buying a new expansion felt more like buying a new Dragonlance novel than buying a bus ticket. To be more motivated to pursue the fates of dynamic NPC’s than to trot into a new zone and see if your magical mystery belt drops after X number of kills.

    I think the pure sandbox approach is a completely different type of MMO.

  13. Yay I play Achaea! 😀 If anyone reads this, go ahead and join us! It’s a great MUD. If you are feeling whatever MMO you might be playing is stale or your waiting for some new one or whatever just come and give Acheae a try. Getcha roleplay on. ^^

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