Friday, April 27, 2007

Why Choose MUDs Over Real Games?

This question was posed on today, so I thought that I would share my answer, as follows:

I take that to mean "real games" as graphical MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft, Neverwinter Nights, etc.

To get the easy one out of the way, cost. Almost all MUDs are totally free, including MUD clients. Other games include a purchase price of ~$50, and often have a monthly subscription. As well, they require additional hardware - a "non-gamer" can easily play a MUD on an outdated computer as long as it has Internet access, even with a 56k or older modem. They can even be played at libraries, schools, work and other institutions. Other games require a top of the line machine with cable or faster modem, which is not always realistic or worthwhile for everyone, for example highschool students.

Somewhat related, MUDs tend to last longer and are more economical over time. A lot of mudders play for 10 years or more, whereas the lifespan for a store-bought game is nowhere close to that. Someone who plays regular computer games is likely to have to buy new games or expansion packs on a regular basis: not only is this expensive, but it also means that you end up "starting again" on every new game. Many people dislike learning new systems and would rather stick with something they know, as long as it is still entertaining. What this means is that MUDs are potentially more attractive for character development - there isn't a pressure to get the new game out, so people feel comfortable staying in the same place for a much longer time. Due to the low-tech nature of MUDs, there isn't really much to be gained by trying a new one, whereas with regular games the graphics are always evolving, gameplay improves, etc. and you really get left behind if you're playing last year's version. With some good coders, MUDs can evolve and give new features to their players without requiring them to get a new version, or in anyway disrupt their experience.

So, most of that deals with cost and convenience: I'd also argue that in some ways, the product is better with MUDs.

Firstly, they're a lot more flexible: as alluded to before, they just require a couple of good coders, and you can be adding new features all the time. With MMORPGs, you just don't get that. It's a lot more difficult to get new features in, just because of the amount of work. You have to wait until developers release another patch, and the whole thing is a very time-consuming process that players have no say in. With a MUD, it's very possible for a bug to be noticed and fixed on the same day, whereas players of a store-bought game will likely have to live with it for weeks or months, unless it is critically serious.

There is also a lot more flexibility from the player's standpoint, as there are more tools that the players can use to develop. For example, almost all MUDs allow players to write their own character description, using all the words they want to use. With an MMORPG, your character looks like what the developers wanted it to look like. Sometimes you get a choice, but in the end every elf looks the same except with different hair colour and clothes. It is just too difficult for the developers to create a thousand different choices so that everyone can get their character to look exactly how they want. I would argue that the more a player is able to "create" their character and define everything about it, the closer link they feel with it, and as a result the more loyal they are to the game.

Also, text can be a huge advantage. Carrying on from that, roleplayers on MUDs can easily describe what their character is doing in great detail, just like a book's author. Again, in an MMORPG, that just isn't possible, the player does not have that power as the game is not flexible enough to allow it. On a good MUD, it really is like a book written by the players, and that allows a great deal of imagination and cooperation and lets players really take part and develop the game and it's story. On an MMORPG, for the most part, the story is static and often described in full through a single-player campaign. Players are simply players, they use and enjoy what the developer has written - on MUDs, I would argue that it is a lot easier for players to take part in the development process. Many MUDs are close to their players and encourage suggestions, and form a much closer-knit community than any commercial game: almost like everyone is a hobbyist and enthusiast, rather than "players vs. developers". This tends to create a much friendlier community, encouraging interaction and making people feel as though they are part of an online family, rather than just "paying subscriber #75892".

To sum it up, I suppose: television didn't make books obsolete, even with the huge amount of choice now of DVDs and so on; I don't see any reason as to why graphical games will make MUDs obsolete. Sure, fewer people will play them, but as long as they keep some sustainable advantages over MMORPGs, I think that they'll always have an interest base.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

If Greatness Only Comes Once an Era...

So, continuing with my recent theme of "topics discussed on mudconnector", here's another hot one (and I know it's hot because it kept me awake to write this): what makes MUDs great, players or developers?

Clearly it's highly subjective and depends on why someone plays a game. Also, just as clearly, some degree of development is required by someone at some point, otherwise there is no game to be good, bad or indifferent. As a result, there's no real point in arguing a general case since those are basically indisputable and totally varied for each individual. So, here's a neat segue into what I think, which is what you all wanted to hear, right? Right.

In my mind, both logically and from personal experience, it would totally be players. From a player's perspective, of course. I have played MUDs that are awesome technically, yet I didn't enjoy nearly as much as virtually stock MUDs that had a "better" playerbase. I don't enjoy mechanics in the least, in fact, I'm much more likely to stop playing a game because the mechanical side is too complex. I hate leveling but at the same time I prefer standard "boring" grinding because I would rather zone out and level rather than be forced to think about anything mechanically related in order to advance.

So why don't I just play a MUSH or chat in forums or something? Well, at the root of all of this, the reason I play MUDs generally is in order to achieve. To get somewhere, to be somebody. And in order to do this, there needs to be an independent, unbiased arbiter: the developer who wrote the code that applies to every player in the game. I have no interest in making up my own future without boundaries, because that has no credibility: it would just be unadulterated bragging without any backing whatsoever. I need this fair and unbiased source to tell me that I managed to kill my enemy, rather than just me making the story up.

To draw an analogy from my personal life, I am currently a university student for a couple more months before I graduate. I do not consider myself an "academic", although I have a lot of respect for academics. I am here to get a piece of paper that lets me get a (hopefully better) job in the future. I do not see assignments as something to broaden my horizons nor do they inspire my inner being or anything like that, they are obstacles to overcome to prove that I am worthy of gaining that piece of paper. On the other hand, they are necessary because they are unbiased proof that I actually did something. Much like attending a prestigious institution rather than a party school, it lends credibility and creates something to be proud of. I couldn't gain satisfaction from my achievements otherwise.

Essentially, from where I stand, the code forms a basic layer. It creates the rules, the physics for the world and forms a platform for player interactions. It is necessary for any enjoyment, yet does not especially increase enjoyment once it passes that necessary level of competency. In order to be truly great, in my opinion, a game needs a fitting playerbase, high quality interactions - whether they be roleplay, questing, killing, chatting or anything else. For those who would rebut this by saying that there are many great single-player RPGs out there: potentially, yes, although I have never enjoyed any of them.

How does all of this come together? It's another example of something fundamental yet flexible. Many of you will probably have different opinions, both from me and from each other. I'm willing to bet that if there was some way to plot all of these on a chart, we'd have a scatter similar to the last time I played darts while drunk. Yet we all play and enjoy the same game, that has numerous features yet encourages various interactions. One that includes both tremendous effort on the part of developers, as well as a great amount of loyalty on the part of players who shape the world from the other end.

Is it great? Whichever one you are, let's make it so.