Thursday, August 30, 2007

Quite Literally

So, here's an interesting question to tackle: don't you think it's really quite mean to look down on people who don't spell correctly on MUDs? I mean, spelling and grammar aren't as important as the message they convey.

Well, it's a fair point. After all, language is designed to get your point across in a manner that the other person (or, in this case, people) understand. Someone with the best command of the language still needs worthwhile things to say, otherwise they get annoying very, very quickly.

On the other hand, though, text-based games are just that - all text. Despite the fact that people have taken to chatting over the Internet in the same way that they would in real life - that is, casual, "fingers before mind" kind of stuff - we lack a lot of comprehension aids. We can't see facial expressions or gestures. We can't sense tones or voice effects. It takes a lot of effort to get a sense of "feeling" across.

This has two problems: firstly, roleplay is a lot about feeling. It is about evoking a scene in someone's imagination, and creating one in your own. The trick is that for things to make sense and play out seamlessly, this scene has to translate nearly perfectly. If two people are imagining totally different things, there isn't much hope for any kind of happy ending. In addition, there is a more general communication breakdown: if people can't understand what you're writing, they just can't communicate with you. They can't tell what you're saying, what you're asking for help about, what response you want to get from them. It isn't that they're trying to be rude or unhelpful, they just don't know what it is you are trying to get across. Part of this is, of course, that the sender has to realise that they are not the centre of the universe and people honestly don't care enough, nor should they, to spend ages trying to decipher the message. If they don't get it first time, it may as well never have been said.

Following on from that is the second problem: it just shows a lack of respect. MUD communities are a joint effort, like a novel being written by different authors, where each author has no editing power over what the others put in. Once it's said, it can't be undone by someone else. So if one person is spending two seconds on every sentence, the novel is going to look awful no matter how good the other authors are. And then what happens? Of course the other authors are going to think "well, why should I stay here and get dragged down by so-and-so who either doesn't know what they're doing and doesn't care?" - they go and find another book to contribute to. One bad apple can ruin the whole cartload for everyone.

So what do I suggest? Firstly, I like the above analogy a lot. Think about a MUD as being a co-written novel, a very flexible one that has no defined beginning or end. A work in progress. For all you know, someone is logging the goings-on for posterity, to look at later for inspiration or simply for enjoyment. Whatever the case, remember that a novel is a very fragile thing, and one writer can easily ruin the whole piece. If you feel that your writing could be better, then this is an excellent place to learn - surrounded by others who love writing, and want to help all the writers improve, so that the whole work improves. Just remember that in this medium, effort is vitally important - and it is just as important to show others that you are holding your end up in that regard.

"Bad spelling can be lethal. For example, the greedy Seriph of Al-Ybi was once cursed by a badly-educated deity and for some days everything he touched turned to Glod, which happened to be the name of a small dwarf from a mountain community hundreds of miles away, who found himself magically dragged to the kingdom and relentlessly duplicated. Some two thousand Glods later the spell wore off. These days, the people of Al-Ybi are renowned for being unusually short and bad-tempered."
-Terry Pratchett, "Witches Abroad"

Sunday, August 26, 2007

What Does "Free" Mean?

This came up on TopMudSites recently and I felt it was worth a mention.

Essentially the argument was about what constituted fair use of the word "free" in the MUD world, for example:

- a MUD where a player can play as long as they like and never be forced to pay
- a MUD where a player can pay to get items that could also be gained without paying
- a MUD where a player gains no in-game benefit from paying
- a MUD that refuses to accept any form of payment altogether

Karinth, of course, resides happily in the third section of that. But in the wider community as a whole, where's the boundary? Is it misleading for a MUD to call themselves "free to play" when there are some parts of game content that can only be experienced by those who have paid for them?

According to lawyers, not really. Commercial laws allows for the use of free in those circumstances due to the content being free (as opposed to everything in the MUD). Similar to how retailers can offer a special of "buy one, get one free" - clearly, there's no real difference between that and simply selling two products together at half the normal price: the buyer ends up subsidising the "free" product with the one they paid full price for, and that string can't be cut. The free part only becomes available once the price is paid.

Of course, the MUD community doesn't like commerce at all, for the most part. MUDs are meant to be a hobbyist utopia where mean Mr. Moneybags doesn't go, leaving them pristine and untouched by greed for eternity, or so the story goes. This, I think, is where the problem lies: it's all well and good to set high standards for yourself, to take the moral high ground, to proclaim that you're defending the gaming rights of the poor student or whatever else - but at the end of the day, you have to realise that you're putting additional restrictions upon yourself that do not apply to anyone else (assuming license compliance and all that).

I'm not disparaging "totally free" games - I am very proud that Karinth is one - but we have realised that we are doing so at a cost, that we are competing with paid individuals and that we are deliberately limiting what we can do. Like it or not, the MUD community faces many challenges, and not all of them come from outside where the much talked-about World of Warcraft can be found. Things aren't the same as they were ten or twenty years ago, and "big" business is a part of the community now. We can compete with it, knowing that we have placed ourselves at a disadvantage in some ways, but we certainly can't ignore it and pretend that our community is full of fluffy happy bunnies that want to see each other succeed.

Even amongst MUDs now, there's really no such thing as a free lunch.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Karinthadillo's Law of Momentum

It's funny how things snowball, isn't it? One moment things are going along just fine, and the next, things are at a standstill and it looks like a huge mountain has suddenly sprung up out of nowhere. Of course, it works the other way too - if you can keep things ticking over, even the largest task seems do-able as small pieces get picked off, and all of a sudden the most of it is done. I've found that managing momentum is one of the most important, and probably most frustrating, parts of what I have to do. It isn't simply activity, it's regularity and - hopefully - productivity. It's more than simply being very hardworking for a while, but finding that rhythm that allows and encourages it to continue at a manageable, yet useful, pace - except from my perspective, rather than motivating myself to do this, I have to motivate others.

There's a hump, I've come to realise, that once you power through it, things seem to come together by themselves and the finish line comes into view very quickly. Of course, until you can see over this hump, it looks like things are never-ending and it becomes difficult to believe that it will ever change. Hence the decision, as described in my last post, to take things on in smaller chunks, to get that sense of achievement and regular completion of useful things.

I can see this from the player's side too, that they too want to see things completed regularly (which they cannot control, as well), in order to keep their spirits up and justify that investment of so much recreation time. So, the work has these pressures, too. And to put a twist on it - what if you deliberately want to lose momentum? I mean, there are negatives too. What if you don't want someone to continue playing, if you'd really rather they lost interest and wandered off? Of course, the benefits to all of the others tend to outweigh this most of the time, though it still remains a constant thought back there somewhere.

Sadly, this is not a topic that I can draw a neat conclusion on, and it will likely remain that way for a long, long time. Momentum is a seriously fragile thing, in any environment or scenario, really. The easiest chore will, without it, become a lesson in needless procrastination. Learning how to produce, encourage, manage and control it is something that is definitely an ongoing, challenging process. Or maybe I'm just not able to see over the hump yet?

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Short and Sweet

It's been a while, hasn't it? Sorry about that, I know I promised not to let this happen. Since the past instalment, I've moved approximately halfway around the world, and am just getting settled again. Thoughts are hard to come by when things aren't quite in their place, especially long ones. So, I thought it would be best to release smaller snippets of life on a more regular basis.

Speaking of which - that is very much the design behind a new way of looking at things, as alluded to in previous posts and definitely worked upon during the intervening period. Large areas take too long to build, they get stale and they usually end up as their own little island, rather than being a part of the world. The new mantra is to build small, and build many. Lots of variety, smoother boundaries. This works from both sides - not only will these areas be made to fit with the world, but the world will also be brought up to fit with the areas. Watch out for changes, these are exciting times.

Also a good time to be grateful for strong armour plates that protect from falling plaster, beams and gnomes.